President Mohammad Ayub Khan arrives in Kabul on a two-day visit to Afghanistan, in response to an invitation extended by King Zahir Shah. Considerable significance was attached to this visit which was held a week before the impending Tashkent Summit talks (which began on January 10, 1960) due to Indian Prime Minister Shastri’s intended visit to Kabul before Tashkent. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archives/Tahir Ayub)
President Mohammad Ayub Khan arrives in Kabul on a two-day visit to Afghanistan, in response to an invitation extended by King Zahir Shah. Considerable significance was attached to this visit which was held a week before the impending Tashkent Summit talks (which began on January 10, 1960) due to Indian Prime Minister Shastri’s intended visit to Kabul before Tashkent. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archives/Tahir Ayub)

PAKISTAN and Afghanistan are “conjoined twins”, declared the then Afghan president Hamid Karzai during a visit to Islamabad; one of the 21 trips to Pakistan he made while in office. But the relationship between these twins has been mired by decades of mistrust, deep suspicion and at times antagonism. It is a love-hate relationship. And there is a history behind it.

The relationship started off on the wrong foot at the very outset, in September 1947, when Pakistan applied for membership of the United Nations. Afghanistan was the sole country to oppose Pakistan’s membership, citing its objection to the permanence of the Durand Line — the border that divides the two countries. Kabul withdrew its opposition in October the same year after Pakistan agreed to talk about the differences, but the damage had been done.

Pakistan continued to view with suspicion the Afghans’ support to Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists. Daud Khan, a cousin of king Zahir Shah, spearheaded the ‘Pashtunistan’ campaign as ambassador. Later when he became the prime minister and president of Afghanistan, he established Tribal Riasat (directorate) and then upgraded it to the status of a full-scale ministry in 1973 to oversee the tribal region and Pakhtun and Baloch areas of Pakistan.

The Daud era

The relationship between the countries started to deteriorate more quickly when he became prime minister in 1953. It came to a head with two incursions into Bajaur tribal region from Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province in 1960 and 1961. Pakistan repulsed the two attacks using military and air force to inflict heavy casualties on the other side.

Pak-Afghan ties were frosty in 1947, hostile during the pendency of the Afghan-sponsored Pashtunistan project, and complicated after the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s. Ismail Khan discusses the fault lines in a complex geo-political relationship.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries got ruptured, with Pakistan imposing an economic blockade on the landlocked country. It would take some efforts by friendly countries to restore the diplomatic relationship and persuade Pakistan to lift the economic embargo in May 1963.

This, however, prompted the Afghans to look towards the Soviet Union which helped built the Salang Highway to open a trade route from Uzbekistan to Kabul. This would be the first time the Soviets were able to find a firm footing and influence in Kabul, which would come to haunt the Afghans later.

Zahir Shah’s ouster

Not happy with the policies of his cousin, Daud Khan led a bloodless coup of loyal army officers to overthrow king Zahir Shah in July 1973. Shah was in Rome at the time, undergoing eye surgery. Khan abolished the kingdom, declared Afghanistan a republic and became its president.

A staunch nationalist, Khan had initially warmed up to the Soviets, bringing in some communists from the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) into the cabinet, but later moved to establish relations with other countries as well.

During his initial years in power, Khan fervently supported ‘Pashtunistan’, openly supporting Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists, inviting them to Kabul and treating them as state guests, offending Pakistan. The period also saw a spate of terrorist activities in Pakistan, prompting Islamabad to blame Kabul for fomenting trouble in the North-West Frontier Province — later to become Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — and Balochistan.

It was also around this time when Khan cracked down on dissidents, forcing some of the leading Islamists to take refuge in Pakistan. Among them was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would later form his own insurgent group, Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan, and become a leading figure in the fight against the Soviets. Other Islamists followed suit.

Irked by Daud’s continued overt and covert support to Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists and a spate of terrorist attacks, including the one that killed well-known politician and former governor Hayat Khan Sherpao, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decided to get even by using the Afghan Islamists against his Afghan rival.

This evidently had some sobering effect. The two sides made overtures and the relationship between the ‘conjoined twins’ was back on track, with both Daud and Bhutto exchanging visits to Islamabad and Kabul.

Saur Revolution

Trouble, however, was brewing at home for Daud Khan. The murder of a communist ideologue in April 1978 caused friction with the PDPA, prompting Khan to order the arrest of key communist leaders. Noor Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal and other top leaders were taken into custody, while Hafizullah Amin was placed under house arrest.

Fearing he could be toppled, Daud Khan put the military on high alert on April 26, 1978, but little did he know that the man he had put under house arrest — Hafizullah Amin — had orchestrated and organised a coup already. On April 27, troops moved from their base near Kabul Military Academy, and by April 28, it was all over for Daud Khan.

The PDPA had taken over and Daud Khan and his family were brutally murdered inside the Presidential Palace. Their bodies were found years later in two mass graves outside the walls of the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison in Kabul during the Karzai presidency.

The coup was hailed as the Saur Revolution. The PDPA declared Afghanistan a democratic republic. Taraki, a writer, was made the chairman of the revolutionary council to rule the new democratic republic. But his rule proved short-lived. He was overthrown by American-educated communist ideologue Hafizullah Amin in September 1979 and was murdered the following month.

Amin’s stint in power turned out to be even shorter. The revolt within the country, desertions and defections in the army rank and file, and execution of dissidents had made him a liability for the PDPA’s principal backers, the Soviets.

Red Army marches in

Worried that things were getting out of hand, the Soviets invoked the 1978 treaty of friendship and invaded Afghanistan. Amin was assassinated on December 27, 1979 inside the heavily fortified Tajbeg Palace in Kabul. Both Daud and Amin wanted to have better ties with Pakistan towards the fag end of their respective tenures.

The Soviets brought back Babrak Karmal, a Marxist politician, from exile and handed him the reins of Afghanistan. Karmal found himself in a very difficult situation. The Soviet invasion drove millions of Afghans into exile as refugees into Pakistan and Iran. Desertions and defections in the military became endemic.

The Soviet invasion catapulted the anti-communist resistance and transformed it into a full-scale war, supported by Pakistan with the help of the United States-led coalition and the Saudis. For Gen Ziaul Haq, this was as good an opportunity as any to get endear himself to the West.

Contours of Afghan jihad

Zia masterly aligned what he believed was Pakistan’s best interest with that of the West to prevent the ‘expansionist’ Soviets from reaching the ‘warm waters’ of the Arabian Sea. For the US, this was an opportunity to avenge its defeat in Vietnam and give the Russians a bloody nose in Afghanistan. This alignment of mutual interest spawned what came to be known as the Afghan jihad.

Seven Islamist resistance groups based in Peshawar were trained and armed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Saudis funded the resistance. The CIA and an assortment of foreign intelligence services, including the British, provided sophisticated weapons that eventually turned the tables on the mighty Soviets.

Something more ominous also happened around this time. The call for jihad against the ‘atheists’ attracted radical Islamists from around the world, particularly from the Middle East. Militant Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and Algeria, and others from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf flew into Pakistan.

Fiery Palestinian ideologue Abdullah Azzam, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, scion of a wealthy Saudi family Osama bin Laden and others made Peshawar their permanent base to wage jihad in Afghanistan. Decades later, this would come to haunt Pakistan and Afghanistan and take a heavy toll on the region and its people.

As the insurgency grew in scale and tenacity and the cost of war went through the roof, the Soviets began to look for Karmal’s replacement. The Kremlin became desperate. In May 1986, with full Soviet backing, Karmal was removed and was replaced with the burly Pakhtun head of Afghan intelligence and a champion of national reconciliation, Dr Mohammad Najibullah. Karmal was exiled to Russia where he died of liver cancer in 1996.

A medical graduate, Najibullah distanced himself from the communist ideology, made changes to the constitution to make Islam the official religion and presented himself as an Afghan nationalist. He reached out to the Mujahideen groups for negotiations on forming a broad-based coalition government, and inducted more non-PDPA members into the cabinet.

The Soviets, bogged down in Afghanistan, were getting even more desperate as the measures taken by Najibullah failed to achieve the desired results. The indirect negotiations between Pakistan and Afghanistan finally resulted in the Geneva Accords, with both sides agreeing to a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988-89. The Americans and the Russians stood as guarantors.

Contrary to predictions, however, Najibullah’s regime, though largely confined to urban areas, survived the Soviet pullout and did not collapse. In fact, it overcame a coup by defence minister Shah Nawaz Tanai, who fled to Pakistan after the failure.

Sensing that the Russian assistance was going to stop soon, Najibullah resigned as president to pave the way for the UN Plan in April 1992. But the UN Plan could not succeed because a military coup was launched by an alliance between commander Ahmad Shah Masood and Uzbek militia leader Abdur Rasheed Dostum.

When the Mujahideen entered their country from Pakistan, Kabul was already controlled by the Masood-Dostum combine. This led to civil war. Najibullah headed to the airport to board a plane to Delhi, but was caught. Thus began a power struggle amongst the Mujahideen groups despite a Pakistan-brokered power-sharing formula known as the Peshawar Accord.

Enter the Taliban

The situation led to the rise of the Taliban, led by a former Mujahideen commander and cleric Mullah Mohammad Omar. Supported by Pakistan, the Taliban swept across Afghanistan and entered Kabul in September 1996 to establish their version of the Islamic emirate.

One of their first acts upon entering the Afghan capital was to capture Dr Najibullah from the UN compound and ruthlessly murder him along with his brother, leaving their mutilated bodies hanging from poles for a couple of days before pulling them down.

Pakistan, eager to see a friendly government in Afghanistan, was the first to recognise the Taliban regime. Their policies based on strict interpretation of the religion and the decision to provide sanctuaries to international jihadists, including Al Qaeda, would soon turn Afghanistan into a pariah state. The 9/11 incident brought back the Americans, looking for Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused. Pakistan had to grudgingly join a US-led alliance to topple the Taliban.

Hamid Karzai, a politician living in Pakistan as a refugee, was brought in as the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and remained in office for 14 years, succeeded by World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani.

The US-led international community poured trillions of dollars into Afghanistan to develop state institutions, infrastructure and its military, but the Afghan Taliban returned to the battlefield. The ensuing conflict saw both Pakistan and Afghanistan sucked into renewed war with Washington, and Kabul accusing Islamabad of playing a double game.

Pakistan launched a series of military operations to overcome its own brand of Taliban and bring a lawless tribal region under state control. The Americans subjected Pakistani tribal regions and parts of Afghanistan to incessant drone strikes in the hunt for Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban leadership.

While Pakistan did manage to overcome the biggest internal security challenge in its history, the fatigued and war-weary US-led coalition gave up, leading to the Doha Agreement with the Afghan Taliban in September 2020. The US pledged to withdraw foreign forces by May 2021 without working out a power-sharing formula.

Contrary to predictions, the Taliban took one province after the other before entering Kabul in mid-August 2021 without much resistance. The Afghan security forces melted away, while Ghani boarded a helicopter and fled to Uzbekistan en route to the UAE.

The Taliban returned to power in Kabul, refusing to pay heed to international demands for an inclusive government and respect for human rights, and Pakistan was left with no choice, but to fend for them. The uncomfortable and at times irritating relationship between the ‘conjoined twins’ continues uncomfortably.

The writer is a staff member.

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