ON September 7, Pakistan defeated Afghanistan in a thrilling cricket match in Sharjah. The Afghan popular reaction to this defeat was intense, and puzzling. Why did the Afghan people exhibit such a strong dislike for Pakistan? After all, Afghanistan had lost matches to most other teams as well. Ordinarily, this is not an issue of much consequence, but this has triggered a wider debate, first on social media, then the think tanks and academia, and now almost everywhere to understand what is wrong with this bilateral relationship.
Some analysts tend to trace the roots of this uneasy relationship to the complicated history of the region. The Mughal rule over large parts of Afghanistan, Afghan raiders who ventured into northern India, the Sikh rule which pushed back the Afghans, and then the Anglo-Afghan wars had generated an accumulated bitterness that eventually manifested itself in the Afghan refusal to accept the Durand Line as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most historical accounts reveal that the Durand Line of 1893 was based on a consensus reached after some give and take.
However, present-day Afghans contest that fact. After 1947, in Afghan narratives, Pakistan came to epitomise the ‘enemy’ that the Afghans must fight to assert their nationhood and reclaim the lands that they thought were theirs, notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan had not negotiated the Durand Line and only inherited it from British India as the border with Afghanistan.
It, thus, came as no surprise that Afghanistan became the only country to oppose the membership of Pakistan to the United Nations, though it withdrew its objections subsequently. In later years, the Pashtunistan issue was raised by some Afghan rulers, disregarding the fact that Pashtuns on the Pakistan side of the border were more numerous than in Afghanistan, which in fact is a multi-ethnic society.
A majority of Afghans are bitter about Pakistan.
Beyond the historical context, the Afghan hostility further emanates from the recent past. In the last four decades, first the Soviet and then American occupation of Afghanistan led to millions of Afghans losing their lives and millions more displaced. Allowing the ‘Afghan jihad’ to nurture in Pakistani territory, participating in the US-led war on terror, and giving refuge to millions of Afghans have altered the very fabric of our own society; indeed, we paid a heavy price to liberate Afghanistan from foreign occupation. Even so, Pakistan and its government unreservedly helped the Afghan nation by opening our doors and hearts for millions of its people who have, ever since, lived in Pakistan, studied in Pakistani universities, received treatment in Pakistani hospitals, and enjoyed Pakistan’s hospitality in every other respect.
Yet, today we find the majority of Afghans bitter about Pakistan. We need to introspect what went wrong despite Pakistan’s consistent desire to have brotherly ties with the next-door neighbour.
In the wake of 9/11, when the US invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban chose to resist the occupation, Pakistan argued that a political solution rather than a military victory should be the preferred option. The Americans finally decided to engage with the Taliban, and after a deal, they left Afghanistan. The Afghan government and its national army sponsored by the US fell almost instantly. During these two decades, the governments of Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai extensively bashed Pakistan and even played the India card against it. There are reports that India invested heavily in Afghan media to create the image of Pakistan as an enemy of Afghan people, downplaying the enormous help the country had extended to Afghan governments, traders, students, and even their cricket team. A whole generation of Afghans has grown up influenced by this propaganda.
So, what can Pakistan do to manage the unsettling relationship with Afghanistan? One way forward is to treat Afghanistan as a normal, independent, sovereign country, similar to the bilateral relationships we wish to have with other neighbours and beyond. In no case should Pakistan speak for the present or future rulers of Afghanistan. Our political leaders should hold a candid dialogue with Afghans that peaceful coexistence, strong economic relations, and robust counterterrorism cooperation are in the interest of both countries.
In line with Pakistan’s desire to prioritise geoeconomics, the focus of our interactions with Afghanistan should be on bilateral trade, Afghan transit trade, and connectivity with energy-rich Central Asia and China. A robust economic relationship builds peace constituencies and restores trust. When the people of Afghanistan see the tangible economic benefits emanating out of its relationship with Pakistan, mutual trust will set in. We need to be patient and pragmatic, and avoid hollow expressions of brotherhood. Let actions speak louder than words.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies and author of Diplomatic Footprints.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2022