Pakistan and Afghanistan are often associated as brother countries, having profound historical links, traditional affinity, remarkable social fabric resemblance, common religious identity, ethno-cultural bondage, and strategic partnerships, all dating back to pre-partition Indian subcontinent era. Afghanistan the “cockpit of Asia” is not only strategically, but also psychologically, culturally, geographically and politically, one of the most important neighbours of Pakistan. Throughout history, the invaders, merchants and visitors came to the Indian sub-continent through and from Afghanistan, crossing the Khyber Pass and lands of Sind and Punjab ending up in Delhi, Somnath and beyond. Though in the post-partition regional dynamics and inheritance of issues between the British Raj and Afghanistan, bilateral relations between the two have been wavy, yet people to people affinity has always been an assurance against any serious derailing of bilateral ties.
In 2001, US-led international coalition occupied Afghanistan; it toppled the Taliban regime and since then the diplomatic face of Afghanistan has been managed through overt coercion and covert conspiracies. The conflict of interest between the people of Afghanistan and foreign installed Afghan governments is the cause of current mass resentment and distrust in the Afghan political system, well manifested by extremely low turnout in the 2019 presidential elections. Although post 9/11 the two countries have remained at odds in building mutually beneficial and trusted relations, yet there are strong religious, spiritual, cultural and historical connections between both countries discussed in subsequent paragraphs:-
Religion and Spirituality. Overwhelming demographic segments of both countries practice same religion (Islam) down to sect and sub-sect – Sunni version of Islam, generally compliant to Deobandi school of thought – hence providing a sound ideological foundation for bilateral fraternity. The Afghan Jihad against former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a solid manifestation of unanimity of thought engulfing the people of both countries.
In the past, Ulema and Saints from Pakistan and Afghanistan have frequently visited both countries. The most notable among those is Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, who came from Ghazni in Afghanistan. He became one of the most successful Sufi preachers of the subcontinent and is today one of the most notable Sufi saints in Pakistan. The Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri is located west of Bhatti Gate, just outside the Old City of Lahore.
Durrani Empire. Present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan remained a single geographical unit during the Durrani Empire (1747–1826). Ahmed Shah Durrani’s empire with its power base in Kandahar, and later transferred to Kabul, incorporated Kashmir, Punjab, Sind and Baluchistan, and thus the Durrani empire bears the closest resemblance to Pakistan. Since the Durrani Empire included the present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, the forces of history and the aspiration for the unity of Muslim Ummah have all come into line, explaining the interconnected geopolitics of both countries.
Long Shared Border. Another natural enabler of the cordial bilateral relationship is a long-shared border of over 2,500 km, which is crossed each day by thousands of people and serves a handy source of people-to-people contacts as well as trade and economic interactions. Moreover, this cordiality and mutual dependency are supported by the factor of the reciprocal strategic significance of both the countries for each other, as stability of one state directly affects the internal stability of the other.
Afghan Refugees. Owing to a distinct geographical location, both the countries are simultaneously affected by global and regional dynamics and volatility of world order. At the time of USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, there was a pro-USSR and anti-Pakistan government in Kabul, yet Pakistan opened its arms and hosted more than 3 million Afghan refugees. Even today, nearly 2 million documented and undocumented Afghans live in Pakistan, run their businesses, send their children to schools and universities, are married in Pakistani families, and therefore, consider their host country as their home.
Hazara Community. Hazaras are an ethnic group, predominantly Shi’a Muslims believed to be the descendants of Ghengis Khan mainly based in Afghanistan, but also with a large population in Pakistan. There are approximately 6-7 million Hazaras in Afghanistan, residing mainly in the Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan. The majority of Hazaras in Pakistan, ranging from 650,000 to 900,000, live in the city of Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan.
Common Heroes. The Afghan warriors who defeated Hindu rulers in the past are equally cherished as heroes in Pakistan. Pakistan has named many of its missiles on the names of Afghan warriors in response to the names of Indian missiles e.g. Prithvi and Agni etc. As these names of Indian missiles resembles the 12th century Indian war hero Prithviraj Chauhan and God of Fire (Agni), Pakistan named its missiles as Gauri, Ghaznavi and Abdali to remind India of Muslim domination of the subcontinent. These all were rulers of Afghanistan in 11th,12th and 18th century AD and were great warriors who defeated Hindu kings and were devoted to Islam.
Nevertheless, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan followed by the prolonged presence of foreign occupation forces have created many ripples about Pak-Afghan relations. The political influence of India in Afghanistan, and its strategy of engaging Pakistan from within Afghanistan, has further disturbed the Pak-Afghan relations. In the past two decades, India received vast support from the US, to elevate it as a regional power as part of its China containment policy. Therefore, India enjoyed a free hand in Afghanistan, post-US invasion and successfully shifted its war against Pakistan from its own home to Afghanistan. Resultantly India achieved peace and stability for its own country at the expense of Afghanistan. The United States also played the role of an irritant in deteriorating Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations as it overlooked fermenting anti-Pakistan Indian activities in Afghanistan. Presence of India’s consulates in Afghanistan’s major cities and their role in jeopardizing Western border remained a matter of concern for Pakistan.
Yet, in case of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, there is a major area of overlap of national interests of the two countries, barring a few irritants. The cohesion of interests is backed by geographical contiguity, cultural, religious, ethnic and historical similarities. Both countries could safeguard their interests through cooperation and coordination. They should work in harmony to overcome irritants.
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