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The Troubled History of Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations

The Troubled History of Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations

By Manahil Jaffer


Pakistan and Afghanistan share a complex and troubled history, shaped by geopolitical shifts, ethnic ties, and a volatile security landscape. Despite Pakistan's continuous efforts to foster good relations, Afghanistan's support for or harboring of cross-border terrorism has significantly strained bilateral ties. This article critically examines the issue of Afghan-sponsored or harbored terrorism in Pakistan, particularly since the fall of Kabul in 2021, and evaluates the implications for Pakistan's national security.


The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been fraught with challenges since Pakistan's inception in 1947. Key issues include the Durand Line dispute, ethnic Pashtun nationalism, and differing strategic interests. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan's admission to the United Nations, reflecting early tensions. Over the decades, these historical grievances have been exacerbated by the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War, the Afghan-Soviet War, and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.


Post-2001 Dynamics: Cooperation and Tensions


Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan played a crucial role as a frontline state in the Global War on Terror. Pakistan provided logistical support to NATO forces and engaged in military operations against terrorist groups along its western border. However, the presence of Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas and accusations of Pakistan's intelligence agencies supporting certain militant groups led to mutual distrust.


The Fall of Kabul: A New Era of Uncertainty


The Taliban's swift takeover of Kabul in August 2021 marked a significant turning point in Afghanistan's and South Asia’s political landscape. Pakistan initially expressed cautious optimism, hoping for a stable and cooperative neighbor. However, the resurgence of militant activities along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has posed severe security challenges for Pakistan.


Afghan-Sponsored Terrorism: A Critical Evaluation


Since the fall of Kabul, there has been a marked increase in terrorist activities in Pakistan, with various militant groups exploiting the security vacuum in Afghanistan. Key groups involved include the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), and Baloch separatist groups.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - The TTP, responsible for numerous attacks in Pakistan, has found a haven in Afghanistan. According to Pakistani intelligence reports, the TTP has regrouped and strengthened its operational capabilities with support from Afghan soil. In 2023, the TTP carried out several high-profile attacks, including the bombing of a mosque in Peshawar that killed over 60 people and a suicide attack on a military convoy in Balochistan.
Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) - The ISKP has also used Afghan territory to launch attacks in Pakistan. In March 2023, the ISKP claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar, killing more than 80 worshippers. The group's ability to operate across the porous border highlights the transnational nature of the threat.


Baloch Separatist Groups - Baloch insurgent groups, such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), have received support and sanctuary in Afghanistan. These groups have intensified their attacks on Pakistani security forces and infrastructure projects, including those related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In May 2023, a BLA attack on a Chinese convoy in Gwadar underscored the group's operational reach and the cross-border dimension of the insurgency.


Statistical Overview


The scale of the terrorism challenge faced by Pakistan can be gauged by the following statistics:
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), terrorist incidents in Pakistan rose by 40% in 2022 compared to 2021, with a significant proportion attributed to cross-border infiltration. In 2023, over 700 people, including civilians and security personnel, were killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, marking a sharp increase from previous years. The renewed violence has led to internal displacement in border regions, with thousands of families forced to flee their homes to escape militant attacks.


Implications for Pakistan's National Security


The resurgence of cross-border terrorism has profound implications for Pakistan's national security. Pakistan's western border remains highly porous, facilitating the movement of militants. While the construction of a border fence and increased patrolling have yielded some results, challenges persist due to difficult terrain and local resistance. Pakistan has intensified its counterterrorism operations in tribal areas and along the border, launching several military operations targeting TTP and other militant hideouts. However, these operations often face logistical challenges and risk collateral damage, complicating the security landscape.


In addition to military efforts, Pakistan has engaged in diplomatic efforts to secure cooperation from the Taliban-led Afghan government. Despite assurances from Kabul, tangible actions against terrorist sanctuaries remain limited. Pakistan has also sought support from international partners to exert pressure on Afghanistan to curb militant activities. The heightened security threats have economic repercussions, particularly for projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which are vital for Pakistan's economic growth. Attacks on infrastructure deter foreign investment and hinder development initiatives.


Furthermore, the persistent threat of terrorism strains social cohesion and public morale. The fear of attacks disrupts daily life, affects education and health services, and perpetuates a climate of insecurity. These multifaceted challenges underscore the need for a comprehensive strategy that combines enhanced border security, effective counterterrorism operations, robust diplomatic engagement, economic resilience, and social cohesion to address the threats posed by cross-border terrorism.


Recommendations for Addressing the Challenge


To effectively counter the threat of Afghan-sponsored or harbored terrorism, Pakistan must adopt a multi-pronged strategy that addresses various dimensions of the issue. Enhanced intelligence sharing is a critical component of this strategy. Strengthening cooperation with regional and international partners is crucial for gathering and disseminating timely and accurate information on terrorist activities. Effective intelligence sharing can preempt attacks, disrupt militant networks, and bolster overall security efforts. Additionally, persistent diplomatic engagement is essential for fostering cooperation with the Afghan government and the international community. Building a consensus on the need for a stable and secure Afghanistan can help mitigate the cross-border threat posed by militant groups.


Improving border management through advanced surveillance technology, increased patrolling, and active community engagement is also a key aspect of this strategy. The completion and maintenance of the border fence are critical for reducing infiltration and securing the western border against militant movements. Furthermore, investing in counter-radicalization programs is necessary to address the root causes of militancy. Initiatives that provide education, employment opportunities, and social services can help prevent individuals from joining militant groups. Lastly, promoting economic development in border regions can enhance stability and reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies. Infrastructure projects, job creation, and social services can improve living conditions and foster resilience against militant influences. Together, these measures form a comprehensive approach that can better address the challenges of Afghan-sponsored or harbored terrorism and contribute to a more secure and stable Pakistan.


The troubled history of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations has been exacerbated by the persistent threat of cross-border terrorism. Despite Pakistan's continuous efforts, the support and sanctuary provided to militant groups by elements within Afghanistan pose significant security challenges. By adopting a comprehensive strategy that includes enhanced intelligence sharing, diplomatic engagement, improved border management, counter-radicalization programs, and economic development, Pakistan can better safeguard its national security and foster a more stable and cooperative relationship with Afghanistan. The path to peace and security is complex, but through coordinated efforts and sustained commitment, Pakistan can navigate the challenges and build a more secure future.

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