Afghan-Pakistan Relations Slowly Spinning Out of Control, but Can China Help?

By Isaac Kfir

Durand LineOn May 1, 2013 Afghan and Pakistani security forces engaged in heavy clashes,[1] during which an Afghan Border Police officer was killed and three injured.[2] It is unclear if there were any injuries on the Pakistani side. This latest border clash[3] serves as a reminder of the turbulent relations between the two nations and that any hope for a stable Afghanistan depends on the two working together, because much of Afghanistan’s future depends on Pakistan, especially with the US reducing its commitments in to the country.

The clashes occurred on the Afghan side of the border within Nangarhar Province, a Pashtun-majority, densely populated province that is rich in natural resources, from high-quality marble to water to forests that share a border with Pakistan (from the border to Peshawar it’s just 60 miles).

The clashes between the Afghan and Pakistani forces came after weeks of rising tensions, during which Afghan President Hamid Karzai insisted that Pakistan dismantle a new border gate, erected, according to Afghans, without consultation and on Afghan territory.[4] For several years, Pakistan has sought better border control: in 2006, for example, the Pakistani army was ordered to explore the possibility of constructing a fence between the two countries,[5] a position that former Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani also had raised with then-US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in 2009.[6] The Pakistanis are concerned because tens of thousands of people traverse across the border daily, many without proper documents.[7]

The latest border dispute is one of a number of issues that are increasingly exacerbating Afghan-Pakistan relations, the deterioration of which should be of major concern: tense relations between Islamabad and Kabul will have enormous implications for regional security and Afghanistan’s development, not to mention Pakistani stability. It should be remembered that Pakistan has a larger population than Afghanistan and is militarily stronger. It not only has nuclear capabilities, it has the world’s sixth largest military. In addition—due to decades of involvement in Afghanistan—Pakistan has the ability to undermine any government in Kabul by simply continuing to work with spoilers, many of whom it had help create. Finally, Pakistan serves as a key outlet for Afghan goods and services and therefore without Pakistan’s help, landlocked Afghanistan will have a tougher time exporting and importing goods, hindering the development of the war-torn country.

Colonial history is one reason for the poor relations between the two countries. Afghanistan rejects the Durand Line, the border that the British created in 1890.[8] Afghans, in challenging the Durand Line, point out that Pashtuns—the largest minority in Afghanistan—reside along both sides of a border that Sir Mortimer Durand paid scant attention to while drawing his line because he was more interested in providing security for British India and more concerned with Czarist Russia’s expansionist tendencies.

The history of ill-feeling began almost as soon as Pakistan was created in 1947. Jingoistic sentiments by Prince Daoud—the Afghan prime minister in the 1950s—led to the burning of the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and Pakistan and a closed border, severely hampering the Afghan economy. These tensions remained, especially after the war against the Soviets, when millions of Afghans crossed the long, porous border and sought refuge in Pakistan.

This exodus in turn allowed the Pakistani security services to direct mujahedeen activities, establishing bases in Pakistan that were out of Soviet reach. Many of the Afghans who crossed the border to Pakistan in search for safety in the hastily constructed refugee camps have remained to this day. Pakistanis increasingly see these individuals as a threat to Pakistan’s stability, leading to demands to repatriate many of the refugees.[9] This request is accompanied by demands for greater border security, as Pakistanis claim that the Afghans are not doing their part to prevent infiltration into Pakistan, which is also suffering from heavy Taliban activity.[10]

A second issue is the nature of the Karzai regime, which is fickle, unstable, and unreliable. Hamid Karzai’s key concerns are his own power and survival.[11] Karzai, who at times is described as the “mayor of Kabul” and not the president of Afghanistan, is aware of the weakness of his government and that there are serious questions as to the ability of the Afghan National Army to resist the Taliban and other insurgents.[12] One therefore wonders whether the border violence is part of Hamid Karzai’s attempt to seize on nationalist sentiment as a means to deflect attention, following a New York Times exposé of his willingness to accept US Central Intelligence Agency money.[13]

Sarah Chayes—a senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment and former special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—correctly points out that the aid from the CIA allows Karzai to manipulate the US government, supporting one department over another.[14] This tactic has been typical of Karzai throughout his tenure, when he has resorted to nationalist, jingoistic statements to shore up support for his fledging administration.[15]

A third issue affecting Afghan-Pakistani relations is the presence of spoilers on both sides of the border and the willingness of elements within the Pakistani security services to support these actors. Historically, the Pakistani military looked to Afghanistan to serve as strategic depth in case of an Indian military attack, which is why they have nurtured and supported networks and groups that would help them make Pakistan secure.

Rising Indian and Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, often done with the encouragement of the Afghan government, affects Pakistan, and it especially troubles those members of the security services that see threats everywhere and are hostile to India.[16] For them, a strong Afghan-Indian relationship means encirclement. The issue of Iranian presence in Afghanistan also is a concern because of rising sectarian tensions in Pakistan mainly between Sunnis and Shi’a. These tensions, which also have historical roots,[17] have reached unparalleled levels in Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and only serves to increase Pakistani paranoia of being encircled by its enemies.

With both Indian and Iranian presence in Afghanistan, the role of the Taliban becomes central, because, firstly, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have Taliban groups that clearly share an ideology that calls for the toppling of the Islamabad and Kabul governments. Concomitantly, both governments are apprehensive of the rising influence and presence of the Taliban and consistently attempt to pacify the demands through various agreements. Rising Taliban activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan therefore requires that the two governments cooperate to defeat a common enemy.

Therefore, growing animosity between Kabul and Islamabad is a worrying development, especially as international presence in Afghanistan comes to an end. The Afghan government is clearly concerned about its ability to withstand growing Taliban activity, pushing it to seek supporters and allies.[18] Conversely, Islamabad is clearly unhappy with the increased Indian and Iranian presence in the country, which is supported by the Afghan government and others.[19]

As we head toward 2014, there is real danger that Afghanistan will once again descend into intra-state conflict fueled by endogenous and exogenous factors and in doing so exacerbate regional stability, with dire implications for international peace and security. This threat is why it is increasingly important that Afghans and Pakistanis resolve their issues by recognizing that the security and stability of their respective states is dependent on cooperation.

In order to achieve this collaboration, they must receive support from external actors. One way to accomplish this is to encourage China to serve as a broker, a role that Beijing is well-suited for because it has relations with both nations and because of its commitment to realpolitik and quiet diplomacy. China has the tools to persuade Kabul and Islamabad to cooperate and in doing so reduce tensions in South Asia.


[1] Sayed Jawad, “Heavy clashes between Afghan and Pakistani troops in Goshta,” Khaama Press, May 2, 2013. <>

[2] Yaroslav, Trofimov, Afghan, Pakistani Forces Clash,” Wall Street journal, May 3, 2013, p. A.8

[3] It seems that the clashes have continued; according to Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, commander of the Afghan border protection police forces, Pakistani forces crossed over to Afghanistan, seeking to repair the damaged gate, leading to new violence. Sayed Jawed, “Pak-Afghan border clashes resumed in Goshta district,” Khaama Press, May 6, 2013. <>

[4] Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhl, “Afghanistan Protests New Border Gate,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2013. <>

[5] According to Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan, the need for a fence stems from the need to stop militants from using territory in Pakistan to attack Afghan targets and vice versa. Imtiaz Gul, “Pakistan army told to plan fence and mines along Afghan border,” The Guardian, December26, 2006. <>

[6] Maliha Safri, “The Transformation of the Afghan Refugee: 1979–2009,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 65, No. 4, (2011), p. 587.

[7] In January this year, Pakistani security authorities introduced measures that require those traveling to Afghanistan to have valid travel documents, such as passports. “Documents mandatory to cross Torkham border,” Pakistan Observer, January 3, 2013.

[8] The writer and broadcaster Bijan Omrani has noted that some blame the Durand Line, “for all of Afghanistan’s current problems. And there are those who go so far as to blame it for the problems in Pakistan. Indeed, there are those who blame the Durand line not just for terrorism and other problems of instability in Pakistan, but even for the terrorist attacks we suffered in London in July 2005, tracing their origins all the way back to the tribal agencies of North-West Pakistan. Some people have even been so bold as to say that everything in Afghanistan would be sorted out if only the United States could cross over the frontier and ‘do its thing’ there.” Bijan Omrani, “The Durand Line: History and Problems of the Afghan-Pakistan Border,” Asian Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 2, (2009), p. 177.

[9] What has complicated the discussion about the refugees is the fact that Pakistan is neither a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which means that the status of Afghan refugees is unclear. Marjoleine Zieck, “The Legal Status of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan, a Story of Eight Agreements and Two Suppressed Premises,” International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2008), p. 254.

[10] In March 2013, the ISI provided the Pakistani Supreme Court, which is addressing the issue of detention in Pakistan, with a report claiming that the Afghan government was working with groups linked to the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Talban) in providing them money, logistics, and training. The purpose of the report was to defend the internment and military operations against insurgents. Fakhar Rehman, “Pakistan intelligence agency claims Afghanistan supports Taliban splinter groups,” NBC News, March 27, 2013. <>

[11] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Our Man in Kabul?” Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2012. <>

[12] There is a high rate of desertion, while the rate of re-enlistment is low. In 2012, for example, one third of the Afghan Army was composed of first-year recruits who had completed the 10-to-12 week basic training course. Concomitantly, thousands of Afghan men who had received military training were outside of the military. Rod Nordland, “Afghan Army’s Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy,” New York Times, October 15, 2012. < >

[13] Matthew Rosenberg, “With bags of cash, C.I.A. seeks influence in Afghanistan,” New York Times, April 29, 2013. < >

[14] Chayes refers to Karzai’s public humiliation of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, while at the same time showing enormous support toward US Secretary of State John Kerry. Sarah Chayes, “CIA buys trouble in Afghanistan,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2013. <>; Mirwais Harooni and Phil Stewart, “Karzai accuses U.S. and Taliban of conspiring to keep troops in Afghanistan.” NBC News, March 10, 2013. <>

[15] In 2010, for example, in a meeting in Kandahar between President Karzai and elders, in which American commanders had expected President Karzai to announce a military offensive against the Taliban, the Afghan president opted to describe the Taliban as his brothers. When the elders said, after he had asked them about the offensive, that they opposed the military offensive, Karzai scrapped it. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Our Man in Kabul?” Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2012. <>

[16] In 2011, India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement that calls on New Delhi to enhance its role in its training the Afghan army and other security personnel, in addition to India providing Afghanistan with over $1 billion in aid. Tom Wright and Margherita Stancati, “Karzai sets closer ties with India on visit,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2011. <>

[17] See, Seyyed V. R. Nasr, “The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2000), pp. 139-180

[18] Most recently, President Karzai, acknowledging CIA financial assistance, called on the agency to continue to provide his administration with such aid, claiming that it was really needed. Karzai also said that he would sign a long-term security agreement with the United States to help Afghanistan address security threats from “neighboring countries.” Kevin Sieff, “Karzai acknowledges CIA payments,” The Washington Post, May 4, 2013. <>

[19] The Northern Alliance, for example, has a strong history of receiving support from India, whereas some of the Afghan Shi’a have good relations with Tehran.

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