As the U.S. draws down its forces in Afghanistan, disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan over their disputed border are again coming to the fore. Over a decade of intense U.S. involvement has shaped the region according to priorities set in Washington. Long-festering regional issues were pushed into the background in favor of combatting al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The insurgency, which spans both countries, is becoming an increasingly bilateral problem – a trend that is likely to continue as the U.S. pulls back from southwest Asia, leaving the region’s leaders to deal with the Taliban threat amongst themselves. Policymakers in Islamabad and Kabul are beginning to forge closer ties as U.S. involvement steadily declines and the shadow of further reductions in Western funding and force levels looms large.
Depending on what happens over the next few years, renewed conflict over the border could lead to fresh bouts of proxy warfare, with intelligence services in both countries backing different factions. Elements of the Pakistani leadership believe that the U.S. will cut and run and that the Afghan government will not survive, making a return to the Taliban and proxy warfare all but inevitable.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On the other hand, a more stable and cooperative Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship could pave the way for an eventual end to fighting that has continued almost unabated since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Taliban insurgency is ultimately a political problem involving the Pashtuns of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and their governments in Kabul and Islamabad.
There are constituencies in both countries, especially among professional military and police officers, who believe that cooperation is possible and necessary. Despite disagreements on many key issues, as well as pervasive mistrust and clashes along the border, relations between Afghan and Pakistani security forces have come a long way over the last decade – largely as a result of U.S. and NATO efforts to improve coordination along the border.
Thorns in the Relationship
Relations between the two countries have been particularly strained ever since the Taliban were forced from power in 2001. Over the years, Afghan leaders have become convinced that Pakistan is actually aiding the Taliban – especially its most virulent faction, the Haqqani Network, which is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul. They believe that Pakistan intends to destabilize their government and bring the Taliban back to power.
As U.S. forces have pulled back from areas along the border in Afghanistan, elements of the Pakistani Taliban have taken refuge inside Afghanistan. From there they have targeted Pakistani military posts. The Pakistani army has responded by lobbing thousands of artillery shells into Afghanistan, leading to fierce condemnations in Kabul.
Exchanges of fire between Afghan and Pakistani forces are common along remote stretches where insurgents and smugglers (not to mention tribes that straddle the border) cross freely in both directions, almost as if the border did not exist. Accusations by each side are often contradictory and difficult to verify. Most of the border is not demarcated. Forces on each side operate from conflicting maps and occasionally cross over during routine patrols and operations.
In May of this year, an Afghan border police officer was killed in fierce clashes with Pakistani forces. The incident quickly escalated into a national crisis. Afghan leaders claimed that the Pakistani post where the shooting occurred, known as Goshta Gate, was located more than 30 kilometers inside Afghan territory. Afghan President Hamid Karzai put the army on high alert and sent tanks and additional troops to the border.
The Pakistani military accuses Afghan leaders of intentionally escalating border incidents for political effect. Anti-Pakistan sentiment runs deep in Afghanistan and unites its fractious population more than almost anything else. Afghan leaders prefer to paint the Taliban insurgency as a tool of a foreign power rather than a domestic problem.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan border, known as the Durand Line, is among the longest disputed borders in the world. Successive Afghan leaders have refused to recognize it as an official boundary and have maintained irredentist claims to the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. There are nearly 30 million Pashtuns in Pakistan – more than twice as many as there are in Afghanistan – covering nearly a third of the country.
Emerging Ties and Opportunities
Despite disagreements between leaders in both capitals, there are practical people on both sides, many of them brought together by U.S. officials seeking to stabilize the situation along the border. Afghan and Pakistani forces have agreed to common standard operating procedures despite Karzai’s refusal to recognize the Durand Line.
Many Afghan army and border police officers say in private that the line should become an international boundary and be clearly demarcated. Stabilizing the situation along the border could pave the way for an eventual agreement between the two countries, removing the main bone of contention in their relationship.