Features | Diplomacy | Security | Central Asia

Afghanistan-Pakistan Border: Back to Politics as Usual?

The risks of conflict and collapse post-2014 are significant, but disaster is not inevitable.

By Jerry Meyerle for
Afghanistan-Pakistan Border: Back to Politics as Usual?

Afghan protestors burn Pakistan flag.

Credit: REUTERS/Parwiz

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.

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.

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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.

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Despite periodic gunshots across the border, there are frequent bilateral meetings between Afghan and Pakistani post commanders. In many sectors, rapport between local officers is reportedly quite good. Where phone lines have been laid between adjacent border posts, communication has improved and cross-border exchanges of fire have been significantly reduced. The two forces are beginning to cooperate against improvised explosive devices, which have taken a heavy toll on both countries’ security forces.

Afghan officials are critical of the approach that Pakistan has taken towards the Taliban, yet they also recognize that the situation in Afghanistan could be much worse if the Pakistani army were to end its operations along the frontier. The same is true among Pakistani officials who foresee the possibility of more Pakistani Taliban setting up bases inside Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw and it becomes increasingly difficult for the Afghan army to operate in the border areas.

Over the last decade, U.S. and international donors have constructed hundreds of miles of roads crossing the border and connecting major arteries in Pakistan and Afghanistan, greatly increasing trade and tying together the tribes on both sides. Afghanistan, a land-locked country, depends on Pakistan for access to the sea. Pakistani traders depend on secure road networks in Afghanistan for access to the markets of Central Asia.

At the time of the fall of the Taliban regime, there were more than five million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Since then, the two governments have cooperated with the United Nations to enable nearly 3.8 million to return to their homes. Many in the Pakistani government are worried that renewed instability in Afghanistan could lead to another influx of Afghan refugees, taxing government services and causing violence in Pakistani cities.

Regional Wild Cards – India and Iran

It is often said that the conflicting interests of regional powers could once again tear Afghanistan apart. Closer examination suggests that it is really Pakistan’s interests – or a narrow reading of them, anyway – that could once again cause Afghanistan to unravel. Other regional powers have largely supported the government in Kabul. They have assisted Afghanistan economically and politically and invested in reconstruction and development.

India has proven to be one of the Karzai government’s most reliable partners – building roads and dams, laying power lines, training ministry officials and army officers, and providing free scholarships to Afghan university students. Karzai, who went to college in India, has asked for Indian military aid in the event that western assistance dries up.

Growing ties between Kabul and New Delhi, especially in the security sector, is a contentious issue for Pakistan, which accuses India of running spies out of its consulates in Afghanistan. Pakistani perceptions of Indian involvement, as well as the state of India-Pakistan relations, will be a major factor in Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan in the coming years.

Iran has quietly backed the government in Kabul and helped keep it afloat through regular cash payments and over 500 million dollars in aid over the last decade. Iran has funded schools, libraries, clinics, roads, and railway lines. Since at least 2005, India and Iran have been working together on developing a new trade corridor connecting Afghanistan’s major highways to the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar, greatly reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for access to the sea.

Cooperation between Tehran and New Delhi is yet another red flag for Pakistan’s notoriously India-centric security establishment. Unlike the 1990s, however, when India and Iran armed the militias of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and Pakistan, the two countries today are supporting a legitimate national government through reconstruction and development. The question is whether Pakistan will choose to complement these efforts and stabilize its relations with Afghanistan or play spoiler as it has so often in the past.

Much depends on decisions in Washington as well. If the U.S. were to disengage with the region as it did in the 1990s, it is likely that Pakistan would return to its old ways and Afghanistan might very well collapse. Continued U.S. involvement will be necessary to keep Pakistan and Afghanistan on the right path and enable them to find a regional solution to the Taliban problem that they can both accept.

Jerry Meyerle is a senior research scientist at CNA, a non-profit research center. He recently returned from three weeks of travel in Afghanistan and Pakistan.