AfPak Revisited

by Asif Faiz

Afpak2-570x426There has been a flurry of doomsday scenarios in US political circles predicting the collapse of the Afghan regime following the US/NATO withdrawal and grim consequences for Pakistan if it continues to pursue its Great Game policies of the last three decades. However, few of these dire predictions take cognizance of Afghanistan’s turbulent history and the long, uneasy relationship, first between British India and Afghanistan and after 1947, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is the internal ethnic divisions of Afghanistan that have prevented the emergence of an Afghan nation state and no foreign intervention or assistance can remedy that.

One needs to view the Afghan- Pakistan relationship through the prism of history. There have been over a dozen changes of monarchial ,republican and emirate regimes, mostly violent, in Afghanistan since 1901. The cavalcade of Afghan flags over this period (see here) is a testament to the political volatility of the country and the forces that have influenced its recent history. Pakistan was unilaterally involved (with military and financial support) in just one of those regime changes, i.e. the installation of the Taliban emirate in 1996; in another two it served as a US proxy, and in the bargain brought violence, instability, and mayhem to its borderlands and now its urban centers. What foreign intervention does in Afghanistan is unite the Afghans temporarily against a perceived common enemy and once the foreign intervention is over, they go back to their internal squabbling and scramble for power.

Overlay on this historical background, the mosaic of Pashtun tribes and clans, artificially split by the Durand Line. British India had the strategic depth to treat the Frontier as a borderland buffer to protect
its political and commercial interests in the context of the Great Game. Pakistan unwittingly has followed the same colonial policies to this day, notwithstanding the fact that the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line have a common heritage, culture, language and history. Any mischief or turmoil on either side of the Durand Line invariably spills over to the other, with Peshawar and Quetta (and now Karachi) absorbing the shocks of instability and displacement in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

For more than three decades following Pakistan’s independence, Afghanistan used its Pashtun card to foster the idea of a Greater Pashtunistan uniting all the Pashto speaking people on both sides of the Durand Line, and potentially dismembering Pakistan in the process. Early on, Afghanistan earned the distinction of being the only country to vote against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations. Proponents and supporters of Pashtunistan found sanctuary in Kabul, including Pashtun notables like Faqir of Ipi and Bacha Khan. A red and black Pashtunistan banner shown below, ( depicting sunrise over three snowcapped mountain peaks representing the Khyber Pass) was first raised in Kabul in September 1947 ; and in the early 1950s, the Afghan Government established Pashtunistan Day ( falling on August 31 or September 1) as a national holiday , second only to Afghanistan’s independence day. To keep its irreconcilable border schism with Pakistan alive, successive Afghan governments fed the flame of Pashtun nationalism through a sustained and often vitriolic propaganda war, notably by issuing ‘Free Pashtunistan Day’ commemorative stamps each year from 1951 to 1983, on the national holiday, (see below the first and last stamps in this 33- year series). According to Lawrence Cohen, an American diplomat and notable philatelist, ‘these stamps reflect a long standing intensity and consistency rarely, if ever observed, in any country’s postage for a bilateral dispute with a neighboring country’[1]. Nearly all such stamps are adorned by the Pashtunistan flag. Major crises flared up between the two countries in 1955-57 and 1961-63, resulting in imposition of economic sanctions and cessation of cross-border trade. The relentless Pashtunistan campaign waged by successive Afghan governments for nearly four decades created to a large measure the trust deficit that exits between the two countries; it also bred a strident strain of Pashtun nationalism with overtones of zealous Islam that eventually catalyzed Taliban-led insurgencies in both countries.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, over 3 million Afghans, including President Karzai and his family, sought refuge in Pakistan. And Pakistan following the footprints of history over the millennia, embraced this influx with few reservations. Over a million Afghans still remain in Pakistan and are not particularly interested in going back. Many were born in Pakistan and have made Pakistan their home; and many surreptitiously carry Pakistani ID cards and passports. Today the Taliban slip across the Durand Line with impunity; the Afghan Taliban have established sanctuaries in Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban find refuge in Afghanistan.

The two countries, it appears, have embraced an implicit policy of mutually assured meddling to shape the political discourse between them. Why otherwise would the security and intelligence services of the two countries tolerate the presence of Taliban of the opposite ilk on their soil, aided and abetted by other regional and global players in a destructive replay of the Great Game. The imminent collapse of the Afghan government after US/NATO forces quit the scene or the country’s immediate descent into civil war is possible, but not very probable. Neither is such an outcome in the interest of any of Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran. Some may not recognize this but Afghanistan and its economy have been rebuilt over the last decade and the economic stakes are such that no faction in Afghanistan will willingly destroy what has been achieved, not even the Taliban. They appear to have profited handsomely from the war economy generated along both sides of the Durand Line. For example, few observers ever refer to the economic activity and booming trade in the Kandahar- Chaman corridor through areas under the influence of Afghan Taliban or the tribute garnered by Pakistani Taliban along the NATO/US supply lines through Pakistan.

The two countries have a shared destiny, and a symbiotic existence. The path to peace lies in economic integration and joint development of their vast mineral and other natural resources, with freedom of movement and trade across visa-free borders and eventually some form of quasi political- military integration. Ironically, the prospects of economic integration between Afghanistan and Pakistan are much stronger and brighter than those between Pakistan and India. Afghanistan and Pakistan act like estranged cousins living in a common household with divided living quarters; India and Pakistan are like distant, usurping relatives with competing claims on ancestral property.

If Pakistan unwittingly elects to pursue a policy of interference in Afghan affairs as a proxy of US and Saudi/Gulf interests, then there is also the prospect of Pakistan’s borderlands and its Pashtun urban centers becoming lawless and ungovernable, eventually falling under the sway of radical Islam, similar to what happened in Afghanistan and its urban centers in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, few foreign political analysts and observers have a historical sense of what binds and divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. Few western eyes would even notice that common Afghans and Pakistanis living across the Durand Line –both men and women– dress alike in the ubiquitous salwar-kameez. They are bound by Pashtunwali , a code of conduct dating back to the pre-Islamic era. Pakistanis have a lot more in common with Afghans than most observers are willing to admit and accept. Therein lays the tragedy of artificial constructs like AfPak, to suit the world view of Western political and commercial interests.

The best course for Pakistan would be to finally abandon the misguided notion of strategic depth using Afghanistan as a pawn ( in any case, this military doctrine to contain India’s hegemony in South Asia following Pakistan’s breakup in 1971 evaporated into thin air, following Pakistan’s five underground nuclear tests conducted in Chagai hills, close to the Durand Line, at 15:15 hrs. on 28 May 1998); resolve the Durand Line ( boundary) issue with Afghanistan and fully and unequivocally integrate FATA into its federal structure ( finally discarding what remains of this colonial legacy); allow free movement of all Afghan nationals across the common border, not just the Pashtuns living across the Durand Line, (similar to the arrangement between India and Nepal/Bhutan); and most importantly move resolutely towards an economic union with Afghanistan.

Learning from the history of insurgencies in other parts of the world (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America), there is no antidote to insurgencies more potent than economic inclusion and elimination of physical isolation. Road building has often been used as an integral element in counter-insurgency measures[2]. Constructing a modern, high-capacity, high- speed Trans-FATA Highway linking Chitral with Zhob through each of the FATA agency headquarters, with lateral highway connections through the western passes to the Kabul-Ghazni-Kandahar Highway in Afghanistan and to the Indus Highway in Pakistan to the east, would transform FATA– ending the physical isolation of its seven agencies and six frontier regions . Such a highway would fully connect and integrate FATA with KP, Punjab, and Balochistan internally, and with Afghanistan externally; and create the conditions for a legal transportation, trade and commerce regime between the two countries through FATA , while bringing law, order, opportunity and jobs to these seemingly ungovernable lands. The Trans-FATA Highway could eventually transform into a dedicated enterprise zone with commercial and industrial parks.

Much more is possible on the economic front in the near term to convert the discourse between the two countries from Mutually Assured Meddling (MAM) to Mutually Assured Cooperation (MAC). A grand economic alliance between the two countries could include:

· Joint development of the hydroelectric and irrigation potential of the western tributaries of River Indus under a bilateral agreement similar to those between South American countries for managing the Parana River Basin; (unlike the Indus Basin Treaty which divided the eastern tributaries of Indus between India and Pakistan and has no provision for joint development and management of water resources).

· Integration of electric power grids of the two countries, preferably within the context of CASA 1000, the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project, involving Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

· Development of oil and gas pipelines, including Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline , to meet the regional energy needs, with Afghanistan emerging as a regional energy transmission hub.

· Establishment of a common information highway through joint Information and Communication Technology (ICT) programs.

· Extending Pakistan’s world class motorway system through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and beyond to Kabul to support bilateral trade, commerce and tourism ( the way it was until the mid-1970s)

· Connecting the railheads at Landikotal in Pakistan and Mazar -i-Sharif in Afghanistan with a new railway line, thus linking Pakistan Railways with the Central Asian, Russian and Chinese railway systems. This would be a more technically and economically feasible proposition than digging a 200 mile railway tunnel under the Karakorums, linking Pakistan with China.

· Development of common infrastructure –dedicated railway lines, pipelines, and ports (including Gwadar) –to support the development, processing, and evacuation of the mineral resources (notably copper, gold, silver, and rare earths) abundant in Afghanistan and Baluchistan.

· Reform of the bilateral trade regime moving rapidly to a customs union. The current bilateral trade is estimated at $2.5 billion with prospects of doubling this volume in the near term. These estimates exclude the invisible and informal trade between the two countries (exemplified by the myriad ‘Bara’ markets in Pakistan selling smuggled and contraband goods, and the curbside money changers in Chowk Yadgar and Kissa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar ). Once regularized under a transparent and favorable trade accord, the bilateral trade could multiply by a magnitude.

· A bilateral investment, banking and financial services agreement that would allow cross-border investments by financial institutions and commercial and industrial enterprises of the two countries.

· Establishment of a common market/exchange for trade in livestock and agricultural commodities to provide incentives for diversification away from narco-crops, and to ensure food security for Afghanistan.

And given the common heritage, history and culture of the two countries, much remains to be done on the social and cultural front including:

· Opening schools and universities in Pakistan to Afghan students, including generous provision of scholarships;

· Including Dari and Urdu as second languages in the respective school curricula of the two countries;

· Frequent and regular sports events between the two countries ;

· Common music , art and other cultural shows and events;

· Regular exchange of scholars, teachers, physicians, and other professionals;

· Training of Afghan civil and military personnel in Pakistan’s military and service academies.

And one day, not in the too distant future, the dream of a fully integrated economic and monetary union to usher both countries into MAC may yet come true. Peshawar, the Gateway to Afghanistan, should once again bask in its former glory, with its uninterrupted presence at the crossroads of history as a continuously inhabited city since 500 BC and possibly even earlier. No other city of its size in Central and South Asia holds this distinction, and this should be a source of pride for every Pakistani and Afghan, given their common heritage.

[2] A.Faiz , The Promise of Rural Roads, E-C167, Transportation Research Board, Washington DC, September 2012. 2011.

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Afghanistan’s eventful history as reflected in its flags can be seen here in Wikipedia:

Flag of Pashtunistan , first unfurled in Kabul in 1947, to symbolize Pashtun nationalism.

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The first and last issues of the 33-year series of “Free Pashtunistan Day” commemorative stamps issued annually by Afghan Post (from 1951 to 1983).

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About the author:

Asif Faiz retired from the World Bank in 2008 after a 33 year career in international development covering some 40 countries. His operational experience includes all SAARC countries, as well as Turkey and Iran. He served as World Bank’s country manager in Sudan following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and witnessed the birth pangs of a new nation, South Sudan. He has seen the ravages and human toll of insurgencies in Nigeria, Chad, Peru, Nepal , Sudan (Darfur) and Timor Leste

Born in Kashmir, he grew up and studied in Peshawar and fondly remembers the city’s still intact circular wall, its gates and labyrinthine alleys and streets, its shrines and Mughal gardens, and its specialized markets –- a veritable Central Asian city at the crossroads of history. He has travelled in the FATA region, including a summer job as a surveyor in Mohmand Agency and the Bara FR.

An avid philatelist, he remembers the Pashtunistan stamps in his collection of boyhood days, and recalls the rising Pashtun nationalism of his college days.

He has a Ph.D in transportation engineering and writes occasionally on topics that interest him.