Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words

Irfan Husain
16 March 2006

A suicide-bomb attack on 12 March 2006 against a former Afghan president has provoked a diplomatic row, following accusations that Pakistan's military intelligence agency was behind the incident. But this is only the latest chapter in an escalating war of words between the two neighbouring states.

The target of this attack, Sibghatullah Mojadidi, is currently head of a commission encouraging Taliban rebels to stop fighting. Within hours, an injured Mojadidi had called a press conference in which he charged Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with masterminding the bombing.

Predictably, Islamabad rejected the charge, and now nurses a growing grudge against Kabul, fuelled by a series of quarrels and rivalries. Things came to a head shortly after President George W Bush's visit to the region in the first week of March. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, handed Bush an intelligence dossier containing dozens of names and addresses of Taliban and al-Qaida suspects allegedly living in Pakistan, accusing General Pervez Musharraf of inaction against these extremists.

In an uncompromisingly harsh interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer after Bush's departure, a clearly stung Pakistani president lashed out at his Afghan counterpart, saying the lists he had supplied were inaccurate and outdated. Musharraf went on to wonder why such intelligence reports had been leaked to the press, implying that Karzai had sought to embarrass him before his American guest.

Before this, a number of accusations and counter-accusations had been lobbed across the Durand Line that marks the border between the two countries. The level of relations can be judged by a controversy over the branding of Pakistan's nuclear-capable missiles. In mid-February, Afghanistan's minister of information and culture Sayed Makhdom Raheen wrote a letter advising Pakistan not to designate two of its missiles the Ghauri (Mohammad Ghauri was a 12th-century Afghan commander who led numerous raids into India) and the Abdali (Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded India from Afghanistan and founded the Pashtun dynasty in 1748). Raheen said that these rulers "spread art and civilisation across the subcontinent. Their names should not be used for tools of war and killing". It could equally be argued that the martial exploits of these historic figures make the naming of a missile after them not entirely inappropriate.

The Taliban's origin

Such strained ties have a longer history behind them. After the decade-long war against the Soviets following the Red Army's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, during which 3 million Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan, Islamabad continued to support the Islamist warlords it had backed during the fighting. Figures like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sibghatullah Mojadidi himself had close links with the ISI, while non-Pashtun leaders who later made up the Northern Alliance were generally ignored.

During the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, Pakistan backed first one warlord and then another without being able to force the issue. However, when the ISI discovered the Taliban, a small group of Pashtun graduates from madrasas run by Pakistani religious parties in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), they had a winner on their hands. Fiercely puritanical and totally committed to the austere version of Wahhabi Islam they had imbibed at their Saudi-backed seminaries, they burst onto the scene of civil war that engulfed their country.

Allegedly armed and advised by the ISI, they swept out of their remote villages near Kandahar in the southwest, and conquered province after province in their unchecked advance on Kabul. Once they had seized power in the capital in September 1996, their bizarre interpretation of Islam was an embarrassment to even their most ardent backers. Recognised as the legitimate government of Afghanistan only by Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban imposed a harsh, medieval system upon a nation exhausted from nearly two decades of incessant warfare.

Isolated from the world, the Taliban had to depend on the Pakistan government as virtually its only friend and supporter. The Americans gingerly tried a few steps to establish a relationship, but the Taliban treatment of Afghan women was finally too much for Washington. The last straw was the destruction (in February-March 2001) of the giant statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan which united the world in unanimous condemnation of a barbarous act.

While the Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masoud, Rashid Dostum and other non-Pashtun leaders held out in the north around the Panjshir valley. With the Taliban fought numerous volunteers from madrasas across Pakistan, while the ISI is reported to have continued its covert support.

Thus the Northern Alliance had good reason to view Islamabad as its foe. When the tables were turned after 9/11, and the Americans bombed the Taliban out of Kabul in November 2001, it was natural that the new Afghan government would be wary of Pakistan's intentions. Even when Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun who had spent a number of years in Pakistan as an exile, was elected as president, he reached across to India for help, rather than to Pakistan.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan and its neighbours:

Maruf Khwaja, "The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet"
(March 2004)

Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's bus ride to peace" (April 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, "The Baluchi battlefront" (February 2006)

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Pakistan's ambition

An even longer historical memory is needed to understand the roots of the Afghan-Pakistani rivalry. Afghanistan, after all, opposed the admission of Pakistan into the United Nations when the new nation applied in 1947. The reason is that Kabul has never accepted the legality of the Durand Line as the international border between the two countries. Drawn by the British in 1893, it deprives Afghanistan of virtually the entire NWFP and Pakistan's tribal areas. This territorial claim has never been formally dropped by Kabul, although it is not currently a point of contention.

Another factor that has complicated relations between the two neighbours is the chimera of "strategic depth" sought by Pakistani generals. This ambitious military doctrine views Pakistan's narrow landmass in Punjab and Sindh as a disadvantage, and seeks a contiguous area into which its forces could withdraw to fight on in a war with India, even if its traditional foe cuts the country into two.

This is one reason Pakistan's military has been dabbling in Afghanistan for years. When General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's dictator from 1977-88, agreed to take on the Soviets when they invaded, it was because he envisaged a grateful post-war Kabul giving Pakistan preferential treatment once the invaders had been driven out. But when civil war exploded instead in the aftermath of Soviet evacuation, Islamabad raised the stakes and continued to play the role of power-broker.

From the point of view of educated Afghans, the last straw was Islamabad's support of the benighted Taliban. From Pakistan's perspective, an ungrateful Kabul is inviting Indian help in reconstruction, while thwarting legitimate Pakistani interests.

The current squabbling is over the cross-border raids being carried out by Taliban elements into Afghanistan from Pakistan's tribal areas. This belt enjoys a large degree of autonomy, and is populated by various Pashtun tribes whose cousins live on the other side of the border. There are thus deep blood ties connecting the two sides, and these loyalties mean that the Taliban are given shelter as a matter of course. Recurring suspicions that Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida elements are also hiding in the same area probably contain more than a germ of truth.

In his defence, Musharraf says he has deployed 80,000 troops in the area, and hundreds of Pakistani soldiers have been killed and wounded in serious clashes with foreign and local Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. He has constantly pressed Kabul and Washington to station more of their troops in the border area.

The truth is that this is some of the most difficult terrain in the world, with rugged mountains and deep ravines making access very hazardous. Tribals who know the area well have traditionally slipped across the border with drugs and arms for years. The Soviets were unable to interdict movement, and it is unlikely that the Americans and the Afghans will be able to do so now.

Given these logistical problems, as well as the weight of history, it is unlikely that the present tensions will subside soon. But as long as America remains focussed on its "war on terror", it is equally unlikely that Washington will allow the war of words to become a source of real instability in an already unsettled region.

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