Why Pakistan interferes in Afghanistan

A strong, independent Afghanistan is perceived as an existential threat to Pakistan

Just why is Pakistan interested in installing a friendly regime in Afghanistan? If you read books and articles written over the last couple of decades, you will come across arguments such as the need for “strategic depth” to counter India, to prevent a pro-India regime in Kabul that will result in the Indian encircling of Pakistan and, even more grandly, to create an Islamic centre of power that stretches from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the Caucasus mountains. Going by the statements of members of the Pakistani establishment and some of its commentators, these are indeed the reasons why Pakistan wants to dominate Afghanistan.

Yet, to a large extent, the ambition and the paranoia that motivates these goals are in the realm of fantasy. Important people might believe in these fantasies, which means they must be taken seriously, because those important people do act on the basis of their delusions. However, there is also an argument to be made that these fantasies, paranoias and strategic sophistries are used to mask the real motive.

Pakistan’s real motive in seeking to dominate Afghanistan is the fear of its own dismemberment. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad’s main agenda was to prevent Kabul-supported Pashtun and Baloch nationalism from escalating into full-blown movements for independence. The strength of Pashtun nationalism and Kabul’s rejection of the Durand Line (which continues to this day) create deep insecurities in Islamabad, causing it both to bolster Islamism as an ideological counter, sponsor political instability in Afghanistan and attempt to install a friendly regime there.

It is a matter of historical fact that Pakistan—under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—began training Islamist militants in 1973, long before the Soviet invasion. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud received training in Pakistani camps so that Bhutto could counter Kabul ‘forward policy’ towards Pakistan. Kabul’s policies over the Durand Line had caused Pakistan to close its borders with Afghanistan in 1961. When the Baloch insurgency erupted in the early 1970s, Kabul (under the Daoud regime) supported it. Bhutto’s response was to nurture proxies in the form of Islamist militants—an old trick for the Pakistani establishment—under the leadership of the then Brigadier Naseerullah Babar, who as Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps, set up training camps in North and South Waziristan. More than 5000 militants were thus trained between 1973-1977. Again, it must be stressed, before the Soviets invaded. The narrative that most people accept—that Pakistan’s sponsorship of the mujahideen was a response to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—is factually incorrect. [Rizwan Hussain’s Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan has a good account of this]

The Pakistani establishment fears that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. People in the tribal regions of Pakistan have only a tenuous association with the Pakistani state, and even for people in the so-called ‘settled areas’ of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, age-old Pashtun solidarity is often stronger than allegiance to a geopolitical entity called Pakistan. Afghanistan can well decide to support the insurgency in Balochistan to weaken Pakistan enough. Therefore, Pakistani strategists can see an existential threat in a strong, independent Afghanistan.

They can’t, however, state this as the official reason, because to do so would be admit the hollowness of the idea of Pakistan. That’s why fantastic notions of strategic depth, pre-empting strategic encirclement or building a Central Asian caliphate come in useful. “Strategic depth” is a plausible justification to convince patriotic Pakistanis of why their military is interfering in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s case appears a lot more ‘understandable’ to international opinion if it cites the fear of Indian encirclement rather than fear of Pashtun and Baloch self-determination as the reasons for its actions. Domestic and foreign Islamists will be enthused by the idea of flying the green flag of Islam all the way to the borders of Russia.

Theoretically, Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex might be persuaded to stop destabilising Afghanistan if it were convinced that Kabul will not lay claim to Pashtun lands east of the Durand Line. In practice that would be nearly impossible, not least because Afghan nationalism will not accept it. Even Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime didn’t.

Some matters will be decided by the force of arms. If at all.

5 thoughts on “Why Pakistan interferes in Afghanistan”

  1. Barring Indian nationalism, Pakjabis(Pakistani Punjabis) for the first time in their entire history have become Kings, since the days of Alexander and Mauryans till 1947, Pakjabis have always remain a part of the empire or rule of non-Pakjabis. Even Sikhs had only a brief stint of power(48 years) and lets be honest, Pakjabis are not Sikhs. Afghanistan was home to Ghaznavids, Ghauris and Abdalis, who ruled on Pakjabis for many years, they fear that Afghan might reclaim their territory and unlike Indians, Afghans are their muslim bretheren, so it will be morally wrong for them to join the two lands of “Ummah”;))

  2. Pakistan is an idea that became a nation – therefore Pakistan is a runaway idea – and we have seen what happens when a modern band-aid state is created (The Soviet Union comes to mind).
    The Punjabi owners of Pakistan are doing everything in their power to keep this modern day state from not breaking up and that includes spinning all stories at their disposal.
    The idea of lawless lands (FATA, Waziristan etc), strategic depth, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s friend’ and so on are basically high level stories that have been peddled and sold to the West very very successfully – unfortunately the scaffolding that keeps this rag-a-tag nation together is so strong that it may take many more acts of terror by the state sponsor, many more Osama deaths etc before the band-aid starts coming off and the patient finally succumbs – Ironically it is only in the death of Pakistan that the Pakistani citizen will be saved – breaking away from Punjabi dominance will be great for Sindh, Balochistan and so on.

  3. Really brilliant work, the writer is making a piece with background history and reality. We are lacking reality based writers here in the region.

  4. here is nice informative post the above comment be SR rise the main points. nice post happy to follow your blog.

  5. Wonderful article nithin, thanks for bringing it up…. I wonder why Indian Govt is not emphasizing this alternative narrative in international forum

Comments are closed.