Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations - Transcript

[00:02 - 00:05] Opening jingle

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

[00:10 - 01:15] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I am a social anthropologist based in Oslo and also one of the leaders of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we focus on one of Asia's troubled hotspots, the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan is, as we know, once again under Taliban rule, while Pakistan is reeling under a severe economic crisis as well as under a political crisis centred on the former prime minister, Imran Khan. How is all of this affecting the relationship between the two countries? To shed light on the continuously contentious relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the often disastrous consequences for the civilian population that flows from it, we're joined by Fahat Taj, who is an associate professor at the University of Tromsø, the Arctic University of Norway. Thank you so much for joining the Nordic Podcast.

[01:16 - 01:18] Farhat Taj

Thank you very much for having me.

[01:18 - 04:12] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

Farhad, to begin with, what is the status quo in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations today? How are the two countries relating to each other now?

Farhat Taj

The most persistent, the most longstanding status quo dispute between the two countries is the border between them, also known as the Durand Line. Pakistan inherited the border from the British, who made it under the Durand Line agreement with Afghanistan. Pakistan considers it international border between the two countries. Afghanistan has not officially accepted the border as international border with Pakistan, although it has also not taken the border issue to a relevant international forum such as the International Court of Justice. The main reason it has not done so, so far, is that Afghanistan is militarily weak in comparison to Pakistan. Also, Afghanistan's economy is dependent on Pakistan in very many ways, such as the landlocked Afghanistan's access to the sea depends on Pakistan. In the meanwhile, however, a lot has happened and happening to this date that indicates that the country, I mean Afghanistan, does not recognize the Durand Line as international border with Pakistan. For example, in July 1949, the Afghan parliament for the first of many, many times officially rejected the Durand Line as international border. Occasionally, Afghan officials give statements that question the legality of the border. More important, at the cultural level, there is massive, massive amount of Pashto language, poetry and other forms of literature authored in Afghanistan that aspire for disintegration of Pakistan, followed by the incorporation of its Pashtun areas into Afghanistan to make the greater or Loya Afghanistan. Pakistan has now fenced the border with Afghanistan. The entire length of the border about 2500 km. But from time to time, news keep coming that Afghan forces, including the Taliban forces under the current Taliban government, have broken down or taken down part of the fence at this or that point of the border. But now, coming to the second part of your question, how are the two countries relating with each other? Well, they are not relating well. The Taliban are in power in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal from the country in August 2021 in line with the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban. As per the agreement, the Taliban agreed that they will not allow terrorists to use the Afghan soil for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. Now, Pakistan is a long standing US ally, despite episodes of tension in their relationship. Moreover, Pakistan's powerful military establishment has always supported the Taliban, But the Taliban government has not stopped the TTP that the Taliban Pakistan militants, now based in Afghanistan, from cross-border terror attacks in Pakistan. Not only that, but the TTP in Afghanistan also has access to the US weapons left in Afghanistan during the US withdrawal from the country in August 2021. The weapons include firearms such as M16 machine guns, M4 assault rifles, night vision goggles, various communication tools and also armoured vehicles. The TTP and even the Baloch insurgents are using the weapons in attacks on Pakistan security forces. This has created a very dangerous, challenging situation for the security forces of Pakistan, especially for the police whose weapons are no match are much less sophisticated than the weapons left by the US and which are now in the Taliban, in the TTP hands. The number of terror attacks on Pakistan's security forces have increased since the Taliban government came to power. In the last three months, there have been terror attacks on security forces on Pakistan on almost daily basis, especially on the police. In January this year, in a massive terror attack, more than 100 policemen were killed in Peshawar. But let me also mention that, yes, Afghanistan gives a lot of trouble to Pakistan, but Afghanistan could not be held single handedly responsible for the terrorism in Pakistan. The other important reason is Pakistan's Afghan policy that is under the absolute control of the military generals of Pakistan. Now, this is an issue that is related with the internal political dynamics of Pakistan, but it immensely affects the Afghan policy. Basically, the army generals formulate and operate the Afghan policy without any democratic control whatsoever. They basically run the policy as they please. The Afghan policy has resulted in decades of disastrous consequences both for the forces, security forces and for civilian in Pakistan. None of the generals have ever been held accountable for the consequences of the Afghan policy. None has ever faced justice, let alone been punished for the deadly consequences of their absolute control over the Afghan policy. And lastly, you mentioned former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Well, in Pakistan, he is non the selected prime minister of Pakistan, selected, of course, by the generals of Pakistan. One of the generals is general Fayaz, who was the head of the ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence under the Imran Khan government. They both General Fayez and Imran Khan and other generals who were their decision makers at that time, they released tens of TTP hardcore terrorists from jails without any judicial procedures. Also, the two men brought tens of tens of TTP, hardcore militants from Afghanistan. They relocated them from Afghanistan and allowed them to settle in Hyderabad in Pakistan. The parliament of Pakistan was never taken into confidence about that, and there was no public debate whatsoever on this issue. These militants who were released from jail and those who are brought from Afghanistan, they have killed, brutally killed both civilians and security personnel in Pakistan. And after their arrival, terror attacks on the security forces of Pakistan increased.

[09:19 - 13:13] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

I know that this is a conflict that you've been working on for many years now, for decades even. And I know that also your scholarship on the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is now considerable. But there's one of your more recent contributions I would like to focus on, and namely an article that came out last year in the journal called Policy Perspectives. It was titled Clash of Identities Ontological Insecurities of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Repercussions. Now, this idea of ontological security is a concept that I associate with the sociologist Anthony Giddens. But here you use it to analyze the contentious relations between two nations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. What does ontological security mean in this kind of context?

Farhat Taj

You see, ontological security means freedom from threats to the core identity of a person or a state. From ontological security perspective, the persistent tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan comes from the clash of their self-identities. Now what are their self-identities? Self-Identity of Pakistan is Islamic. This identity is rooted in the Muslim League party struggle for creation of a Muslim state in the British India. The struggle that ultimately led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan is a multi-ethnic state. For it, the idea of Islam as state identity implies that Islam as an overarching national identity, will neutralize the prevailing ethnic differences in the society into a common, overriding Pakistani identity, which will curb the potential for secessionist tendencies on ethnic basis. On the other hand, Afghanistan is also a multi-ethnic state. It also has a strong Muslim identity. But Afghanistan's self-identity is woven around Pashtun ethnic identity. Due to, again, historical reasons. The identity is rooted in the formation of the Pashtun tribal confederation that came into being in 1747 under Ahmad Shah Abdali, a Pashtun military commander. He depended on the Pashtun areas, including those in Pakistan, for attacks on India, which is why his confederation treated the Pashtun preferentially compared to other ethnic groups in the area. Ameer Abdul Rahman, the founder of modern Afghanistan, consolidated the state internally with the help of the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan. When he established the Pashtun settlement in the north of the country and also used Pashtun tribal Lashkar or militia to forcibly convert Kafiristan to Islam and to suppress the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan. So, yes, the two states have different self-identities. One has Islamic and the other has ethnic Pashtun. And both these identities clash. They clash because Afghanistan does not accept the Islamic identity of Pakistan. Now, you see, other Muslim countries have no problem with the Islamic identity of Pakistan. For example, Turkey, which also has a strong Turkish ethnic identity, has no problem with the Islamic identity of Pakistan. But Afghanistan has a huge problem with the Islamic identity of Pakistan. In the Pashtun nationalist narrative in Afghanistan, Pakistan is “an unnatural state”. Pakistan is “a British project”. Pakistanisthe Punjab Regiment of the British Army”. And Pakistan, in their narrative, uses Islam to ward off people's attention from its “occupation of a part of the Pashtun land which rightfully belongs to Afghanistan”. The Afghanistan does not accept the Pashtun areas of Pakistan as part of Pakistan under the banner of Islam. Afghanistan sees its own Pashtun identity incomplete without having the Pashtuns areas now in Pakistan, incorporated in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, is okay with the Pashtun identity of Afghanistan as long as Afghanistan does not question Pakistan's Islamic identity on ethnic basis. Afghanistan poses a challenge to the self-identity of Pakistan when it asserts its self-proclaimed right to speak for the Pashtuns of Pakistan and when it refuses to recognize the border between the two countries, that is the Durand Line as international border. So this is the clash of self-identities between the two countries. The clash generates cognitive anxiety in both states, which quickly translates into cognitive insecurity about self-identity in both countries. In other words, translates into ontological insecurity for both countries.

[15:20 - 18:34] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

So I think your answer just now shows very clearly that there are, as we know, always two sides to any relationship and also to any conflict. But if we start for a moment from the Pakistani perspective, how does this issue of ontological security or indeed ontological insecurity figure in Pakistan's engagement with Afghanistan, and how does Pakistan try to manage what you would call ontological insecurities vis-a-vis Afghanistan?

Farhat Taj

When Afghanistan asserts its self-proclaimed right to speak for Pashtuns in Pakistan or when it refuses to accept the Durand Line as international border, it generates cognitive anxiety in Pakistan's self-identity, and it reminds Pakistan that its Islamic identity is not strong enough to neutralize ethnic identities of its large section of its population. So then it generates concerns in Pakistan that under the influence of Afghan Pashtun nationalist narrative, Pashtun identity politics in Pakistan could transform into a serious secessionist movement. In 1970s, Pakistan encountered a Pashtun secessionist movement, which it successfully controlled. At the present, there is no significant secessionist movement in Pakistan. However, the Afghan narrative of Loya Afghanistan have intensified due to the advent of social media. Additionally, millions of Afghan refugees live in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many have obtained Pakistani citizenship, both by legal and illegal means. Some of these new citizens could possibly join the now subdued Pashtun secessionist tendency in Pakistan. This is especially relevant when seen in the context of the grievances generated by Pakistan army in the military operation in the tribal Pashtun areas, especially in Waziristan during the war on terror. So there is a potential threat for Pakistan, and there is certainly the ontological security threat, which Pakistan manages by routinisation of relationship. I mean, according to the ontological security, states turn to routinise their relationship with other actors. So how does Pakistan does? First, Pakistan reached out to Afghanistan for routinisation of relationship by establishing diplomatic relations, economic and trade ties. But that did not work for Pakistan. Afghanistan’s non-recognition of the border strained their relationship, often leading to dramatic events like withdrawal of diplomatic representatives, flag burning and so on. In response, Pakistan reached out to other actors for routinisation of relationship in relation to Pakistan. It has both internal and external dimension. Externally, Pakistan integrates Afghanistan into its animosity-driven relations with India. In Pakistan's Afghan policy, Afghanistan is a brotherly Muslim country and Hindu India is existential threat. Afghanistan stance on Durand Line is interpreted by Pakistan as part of Indian efforts to destroy Pakistan. Every attempt by the Afghans to speak for grievances of Pashtun in Pakistan is rejected by Pakistan as India-backed propaganda. In other words, Pakistan does not imagine Afghanistan as enemy state. It only sees some pro-Hindu India elements in the country that prevents the brotherly Muslim country from establishing good relations with Pakistan. This understanding in Pakistan has led the country to imagine Islamist forces in Afghanistan are the most suited to promote Pakistan interests in Afghanistan. You know, prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, most of our government had cordial relations with India and were at odds with Pakistan. But from 1970s onwards, Pakistan has always supported Afghan Islamists. Supporting Islamists has emerged as the central means by which Pakistan seeks security for itself. In other words, Pakistan of one policy is shaped by its own Islamic identity and is Pakistan's cognitive response to the ontological security threat posed by Afghanistan. Second, Pakistan also integrated Afghanistan in its relations with the Western world, especially in the Cold War. Pakistan never had a direct threat from the Soviet Union. Pakistan never had a significant threat of or domestic communist takeover, and yet it joined the Western alliance against the Soviet Union in order to get military and economic aid and also to strengthen its political position in diplomatic positions against India, and by extension, to undermine Afghanistan’s stands on the Durand Line, and Pakistan achieved that. In the Cold War time, both US and UK publicly supported Pakistan’s stance on the Durand Line. Number third, Pakistan has Pakistanised its Pashtuns, especially in the settled districts. And by Pakistanisation I mean that these Pashtuns are integrated in the armed forces of Pakistan, in the rest of the state structure of Pakistan in bureaucracy, and they are in the economy of Pakistan. They are settled everywhere in Pakistan. By Pakistanisation, I also mean that Pashtunised Pashtuns pay little or no attention to Afghanistan's self-proclaimed identity claims on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan.

[21:29 - 24:14] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

And if we switch the table, so to speak, or if we look at this relationship from the other side, from the perspective of Afghanistan?

Farhat Taj

You see in Afghanistan, this ontological security challenge is created by a section of its own population, especially the Pashtun nationalist. And it is an old pressure. Since the days of Amir Dost Muhammad, in the 19th century, there has been popular pressure on the state to recapture the lost Pashtun areas. So Afghanistan finds it's very difficult to have its self-identity, Pashtun self-identity, continuously reaffirmed by its dominant Pashtun public opinion if it recognizes Pashtun areas in Pakistan as integral part of Pakistan. So this then create anxiety, cognitive anxiety and ontological security challenge for Afghanistan, which it manages by taking an ambiguous stance on the Pashtun areas in Pakistan. But before I come to ambiguous stance, Afghanistan does another thing, and that is the autobiographical narratives that it draws on. One way for the state to deal with ontological insecurity is to create autobiographical narratives that reaffirms the state identity. Afghanistan draws on narratives of the Pashtun nationalist intellectuals to sustain public support for its self-identity. Throughout the 20th century, and to this date, so much Pashtun nationalist poetry and other forms of literatures have been authored in Afghanistan that reject the Durand Line and aspire for greater Afghanistan. The Afghan state encourages such narratives, for example, through radio broadcast, but mere rhetoric is not enough. Ontological security in this case also requires continuous concrete action, indicating that Afghanistan has not given up on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Now Afghanistan is militarily weak to snatch the area from Pakistan. Its economy depends on Pakistan. So this compels Afghanistan to strike a balance between the public pressure and the economic need and the military weakness. And one way Afghanistan does so is by taking a very ambiguous stance towards the Pashtun areas. And in this stance, it also uses Pashtun tribal area and Pakistan as strategic space against Pakistan. We know that Pakistan uses this area as strategic space against Afghanistan, correct? Absolutely correct. But the opposite is also true, but less acknowledged in academic literature, I think. And Afghanistan uses the area by taking an ambiguous stance towards the area. And how does it take that stance? The stance is oscillating between three different stances. One, sometimes it says the area should be given full independence. There should be Pashtun stance. Sometimes it says an autonomous status should be given to the Pashtun area within Pakistan Federation. And sometimes it say, no, it is for the people of this area to decide what they want, want to live in Pakistan or join Afghanistan or independence. Simultaneously, Afghanistan also promptly complained against any violation of the Durand Line, although it says it doesn't accept it as international border. This ambiguity of Afghanistan is one way to deal with the ontological insecurity it has. I have been looking into some archive literature that the British government has declassified, and in this literature, which is about Afghanistan-Pakistan relation, what comes out is that Afghans are very concerned about this area losing its Pashtun identity. At one point, the then prime minister of Afghanistan, Shah Mehmood, tells the British that Afghanistan has no desire to possess the area, but the tribesmen in Pakistan are playing on the cry that the area is integral part of Pakistan, and this is an idea that the Afghans hate, he says. In other documents which I saw, it clearly comes out several times that Afghanistan is pressing the British to press Pakistan for autonomous status for the Northwest frontier province and name it xx or Afghani. Once the Afghan ambassador in London told the British that Afghanistan want Pashtun in Pakistan to have some kind of autonomy, which guarantees and preserve their ethnic identity against absorption in the Punjab, and Afghanistan desires a name for the province, for this area, which reflects their ethnic character, such as Pashtunistan or Afghani. So I think the creation of Pakistan, where Punjab is demographically dominant province, a more precisely the western part of Pakistan in the name of Islam, apparently caused Punjabophobia in Afghanistan. And by Punjabophobia, I mean a fear that under the cover of Islam, Pashtun and Pakistan will lose their ethnic identity by their socio-cultural absorption into Pakistan, which in turn will deprive Afghanistan of using the area as strategic space against Pakistan. And if I could quickly mention again another thing that recently, General Fayez, which I earlier mentioned, he sent a delegation from Pakistan to negotiate with TTP in Afghanistan, and the delegation came back with a list of demands from the TTP and one of the demands was that the tribal area, which is now legally integrated with the rest of Pakistan through an act of the parliament, that area should be removed from that and legal integration should be put back under the British made Frontier Crimes Regulation. I think this demand is not the TTP demand. This demand is the Afghan Taliban demand because it is easier to manipulate the area, use it as strategic space when it is under the British made FCR, Frontier Crime Regulation and difficult to manipulate when it is under the legal framework of Pakistan.

[28:08 - 31:23] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

This is a very, very interesting perspective that you bring up here. And it brings me into something I wanted to hear your views on, because what I think is important about the work that you do is that you don't simply treat these questions of ontological insecurity management, if we can call it that, as a matter of high politics or international relations of some sort. As you point out, and that's also mentioned in the introduction, the way in which these two countries deal with these issues, they have potentially quite dramatic consequences for people to people relations, especially among the Pashtun population in both countries. I'd like to hear you say a little bit more about this component or this aspect that's also part of these ways in which the countries manage insecurities.

Farhat Taj

With the arrival of social media, the clash of identities between Pakistan and Afghanistan is now directly mirrored in the Pashtun society in Pakistan. You see, Afghan-Pashtun have always been proactive in asserting their state's identity and their identity claims on Pashtuns area of Pakistan. Actually, they have created the ontological insecurity in Afghanistan. But Pashtuns in Pakistan have been silent on these issues for three reasons. One, they, as I said, are integrated in this trade structure in Pakistan. Actually, Pakistan inherited their straight integration from the British. They were integrated since the British time, especially Pashtun in this settled districts. So this is one. Two, Afghanistan overall has always been relatively backward tribal society. There are no state institutions. There are no political parties. This is the reason why Pashtuns in Pakistan are not interested in the identity claims of Afghanistan. Why would Pashtun in Pakistan want to join Afghanistan when they live in a state structure? And also Pashtun in Pakistan, like people in many other places, they would like to migrate to the west or to the Middle East for better socio-economic opportunities. Afghanistan does not offer that opportunity. So, yes, in my view, Pashtuns in Pakistan do not want to break away from Pakistan, but they certainly want permanent peace between the two countries and massive cooperation in all walks of life. Number three, the discussion on identity claims on Pashtun areas are not discussed in Pakistan. Pakistan does not encourage discussion on them. Silence is assumed to better serve Pakistan interests. But still, if there is any discussion on the Afghan identity claims, it is quickly shaped into Pakistan-India relations, so the attention is taken away from Afghanistan. But now Pakistani Pashtun on social media are very vocal in opposing the Afghan claims on Pakistan Pashtun areas. Both Pakistan-Pashtun and Afghan-Pashtun discredit each other's state identity and narrative in their social media discussions. Contrary to the Afghan expectation, Pakistani Pashtuns support Pakistan. The Afghan social media activists regard Pakistanised Pashtun as the biggest hurdle in their way to disintegrate Pakistan. But more importantly, the online clashes create polarization among Pashtun on both countries. The online clashes, in my view, have the potential for violence in the Pashtun civilian domain, especially in Pakistan, due to the presence of large Afghan refugee population in the country. Just to give you an example, recently people in a local community in Heber Pakhtunkhwa refused to allow burial in Pakistan of a deceased Afghan refugee because he allegedly participated in anti-Pakistan social media debates. The people demanded that he be buried in Afghanistan and consequently his dead body was transported to Afghanistan for burial.

[32:24 - 32:51] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

We are approaching the end of this episode. But there's one final and perhaps rather unfair question that I'd like to pose to you, but it is perhaps also the million dollar question. In your view, what are the prospects of the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan evolving in such a way that these respective insecurities will become less acute and less pronounced in the years ahead?

[32:52 - 34:28] Farhat Taj

There is several things because the problem is so multi-dimensional, but two very important things have to be done. Number one is that there should be an open debate in Pakistan about the identity claims of Afghanistan on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, because such debates will then, in my view, send a clear message to Afghanistan that Pashtun in Pakistan, they prefer to live in Pakistan, but they want good relations with Afghanistan. And with this message, those Pashtun in Afghanistan who also want to live in peace with Pakistan without disintegrating Pakistan, it will strengthen their hands. For now, the situation is that any Pashtun who speaks in these terms is quickly shut up by the dominant Pashtun nationalist narrative or those who promote that. So when the hands of those Pashtuns who want peaceful relations with Pakistan, they are strengthened, it will in turn reduce the ontological insecurity of Afghanistan and also of Pakistan. And it will make it easier for the two states to come forward and have good relations. This is one. Number two, in Pakistan, the absolute control of the military generals on the Afghan policy has to go, if we have to see any improvement in relations with Pakistan. When there will be more civilian input, when there will be more democratic control on the policy, there will be more hope. Of course, the generals will be in the picture. It is a security issue. Their view will be considered, but they should not be the ultimate decision makers in this regard.

[34:30 - 34:54] Kenneth Bo Nielsen

Farhat Taj, Thank you so much for shedding light on some of these deeper insecurities that underpin the continued troubled relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a relationship that also continues to shape the wider South Asian region in very important ways. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

[34:56 - 34:58] Closing jingle

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