Afghanistan as a country predates Pakistan geo-politically and historically. Pakistan is relatively a younger state. Unfortunately, there is lingering animus between the two which does not necessarily stem from state practices entirely of Pakistan’s making but has roots in history, which surfaced when the bitterness of a powerless loser during Sikh rule (1799-1849) was carried into the British Empire’s court after the latter’s conquest of the Sikh Empire in Punjab. Festering resentment between the two recalcitrant neighbours is anchored in these factors and seems to have been indelibly branded in the minds of rulers, including the now extinct Taliban regime, since 1947.
The Sikhs took the Afghan province of the Frontier (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) by conquest, which then passed on to imperial Britain in 1849, who went on to acquire the Quetta valley from Afghanistan by dint of superior diplomacy and military strength. Afghanistan lost these territories forever. It appears that what Afghanistan could not regain or retake from the resolute and vastly more powerful British India, is gettable for them from a shaky Pakistan now. Even when Pakistan looked stronger they continued to foment trouble for it on the western border regions commonly known as FATA.
Their grand design was always to keep Pakistan on the hot seat by keeping the issue of sovereignty over the tribal regions alive through diplomacy and subversion. Afghanistan did not recognise the nascent Pakistani state and went on to officially raise the Pushtunistan flag in Kabul in the presence and patronage of King Zahir Shah. The bogey of Pushtunistan nagged Pakistan for the next three decades, forcing many catastrophic political errors by the government, including keeping the nationalist, secular political mass away from national power centres. That space was occupied by the Islamists with horrific consequences for the country and the region. It was to cost the people of Pakistan dearly, once when East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, revolted against the Centre and broke away, and secondly when the deadly scourge of extremism descended upon us in the guise of jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, later transforming into a cry for a nostalgic caliphate and sharia. The bloodshed in our country continues because of these barbarians to this day.
After the Afghans lost their trans-Hindu Kush territory and the strategic Quetta valley, there came the Durand Line demarcating the border between British territories from Afghanistan. This treaty was signed and ratified by both sides in 1893 and laid the foundations of a simmering territorial dispute between a successor state and Afghanistan half a century later. The Great Game was then in full swing. Russian spies and soldiers were repeatedly found in Iran, Central Asia, Kashghar, Yarkand, Kabul and right up to Tibet. Concurrently, imperial China had a firm hold over Tibet, which was closed by imperial order. Any Moghul, Hindustani, Pathan or Farangi (European) found in Tibet would be put to death. That made Tibet literally terra incognita, but Afghanistan, Eastern Iran and Central Asia were open for British spies and soldiers-of-fortune to play in.
At that time, the British Empire had its gaze fixed on Central Asia and Tibet for reasons of imperial security and lucrative regional trade. Afghanistan was merely considered a useful landmass to gain time and diplomatic mileage should the Russians undertake their feared invasion of India from that direction. Thus perforce Afghanistan became part of the British Empire’s zone of influence, a nettlesome entity to be maintained at a certain level of domination. After Calcutta and New Delhi, Kabul became the forward pivot of strategic British diplomatic manoeuvres, and Kashghar and Yarkand its field outposts to keep Russia at bay. The British embassy in Kabul became an object of awe, heroism and tragedy unequalled in modern history. The ameer (head) of Afghanistan was virtually a vassal of the British ambassador in Kabul, albeit with a false sense of suzerainty and self-worth.
Perhaps then we can address the myth of ‘historic’ Afghan sovereignty and any territorial claims that might ensue from it. This notion is erroneous on two counts: first, Afghanistan was not a country, as we know it, before the 18th century when it was briefly brought under singular rule by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747. Before that, it was a lawless region inhabited by perpetually warring tribes ruled in fits and starts by neighbouring Persian, Indian and Turkish empires. Secondly, Afghan inhabited regions invariably had to be secured by regional empires as they sat astride two major trade and invasion routes into and out of the Indian subcontinent and flanked the Silk Route passing north of Oxus.
In 1749, Ahmad Shah acquired Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir by arm-twisting the ineffectual Mughal ruler just as he conquered Nishapur and Meshad while Afsharid Persia was falling apart. However, he exercised a very tentative suzerainty over these territories. As a result, soon after his death, the Afghan empire quickly disintegrated and eventually Ranjit Singh seized these provinces. This then is the feeble basis that Afghanistan bases its obscure claim over FATA on. Essentially, it is folklore and poetic fancy, like the Greeks one day claiming all territories conquered by Alexander the Great. In the real world, such untenable claims find their place in the dustbins of foreign ministries. This reality check remains lost to Afghanistan even now.
The Afghans continued their opposition to the Indian empire that was paying for Amir Abdur Rehman’s extravagance, arms for his soldiers and their salaries. It was this amir who signed the Durand Line border treaty in 1893 with the British and began to renege as the money he received began to run out. The Afghans were powerless against British might and hence resorted to inflaming Pathan sentiments in the tribal regions. Traditionally, Mohmands and Wazirs have always owed their allegiance to the throne in Kabul. Similarly, Kabul persistently laid claim over Kurram Valley and repeatedly used the Mehsuds to ignite insurgencies. This was compounded by perpetually predatory Zakka Khel Afridis in the Khyber. Their main tool was Afghan mullahs who would whip up jihadist emotions against the suzerainty of ‘infidel Britishers’ then and a ‘US proxy’ Pakistan government now. Sanctuaries were provided and money flowed. As a result, for 100 years of British rule, almost every month there was a tribal raid or a punitive military campaign against them, including the Great Pathan Revolt of 1897.
With this perspective, it becomes clear that armed insurgencies in FATA are not a recent phenomenon and do not owe existence to al Qaeda or Taliban ideologies alone, though these ideologies gave them additional resources and acceptability for their militant agenda. Loaded slogans like caliphate and sharia might appeal to a small minority among them but the rest mainly want the government to stay away and allow them to revel in their centuries-old way of life. They have no love for far-fetched ideologies like pan-Islamism and so on. If FATA is to be opened and pacified, a different model of power and persuasion has to be applied. They have to be cordoned and contained in their traditional geographical zone and allowed their tribal ways but given incentives to modernise and follow a responsible code of conduct vis-à-vis the government and the settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That may cause the Durand Line to take root and hopefully cause Afghanistan’s resentment to subside with the absence of a receptive audience in our borderlands. We should remember that the Pathans are capable of showing respect and even affection for a strong and just adversary and likewise for a friend.
“Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” The ...