A Study of Pakistan’s Interests in Afghanistan: Fear and Prejudice

Pakistani military support base on the Afghan border. Photo by Talk Radio News Service. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License.

October 26, 2011
By Britta Petersen
The importance of Pakistan for the West’s continuation of their unfortunate involvement in Afghanistan is now generally understood. Far less clear, probably for most of the actors involved, is what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan at all. At the end of August in Islamabad, the Jinnah Institute, which has close ties to the government, presented a study in cooperation with the United States Institute of Peace that attempts to fill this gap. The paper entitled “Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite” is a must read for anyone who is involved in the region, especially in view of the upcoming Afghanistan Conference in Bonn this December.

The findings are disillusioning: Pakistan’s goals and plans for Afghanistan are just as unclear and contradictory as those of Washington and Berlin. Above all, Pakistan continues to hold fast to the problematic goal of wanting to be involved in deciding who forms the government in Kabul. The findings are based on several rounds of discussions and individual interviews with 53 former diplomats, military officers, security analysts, academics and journalists, whose positions can be considered as being representative of the Pakistani establishment’s thinking. However, the interviewees are by no means unified behind each point. Many are even very critical of the ruling security doctrine, but they do not seem to believe that the basic lines of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy, which is determined as before not by the government but by the army, can be changed.

The USA, and Germany, must pose the question to themselves: Which Pakistani interests can be considered legitimate and which run contrary to a peaceful and stabile development in Hindu Kush?

The study identifies two of Pakistan’s main goals in Afghanistan:

• A solution for Afghanistan should not lead to destabilization in Pakistan nor be opposed by the “Pakistani Pashtuns”

• The government in Kabul should not work against Pakistan and it should also not allow Afghan territory to be used against Pakistani interests.

According to expert opinion, Pakistan’s interests lie therefore in:

• A “relatively stable” government in Kabul

• An “inclusive” government with “adequate Pashtun representation” that is accepted by all ethnic and political stakeholders

• As well as a restriction of India’s role in Afghanistan to only development activities

This short list already contains all the problems that have characterized Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan over the past few decades. Although there is hardly anybody in Islamabad that longs for a return to the 90s, when the Taliban had sole rule in Kabul, Pakistan still believes that a friendly government in the neighboring country can only be secured if the “Pashtuns” are “adequately” represented in the government.

In view of the fact that the elected president, Hamid Karzai, is a Pashtun and that his cabinet does not have a shortage of Pashtuns, the question of which Pashtuns Islamabad would like to see in the government arises. The answer given by the study: “Participation by the main Taliban factions,” namely Mullah Omar’s “Quetta Shura” and the “Haqqani Network” (both based in Pakistan), is essential.

With that, Pakistan stubbornly holds on to the foreign policy delusion that the Taliban represents “the Pashtuns.” This is not even true in their own country, let alone in Afghanistan. The (Pashtun) political scientist Farhat Taj, a research fellow at the University of Oslo, accuses the Jinnah Institute of using the term “adequate Pashtun representation” in the study to mask the assertion that Pakistan still holds on to the military doctrine of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, even though this has not been politically correct since September 11, 2001. She denotes the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network as “fringe elements of Pashtun society.”

In reality, Pakistan’s policy has been defined since its founding by the concern that the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan could unite and form a “Pashtunistan,” thereby sealing Pakistan’s collapse as a state. Therefore, Pakistan has always worked to split the Pashtuns politically and has successfully exported the problem to Afghanistan by supporting radical groups such as the Taliban.

While Islamabad has legitimate interests in the integrity of its national territory and the stability of its neighboring country, the demand to participate in forming the government of a sovereign state has to be rejected. Even “strategic depth,” a concept that regarded Afghanistan as a safe hinterland in the case of war with India, may be desirable from the perspective of the army – however, if it were to amount to the subordination of Afghanistan, it is not justifiable under international law and according to many experts, is now even militarily obsolete.

Since “the West” has in the meantime abandoned the idea that the future government in Kabul could be a democratic one, it is feared that Pakistan’s positions will remain unchallenged.

Those who hoped that Islamabad would be helpful to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table should also read the study thoroughly. The study states there is a “lack of clarity about the Afghan Taliban’s willingness to participate in a political reconciliation process, or even to communicate directly with the U.S. beyond a point.” The journalist and security expert Ejaz Haider, who contributed to the study, therefore warns: “One thing is clear from reports about that process: the Afghan Taliban are wary of Pakistan. It does raise a question about how far Pakistan can influence the process, if at all”.

This has not prevented Islamabad, Washington or Berlin from selling “reconciliation” with the Taliban as a solution to the problem. However, vague hopes make for poor policy.

The study also makes clear that Pakistan’s Afghan policy is still driven by the fear of being encircled by archenemy India. In view of India’s popularity in Afghanistan and its numerous activities there (India has now become the sixth largest donor in Afghanistan), this is a legitimate concern. To expect that New Delhi would restrict itself to development aid while Pakistan is involved in making decisions about the Afghan government is however, to say the least, somewhat unrealistic.

Optimism can be found in that many Pakistani experts are of the opinion that the “security-focused policy approach” towards Afghanistan has led Pakistan to a loss of reputation there. Even the fixation on a real or imaginary Indian threat is viewed skeptically. Instead, they call for a stronger focus on common interests such as bi-lateral trade, energy and infrastructure, as well as reconstruction. Islamabad should also try harder to enter into talks with Afghan actors other than the Taliban. According to the study, however, this would be a 180-degree turn for the traditional Pakistani policy in Afghanistan.

A hasty withdrawal of the ISAF troops in 2014 is not desired in Pakistan nor Afghanistan (and also not in India) because the outlined peace prospects, or even just minimum stability, can only be realized if Afghanistan does not sink into a civil war. In this context, the Pakistani experts warn of a danger that until now has received little international attention: a division of the Afghan national army along ethnic lines.

Therefore, the main uncertainty remains the question of whether or not the Taliban is ready to enter into a political agreement as long as foreign troops are in the country. As long as no solution that respects the interests of broad segments of the Afghan population and the most important neighboring countries is found, a withdrawal of NATO would leave behind a scorched earth.

For German and international policies towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, this will mean the following:

• The erroneous attempt to make the Afghanistan conflict into an ethnic one must be contradicted and instead, a political solution that is accepted by a majority of the Afghan people should be sought.

• Pakistan’s legitimate security interests must be considered. Kabul should then be convinced to recognize the Durand Line (which separates the Afghani and Pakistani Pashtuns) as an international border, so that the issue of a possible Pashtunistan can no longer stand in the way of a peaceful solution.

• In addition, New Delhi should be urged to make its activities in Afghanistan more transparent.

• All three countries should be encouraged to intensify the use of the region’s economic potential (also with others such as China, Iran, and Central Asian Republics).

• Berlin should also increase support to those in Islamabad who are skeptical of the military establishment’s “security-focused approach.” A stronger influence from the democratically elected government on Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is necessary for peace in the region.

This requires more time than the 2014 withdrawal deadline for NATO troops allows.

Britta Peterson is Country Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Lahore, Pakistan

This article is also available in German.

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in