It was a story that never really broke: for the first time, a leading Afghan politician has accepted a draft document of a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But as a part of attempts to strengthen regional integration and cooperation, such an agreement is on the agenda again. And, as usual, it is Islamabad which is keen to sign. Previous Pakistani attempts at ‘ambushing’ the Afghan government on the issue have failed; this time, at least, they managed to get the Afghan side to ‘conditionally’ accept. But a number of grave bilateral problems still stand in its way, from the implementation of trade agreements to Pakistan’s failure to stop cross border rocket attacks and, of course, the big elephant in the room: the ‘Durand Line’ and the unresolved border dispute. AAN’s Gran Hewad looks at past experiences of bilateralism and has been speaking to two witnesses of how, during previous eras – the mujahedin and the Taleban – Afghan leaders would employ ‘elegant evasion’ during talks on the issue with a neighbour both powerful and with influence across the border.
In late November 2012, the Afghan foreign minister, Dr. Zalmay Rasul was literally ‘ambushed’. During a visit to Pakistan, (1) he became the first high-ranking Afghan politician to handle and keep with him a draft strategic partnership agreement with the neighbouring country (the content of which has not been publicised so far). It seems he was somewhat taken by surprise when the Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar handed him the document. Afghan government officials told AAN off the record that, it had definitely not been on the agenda of that visit.
Since then – on 10 February, Rasul made a strong public statement , saying no strategic agreement with Islamabad was possible unless it became clear Pakistan no longer posed a threat to Afghanistan, ‘The agreement was addressed at the London conference. However, as long as Pakistan shows no sign of honest cooperation to provide peace and sustainability, and there is no trust gained from our people, there will be no such agreement signed,’.
The items on the agreed agenda in this November meeting point to just how much is contested between the two neighbours: ‘enhancing’ cooperation on security, settlement of detainees’ issues (also discussed during President Karzai’s visit in June 2011), cross border rocket shelling (2) and the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. We could also add Pakistani support for the Taleban and the Durand Line issue – more of which later.
Despite his subsequent strong stance, in taking the draft agreement away with him, Dr. Rasul had gone further than any other previous Afghan leader in the field of formal Pakistan-Afghan security agreements. In recent decades, other Afghan leaders, with relations actually trickier and more entangled with Pakistan, have faced similar attempted ‘ambushes’ and managed to evade ‘capture’.
The first time a draft partnership document was offered, and rejected, was in 1992. Then, Hazrat Sebghatullah Mujaddedi was the president of the interim Islamic government of Afghanistan set up by major mujahedin groups that had taken over after the leftist regime of President Najibullah collapsed. More or less a week after the takeover of Kabul by the Mujahedin in late April that year, then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif visited the leaders of the newly established regime. In the meeting with Mujaddedi, which was attended by around a dozen of other mujahedin leaders, Sharif submitted the draft document.
One of the participants, Musa Hotak, told AAN that Sharif started with friendly words and said that his government desired to have friendly relations with the newly established Islamic state in Afghanistan, that it wants to be cooperative and that the document could be further expanded by the Afghan side; the Afghan government was welcome to incorporate its needs and requirements.
Sharif must have assumed that he would have been able to make Mujaddedi sign the document on the spot, since the latter had been selected by an Islamabad-dominated process.
Throughout the war against the Soviets, Pakistan had recognised just seven Sunni mujahedin parties and channelled billions of dollars of financial support originating from the US, Saudi Arabia and other Western and Arab countries to them. This had led to some generous gestures. One mujahedin leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-e Islami, even proposed the establishment of a confederation of the two neighbouring Islamic states, Pakistan and Afghanistan, during a speech in Peshawar in the late days of the jehad, as a senior Hezb-e Islami leader told AAN. The mujahedin also discussed changing the name of Kabul’s most famous and largest mosque, Pol-e Kheshti, to Shahid General Zia-ul-Haq mosque, claiming that the Pakistani military ruler, who died when his aircraft exploded in 1988, had been assassinated because of his support for the Afghan jehad.
However, despite Pakistan’s clout and influence, Hazrat Mujaddedi rejected the document without even reading it. According to Hotak, Mujaddedi said that he had been selected by the mujahedin leaders only (3) – and therefore was not fully legitimate – but that whenever he became regularly elected by the people of Afghanistan he would discuss the document. Moreover, getting a formal agreement with Kabul was important for Islamabad. At the time, a silent competition was going on between Pakistan and Iran over influence in Afghanistan, while India was almost side-lined after the fall of Najibullah’s government. With the partnership agreement, Pakistan wanted to get a step ahead of Iran.
Hotak believes, however, that the real reason Mujaddedi rejected the document was because he was afraid to touch upon sensitive issues regarding the historically strained Afghan-Pakistani relations, the major of which regards the Durand Line. The Line, established in 1893 under an Afghan-British agreement and cutting through Pashtun-settled Afghan territory, has never been recognised by the Afghans. They argue that then Amir Abdul Rahman had signed the agreement under pressure and believed the line would rather divide zones of influence than draw a regular border.
Despite Afghanistan’s emphatic official rejection of the Durand Line, which included the Jalalabad Loya Jirga of March 1949 that unilaterally declared all earlier Afghan-British pacts and agreements – including that about the Durand Line – null and void (it followed Pakistan’s takeover of those Pashtun areas split off by the British, based on a referendum in 1947 that gave the population only the choice between joining India and Pakistan – and not also that of independence, as demanded by Afghanistan), Afghan leaders have had a cautious, ambiguous, almost double-faced position towards Pakistan and the issue of the Durand Line almost since the establishment of its neighbouring country to the east in 1947.
The border dispute is so sensitive that it has rarely been mentioned in meetings among officials of the two countries. If any leader from Afghanistan raises it in an official or public meeting he would be forced to take the official line. But the strict non-recognition of the colonially imposed line and a reunification of Pakistan’s Pashtun, and possibly Baluch, areas with Afghanistan would actually amount to removing Pakistan from the political map, because it could be the first step to dismantling Pakistan as a whole.
Afghan leaders, however, particularly since the fight against the Soviet occupation, were so dependent on Pakistani support that they could barely afford to tell Pakistan off on this issue. And while any Afghan leader who could compromise or even make a deal to recognise the Durand Line would gain much among Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military establishment, that would amount to a political suicide in Afghanistan. Even Sardar Muhammad Daud, president from 1973 to 1978, and known to be a staunch supporter of Pashtun reunification (4), side-stepped the issue in the last three years of his presidency. Actually, most Afghan politicians took this ambiguous stance in order not to harm their public image at home as well as their relations with Pakistan.
Let’s go back to April 1992. According to Hotak, ‘Sharif took the document back with him when leaving.’ Hazrat Mojaddedi’s elegant and diplomatic – one might say cunning – evasion when faced with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s demands succeeded in rejecting the offer, while preserving his relationship with Sharif intact. Indeed, it may also be – certainly Hotak thinks so – that Hazrat Mojaddedi’s response was also a hinted request for Pakistan’s support during the upcoming elections, which were programmed by the interim mujahedin government but which actually never took place.
Several years later, it was the Taleban government, who was even more dependent on Pakistani support and largesse, to be faced by a similar Pakistani offer to cooperate on security. A delegation of Pakistani officials led by the Pakistani then Minister of Interior, Lieutenant General MoinuddinHaidar, visited Kabul in 1999 and met with the acting leadership council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (5). One of the council members was Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the Taleban Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was briefed by the officials attending the meeting, told AAN:
‘Though it had not been discussed previously that it be included in the agenda, the Pakistani delegation suggested discussing a protocol between the two countries to end the disputes that were often arising. Haidar was pointing to a clash between the border polices of the two countries in Torkham, during which the Taleban were arguing that the Pakistani side had violated the Durand Line. The acting leadership council officials responded that it should be discussed with the authorized officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who were not present in the meeting, and with the Amir [ul-mo’minin, ie Mulla Omar]. During the joint press conference [after the meeting], the Pakistani Interior Minister mentioned that he has discussed the [issue of the] protocol with the IEA officials. The IEA’s acting Minister of Interior, Mullah Abdul Razaq, then decidedly rejected any protocol discussion.’
That the heavily Pakistan-supported Taleban made such a confrontational public statement at a press conference shows how they wanted to project themselves as an independent party. In fact, most of the Taleban shared (and arguably still share) the widespread Afghan position of non-recognition of the Durand Line.
‘I also told the BBC in an interview that discussing any document on this subject requires a normal stable government which we had not as of then’ Mutawakil added. The Taleban cited their incomplete rule over the country and argued – not too differently from Mujaddedi – that this gave them no legitimacy to discuss such an important matter of national interest.
Curiously, both the Taleban and the mujahedin evaded Pakistani proposals by belittling themselves and their governments. Though the Taleban-Pakistan discussion took place seven years after Mujaddedi’s rejection of the document, in discussing the option of a protocol the Taleban behaved even more carefully than Hazrat Mujaddedi. It means that the degree of sensitivity of any discussion on the issue was (and is) irreversible, even if from a legal point of view the suggested protocol had a lesser enforcement capacity than a partnership agreement.
Mutawakel went on to explain the nature of the bilateral relationship further:
‘Most of the time during the IEA, Pakistan was keen to put issues on the table that in a way were related to the Durand Line issue. Pakistan officials once suggested that Pakistan would asphalt the Kunar road (6). We responded that if Pakistan wanted to help us then it should consider our priorities and asphalt the Kabul-Nangarhar-Torkham road instead, but Pakistan rejected.’
Once again, in the last days of the Karzai government, Pakistan is trying to reach a partnership agreement with Afghanistan. One of the possible reasons for this was mentioned by Musa Hotak, who described being invited by the Pakistani ambassador to an iftar dinner during Ramadan in August 2012. ‘The ambassador complained about the [current] jihadi leaders,’ he told AAN. ‘He said the Afghan government had signed a strategic partnership agreement with India, which had been a supporter of their enemy [the 1978-89 PDPA regime] and is a non-Muslim country. But it does not sign a strategic partnership [document] with Pakistan which was their supporter and is a Muslim country.’
The ambassador’s remark points to the fact that one of Pakistan’s major reasons for establishing a strategic partnership with Afghanistan is the diplomatic competition with India. India has a much more pro-active relationship with nowadays Afghanistan. It has been directly involved in reconstruction, in the higher education sector, in capacity building for the civilian service sector and in the training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) since the intervention of the international community in 2001.
So in November 2012 and again earlier this month, the issue of a possible SPA has been put on the table. The final declaration of the trilateral Afghan-Pakistani-British summit held in the UK On 3-4 February 2013, says: ‘Progress on the SPA and peace process would mutually reinforce close co-operation between the two countries’.
In a historic perspective (7), however, this looks like another optimistic initiative during a time that offers no real chances for an improvement of bilateral relations. Only with a strong-willed and honest stand for stability in the region and for the prosperity of both nations, could this tense juncture be transformed into a constructive trend for the relationship of the two countries before the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan.
Indeed, Afghan experts do not take the offer of the latest draft for an Afghan-Pakistani Strategic Partnership Agreement, as delivered to the Afghan side in November, seriously. Ghafur Liwal, director of the Regional Studies Centre, told AAN that he was ‘pessimistic’. He added:
There is no trust between the two states, nations and politicians. Previous experience and pending agreements have shown that agreements in such an atmosphere will go nowhere. I was part of a delegation visiting Islamabad [in the summer of 2012] to discuss with Pakistani officials the release of millions of Afghan school textbooks which were held up in transit to Afghanistan via Karachi port for two months. The books were prevented by Pakistani port officials from crossing Pakistani territory. When we were leaving they promised us that the book convoy would have reached Kabul before us. The books, however, remained in Karachi port for more than five months after our return.’
Janan Mosazai, the spokesperson of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also commented on the issue of an agreement in a press conference on 30 December 2012 in Kabul, saying:
We have no problem with having strategic relations with Pakistan. However, beginning discussions about the draft document requires some practical developments in the relations of both countries and the consideration of issues which are priorities of both countries. The priorities include the peace process, the full implementation of Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA), finding a sustainable solution to Afghan refugees based in Pakistan and their honourable, gradual and voluntary return to the country, as well as security issues.
Without progress in those current bilateral problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan, any serious discussion of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries will be impossible. Furthermore, it would be helpful if Pakistan could stop viewing its relations with Afghanistan through the lenses of its competition with India and the state of Afghan-Indian relations, as in the case of India’s participation in the training of the ANSF. Once this is achieved, an eventual Indo-Pakistani diplomatic competition for good relations with Kabul could be very useful for Afghanistan – if only there were a clear and smart foreign policy on the part of the Afghans towards Pakistan.
(1) AAN wanted to hear the Pakistani side of the story for this piece, but email and telephonic requests for an interview with the Pakistani Embassy failed to elicit a positive response.
(2) Even recently, in early December 2012, President Karzai accused Pakistan of involvement in organising the suicide attack which targeted the Afghan intelligence director, Assadullah Khaled. Cross-border shelling with rockets has also plagued the relationship for the last two years. Pajhwok News Agency reported another incident on 2 January 2013, when 12 rockets were fired from the Pakistani side of the border, killing one woman and injuring three children.
(3) Mujaddedi was selected as president of the interim Islamic government for two months on the basis of the so-called Peshawar accord between the seven largest Sunni mujahedin tanzim (military parties), that is between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-e Islami, Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayaf of Ettehad-e Islami, late Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani of Jamiat-e Islami, Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi of Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami, Mawlawi Yonus Khales of Hezb-e Islami, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani of Mahaz-e Melli and Mojaddedi himself, of Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli. On the contrary, the Shia-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat did not take part in it.
(4) Although known as a supporter of the Pashtunistan issue, Sardar Daud also tried to improve relations with Pakistan during his presidency between 1973 and 1978. In those days, transit was the most serious problem between the two countries, and in the last three years of his presidency Daud tried to convince Pakistan to open a transit corridor for Afghanistan to the ocean via Baluchistan to Gwadar port, but failed to achieve it. Afghanistan has long suffered transit deficits because of its landlocked geographic position, and Pakistan had used this to retaliate against Daud (and other Afghan governments) for their support of Pashtun and Baluch insurgencies.
(5) The acting leadership council of the IEA has been working as the cabinet of the state until the end of the Taleban regime.
(6) The Kunar road passes all along the province and crosses back into Pakistan reaching Chitral, a Pakistani town of some importance. The road has been built parallel to the Durand Line and an asphalted road in Kunar would better serve Pakistani strategic interests.
(7) There was as well an Afghan government attempt at settling the long-lasting tension, which also proved inconclusive. Sulayman Laeq, a former PDPA leader, minister and member of President Dr Najibullah’s inner circle between 1985 and 1992, writes in his memoirs that:
‘The National Reconciliation Policy was the main policy to be implemented for the Kabul administration after the withdrawal of Red Army. We were keen to achieve quick developments to be responsive to national and international pressures. As part of the policy we had decided to convince neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, to cut their support for our opposition [the Mujahedin] so we contacted Pakistani channels in 1989 via our secret service of that time. […] In the top secret meetings we agreed on the need to take steps toward confidence building measures between the two countries. To build confidence, we suggested that the then presidents of both countries should meet. As part of the ‘courtesy’ that Cold War days’ negotiations involved, the question was where they should meet. The Afghan side suggested a third place but Pakistan was insisting that the meeting had to take place inside Pakistan. Although we eventually agreed to meet in Pakistan, the Pakistani negotiators started looking as if they were slowly stepping back from the negotiations. Despite realising that Pakistan was stepping back [from the presidents’ meeting], we were still optimistic and expecting that Pakistan would have taken this as a chance to moderate the diplomatic relations, but the talks slowly died down and the doors got locked’.
Sulayman Laeq followed up on the stalled negotiations with Pakistan 22 years later: ‘I met Assad Durani, then ISI director, in October 2011 at a conference in Dubai, in a side meeting. I asked him, why did he [who was the top negotiator in 1989] stop the negotiations those days? He answered that when Shahnawaz Tanai organized the coup d’état against Najibullah in early 1990, then Pakistan understood that the regime would collapse soon so it was no more interested in continuing negotiations with a weak regime.’
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020