by Brian Cloughley

The author is a South Asia defence analyst and author of ‘A History of the Pakistan Army’

Since Ashraf Ghani became president of Afghanistan there has been moderation of the virulently anti-Pakistan stance in much of Kabul’s officialdom. No longer are there over-emotional outbursts concerning the legitimacy of the border, which has been a major matter of contention for many years. Karzai’s border policy was uncompromising as well as ill-advised and entirely counter-productive.  He stated flatly that “Since the Durand line has been imposed on Afghanistan, it was not acceptable to the Afghans and we cannot accept the Durand line. No government in Afghanistan will accept the Durand Line,” but it seems that the post-Karzai regime is a trifle more pragmatic and that although there has been no public embrace of common sense about the border, the matter has been quietly shelved in the Ghani quest for peace in his troubled country.

The original border accord was signed in 1893 by the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, and the Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand.  It is sometimes alleged that Abdur Rahman didn’t know what he was signing, but there is no doubt that he was a very sharp (and ruthless) cookie who knew exactly what he was doing. Claims that the agreement is illegal are nullified by the fact that article 5 of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919 (the Treaty of Rawalpindi) acknowledges that Afghanistan accepted the existing border definition.  There is no reason for Afghanistan (or Pakistan, for that matter) to question the validity of the border delineation.

In the broader sphere, the way ahead for Pakistan and Afghanistan depends on maximum cooperation in as many aspects of relations as possible, not the least important being expansion of trade and passage of commodities through Afghanistan to the benefit of all concerned.  But one of the existing problems between the countries involves trade — if Afghanistan’s illegal export of massive quantities of opium and heroin can be so defined.  This evil commerce benefits only criminals and condemns countless millions of weak-minded people to lives of self-inflicted wretchedness ;  and a contributory factor in easing passage of drugs from Afghanistan is lack of fencing and other controls along the border.

Many US politicians, senior military officers and commentators have blamed Pakistan for the porosity of the border,  and there is no doubt that comparative ease of transit has resulted in grave complications on both sides — but what is rarely mentioned is that Pakistan’s proposal to fence the border was rejected by Karzai’s administration.

In September 2005 the BBC reported that “During his meeting with US Secretary of State Dr Condoleezza Rice, President Musharraf suggested erecting a fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in order to stop militants from crossing from either side,” saying “it is in the interests of the US to erect such a fence along the border as soon as possible.”  But Afghanistan’s official response was that “We want the border be determined first in accordance with international laws. The proposal is unacceptable to Afghans before determination of the border.” And the matter rested there, with no indication that there could be compromise by the Kabul government.

Foreign forces have now largely withdrawn from Afghanistan and NATO has claimed that its Mission was successful.  It had intended “to enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country and ensure that it would never again be a safe haven for terrorists. ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force, under NATO command) helped build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces. As these forces grew stronger, in agreement with the Afghan authorities, they gradually took responsibility for security across the country, and ISAF’s mission was completed at the end of 2014.”

It is sadly obvious that the country is far from secure and is home to disparate bands of Taliban and other irregular forces with concepts that can be strongly at variance with those of the central government. 

Afghanistan is clearly a “safe haven” for terrorists, but it is far from a safe haven for a depressingly large number of its citizens. Its security forces are staggering under the impact of country-wide militant assaults and these are likely to intensify. Given that the Taliban were being fought by 130,000 superbly-equipped US-NATO forces with massive air attack capabilities it is hardly likely that the under-strength, ill-equipped Afghan army can succeed where they failed so dismally.  Even the staunchly patriotic USA Today carried a piece on 19 May stating that “More than a decade of war and billions in US funds to build up an Afghan military force have failed to defeat a Taliban insurgency that remains a threat across the country, according to interviews with US, NATO and Afghan military leaders.” 

On March 12, 2014, US General Joseph Dunford, then Commander of ISAF and US Forces-Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate. The security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration.”
Almost all foreign Forces left at the end of 2014, leaving only 12,000 administrators, trainers and US Special Forces door-bashing killers who have done more than any other element to set ordinary Afghans against America.  As forecast by General Dunford, the “security environment” is deteriorating day by day. 

Pakistan is attempting to assist Afghanistan following the disastrous US-NATO war, as it is most important for the security of both countries that there be maximum cooperation between them, and the visit to Kabul by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on May 12 was a step in the right direction.  Understandably, his discussions with President Ghani concentrated on counter-terrorism (“coordinated operations will be planned and conducted on a mutually agreed basis to target militant hideouts along the border”), but although such action is most important the future of both countries depends on long-term arrangements for economic development; and this is where China’s involvement is essential.

The first trilateral strategic talks between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan were held in February 2015 in Kabul, and as with the bilateral meeting they focused on immediate concerns about security.  China, however, thinks ahead in decades — and even longer in some matters — and has been planning for years to increase its influence in Central Asia through development of economic and political ties, just as it is expanding its commercial presence elsewhere around the globe.  As stated in the PRC’s Military Strategy policy paper of May 2015, “peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times,” and although the US is intent on face-to-face confrontation, seeking to establish more and more military bases specifically directed against China and menacing it with a rapidly growing naval presence in China’s region (as it is doing against Russia), Beijing is determined to achieve its rightful place in the world by refraining from threats and concentrating on “peace, development and cooperation.” (Its development activities in the South China Sea are being demonised by some countries with the backing of the United States which is pursuing a policy of aggressive provocation in a region 7,000 miles from its shores and in which it has no territorial rights of any sort. And a major irony is that the US, unlike China, has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.)   

The new PRC ambassador to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi (a most impressive diplomat) has stated that his country’s “larger strategy is also economic development — construction of the Silk Road which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan,” which approach is welcomed by Islamabad and Kabul in equal measure.  This is the way ahead, and China’s two troubled southern neighbours can take heart that their difficulties are understood by a reliable partner that will stand by them in years to come. 

Afghanistan is in a parlous condition, but with the help of Pakistan and especially China it may be able to drag itself out of the mire of internal conflict.  Political negotiation and diplomacy combined with economic development and trade will conquer internal and external confrontation, eventually. And time is on China’s side.