- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Afghanistan and Pakistan: Difficult Neighbors

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Afghanistan and Pakistan share multiple strands of culture, history, religion, and civilization, but the two countries have never succeeded in establishing bilateral relations free of tensions. Rather, passive antagonism and mistrust have marked bilateral ties for the larger part of more than half a century following the creation of Pakistan. The intensity of hostility has varied under different regimes in Afghanistan, however, and though brief periods of cordiality have occurred as well, these have never been enough to provide a consistent positive direction.

Although relations were stable to some extent under the Afghan monarchy and opposing claims over the boundary and tribes in the frontier region did not provoke serious conflict, a feeling of estrangement prevailed. The two states developed very different strategic visions and perceptions of regional roles, and became enmeshed in competing structures of global power. Their opposite tendencies in foreign and security policies manifested finally in the superpower contest of the 1980s; the Afghan government hosted the Soviet forces while Pakistan aligned with both the Afghan mujahideen rebels and the United States to defeat the Red Army. As the effects of the Soviet-Afghan War spilled over into Pakistan in the form of millions of Afghan refugees and tens of thousands of armed fighters, Pakistan became deeply involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Front (comprised of Afghan factions), which forced every neighboring country to engage in a regional "great game," drew Pakistan closer to the Taliban. The Northern Front leaders, who benefited from Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, blamed Pakistan for the suffering and pain that the Taliban inflected on them.

In terms of the war on terrorism, the past continues to overshadow the shared quest of defeating terrorist groups that threaten both countries and to frustrate the efforts of countries in the international community that also share this interest. This essay examines the difficulties that Afghanistan and Pakistan face in structuring a stable relationship based on trust, cooperation, and mutual interest. The three sections that follow respectively: (1) evaluate the impact of the war on terrorism on these relations, (2) present differing Afghan and Pakistani perspectives on the key challenges facing post–September 11 bilateral relations and the ability of these countries to successfully defeat the Taliban and transnational terrorism, and (3) conclude with a brief discussion of policy implications emerging from the essay’s findings.

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