Pakistan’s regional isolation can’t be in its long-term national self-interest
A sovereign state’s foreign policy changes with the times, according to its domestic needs and changes in global politics around it. Nations have interests and there are no permanent enemies and friendships in international politics. A neighboring state can be a boon or a bane, depending on one’s ability to recognize long-term interests of sustainable peace along the borders
Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan recently has been one such example of a state caught and unable to define its foreign policy and national interest beyond Cold War paradigms. India-centric foreign policy thinking has stalled Pakistan’s foreign policy evolution and tainted its worldview. Pakistan has strained and difficult relations with all its neighbors, with the important exception of China.
After the Kargil War in 1999, the hostilities between India and Pakistan shifted the country’s attention to its western border, to contain the very real risk of nuclear escalation between the two states. Pakistan did this while continuing its proxy war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s foreign policymakers and military elite thought that acquiring the upper hand in Afghanistan and containing the warring tribesmen next door would be a much easier task.
The involvement of the international community post-9/11 in Afghanistan and the international commitment to quell the Taliban-led insurgency has, however, left Pakistan regionally and internationally isolated, despite its involvement as a key U.S. ally in the War on Terror.
Pakistan has failed to use its shared cultural, linguistic, economic, and ethnic realities with Afghanistan, while India has moved in with huge economic promise for the development of the Afghan state. Despite having a Pashtun president in power in Afghanistan and Pakistani establishment claims of having forged closer ties with the Pashtun population of Afghanistan, ties between Kabul and Islamabad have not moved forward given the historic burden of Pakistan’s deep involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan seems to trust only the regressive and fundamental forces of the Taliban.
Regionally Iran, India, and Afghanistan have recently signed a historic deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran and agreed on a three-nation pact to build a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that will not only help strengthen regional connectivity by boosting economic growth in the region, but also reduce the time and cost of doing business with both Central Asia and Europe.
Pakistan’s suspicion of India threatens to entrench conflict and competition at the expense of cooperation and stability with all its neighbors. The knee-jerk reaction of the Pakistan foreign policy establishment to the Chabahar agreement was to close down the Torkham border with Afghanistan and enforce restrictive visa requirements for both sides of the Durand Line, leaving ordinary people as the victims on both sides.
Many speculate that the tightening security at Torkham border is a political move rather than one to curb militant activities, as the Pakistani government claims. After all, if the likes of Mullah Mansoor are found with Pakistani passports traveling in and out of the country with more ease than a genuine Pakistani passport holder, what message does that send to Afghanistan?
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s obsession with India has strained its western border, negatively affecting its own Pashtun population on its side of Durand Line, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Movement across the Afghan-Pakistani border generates revenue for both countries, who also exchange goods and services worth some 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion) annually across their border. Despite the illegal trade and smuggling, the two countries benefit a great deal from free cross-border movement.
Pakistani policymakers interpret shifting of hostilities on the western border as being in the broader national interest of Pakistan—tragedies like the December 2014 Army public school attack, where 140 children were mercilessly killed, or the more recent massacre at Bacha Khan University are regarded effectively as collateral damage in the name of protecting core national interests and for Pakistan’s Punjab-based elite.
Pakistan’s policies have above all pushed it into regional and international isolation. As India’s power in Afghanistan expands—especially its soft power—Pakistan is losing its position of economic and strategic privilege. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India came to power, he has visited Afghanistan twice on very important occasions. On his very first visit, he inaugurated the new Afghan parliament building that was built with the support of Indian government. On his second visit, on June 4, he inaugurated the $290 million Salma Dam, one of the country’s biggest hydroelectric power projects, also funded by India. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been dealing with the embarrassment of denying its support for the Haqqani Network and the Taliban-led insurgency after the group’s former chief, Mullah Mansoor, was killed in a U.S. drone attack on its soil.
Pakistan’s powerful military elite needs to bury the bogeymen of the Cold War and begin to understand the complexity of relations between Islamabad and Kabul. To date, Pakistan has absolutely failed to keep robust relations with its all neighbors—it has failed to sustain good relations with Afghanistan, India and Iran. This indicates the failure of Pakistani foreign policy more broadly in the region, which has resulted in Islamabad remaining isolated. This cannot be in Pakistan’s long-term national interest.
The Durand Line as a border is much less relevant to the people than to the state. Poverty, poor infrastructure, healthcare, and other important state functions tend to be precarious on both sides and the weak presence of the state particularly has left the local people to provide for their own needs on both sides of this porous border. Pakistan’s approach toward its national security and its India-centric security policy needs to be cast aside while realizing that hostile relations with Afghanistan are not something they can afford to sustain in the light of the country’s growing regional isolation. Selling the idea of China and CPEC might work for the pacification of its eastern border, but this approach will fail to the west, where Afghanistan presents a unique set of dynamics.
Writers: Aziz Amin Ahmadzai and Mona Naseer
Aziz Amin Ahmadzai writes on political, security and social issues in South, West, and Central Asia. He is based in Kabul and tweets @azizamin786.
Mona Naseer is from FATA, a political and social commentator on Pak-Afghan region. She tweets @
THE PASHTUN TIMES