Why Pakistan Supports the Taliban


Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

US National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, on a recent trip to Afghanistan, called on neighboring countries, and especially Russia and Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban in its quest to continue to "perpetuate the very long war" which has gripped Afghanistan since 2001. McMaster's visit came on the heels of recent requests by US military commanders to increase he deployment of American troops by "a few thousand". Currently there are around 8,400 US troops deployed in theater.

Pakistan has long had a difficult and strained relationship with its Afghan neighbor. Although that relationship worsened when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the two countries have been at odds ever since the emergence of the Pakistani state in 1947. The Soviet invasion, at the time widely believed a precursor to a Soviet seizure of Pakistan's Baluchistan to the south, put potentially hostile forces on Pakistan's western (Soviet) and southern frontier (India) -- a threat underscored by the longstanding military cooperation between India and the USSR. The roots of the Afghan-Pakistan conflict, however, go much further back. They are the product of Afghanistan's historic role at the crossroads of Central and South Asia as well as a little-known legacy of British colonialism in the region: the Durand line.

Historically, Afghanistan has lain astride the invasion route from central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. It was also the shortest route from central Asia to the Indian Ocean. This was the route that the Persian conqueror Darius I took in 516 BC. Alexander the Great followed suit in 326 BC. In turn they were followed by, among others, Muslim armies under Qutaybs ibn Muslim in 705, by Mahmoud Ghazni of the Afghan Ghaznavid Empire in 1001, Muhammad Ghori of the Ghurid Empire in 1175, and the Mongol, Genghis Khan in 1219.

Timur (Tamerlane), during his conquest of northwest India in 1383, took the same route and his descendent Babur, whose grave is in Kabul, also passed through the Khyber Pass on his way to creating the Mogul empire in India in 1526. Ahmad Shah Durrani of the Afghan Durrani Empire followed suit when he attempted to conquer the Punjab in 1748. The last invasion of Afghanistan from central Asia was the Soviet one in 1979. The invasion route ran both ways. The Sikh Empire invaded Afghanistan from the southeast in 1813, and the British, advancing from northwest India (Punjab) fought three wars with the Afghans (1838, 1878, and 1919).

The Himalayas block access from central Asia to the Indian subcontinent and to the Indian Ocean. Their western-most extension, the Hindu Kush, is penetrated by the Salang Pass, which separates northern Afghanistan (and Central Asia) from the rest of Afghanistan, and the Khyber Pass through the Spin Ghar Mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These mountains are an extension of the Hindu Kush. The two passes are the traditional trade and invasion route from central Asia to the Arabian Sea or into the Punjab of north India and from there the rest of the Indian subcontinent. For millennium, Afghanistan has been fought over by would be conquerors, both for its mineral wealth and for its strategic position at the crossroads of central and south Asia. The security of the Punjab has always rested on specifically controlling the Khyber Pass and, ideally, Afghanistan as well. Even in the technologically driven world of the twenty-first century, this geography still matters.

In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan became a pawn in "the Great Game" between the Russian Empire and Great Britain for control of central Asia. As Russia gobbled up one central Asians khanate after another, the steadily expanding Russian Empire began to encroach, in British eyes, dangerously close to British India. To preclude any further Russian expansion south, Great Britain twice invaded Afghanistan, hoping to use it as a buffer state between Russia and the Raj, only to be defeated by a guerilla army drawn primarily from the Pashtun tribes that inhabited the region.

To at least secure control of the strategic Khyber Pass, in 1893, Great Britain dispatched a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand, to negotiate an agreement to delineate the border between the Emirate of Afghanistan and British India. The resulting agreement resulted in a frontier that ran from the Karakoram Range in the northeast running south through the Spin Ghar mountains (Safed Koh and Toba Kakar Ranges) before turning west along the Chagai Hills to the border with Iran.

The new border, dubbed the Durand Line, divided the Pashtun tribal lands, a region informally referred to as Pasthunistan in two, with half of the Pashtun tribal region now part of British India and the balance remaining part of Afghanistan. The line also resulted in the loss of the province of Baluchistan to British India, depriving Afghanistan of its historic access to the Arabian Sea. The Durand Line also ensured that there would be a thin strip of Afghanistan running to the Chinese border, thus separating the Russian empire from British India. The Durand Line would become one of the principal issue of Afghanistan's foreign policy for the next century and even now remains at the heart of Afghanistan's relations with Pakistan.

The original agreement was only a page long. The treaty was written in English with copies in Dari and Pashto. The English copy, a language that the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan could neither read nor understand, Durand insisted, was to be the definitive copy. The 1,584-mile boundary was subsequently delimited between March 1894 and May 1896. The Durand Line precipitated a long-running dispute between the governments of Afghanistan and Great Britain and prompted a third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919. Under British pressure, subsequent Afghan governments reaffirmed the boundary line in additional treaties and agreements in 1905, 1919, 1921, and 1930.

The newly formed state of Pakistan inherited the boundary line delineated by the 1893 Durand agreement and upheld by the subsequent treaty of Rawalapindi (1919) that ended the Third Anglo-Afghan war. The government of Afghanistan however has, subsequently, refused to acknowledge that the frontiers represented by the Durand Line were legally binding. In 1947, when Pakistan joined the United Nations, Afghanistan was the only member to vote against its membership. On July 26, 1948, followed two years of steadily deteriorating relations between the two countries, the government of Afghanistan declared that it did not recognize "the imaginary Durand nor any similar line." It also declared that all previous Durand Line agreements, including the subsequent Anglo-Afghan treaties upholding it, were void because they had been imposed on Afghanistan by British coercion.

Moreover, it is widely believed in Afghanistan, including the current government in Kabul, that the original agreement with Great Britain was only for a term of 100 years; after which the lands in question would revert back to Afghanistan. The official treaty, however, makes no reference to a specific term. Past Afghan governments have implied that the Dari and Pashto copies of the original agreement specified the 100-year term (1893-1993) and that this provision was deliberately left out by Mortimer Durand in the "official," English language version, of the treaty. No evidence of this contention has ever been produced, however, and it is not clear whether the Dari and Pashto language versions of the original agreement, either in Afghanistan or Great Britain, still exist.  Where they to ever surface and the Afghan contention of a 100-year term be confirmed, the consequences would be explosive.

The Afghan government has asked Great Britain on numerous occasions to release the Pashto and Dari language copies believed to be in its possession. Whitehall has continued to claim that no such copies have been found in British archives. The papers of Sir Henry Mortimer Durand including his correspondence and official papers ended up at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, but those papers do not include any documents concerning the negotiation of the border between Afghanistan and British India. The location of those papers is unknown.

The question of the legitimacy of the Durand Line borders has poisoned Afghan-Pakistani relations for the better part of a century. For Afghanistan, the loss of half of the traditional Pashtun territories divided its largest tribal grouping. Moreover, the loss of Baluchistan left it landlocked, without any access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean except through Pakistani territory. For Pakistan, the issue of the Durand Line is an existential one. The territory in question amounts to some 60% of its present sovereign territory.

During the cold war the Afghan-Pakistani dispute was subsumed to the larger Soviet-American rivalry.  Pakistan aligned itself with the United States, becoming as founding member of CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), while Afghanistan refused to settle its differences with Pakistan as a precondition of joining CENTO and instead sought diplomatic and military support from India and the Soviet Union.  Afghanistan was one of the few "holes" in the ring of containment with which the United States surrounded the Soviet Union. The emergence of Pakistan and Afghanistan as American and Soviet proxies meant that, other for ongoing border skirmishes and covert operations, the larger issue of the Durand Line was left unsettled.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 ushered in a new phase in Afghan-Pakistani relations and laid the foundation for a vastly expanded Pakistani role in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Under the guise of Operation Cyclone, a program funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) organized large numbers of mujahidin militant groups that it recruited mainly from the Pashtun tribes on its side of the Durand Line. At the time, the government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had started a program of aggressive Islamization, so the ISI favored militant jihadist groups as Pakistan's (and the United States') proxies in Afghanistan.

American covert funding for the mujahidin began in response to the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan seizure of power in the Saur Revolution and predated the Soviet invasion by six months. The original program was relatively modest and only amounted to about 20 million dollars a year. By 1989, the year the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, it had increased to over 630 million dollars a year. The U.S. program continued through 1992, but after the Soviet withdrawal financial support quickly declined. Moreover, in October 1990, the Bush Administration refused to certify that Pakistan did not possess nuclear explosive devices, triggering the imposition of sanctions and a suspension of economic assistance and military sales.  

Over the course of the program the ISI trained over 100,000 militants to fight the Soviets and Afghanistan's communist government. The CIA funded some 20 billion dollars of expenditures, although some of those funds may have come from contributions of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that were funneled directly to the CIA.

Operation Cyclone has two lasting consequences. First in contributing to the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union it deprived Afghanistan of its principal patron and supporter. Secondly, it presented to Pakistan and the ISI a model for how it could intervene in Afghanistan's internal affairs. The fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, and the subsequent four years of chaos, would set the stage for the rise of the Taliban in 1996 and create an opportunity for Pakistan's ISI to emerge as both the Taliban's financer, organizer and principal patron. The Taliban, in turn, would give Pakistan's ISI an unprecedented opportunity to exert its control over Afghanistan and its government. An opportunity that Pakistan's government has pursued for the last 20 years.

Ironically, even the Taliban, which are dependent on Pakistani military and financial support for its survival, have refused to accept the legitimacy of the Durand Line. Despite Pakistani pressure, the Taliban, both when it was in power and to the present day, has sided with previous Afghan governments in maintaining that the Durand Line was void.

The result of the ongoing dispute over the legitimacy of the Durand Line has meant that Pakistan has a vested interest in ensuring that the Afghan government never gets strong enough to unilaterally change the current frontier with Pakistan. Given that Pakistan has six times the population of Afghanistan and a formidable military, the only practical scenario under which Kabul would regain its disputed territories would only be as a consequence of a complete collapse of the Pakistani government resulting either from a fourth Indo-Pakistani war, a Pakistani civil war, domestic revolution, or all of the above.

To avoid that possibility, Pakistan continues to rely on an external patron, bouncing back and forth between either China or the United States, as the ultimate guarantor of its security vis-à-vis India as well as the international legitimacy of its borders. The byzantine complexity of Afghan-Pakistani-Indian relations and the subsequent interest of Russia, China, and the United States in any changes in the status quo means that barring a negotiated settlement for some kind of division of the disputed territories or an Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line in exchange for the end of Pakistani support for the Taliban, either of which are highly unlikely events at the moment, there is no immediate solution to the Afghan-Pakistani dispute over the Durand Line. This issue will continue to complicate the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

Given that the United States has a vested interest in the establishment of a secure and stable Afghan government and that Pakistan seems determined to use the Taliban and possibly other jihadist groups to ensure that doesn't happen, the issues that surround the Durand Line will continue to have an impact on the formulation of U.S. policy in the region as well as complicate U.S.-Pakistani relations.

The most enduring and destructive legacy of five centuries of European colonialism are borders that were drawn for the sake of political and military expediency but which, given the region's underlying history, culture, and ethnicity, make no sense today. The dispute over the Durand Line is just one more example of an ill-conceived frontier that continues to inflame the long running dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan and which will shape the region's politics well into the twenty-first century.

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