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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Are Pakistan’s concerns of encirclement justified?

Pakistan’s fear of strategic encirclement by a hostile Indian and anti-Pakistan government in Kabul is a sound threat, substantiated facts from history. However, the current discourse is flawed in two ways; first, India is not the crucial factor in this assessment of encirclement; rather, an anti-Pakistan, ultra-nationalist government in Kabul is the core actor.

For the security thinktanks in Pakistan strategic encirclement by India has been an entrenched nightmare. In the Pakistani context, “encirclement” means an anti -Pakistan government in Afghanistan, hence such a scenario makes Pakistan threatened both from the Eastern and Western front. Western scholars argue it to be Pakistan’s obsession with encirclement, which has prompted the country to develop its “strategic depth” doctrine and support various non-state actors in Afghanistan throughout the seventies and in the following decades.

The rhetoric also states that Islamabad’s alleged support to the Afghan Taliban is rooted in the desire to prevent any hostile government in Kabul. Pakistan’s calculation vis Afghanistan is mainly made through an “Indian lens”, meaning that India is considered the primary factor behind the country’s desire for a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan. It is no secret that Pakistan’s bilateral relations with Afghanistan during Karzai and Ghani government were bleak, while Indiaenjoyedremarkable bonhomie with the political and the military elite of Kabul. This entire period in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India dynamic was, in fact, an exact replication of pre-Taliban regime periods in history.

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What does Pakistan want?

Islamabad’s desire tilts towards a pro-Pakistan government rather than an anti-India government in Afghanistan. Dominant discourse mischaracterizes Pakistan’s fears vis a vis encirclement as solely driven by the India factor. The main fear is and has always been of an anti-Pakistan, hyper-nationalistic government clinging to the idea of Pashtun nationalism and separatism as both strategic and political objectives. Such a situation has the potential fan Pashtun nationalism and separatism across the border while remaining susceptible to Indian influence and allowing terrorist organizations to target and destabilize Pakistan.

The history of Pak Afghan bilateral relations before the Soviet invasion of the country reveals that Pakistan experienced hostilities from both Eastern and Western fronts. This particular phase of Kabul Islamabad relations is often ignored in the popular media. Pak Afghan relations from the beginning took a wrong turn when the Afghan government claimed Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and tribal belt as a disputed region and refused to accept Durrand Line as the international border, effectively claiming Pakistani territory as its own.

On these grounds, Afghanistan opposed Pakistan’s inclusion in United Nations, the only country to do so. In the first three decades after Pakistan’s independence, the country battled constant instability and threats emanating from its Western border sponsored by the governments in Kabul. Throughout the 50’s and ’60s, lashkars consisting of few thousand Afghanmencontinued to cross into Pakistan’s tribal belt to liberate the territory. Pakistan repelled such incursions into its territory although these occurrences scarred the perception of Pakistan’s security apparatus and heightened the sense of insecurity. In the 1950s, Kabulissued a map claiming not only NWFP province but also Balochistan province as Afghanistan’sterritory.

Afghan governments provided material and financial assistance to separatist efforts within Pakistan The issue of Pashtunistan and Durand Line was also quite popular with the Afghan public. For instance, in 1955, violent anti-Pakistan protests erupted in Afghanistan after all provincesofWest Pakistan were merged into a single unit. Afghan political leaders fanned the sentiments time and again to garner domestic clout against opponents of the regime in Kabul. Afghanistan’s political leadership also believed that the newly created state of Pakistan would not be able to survive and it would eventually disintegrate and absorb into India.

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Driven by such misguided assessment, the Afghans used rhetoric to carve out and legitimize their claims on North-West Frontier and Balochistan region. In the 1970s, Pakistan decided to give Afghanistan a taste of its own medicine, propelled primarily by the fall of Dhaka and the possibility that separatism fueled by ethnic allegiances could succeed. Pakistan began support of Islamists and anti-government elements in Afghanistan. This is where Pakistan established links with the likes of Burhan Ud Din Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masoud.

Pakistan policy of exerting maximum pressure on Daud’s regime in Afghanistan began to show some dividends; it was genuinely believed that Afghanistan was changing its tone, then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan occurred, completely altering the ground realities. The dominant discourse only focuses on Pakistan’s support to Islamists, conveniently ignoring the factors which forced Pakistan’s hand to adopt such a policy in the first place.

Afghanistan’s unabashed anti-Pakistan activities on the one hand

While India’s offensive stance on the eastern border combined with its role in the establishment of Bangladesh on the other instilled a fear among the country’s policymakers that an anti-Pakistan government in Kabul would mean Pakistan’s encirclement by hostile states from both sides greatly undermining its territorial integrity and reducing the country to a state of continued insecurity. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s true fear lies in the constant instability that could be caused by an anti-Pakistan government in Kabul.

The Taliban regime of the nineties was the only government in Afghanistan that was not hostile to Pakistan. This was the only time that Islamabad could focus entirely on the threats posed by the eastern front and was concerned about anti -Pakistan actions from across the Durand Line. The US-sponsored Afghan governments after 9/11 were, at least in terms of rhetoric, quite anti-Pakistan and pro-Indian, encouraged by New Delhi’s massive investments in the country’s infrastructure. Pakistan went through a period of extreme instability and a full-fledged TTP insurgency allegedly supported by both Kabul and New Delhi. On various occasions, Pakistan accused Afghan intelligence agencies of allowing safe havens to perpetrators of terror attacks in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s fear of strategic encirclement by a hostile Indian and anti-Pakistan government in Kabul is a sound threat, substantiated facts from history. However, the current discourse is flawed in two ways; first, India is not the crucial factor in this assessment of encirclement; rather, an anti-Pakistan, ultra-nationalist government in Kabul is the core actor. Secondly, Pakistan fears instability engineered by an anti-Pakistan Kabul regime during peacetime as a more critical problem than during a conventional military standoff between India and Pakistan.

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Hence Pakistan wants a government of its liking in Afghanistan to ensure that its security apparatus is not exhausted by Indian provocations from the Line of Control while simultaneously battling instability sponsored by the Kabul government. Islamabad does not necessarily desire an anti-India government in Afghanistan; rather, it wants a pro-Pakistan government that will not allow anti-Pakistan non-state actors from perp0etrating terrorist activities fromAfghan soil. It is unfair to sweep all Pakistani concerns regarding Afghanistan under Pakistan’s paranoia with regards to its Eastern neighbor.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy