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Afghanistan: 'Pashtunistan' Issues Linger Behind Afghan-Pakistani Row

  • Ron Synovitz --> Pakistani guards at the border with Afghanistan (file photo) (epa) Recent tensions between Kabul and Islamabad show that mutual suspicions still exist in an old dispute known as the "Pashtunistan question." And it is a question with a fundamental bearing on the foreign policies of both countries.

PRAGUE, March 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of a Pashtun national homeland along the Afghan-Pakistan border has been largely dormant for the last 40 years. Dormant -- but unresolved. And now, arguments from the century-old debate are surfacing again in a way that affects the international war against terrorism.

For many ethnic Pashtuns, "Pashtunistan" is an historic homeland that was divided in 1893 by the Durand Line -- a 2,450 kilometer demarcation line drawn by the British through Pashtun tribal lands to suit the defensive needs of British colonial India.

For Islamabad, the issue represents a territorial claim against Pakistan -- particularly parts of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province and the tribal regions where Pakistani security forces are battling pro-Taliban militants. The reason is that Pakistan inherited the Durand Line from British colonial India as its northwestern border with Afghanistan.

An Old And Pivotal Dispute

A boy studies in an Islamabad madrasah (epa)

"The current tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are actually nothing new," says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "They have been the normal state of relations between those two countries ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947. Afghanistan was the only member of the UN General Assembly at that time to vote against the admission of Pakistan, on the grounds that it had not given the right of self-determination to its Pashtun inhabitants -- and particularly those in the tribal territories. Afghanistan has never recognized the Durand Line between the two countries as an international border."

Rubin says Pakistan's concerns about Pashtun territorial claims had been one of the reasons why "old-school elements" within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence supported the Taliban during the 1990s.

He says the issue also underscores why it was in the interests of Pakistan's foreign-policy goals for madrasahs to provide a fundamentalist Islamic education to the children of the millions of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during the 1980s and 1990s.

Pakistan "did have a long-term commitment, going back 30 years, toward supporting ethnic Pashtun religious extremists in Afghanistan in order to ensure that an Afghan government would side with Pakistan against India -- and would not raise the issue of the Pashtun territory," Rubin says.

The reason is that "Pashtun Islamists are not nationalists and do not support that kind of ethnic issue against a fellow Muslim country -- unlike the Pashtun nationalists," Rubin says.

Rubin also links the tensions between Islamabad and Kabul to Pakistan's concerns about the strengthening of ties between India and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"This is, of course, embedded within the competition in South Asia between Pakistan and India," he argues. "Throughout most of the period since 1947, Afghanistan has tended to be closer to India, which it uses to balance Pakistan. The government of Hamid Karzai has also resurrected the old policy of former Afghan governments of having direct relations between the Afghan government and Pashtun political leaders and tribes within Pakistan."

Catching Al-Qaeda, Not Catching The Taliban?

A Pakistani soldier on the site of a market destroyed in fighting in early March between Taliban militants and security forces, town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan (epa)

Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," agrees that the Pashtunistan debate and the strengthening of Afghan-Indian ties are both sources of concern for Islamabad.

Rashid says officials in Kabul think Islamabad has often turned a blind eye toward Taliban fighters in Pakistani territory over the past four years because some elements in Pakistan still want to use fundamentalists to influence the policies of the Afghan government.

"Pakistan is doing quite a lot to catch the Arabs and Al-Qaeda," Rashid says. "But the Afghan accusation stems from the fact that [Kabul] believes Pakistan is differentiating between catching Al-Qaeda and not catching the Taliban."

Rashid notes that as relations between Kabul and Islamabad have deteriorated, Pakistani officials have resurrected old accusations against Afghanistan. For example, Islamabad recently accused Kabul of supporting Indian agents along the Afghan-Pakistani border. It also has accused Kabul of aiding separatist movements by ethnic Pashtuns and ethnic Baluchis on Pakistan's side of the border:

"Pakistan is saying that Afghanistan is interfering in Baluchistan [Province and that] it has allowed India to support the insurgency in Baluchistan through its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad," Rashid says. "Pakistan is also saying now most recently that Al-Qaeda militants are arriving from Afghanistan and stirring up trouble in [the ethnic Pashtun tribal region of] Waziristan."

Washington And The 'Pashtunistan Question'

Villagers in North Waziristan flee from fighting between Pakistani security forces and Taliban militants in early March (epa)

Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States is trying to encourage Afghanistan and Pakistan to have the best possible relationship. But she says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush does not seem to realize the sensitive nature of Pakistani-Afghan relations.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has been telling journalists in Washington this week that the West must have a better understanding of what he called "the continuing war of words" between Kabul and Islamabad. Abdullah says disagreements between the two countries must been seen in the context of "domestic and regional" relations as well as the international war against terrorism.

On March 23, Karzai told a counterterrorism conference in the Turkish capital, Ankara, that extremist tendencies and terrorism in Afghanistan have emanated from "political agendas and the pursuit of narrow interests by governments."

Referring to Pakistan's support for the Taliban during the 1990s, Karzai described the rise of the movement as a kind of "hidden invasion propped up by outside interference and intended to tarnish the national identity and historical heritage" of Afghanistan.

Samina Ahmed, an Islamabad-based expert with the International Crisis Group, says relations between Kabul and Islamabad are likely to worsen if violence in the border region escalates during the coming months. Ahmed says Islamabad is particularly concerned about how the dispute affects Pakistan's relations with Washington.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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