King Zahir Shah with President Ayub Khan. PHOTO: FILE

Afghanistan and Pakistan’s oft-ignored history – 1947-1978

Pakistan’s founding alleviated the Afghans’ greater concern with regards to security threats from India

Arwin Rahi September 10, 2020

Over the years, much has been written (including by yours truly) about the usually tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet, little attention has been accorded to subtleties in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, as well as to periods of constructive engagements from 1947 to 1978, before the start of the decades’ long Afghan conflict. Although it’s common knowledge that in September 1947 Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations, very few people are aware that Afghanistan changed its position shortly afterward, and in October 1947 it withdrew its negative vote.

Complicated Afghan-Pak bilateral relations

Afghanistan’s complications with regards to Pakistan emanated from three things. First, the British had acted as a counterbalance to the expansionist Russian forces in Central Asia, checking their advance at the Amu Darya. The British departure from the Subcontinent, however, had resulted in a regional vacuum of power, which the Soviets could have exploited. Tense relations with Pakistan meant Afghanistan would have had to depend on “Godless” Soviets for transit and military assistance; but this option ran the risk of opening up Afghanistan to Soviet penetration. Alternatively, better relations with Pakistan meant less dependence on the Soviets.

Second, the British departure had rekindled irredentist sentiments in Afghanistan. The Afghans had become interested in (acquiring) the territories, namely the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and parts of Balochistan, which their ancestors had lost to the Sikhs and British in the 19th century. The Afghans had been unable to acquire these territories from the British, whose sudden departure from the scene led to Pakistan’s inheriting the colonial baggage. Finding Pakistan weaker than the British, Afghanistan tried extracting concessions from the former, with negative consequences for bilateral relations.

Third, contrary to popular belief, the Afghans “abhorred” the idea of sharing a border with a Hindu-majority India. The Afghans were fully aware how intensely Hindu nationalists disliked them and their country, the source of invasions of India for centuries. Had Pakistan not been founded, Afghanistan and India would have been on a collision course; they would have had little in common and much to hate each other about. Thus, a resurgent Hindu-dominated India constituted a source of insecurity and grave concern to Afghanistan.

Hindu nationalists, including Mohandas Gandhi, also had nefarious designs on Afghanistan. In a conversation between Gandhi and the Pashtun nationalist politician Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the Indo-Afghan border, Abdul Ghaffar Khan—pointing to the border—told Gandhi that India’s border ended here. Gandhi disagreed and, while pointing to the distant Hindukush Mountains inside Afghanistan, added that India’s border ended there.

Since the Afghans (including prime minister Mohammad Daoud Khan) were aware of Gandhi’s views regarding their country, assuming Abdul Ghaffar Khan had reported it to them, they distrusted India before and after the partition. One Afghan official remarked to William Fraser-Tytler, a former British envoy to Afghanistan, that the Afghans knew about the Durand Line but they had no idea what a Gandhi Line would look like.[1]

However, Pakistan’s founding alleviated the Afghans’ greater concern with regards to security threats from India, as Pakistan would be a buffer between the two. But since the NWFP (and the tribal areas) would be part of Pakistan, it led to tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It must be noted that the Afghans’ concerns, regarding India, at the time weren’t dissimilar from those of the Muslim League. Both viewed a Hindu-majority India as a source of threat and uneasiness. It was in this sense that Afghanistan initially voted against Pakistan’s UN membership, but later withdrew the vote.

Afghanistan and Pakistan held initial negotiations in Karachi in November 1947, and exchanged ambassadors in February 1948. However, due to Afghanistan’s continued interest in Pakistani Pashtun affairs (later also Pakistani Baloch affairs), bilateral ties with Pakistan would generally remain weak. Pakistani officials, being suspicious of Indian intentions, further complicated the problem by concluding (albeit prematurely and inaccurately) that the Afghans were acting in collusion with India to undo Pakistan.

An Afghanistan-Pakistan confederation

The idea of forming an Afghanistan-Pakistan confederation didn’t originate in the 1980s, and certainly wasn’t General Zia-ul-Haq’s or Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s idea. To diffuse the bilateral tensions once and for all, in the mid-1950s Afghanistan and Pakistan were considering forming a confederation. The confederation project had the tentative blessings of President Iskandar Mirza of Pakistan and the Afghan Royal family. General Ayub Khan, however, after assuming power immediately and immaturely torpedoed the scheme. It would take Ayub seven years to appreciate the importance of Afghanistan as a neighbour during the 1965 Indo-Pak War.

During an informal discussion, about the confederation, between former Afghan prime minister Shah Mahmud Khan (King Mohammad Zahir’s uncle) and Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul Aslam Khan Khattak, the former acknowledged that if Pakistan ceased to exist, so would Afghanistan, either as a result of Soviet or Indian aggression. Shah Mahmud also emphasised to Khattak that he had prayed that God grant him martyrdom while fighting side by side his Pakistani brothers, against India, on the Kashmir front. Other members of the Afghan Royal Family, according to Shah Mahmud, also had similar feelings about Pakistan. The Afghan Royal Family’s pro-Pakistan feelings would translate into action during the Indo-Pak Wars.

Afghanistan and the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971

When the 1965 Indo-Pak War broke out, Afghanistan officially remained “neutral,” but in essence it assisted Pakistan. First, despite the Pashtunistan and Durand Line issues and a handful of ultra-nationalist Afghans’ wanting to open a second front against Pakistan, Afghanistan assured security on Pakistan’s western border. As a result, Pakistan was able to deploy the troops that it had stationed in the NWFP and Balochistan (and along the border with Afghanistan) to fend off India’s advance inside Pakistani territory.

Second, Afghanistan didn’t discourage tribal Pashtuns from wanting to join Pakistani forces to fight against India. Afghanistan’s stance pleased, and to an extent surprised, Pakistani officials. At a meeting, during the war, between President Ayub Khan and the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Nur Ahmad Etemadi, Ayub appreciated Afghanistan’s position.[2] On January 1, 1966, at the invitation of Zahir Shah, Ayub Khan flew to Kabul to personally extend his gratitude to the Afghan King, who in turn acknowledged Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue.

Dawn’s December 30, 1965 issue read as follows. “The visit of President Ayub would be a part of his tour of the Muslim countries to thank the various Governments and Heads of State for their understanding and support to Pakistan during the 17-day conflict with India. President Ayub is expected to apprise the Afghan King and the Government of the situation arising out of the events which had culminated in the Indian aggressive attack on Pakistan. Afghanistan has always supported Pakistan on Kashmir and has repeatedly reiterated her support for the right of self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Similarly, during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Afghanistan once again assured security on Pakistan’s western border. Although Afghanistan allowed Bengalis, who feared persecution in West Pakistan, to enter Afghanistan and return to Bangladesh via Iran and India, Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan was tranquil and secured.[3] Shortly after the war was over, Pakistan’s new martial law administrator, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, flew to Kabul to personally thank Zahir Shah. According to one account, Bhutto told Zahir Shah that he was so humbled that he couldn’t look the king in the eye.[4]

The Afghan government’s apparently “neutral,” but practically pro-Pakistan positions in both Indo-Pak wars reflected the sentiments of the Afghan nation toward their fellow Muslim Pakistani brothers and sisters. An Afghan delegation visiting the Netherlands during the 1965 War told the Pakistani ambassador Qudrat Ullah Shahab that even if the Afghan government had wanted to adopt an anti-Pakistan position, the Afghan people would not have allowed it.[5]

Afghanistan-Pakistan summits of 1976-1978 to settle all differences

In the mid-to late 1970s, first under President Daoud and Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and later under Daoud and General Zia-ul-Haq, Afghanistan and Pakistan came very close to resolving all their outstanding issues, including the so-called Pashtunistan and Durand Line issues. In a span of two years (1976 - 1978), multiple summits took place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which all major issues were discussed frankly. This bright episode in the Afghan-Pak relations is either rarely discussed or is totally ignored.

At Daoud’s invitation, Bhutto visited Kabul in June 1976, and the so-called ‘Spirit of Kabul’ came into existence as a result of candid discussions and display of goodwill by both sides. President Daoud returned the favor shortly after by visiting Pakistan in August 1976 to keep the momentum going. During this visit, among other activities, Daoud addressed a jubilant gathering of Pakistanis at the Shalimar Gardens. In June 1977, while returning from Tehran, Bhutto stopped in Kabul to meet Daoud.

Having toppled Bhutto in July 1977, General Zia visited Kabul in October 1977. During the visit, Zia expressed his willingness to continue and accelerate his predecessor’s active engagement with Daoud. To Daoud’s surprise, Zia was more receptive and more honest than Zia’s military predecessors. At Daoud’s request and as a gesture of goodwill, Zia freed all Pashtun and Baloch political prisoners before Daoud’s last trip to Pakistan in March 1978. Zia’s move pleased Daoud, who (along with Zia) met with these Pashtun and Baloch nationalist leaders during this trip.

At Zia’s request, Daoud once again addressed a large gathering of Pakistanis, while quoting Iqbal and highlighting the importance of close relations between the two countries, at the Shalimar Gardens. It finally seemed as if the ice in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relations had started to melt. Before leaving for Kabul, in response to a reporter’s question asking what had been discussed with Zia, Daoud replied everything. A follow-up meeting between Daoud and Zia was supposed to take place in the summer of 1978 in Kabul. But due to the communist coup there in April 1978, the two leaders were destined not to meet again.

Daoud had made it clear during these meetings that Afghanistan would accept any decision made by Pakistani Pashtun and Baloch politicians regarding their future. Given that these politicians had already accepted the 1973 Pakistan Constitution, Daoud was hinting that his Pashtunistan policy had metamorphosed from confrontation with Pakistan to accommodation with it. Similarly, both Bhutto’s and Zia’s flexibility, foresightedness, and courage to discuss such sensitive matters as the status of Pashtuns and Baloch with Daoud, for the greater good of both countries, were admirable and unprecedented.

The Afghan view at the time was that, once Pakistani Pashtuns and Baloch were satisfied with their political status in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s “endeavors” with regards to lending them political support would come to their “logical” conclusion. At that stage, the Afghan government would convene a Loya Jirga to seek its guidance with regards to the future of “Pashtunistan” and the Durand Line. The way Daoud and his Pakistani counterparts were moving, it was likely that all the thorny issues between the two countries would have been resolved in the next couple of years.[6]

The communist coup in Afghanistan, however, undid the atmosphere of goodwill that had been generated between the two countries. As such, unlike Zia, the Afghan communists didn’t keep up ‘the Spirit of Kabul,’ and everything was back to square one: tense relations and the blame game, which would accelerate in the years to come. The communists were in a rush to both consolidate their grip on power and to distance themselves from everything pertaining to the Daoud regime.

[1] For further details see William Fraser-Tytler’s Afghanistan and Aslam Khan Khattak’s A Pathan Odyssey.

[2] For further details see Sayed Qasem Reshtiya’s Political Memoir in Farsi.

[3] See Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival.

[4] See Zahir Tanin’s Afghanistan in the 20th Century in Farsi.

[5] See Qudrat Ullah Shahab’s Shahabnama in Urdu.

[6] For further details see Abdus Samad Ghaus’s the Fall of Afghanistan. Ghaus was the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister at the time, and Daoud’s interpreter in his meetings with Bhutto and Zia.

Arwin Rahi

The writer is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Salman Khan | 3 years ago | Reply

Such developments have also developed rather negative feelings for the Afghan in the hearts of the local people belonging to KPK and Balochistan. Perhaps in the years leading up to partition, Afghanistan's stance on the Border demarcation might have been of relevance with possible local support. However, after the positive relationship between the Pakistani Government and the locals who also participate in local and federal politics, ideas of Pakistan ceding any of it's territories to Afghanistan are met with extreme local hate. Widespread Afghan immigration into those areas as refugees and their inability to assimilate with the local Pashtun culture has also widened the rift.

Salman | 3 years ago | Reply

You have highlighted a positive side from history which is always tried to be hidden its a true journalism

Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ