What does Pakistan want in Afghanistan?

Published: January 12, 2012
The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

The first three articles on what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan attracted a surprisingly large number of comments. The point I was trying to make was that the Afghanistan of the 21st century was not the Afghanistan that King Zahir Shah left behind in 1973. The balance of power had changed irrevocably after 30 years of strife and harking back to the power structures of the 1970s was not a realistic option. Pakistan had always had a vital interest in the stability of Afghanistan, but after these years of turmoil it had become even more vital. This is because without such stability, the Pakistani state could not re-establish the state’s writ in its territories that the Taliban ­— Pakistani or Afghan — in conjunction with al Qaeda and its Arab, Uzbek, Chechen, Uighur adherents have taken over.

Pakistan has to realise that this interest did not give it the right to dictate the nature and complexion of the ruling structure in Afghanistan, not only because it would be morally and legally wrong, but also because cold-blooded analysis shows that such an effort was bound to fail. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan can be achieved only if the various Afghan groups, none of whom want a partition of the country, came together and negotiated a power-sharing arrangement and a revised constitution without outside interference. If Pakistan accepts this assumption, then it has to use such influence as it enjoys with Afghan groups and with Afghanistan’s neighbours, near neighbours and the Nato and US forces present there to achieve this objective.

Internally, reconciliation will not be easily negotiated. Over the centuries, Afghanistan’s status as a buffer state has inculcated in Afghan leaders a habit of seeking outside patrons to further their internal political ambitions. In today’s Afghanistan, vested interests of the narcotics dealers, warlords, power brokers and various mafias that thrived on instability will exacerbate this tendency. Working in tandem, Pakistan and Afghanistan can bring this under control.

As regards outside forces, Iran recognises that only a stable structure in Afghanistan could work towards the elimination of the opium production, which supported the drug habits of four million Iranian addicts and occasional users. Whether this important Iranian interest would take precedence over the other Iranian interest of keeping western powers embroiled in Afghanistan is not clear. Getting Iran to recognise that its medium and long-term interests and those of the ECO are best served by a peaceful Afghanistan will not be easy, but it would be worthwhile to try.

Russia wants to keep American influence in Central Asia at the minimum and has already registered its objections to an American presence after 2014. However, it is now offering transit facilities to Nato forces, and makes much of the problem narcotics from Afghanistan have created for Russian youth. Most importantly, Russia wants to avoid Afghanistan becoming the source of troubles in its (Russia’s) predominantly-Muslim autonomous regions. Perhaps, it can be persuaded that only reconciliation can achieve these objectives.

For Pakistan and its security managers, the most important problem is that of India. Many people in India are perhaps prepared to accept that Pakistan’s relationship should be seen as paralleling India’s relationship with Nepal and that all of India’s professed interests in Afghanistan (not to become a safe haven for anti-India terrorists to facilitate India’s overland trade with Central Asia or maintaining India’s traditional relationship with Afghanistan) can best be served by a normalisation of Indo-Pak relations. Many in India also profess an interest in Pakistan’s stability but, there are many more who feel that retaliation against Pakistan, for what it is doing in Kashmir, can best be executed through Afghanistan. This is a mistaken view.

It has now become known that the Taliban have welcomed the setting up of an office in Qatar. This is the time at which President Hamid Karzai has to accept that talks at this venue should go ahead even if they do not meet his conditions. This is also the time that Pakistan has to take bold initiatives without allowing its security obsession to cloud its judgement of what best serves Pakistan’s interests. What they should be, will be the theme of the next and last article in this series.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • John B
    Jan 12, 2012 - 11:37PM

    PAK security concern is not from outside but from within. Unfortunately, the myth of external threats is so imbibed that PAK establishment will still try to influence Afg through Taliban. After all PAK and Taliban are partners at the negotiation table in the end game.

    This time around PAK will be sucked into the post Karzai quagmire in Afg and the brewing cold war between Iran and US will not help PAK either. The international pressure will keep PAK at bay in aiding Taliban politically or with covert support and this will likely backfire within the PAK borders.

    If any, Kashmir will be outside of PAK meddling and any interference there will bring PAK to shambles.

    The “supreme” institution should learn to be subordinate to NA post 2014, but judging from what is going on at present it is likely PAK will be in a period of turmoil with her obsession in Afghanistan for another 30 years. That is the reality.


  • Jalib
    Jan 12, 2012 - 11:57PM

    A fantastic piece of analysis Ambassador! Fair and balanced unlike what one usually finds in the comments section and by the majority of this paper’s opinion commentators.


  • Cautious
    Jan 13, 2012 - 12:14AM

    So your saying that control over large portions of Pakistan are dependent on whether Afghanistan is stable? Well here’ a “heads up” for you — you didn’t have writ over these territories when the Taliban were in charge – you don’t have writ over these territories now that the Taliban are not in charge – and writ over your own territories has nothing to do with Afghanistan. Recommend

  • Jan 13, 2012 - 1:03AM

    what is new in this?


  • Junaid
    Jan 13, 2012 - 2:05AM

    Indians are in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. Pakistan needs to get rid of every Indian from Afghanistan to have peace in our western provinces.


  • ahmed jawad
    Jan 13, 2012 - 3:00AM

    @bob .. no ur totally wrong vr not partners with the taliban infact the people of pakistan along withe the establishment of the country are fighting taliban.. ofcourse we have domestic threats, every nation has them. what we want is simple no american and no indian influence in the afghanistan region. because when american came and fought with russion through osama bin ladin .. they claimed total victory and left.. what v got in return was lots of afghan homeless people drugs load on economy and the ak 47 culture. so this time i guess the so called CIVILIZED NATION will take some responsibility for their actions


  • Sindhvoice
    Jan 13, 2012 - 3:16AM

    The writer is one of the renowned bureaucrate and expert on foreign affairs. But he should share his input on how to transform Pakistan from “strategic depth” and National security state to “neighbor friendly” and social welfare state? All old policies are back firing one by one. Pls guide nation on how to get rid of disillusioned policies of “strategic depth” and “security paradigms”. Pakistan is poor country it can take the burden of heavy spending on defense. Inflation is touching sky. In this time, Pakistan needs to change direction towards more tolerant, progressive, and people friendly policies.


  • rk from NY
    Jan 13, 2012 - 3:51AM

    instead of asking what pakistan wants from anyone..it should see what pakistan can do or offer..??? why does pakistan always ‘want’ something…how about earning it,…????


  • Cynical
    Jan 13, 2012 - 3:53AM

    In an ideal world I would have asked for Afghan presidency for a Pakistani.
    Since that is not likely to happen, I would settle for a majority in Afghan parliament


  • sadhu
    Jan 13, 2012 - 10:36AM

    Try! Good luck.


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Jan 13, 2012 - 11:20AM


    In an ideal world I would have asked
    for Afghan presidency for a Pakistani.

    You mean to say that Afghans are incapable of producing competent leaders in your ideal world?


  • NA
    Jan 13, 2012 - 12:14PM

    Whatever is the case one thing is clear, no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan. So better talk with Pakistan rather than talk about Pakistan.


  • NA
    Jan 13, 2012 - 12:16PM

    @John B:
    Sick with Pakistanofobia…


  • Rumi Balkhi
    Jan 13, 2012 - 6:09PM

    A paradigm shift is in the cards for Pakistan. Zia’s security policies enacted in the 80s no longer serve Pakistan or the region.

    ” Over the centuries, Afghanistan’s status as a buffer state has inculcated in Afghan leaders a habit of seeking outside patrons to further their internal political ambitions”.

    The same can be said for Pakistan. Kayani travels to China for consultations at the drop of a hat, Musharraf is seeking Arab approval to revive his political career and Mr.Z is just a stooge ready to brown nose any and all patrons.We all know that USA has been the patron of Pakistan since the early 50s and the military would not exist without US funding.

    Pakistan should serve its starving, uneducated people and provide electricity, jobs and education for the good people of Pakistan instead of trying to achieve unattainable objectives in Afghanistan.

    Afghanistan has been around since 1747 and they will find a way to build their country and reconcile their differences. Don’t forget that Afghans ruled over India long before Pakistan was created. Recommend

  • Shahid
    Jan 13, 2012 - 6:25PM

    You are absolutely wrong in saying that the most important security concerns for pakistan is India. present day India does not want to do any thing with pakistan and wish that Pakistan was simply not there as we wish for Afghanistan. India would not walk in pakistan even if there is not a single Pakistani soldier on the border. People like you have impeded all development in Pakistan by artificialy creating the Indian fear factor.


  • Rumi Balkhi
    Jan 13, 2012 - 6:49PM


    In an ideal world I would have asked
    for Afghan presidency for a Pakistani.

    A president like Zardari, who cannot seek medical attention in his own country and attends weddings in Dubai during times of crises. No thanks….I will stick with Hamid Karzai anytime Recommend

  • Antanu
    Jan 13, 2012 - 7:28PM


    Why do you deny that India is destroying Pakistan because it is the only nuclear Islamic nation and potential leader of Islamic world?? Recommend

  • Rumi Balkhi
    Jan 13, 2012 - 7:53PM


    The potential Ieader of Islamic world is Turkey not Pakistan. Turkey formerly known as the Ottoman Empire has pedigree, it is part of G20, has a democratic government and civilian control over the military, a good economy and a strong military. All Islamic nations should emulate Turkey not Pakistan.


  • Kaalchakra
    Jan 13, 2012 - 8:27PM

    Afghanistan is an older nation than Pakistan, with a longer history. Geographically, it is almost the same size as Pakistan. In terms of population, it has the same ratio with Pakistan that Pakistan does with India. It has had border issues with Pakistan as Pakistan has had with India. Yet Pakistan’s relationship to Afghanistan should be the same as that of India’s with Nepal. Such basic simple living and high-thinking of its intellectuals makes us all optimistic about the undoubted future of Pakistani nation. As Iqbal preached: khudi ko kar bulunda itna ki har taqdeer se pehle…


  • Rumi Balkhi
    Jan 13, 2012 - 8:48PM

    @ Kaalchakra
    I second that sentiment. We have a proverb in Pashto which basically says that one should stretch his legs only as far as his blanket can cover them. Pakistan is stretching itself thin.


  • Mastishhk
    Jan 13, 2012 - 8:56PM

    Pakistan needs to channelise its energy, focus and resources towards itself rather than exhausting itself in pursuit of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan. As it is Afghans hate Pakistan for its “STABILIZING” role in Afghanistan. Due to some strange logic , Pakistan has been claiming a right of influence over Afghanistan. Now would it allow the same privelege to Afghanistan as well? Pakistan needs to set its own house in order to come out of the mess it has created for itself. We do not have anything positive to offer to Pakistan other than claiming similiarity on being Muslim nations. Leave Afgahnistan alone and do the rest of the region a favour too !!!


  • Sanjay Sharma
    Jan 13, 2012 - 9:20PM

    Continue boiling blood whenever see India being friendly with Afghanistan. In trying to ensure India’s departure from the troubled country, Pakistan has ended in harming herself more than India. What Pakistan is today is because of her close affinity with Taliban and radicalised forces, who ruled Afghanistan till 9/11, when the trouble country was considered as a strategic asset and extended territory of Pakistan. During that period, India was not in picture in Afghanistan in any manner, but what happened to the peace in the region and to the world thereafter, no need to reiterate. With the mindset of bogey of Indian dismemberment, Pakistani junta has destroyed the country’s vitals and landed their extremely beautiful country in shambles.

    Those, who had seen partition in India, have passed their times and the new subcontinental youth not only think in a different ways but also wish to be connected with each others for jobs, knowledge, tourism, sport, trade and cultural benefits. Indians, in general, don’t consider Pakistan as a threat, adversary or enemy but if Pakistan has interest in Afghanistan, India too has its own genuine interests to have good friendly relations with that country. It is very difficult to run a country, and more so when you also have to look into the affairs of your troubled neighbours as well. Don’t try to handle Afghanistan alone. You need help of neighbours. You had to call for help in the past. You will have to seek help of your neighbours in future. Afghanistan cannot be managed by a single country.


  • Shahid
    Jan 13, 2012 - 9:34PM

    @Antanu I got the sarcasm and humor behind your answer .


  • BS.Detecter
    Jan 15, 2012 - 5:37AM

    Its funny how indians here are more commenting and recommeding their own posts (continuously) here than the Pakistanis. Talk about Pakistanphobia


  • Mangal
    Jan 16, 2012 - 10:32PM

    He did not mentioned the Pashtoonistan issue at all,,, Everything will be okay when Afghanistan get back its land from Pakistan. Talk is cheap but the reality in something else. Give us Pakhtoonistan peacefully or else!


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