Pakistan’s quiet Tajik ally

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  • A federalist identity would stop the Pakhtunistan rhetoric

By: Ammad Malik

 Pakistan’s efforts for a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war gained momentum last month, as senior Afghan leaders gathered in Bhurban for a dialogue on the country’s ongoing peace process. The ‘Afghan Peace Conference’ was held amidst the backdrop of a successful Taliban offensive against the Afghan government, as well as reports of progress being made during US-Taliban talks in Doha. The conference was soon followed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad, where the Afghan President lauded Pakistan’s role for its attempts to broker peace between warring Afghan factions. Then was Pakitani PM Imran Khan’s US visit.

Although the mood surrounding the Afghan President’s visit was cordial and both parties expressed a desire to rebuild trust, the fact for Pakistan remains that the Ashraf Ghani administration has proven to be a difficult partner to work with. The Ghani government’s failure to take stern action against Taliban hideouts inside Afghanistan and repeated statements by Afghan government officials in support of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement have irked Islamabad. Moreover, Pakistan remains concerned over significant Indian influence in Afghan government quarters and the Pakistani Army has suffered casualties while attempting to fence parts of the 2200-km-long border with Afghanistan. The border, known popularly as the “Durand Line”, remains a significant issue in domestic Afghan politics, especially for nationalist Pashtun parties, which vehemently resist any formal deal with Islamabad to settle the dispute. Despite efforts by the Afghan government, not even a single state, including India, supports its claim of disputing the Durand Line’s status as an international border. Nevertheless, the Durand Line and its symbolism is consistently employed by nationalist Pashtun factions in Afghanistan to galvanize support against Islamabad. This in turn means that any Pashtun politician willing to bury the matter is placed in a precarious position and risks losing public support rapidly. As a consequence, the Durand Line controversy is kept alive and continues to handicap greater Pak-Afghan cooperation.

A future Tajik-led government in Kabul, with support from Pakistan, could usher a new chapter in Pak-Afghan ties and remove the misconceptions and distrust that currently plague relations between the two countries

The looming Afghan presidential election in September, thus presents Pakistan with an opportunity to align itself with those Afghan factions possessing the necessary political leverage to finally resolve the Durand Line issue and address Islamabad’s other concerns. Amongst the 18 candidates running for the President’s office in September, Dr Abdul Latif Pedram has publicly stated on numerous occasions that his National Congress Party of Afghanistan considers the Durand Line to be an international border and an already settled matter. Dr Latif, an ethnic Tajik from Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province, has been in the firing line for his daring stance and faces serious threats to his life. In an interview to the influential Afghan newspaper Arman e Milli, Dr Latif accused Indian intelligence agencies of hatching a conspiracy to have him assassinated. Similar to Pakistan’s stance on India’s involvement in Afghanistan, Dr Latif also believes that New Delhi seeks to pursue its own geo-political interests in Kabul by capitalizing on strained Pak-Afghan ties.

On the domestic front, Dr Latif has advocated a federal system in Afghanistan which decentralizes authority and does justice to the country’s diverse ethno-linguistic groups. In this regard, it is important to note that although Pashtuns make up the single largest ethnic group in the country, the majority of Afghans are in fact non-Pashtun. This includes diverse ethnic groups such as the Persian speaking Tajiks and Hazara, as well as Uzbeks and Turkmen of Turkic ancestry. Comprising more than one-fifth of the total Afghan population, the Tajiks have historically been the closest rivals to Pashtuns for political power. Also, the Ahmad Shah Massoud led Northern Alliance which battled the Pashtun Taliban in the 1990’s for control of Afghanistan was in fact an umbrella organization led by the Tajiks and included other ethnic groups such as the Hazara and Uzbeks. As such, the Tajiks have come to assume the position of de-facto leaders of Afghanistan’s majority non Pashtun population. Although Pakistan was at loggerheads with the Northern Alliance throughout the 90’s decade, more recent developments suggest that Islamabad might be open to a reset in its Afghan policy. The Afghan Peace Conference in Bhurban, which was attended by both Pashtun and non-Pashtun politicians, presents an ideal example of how Pakistan is now seeking to engage Afghans from diverse ethno-lingustic backgrounds. The conference was also attended by Dr Latif, who again clearly stated his position on the Durand Line and that in his opinion, the Afghan government’s territorial claims on parts of Pakistan were the root cause of the strained relationship between the two countries.

Dr Latif’s vision of a federalist Afghanistan and his repeated public endorsement of Pakistan’s sovereignty makes him a natural ally for Islamabad. Likewise, he shares Pakistan’s concern of India using Afghan territory for attacks on Pakistani soil. Unlike many other candidates running for the President’s office, Dr Latif is not tainted by allegations of supporting armed militias and is also a vocal proponent of women’s participation in Afghan politics. Most importantly, his federalist agenda has the potential to rally the non-Pashtun Afghan population under one banner, thereby functioning as a deterrent to the “Pashtunistan” policy of the present Afghan government. A future Tajik-led government in Kabul, with support from Pakistan, could usher a new chapter in Pak-Afghan ties and remove the misconceptions and distrust that currently plague relations between the two countries. 

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]