The Afghan problem

For decades, Pakistan provided shelter and humanitarian assistance to millions of Afghan refugees but paid a heavy price of its gesture in the form of drugs, weapons and fanning sectarian violence

It is rightly said that the absence of peace and stability in Afghanistan negatively impacts on the regions of Central, West and South Asia. The recent attack at the agricultural training institute in Peshawar which killed 9 people and injured many is also blamed on the Afghans. The culture of drugs, weapons and sectarian violence in Pakistan is also perceived to have their roots in Afghanistan.

The complicated nature of the Afghan problem has four major dimensions. First, since July 1973 when monarchy was overthrown and Afghanistan was declared a republic till today, there is no lull in terms of instability and violence in that war torn country. Civil war in Afghanistan, which got an impetus after the Soviet military withdrawal in February 1989 not only destroyed Afghan society but also failed its state organs. Second, the emergence of war lords and their involvement in unleashing the reign of violence and terror further fragmented the Afghan society. Third, religious extremist groups in the form of Taliban transformed Afghanistan as a hub of Al-Qaeda led terrorism which ultimately prompted the US led attack and occupation over that country. Finally, with the Afghan problem, the Pashtun factor in the form of marginalisation of their hold over power and the emergence of Tajik-Uzbek led northern alliance is also a stark reality.

Non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan blame majority of the Pashtuns of being part of the problem rather than part of their solution because of their ultra-religious conservative way of life and their drive to transform Afghanistan as a country strictly conforming to the Wahabi sect of Islam. That unlike Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who are relatively liberal and religiously tolerant, Pashtuns are deeply engrossed in what is termed as ‘religious nationalism’ and their aggressive posture deepens a sense of insecurity among non-Pashtuns.

There is no other country in this world which has faced intervention and occupation by three world powers like Afghanistan. It means there is something seriously wrong with that country as it has not been able to settle down as a stable state and society since its formation in 1747

Furthermore, the permeation of the culture of corruption, nepotism, drugs, weapons and bad governance tend to transform Afghanistan as a failing state. Efforts made since 9/11 by the Western donors to put Afghanistan on the road to democracy failed to yield positive results because socio-economic backwardness, which is the root cause of intolerance, violence and terrorism couldn’t be eradicated. Billions of dollars of aid to Afghanistan for development, modernisation and improving the country’s justice, educational, security and governance system failed because of corruption and inefficiency. That is the reason why despite 16 years of U.S/Western involvement in Afghanistan the country is not stable and peaceful and around 45 percent of its territory is controlled by the Pashtun led Taliban groups. Donald Trump, who before assuming presidency was in favour of pulling American forces from Afghanistan, has changed his mind by not only maintaining US military involvement but also raising its level.

The Afghan problem thus remains complicated and existential and is a major threat to peace in the region because the local stakeholders failed to recognise the need to resolve their issues through a process of dialogue. It is not only the ethnic predicament of Afghanistan which is compounding its problem but failure of the Afghan leadership to settle things on their own instead of providing space to external players in sustaining their involvement is also true.

For how long Afghanistan would remain chaotic and how domestic players, regardless of their political, ethnic and sectarian divide can unleash the process of peace depends on the will and determination of Afghans to put their own house in order. Putting the house in order would mean tolerance, moderation, acceptability of others who are different, zero tolerance for violence, corruption and nepotism. If Afghans unite, regardless of cleavages, foreign interference would end. Space to external players in Afghanistan is only provided by Afghans because of their failure to put their own house in order. Is it not true that a house divided cannot stand?

The history of modern Afghanistan since 1747 when Ahmed Shah Abdali united fragmented tribes in that territory and established the foundations of modern Afghanistan till today reflect tribal feuds and the weak nature of central authority.

The Afghan problem has wide implications, On the one hand, the Afghan society remains violent resulting into periodic acts of terrorism launched by suicide bombers and on the other hand, the neighbours of Afghanistan like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan are also affected. It is because of the Afghan problem since centuries that Afghanistan experienced intervention and occupation of British, Soviets and Americans. There is no other country in this world which faced intervention and occupation by the three world powers than Afghanistan. It means there is something seriously wrong with that country as it has not been able to settle down as a stable state and society since its formation in 1747. The existential Afghan problem has also sustained its social and economic backwardness; violent tribal culture with the suppression of its women population. Proliferation of weapons and drugs along with the loss of the writ of state only deepens the Afghan problem.

How the Afghan problem can be effectively dealt with and is there a hope to transform Afghanistan as a stable, peaceful and tolerant country? There is no quick fix solution to deal with the Afghan problem but the efforts to counter religious extremism, violence and terrorism along with the issues of corruption, nepotism, war lordism and bad governance must be in the right direction. Again, it is the responsibility of Afghan leadership, whether belonging to the government, opposition or other groups to ensure the rule of law, justice system, good governance and pro people social and human development. Once the people of Afghanistan are involved in the process of genuine development, the menace of violence, extremism and terrorism will go away.

As things stand today, Afghanistan like Pakistan is at the crossroads. The two neighbours have to live together instead of blaming each other of cross border terrorism. Official talks to mend fences with Kabul are launched by Pakistan at the highest level but only Islamabad cannot ensure positive results from such deliberations unless there is reciprocity from Kabul. When the Afghan government keeps on blaming Pakistan of patronising Taliban and other groups hostile to the pro-American Kabul regime, one cannot expect smooth sailing in relations between the two erstwhile neighbors. Nevertheless, as long as the process of Pak-Afghan reconciliation is not reaching a logical conclusion, one cannot expect any qualitative change in their age-old bitter relations.

For decades Pakistan provided shelter and humanitarian assistance to millions of Afghan refugees but paid a heavy price of its gesture in the form of drugs, weapons and fanning sectarian violence. For many in Pakistan, it is a sheer ungrateful on the part of Afghans not to acknowledge help and assistance when their country was occupied by the Soviets or when civil war had caused enormous destruction. Afghan problem has not only hurt Afghans but also Pakistan because of sustained instability and violence in that war torn country. In its essence, the deepening of Afghan problem will accentuate Pakistan’s predicament.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. He can be reached at

Published in Daily Times, December 7th 2017.