In recent months, as Pakistani politics have hit the boiling point and the security situation in much of Afghanistan has deteriorated, it has become clear that the long-standing border dispute between these two countries has seriously compromised NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Because of the border problem, the enemy enjoys a refuge in Pakistan that NATO forces cannot attack without jeopardizing the stability of a government that is, on balance, a net asset to U.S. regional policy.
The problem itself is not new, but the context is. For sixty years, successive governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have nurtured mutual suspicions about the other’s intentions, the border issue being both the preeminent symbol and a major contributing element to the problem. For many years, too, U.S. diplomats have lectured Afghans and Pakistanis on how to get along with one another, and have suggested a raft of confidence-building exercises to practice what we—and even they—have preached. So well practiced in this are U.S. and international officials that they can perform these rituals in their sleep. Such measures have never worked, but the price U.S. diplomacy paid for this futility was low, and there were arguably no interests compelling us to do more.
That is no longer the case. The United States and its allies are now paying dearly for the Afghan-Pakistani dispute as we fight an insurgency in Afghanistan and seek to make the region immune to deadly forms of extremism. The Afghan-Pak border, 1,610 miles along generally forbidding terrain, is today the most dangerous “gray zone” on earth. It is not just that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have taken root in and to some measure control parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, and that their ability to regroup and hide their most senior commanders from NATO and U.S. strikes complicates the military mission in Afghanistan. Much worse is the fact that the lawlessness of the region guarantees that the larger problem of extremism will continue to threaten both states. If the political conditions that stimulate radicalism are not addressed, we could fight for decades, win every discrete engagement, and still not achieve anything remotely resembling victory.
The U.S. government should therefore lead a new effort at political resolution. Only the United States can leverage the necessary influence and incentives to broker a solution that will necessarily involve major pain for each protagonist. It will not be easy, for shaping a stable solution will require the participation of several parties beyond the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Iran and Russia, because each has interests in a solution and each can act to spoil one; and the European Union and the United Nations, to smooth U.S.-Russian-Iranian sensitivities, to underwrite the necessary guarantees, and to augment the financial incentives to induce compromise. Whatever the role of others, however, it is clear that the United States will have to make the most expensive and politically difficult commitments to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to make their own difficult choices. All this will take years to accomplish, and still more years to protect.
The United States should never lightly assume difficult tasks in far-away places, and it should never risk its reputation for marginal gains. The problem of Afghan-Pakistan relations, however, is not marginal. It is a structural impediment to stabilizing both countries, and thus it stands in the way of defeating al-Qaeda. A solution constitutes a central and vital American interest, for as long as the malign dynamic along that frontier persists, we can never finally and decisively defeat Islamist extremism in the region. We therefore have no choice but to employ the most powerful weapon in our national arsenal to deal with it: diplomacy.
History of a Big Mess
The Afghan-Pak frontier problem is often referred to as the Durand Line issue, after the 1893 British signatory of the agreement, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand. Durand’s opposite was the Afghan Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, and the two agreed to establish the limits of Afghan and British Indian control. Whether the agreement was really a border agreement or only established a sort of non-interference zone is still disputed. Whether the agreement was made voluntarily in return for compensation or as a result of British pressure and intimidation is disputed as well. The Pakistani position was established in 1947, in tandem with its independence:
[The] Durand line . . . of 1893 is a valid international boundary subsequently recognized and confirmed by Afghanistan. . . . Pakistan is a successor state to British India . . . and has all the rights and obligations of a successor state.
The Afghan government immediately rejected this position. It held that Pakistan was a new and not a successor state, voted against its entry into the United Nations, and refused to recognize the border. A great assembly of Afghan tribes, a loya jirga, called by the Afghan government at the time of Pakistan’s independence, did likewise. Although Afghanistan subsequently withdrew its opposition to Pakistan’s UN membership, it has never accepted the border, and it would be extremely difficult for any Afghan president or government to do so without convening another loya jirga for that purpose. That would be an undertaking, in turn, whose outcome would be chancy at best, given the multiplicity of views and interests that would inevitably be present, and probably downright dangerous to the convener.
The ethno-demography of the region is the key to understanding why the two governments have taken and maintained their respective positions over the years. Afghanistan is a multiethnic state, but its demographic and political center of gravity is and has always been Pashtun. Pashtuns make up roughly 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population of nearly 32 million, or about 13.5 million Pashtuns (but note that all population estimates are guesses disputed by every ethnic group). There are nearly twice that many Pashtuns in Pakistan, about 25.4 million, but Pashtuns make up only about 15 percent of Pakistan’s 169 million people.
This situation has led Pashtun irredentism to emanate from Afghanistan. For at least sixty years, Pashtuns in Afghanistan have aimed to join their comrades to the Afghan state, their lands just across the Durand Line with them. Pakistan has always feared Pashtun nationalism and the implicit threat of dismemberment it poses—a dismemberment that would seriously compromise Pakistan’s security vis-à-vis India. Indeed, Pakistan and Afghanistan nearly went to war in 1954 over the “Greater Pashtunistan” issue. This peculiar political demographic explains why no Afghan government has ever recognized the border, and why every Pakistani government has striven to influence Afghan politics away from ethnic-based Pashtun identification.
Both countries see the conflict as existential. Afghanistan’s Pashtuns are loath to ratify a situation in which the majority of their brethren live as a minority in another state. Pakistani Pashtuns have great influence within Afghanistan and would react strongly to any changes made without their consent. Vast numbers of Afghans believe that Pakistan is deliberately undermining Afghanistan. Consequently, Afghan leaders have repeatedly found it impossible to discuss the border and convenient to blame all troubles there on Pakistan to divert public passion. They can lower the boil for short periods, but to formally compromise would invite protests from border tribes and from powerful Pashtun tribal elements in Pakistan, as well.
Pakistan, also a multiethnic state, fears that further dismemberment (East Pakistan split off to become Bangladesh in 1971) might spell the end of the Pakistani state altogether. It certainly would undermine the formative sectarian rationale for its existence as a Muslim state. Like Britain before it, Pakistan has sought to use negotiations, tribal arrangements and collective pressures to bring civil order to the Pashtun tribal areas. It has never tried to govern them on the same terms as the rest of the country for fear of revolt. The arrangement is essentially colonial, and some charge that it is not in accord with conventional judicial norms. The charge is probably true, but that fact pales next to the reality that the current arrangement is collapsing. Many governments, including our own, have urged Pakistan to exert more control in the tribal areas than has heretofore been the case, but with Taliban agents and al-Qaeda running around, the Pakistanis are hard-pressed to get back to the historical norm without triggering a guerrilla war they might well lose.
When one takes the full measure of the situation, it becomes clear why standard confidence-building forms of diplomacy can never solve the problem. Some progress has been made recently in the military Trilateral involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO, formed in 2003, but these achievements have not significantly reduced cross-border infiltration. More significantly, the Trilateral has in no way altered public opinion, and neither has the minimal progress of a joint Pak-Afghan economic commission created in 2004. Border raids and suicide bombs stir Afghan accusations of Pakistani complicity; Pakistan charges in turn that India and Afghanistan are stirring up Pashtun and Baluch separatism. In a climate of life-and-death struggle, confidence-building measures are to this problem what band-aids are to gaping gunshot wounds.
The international community, including the U.S. government, has long avoided taking a clear position on the border issue, but its ambivalence is beginning to change. The states fighting and paying to stabilize Afghanistan want Pakistan to control all its territory, and they have increasingly supported a Pakistani policy of using development, roads and education, combined with force, to accomplish this control. The result is that international policy is shifting from no stance on the border to de facto recognition of Pakistani authority.
Presidents Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf understand all this quite well, and both are afflicted by a profound ambivalence. President Karzai knows he needs a stable Pakistan, but, having seen years of Pakistani manipulation of the Afghan resistance, he remains convinced that Pakistan could do far more to shut off the insurgency if it wanted to, and knows that he would face huge domestic pressure if he ceased to blame Pakistan for Afghanistan’s plight. President Musharraf knows he and Karzai face a common extremist threat, but he is personally insulted by Afghan attribution of blame to Pakistan and remains deeply suspicious of Afghan-Pashtun irredentism.
Alas, distrust between the two states runs so deep that cooperation fails no matter how well both leaders grasp the common threat. The inability of either side to secure its frontier allows extremism to grow stronger, and both stand to lose. They know they need to cooperate; they have tried repeatedly and as repeatedly failed to sustain the effort on their own—and that is why the friendly intervention of outsiders is essential to breaking the deadlock. Clearly, the only state with sufficient weight to intervene is the United States. This is both because of U.S. diplomatic clout in the region and because the United States alone can credibly offer financial and political guarantees of a size and duration no one else can match.
Elements of an Agreement
If the need for U.S. involvement is clear, so is the need for a new concept. Eleven elements describe what such a concept might look like; the first six concerning the two principals, the last five the United States and the rest of the international community.
(1) Both sides must agree that the current frontier is not to be modified without the consent of both governments and their peoples. Perhaps someone will invent a better phrase, but we must find an acceptable way to express a middle ground between the Pakistani demand for Afghan legal acknowledgement of the frontier and the inability of weak Afghan governments to compel its people to accept division. This formula makes the border essentially permanent by officially recognizing what is, after all, the real situation, but it stops short of asking for a final and formal Afghan concession to Pakistan. Acceptance of this or similar language would be a compromise by both sides.
(2) Each side will work to stop hostile cross-border movements of insurgent elements and arrest such elements on its territory. This is not just about the Taliban; it also sets up a requirement for Afghanistan to expel or move against Baluch leaders in Afghanistan, a key Pakistani concern. Neither side could fully implement this provision now, but agreement would set the stage for the future and make it clear that playing insurgent cards against each other is no longer an acceptable part of the game.
(3) Free passage of resident families and people (tribes) in the border area. How this is phrased in an agreement could be a stumbling block, but the reality is that tribes and even families live on both sides of a border they have never recognized. Some own land on both sides. The ability of the local populations to maintain their historic family, social and economic linkages is essential to having any agreement accepted by the tribesmen on the ground. How to allow civilian passage of some of the world’s most independent individuals while stopping terrorists and insurgents is, of course, the rub. That leads to the next point.
(4) Pakistan must provide direct government of the frontier areas. The old tribal structures can no longer maintain order, much less prevent the growth of extremism. The latest effort to negotiate a return to the old order—the 2006 North Waziristan Agreement—failed to prevent continued infiltration into Afghanistan or to bring order to the area, and it has now collapsed. The movement of radicalism out of the tribal areas and into more settled ones has continued.
The integration of the area into Pakistani state control needs to be explicit policy. The questions will be whether Pakistan has the money and the force, and whether they can offer the political incentives necessary to succeed where past efforts have failed. Outsiders can provide money, but Pakistan needs to accept the need for a new political approach. It can no longer be allowed to assert that the frontier is an internationally recognized border without taking responsibility for what happens on its side of it.
(5) In return for the tribes giving up their historic autonomy, Pakistan must offer residents of the tribal areas the same rights enjoyed by other Pakistanis. Ideally, this would include full democratic participation. At a minimum, it must include the ability of legal political parties to organize and field candidates, access to the full administrative procedures of the state, the removal of 19th-century legal codes, and eventual integration into the normal judicial system. Tribal opposition may be fierce; certainly the Taliban, al-Qaeda and associated groups will fight against integration. The offer of new political rights therefore needs to go hand in hand with economic development and lawful use of force to have even a chance of success. Bringing the tribal areas under state control could be made consistent with residual degrees of autonomy, but these must attach to the territory and not, as is now the case, to the people even when they reside elsewhere.
(6) Pakistan must therefore deliver on its desire to make a hugely expanded economic effort. Roads, education and infrastructure are essential to providing an alternative to the prevailing war economy. A similar developmental effort should be expanded on the Afghan side, although much of that is already in train and needs only better security to expand rapidly.
The six points laid out thus far ask each side to make major concessions. Afghanistan must recognize a status quo which it has resisted for sixty years and which has provided an excuse for rebellions and coups. Pakistan must change its internal character by dissolving the separate tribal status and taking full responsibility for what happens in the territories. This effort could change the political balance within the Pakistani state and increase democratic participation, but it could involve significantly increased fighting, as well. These are big steps that neither state can carry out without sustained foreign support. Thus, key outsiders have to make major decisions, too, to do what it takes to forge a settlement and make it stick.
(7) The international community, led by the United States, must guarantee the agreement on the border. Up to now the international community has stayed away from the dispute. Its guaranteeing a resolution and recognizing it would help ensure the long-term certainty of Pakistan’s territorial integrity. And it would send a clear message to Afghanistan that it may no longer raise the Greater Pashtunistan issue without finding itself isolated internationally and under serious pressure.
(8) The United States should lead by making a long-term financial commitment in the hundreds of millions of dollars to both states. Afghanistan and Pakistan need assurance of our long-term commitment. Afghans are terrified that they will again be abandoned, as they were after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Pakistanis remember the years of sanctions and warily view improving U.S. relations with India. To undertake compromises and commitments of the magnitude suggested here, each needs solid, long-term commitments of funding and support.
Such commitments are hard for the United States to make. Congress is historically resistant to multiyear funding, and the U.S. Constitution precludes the Executive Branch from spending funds not appropriated by Congress. The guarantees of the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Agreement got around this difficulty by using “on the basis of available funds” language and through other legal workarounds. That agreement has held up for more than two decades and continues to function as intended. It constitutes a viable model for the U.S. financial component of an Afghan-Pakistani agreement. Succeeding in Afghanistan and turning back extremism in Pakistan is worth a similar expenditure. Dollars are cheaper than blood, and don’t forget: We are talking here about American blood—of our soldiers abroad and, potentially, of our citizens at home.
(9) The United States and NATO must make clear that they will fight as long as necessary to prevail in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan both need to know that a diplomatic initiative is not a cover for withdrawal. If there is any doubt about our will to continue—militarily and financially—the value of our long-term commitments will be nil. If diplomacy appears to be a substitute for force, rather than an adjunct to it, the insurgents will be encouraged to fight harder.
(10) Cross-border trade must be liberalized. If donors are to commit to long-term financial assistance, they have a right to demand that everything possible be done to expand Afghanistan’s own economy and its ability to fund itself. Current Pakistani restrictions on Afghan trucking lead to massive spoilage of Afghan agricultural products, block access to markets, and diminish investment possibilities. Conversely, the Afghan government’s willingness to overlook the multibillion dollar cross-border trade in imported consumer goods from its territory into Pakistan encourages smuggling in illicit goods, mainly drugs. The current standoff deprives both countries of considerable tax revenue. Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns, and procedures would need to be developed to address them. U.S. or perhaps EU diplomatic mediation will be vital to solving these commercial issues.
(11) We should establish the principle of creating a multilateral commission to investigate charges of non-compliance by either state. Currently, no such commission could function given the security situation. All parties would have to consider whether the long-term value of a commission mechanism outweighs the risk of agreeing to a stillborn idea that could deteriorate into a forum for hurling abuse. If properly constituted, however, such a commission could ultimately play a constructive role.
This proposal will elicit skepticism, not confetti. As President Karzai and many other senior Afghan leaders have made clear to me, no president or government of Afghanistan can formally renounce Afghan claims to a role in all Pashtun affairs without the broad consent of the Pashtun tribes. Of course, this runs directly contrary to the Pakistani view that theirs is a successor state to British India with a fixed international border, within which Afghanistan should have no say. Finding a way to balance these irreconcilable claims will require extreme delicacy, and the balance proposed here is likely to face initial rejection by both sides.
On the other hand, negotiations have a way of generating their own dynamic. When leaders are involved in a negotiation, they experience the problems directly and are more willing to defend the inevitable compromises required to reach a settlement. When they are not part of the negotiation, they almost invariably condemn the result in comparison with an ideal concept that cannot be achieved. After an agreement is reached it is extremely difficult to overcome such criticism, and equally difficult to reopen negotiations.
Creating a bond between Afghan and Pakistani leaders through a negotiation is critical for preparing them both to confront domestic opposition to any change in the status quo. The status quo is ruinous to most but not all people in the region. The tribal areas in both states, but especially on the Pakistani side, are not simply remote areas living on subsistence agriculture, after all. They are tied into the global economy in two ways. One is remittances: Large numbers of tribesmen live outside the tribal areas—in Karachi, in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere—and they send back money. Beyond remittances, those in the tribal areas are involved in global trade through the dynamic of a war economy. The unsettled situation promotes a trading economy in which drugs are manufactured and shipped, mainly in return for weapons. The locals also smuggle a variety of goods based on the differences in tax policies between the two states, neither of which can control the frontier.
These are economically rational responses whose debility is that they are all illegal. An agreement would give both governments the means to stop this wartime commerce, even as NATO tries to win, and thereby stop, the war itself. Doing so would generate resistance, naturally. The war economy, after all, enriches thousands of people well beyond the drug barons and the militia and tribal leaders at the top of the heap. If state control is to come to the tribal areas, the war economy must give way to something more positive. Hence, there must be investment by private as well as government sources, but that can only happen when infrastructure is developed and sufficient law is in place to make investments secure. And that, in turn, requires political normalization of some kind between Kabul and Islamabad.
The approach outlined here is big, long-term and expensive, with many interlocking parts, each part itself being hard to fashion. It asks a lot of Afghanistan. It asks a lot of Pakistan. It asks a lot from donor countries, for whom commitments of the size and duration suggested here are politically difficult and extremely rare.
It asks a lot of the United States, too, which has to lead but nevertheless cannot act unilaterally. As noted at the outset, Iran and Russia are likely to see any major U.S. effort as a threat to their interests, so their suspicions must be allayed by inviting them inside the tent. This will be distasteful to many, but not to do so would invite them to take up the role of spoiler. Given the strained U.S. relationship with both Iran and Russia, we would be well advised to involve the UN Secretary General and the European Union from the start of negotiations. Both would also add legitimacy to any eventual result, even if dealing with them adds ineluctably to the diplomatic burden.
Beyond the challenge of dealing with multiple actors is the challenge of integrating the multiple parts. Precisely because every part is difficult for someone, all the parts need to be brought together as a package, so that commitments can balance and sustain each other. That’s the only way to solve this problem, the only way to de-fang the terrorist threat incubating in this critical part of the world.
Finally, it is evident that the current U.S. administration, weakened and with only 14 months left in office, cannot bring such a diplomatic effort to fruition. All the more reason to begin discussing new ideas now. At present, U.S. policy is tilted heavily toward military policy instruments. Those instruments are, of course, a necessary piece to a strategy for victory in Afghanistan. But military means alone cannot achieve victory, and by themselves represent the proverbial hell of half measures. The time has come to think whole thoughts about Afghanistan and its neighbors; the time has come to think big.