The South Asia Channel

Why Pakistan Fears Indo-Afghan Ties

Why is Pakistan so sensitive to India's enhanced role in Afghanistan?

As United States and NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, there is growing fear that tension between the two arch-rivals of the region, India and Pakistan, could rise as they compete for influence in Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, the sense is growing that the country's role in Afghanistan has greatly diminished following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001.  Many analysts believe that the rivalry between India and Pakistan could seriously threaten peace in Afghanistan if tensions continue after the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces. 

International and regional analysts are putting forward many ideas on how to allay Islamabad's fears regarding India's increased ties with Afghanistan. Some of these arguments suggest bringing the two countries closer or even pushing India to reduce its role in Afghanistan.

But the answer is largely linked to the history of Pashtun and Baluch nationalism in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces, both of which border Afghanistan.

Baluch separatists continue to carry out low-level insurgency in Baluchistan province, including sporadic attacks against Pakistani troops. Some of these insurgents are based in Afghanistan, and Pakistan has accused India of supporting the Baluch guerillas from across the Afghan border. India denies giving any material backing to the insurgents. 

During an early Baluch insurgency in the 1970s, which was openly supported by the Afghan government of the time under President Sardar Daud, a large number of Baluch freedom fighters operated from across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan repeatedly accused the Indians of backing the Baluch separatists during that time, though India always denied any such allegations.

Tension between India and Pakistan over Pashtun nationalism stems from the partition of the two countries in 1947, when some Pashtuns refused to accept the newly created country of Pakistan. Pashtun nationalists headed by Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, known as "The Frontier Gandhi" to Indians, demanded a separate country of their own, independent of Pakistan, named Pushtunistan. Pashtun nationalists were traditionally close allies of India, and Pakistan always looked at them with deep suspicion.

When Pakistan was created in 1947, Afghanistan lent its support to Pashtun nationalists by rejecting the Durand Line, the 2,640 kilometer Afghan-Pakistan border first established in the late 19th Century, as an international border. Rather, Afghanistan claimed that the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the northern Pashtun parts of Baluchistan were not part of the newly created Pakistan.

Though the Pashtun separatist movement died down nearly three decades ago, Afghanistan still refuses to accept the Durand Line as its international border with Pakistan. The dispute over the boundary remains unresolved, making Pakistan suspicious that Kabul, possibly with India's help, might reignite anti-Pakistan sentiment or Pashtun nationalism in the future.

As the Pashtun nationalist movement reached its peak in the early 1970s, Pakistan repeatedly raised concerns that Indians were backing the Pashtunistan movement through Afghanistan. On January 14, 1972, the Washington Post quoted the Indian prime minister of the time, Indira Gandhi, as telling President Nixon during a meeting in 1971: "The Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan ought never in the first place to have gone to Pakistan at the time of the partition." This statement was seen in Pakistan as a sign of India's support to Pashtun nationalists who were openly backed by the Daud government in Kabul.

For Pakistan, the current situation evokes these historic conflicts. India strongly denies these links, saying that its enhanced role in Afghanistan is part of its new foreign policy approach toward Central Asia as a whole, which is driven by an increasing demand for energy and defending itself against the security threats posed by Islamists in the region, particularly the Taliban in Afghanistan. India has pledged around $2 billion on mostly civilian projects and has emerged as one of the major donors to Afghanistan. Some of these projects include the construction of electricity transmission lines, the Salma Dam power project in Herat, Construction of the Afghan parliament building and numerous other projects, building roads, rural development, increasing agriculture output, education, health and energy

Yet keeping the history of Pashtun and Baluch nationalism in mind, Pakistan views the current Indian engagement in Afghanistan with deep suspicion. Pakistan is already accusing India of supporting the current Baluch insurgency through Afghan soil.

It also fears that hardline Pashtun nationalism could return with India's encouragement. In this context, the increasing ties between Kabul and Delhi appear to be a mounting threat to the security of Pakistan and its borders.

Amanullah Ghilzai is a Pashtun journalist who has written for the BBC, The Daily Dawn, VOA and Radio Free Europe.

Saurabh Das/AFP/Getty Images