Pakistan and Afghanistan are in a dangerous stalemate — with no resolution in sight

Published: March 5, 2017

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after a news conference in Kabul, May 12, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last month, Pakistan suffered its deadliest spasm of terrorist violence since 2014. Over a period of four days in February, militants struck all four Pakistani provinces and three major urban spaces. The bloodshed culminated on February 16 with an assault on a revered Sufi shrine that killed nearly 90 people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on Pakistani soil since a school massacre in the city of Peshawar that killed 141 people, most of them students, in 2014.

This killing spree has dangerous implications, not only for Pakistan, which has enjoyed a relative respite from terrorist violence over the last two years, but also for the broader region. Pakistan’s already tense relationship with Afghanistan has been plunged into deep crisis, with conflict a very real possibility.

The attacks in February were claimed by Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), a Pakistani Taliban faction; Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian extremist group; and a local chapter of the Islamic State known as IS-Khorasan (IS-K). These are arguably the most active and lethal terror groups operating in Pakistan today. And according to Pakistan, they are all based in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long accused Kabul of refusing to act against Pakistani militants on Afghan soil. It’s an ironic allegation, given that Pakistan has itself long provided sanctuary to Afghan militants that stage attacks in Afghanistan. These militants include the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network—the two groups leading the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Islamabad has nonetheless insisted that Kabul crack down—a demand that’s grown louder ever since the Peshawar school attack. That tragedy was staged by another Afghanistan-based terrorist entity, the parent Pakistani Taliban organisation. In fact, most terrorist assaults in Pakistan over the last two years—many of which have targeted the border province of Balochistan—have been perpetrated by groups now based in Afghanistan. Many militants fled there to escape a Pakistani counterterrorism offensive launched in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency in 2014.

For Pakistan, the bloodshed last month may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Soon after the February 16 shrine attack, Pakistan closed two major border crossings. It gave Afghan officials a list of 76 “most wanted” terrorists on Afghan soil and demanded that Kabul deal with them immediately. Then, on February 17, the Pakistani military started shelling what it described as terrorist ecampments in Afghanistan. On February 19, Pakistani media reports claimed that the artillery shelling had destroyed “nearly a dozen” training camps and hideouts and killed “over a dozen” terrorists.

Reports from Afghanistan, however, told a very different story. The Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary tweeted that Pakistan launched about 400 mortars into Afghanistan between February 17 and 19, with some landing in civilian areas. On February 21, a Norwegian aid group in Afghanistan claimed that 200 families had been displaced by the violence. There were no reports of civilian deaths.

Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry denounced the shelling as “an act of aggression.” The Afghan army, warning that “Afghanistan will not allow any country to conduct any kind of military intervention on its soil,” threatened retaliation. Meanwhile, on February 20, the Afghan Foreign Ministry delivered to the Pakistani government another list, this one of more than 30 terrorist camps and nearly 90 Taliban operatives allegedly on Pakistani soil—and demanded that Pakistan take action against them all.

In effect, each country is demanding that the other immediately take out or turn over terrorists on the other’s soil—a very hard sell.

Pakistan has little incentive to crack down on the Afghan Taliban and its ally, the Haqqani network, because these groups help keep India at bay in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long accused New Delhi of using Afghanistan as a base to collude with various anti-Pakistan groups—from Afghan intelligence to Balochistan separatists—to foment unrest inside Pakistan. Today, India-Pakistan relations are in dreadful shape, thanks in great part to several mass casualty attacks on the Indian military last year that New Delhi blamed on terrorists with ties to Pakistani intelligence. Accordingly, there’s good reason to expect Pakistan to double down on its tried-and-true policy of maintaining ties to its anti-Afghanistan militant assets.

Each country is demanding that the other immediately take out or turn over terrorists on the other’s soil—a very hard sell.

Meanwhile, many Pakistanis believe that Kabul views Pakistani Taliban fighters as useful proxies to be deployed against Pakistan and willingly offers sanctuary to them. They point, for example, to the case of Latif Mehsud. In October 2013, US forces in Afghanistan spotted Mehsud, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader, while he was traveling to Kabul with Afghan officials. Afghan sources told The New York Times that they were attempting to develop a relationship with the Pakistani Taliban. Additionally, research published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network last summer describes efforts by Afghan intelligence to curry favour with groups of Pakistani militants—who later declared allegiance to IS—in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2015. All this would suggest that Kabul, like Islamabad, has little incentive to jeopardise relationships that it views as strategically advantageous.

This theory, however, is undercut by the fact that US-Afghan joint operations regularly target these very terrorists. In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Nicholson, the head of US forces in Afghanistan, said that in 2016 such efforts killed about a third of IS-K’s fighters in Afghanistan and reduced the territory it holds by two-thirds. He also noted that a US air strike killed Khalifa Omar Mansoor, the mastermind of the Peshawar school massacre.

This track record suggests that Kabul will have little sympathy for Pakistan’s demands for immediate action—particularly as Afghan forces struggle to fend off Afghan Taliban fighters that Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of harbouring for 15 years. In short, Afghanistan and Pakistan are in a dangerous stalemate, with no resolution in sight.

Fortunately, all-out war is unlikely.

Afghanistan’s army is in no position to take on its superior Pakistani counterpart; Afghan analysts have admitted that their military lacks sufficient long-range weaponry. Meanwhile, on February 20, just after Pakistan’s three days of cross-border firing into Afghanistan, both sides offered conciliatory words and called for cooperation—suggesting that temperatures would fall a notch. Since then, there have been no reports of additional Pakistani cross-border shelling.

However, limited conflict—additional cross-border shelling from Pakistan coupled with possible retaliatory strikes from Afghanistan’s highly disciplined Special Forces—is highly likely in the future for two reasons.

First, repositories of goodwill are scarce in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, which are tense for reasons that go well beyond cross-border terrorism. At the core of the dispute is Afghanistan’s refusal to recognise their disputed border, known as the Durand Line. Kabul also resents discrimination against Afghan refugees in Pakistan. According to the refugees, this has included denial of treatment at hospitals and frequent police harassment. Last year, moreover, Pakistan ordered several hundred thousand Afghan refugees—many of whom had lived in Pakistan for decades—to return to Afghanistan.

Repositories of goodwill are scarce in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

And in recent days, according to Pakistani media reports, police in Punjab Province have been ordered to pay special attention to ethnic Pakhtuns and to treat them as potential terror suspects. This new move, described by the Pakistani media as “Pakhtun profiling,” directly targets Afghan refugees, because most of them are Pakhtuns.

Second, recent efforts at reconciliation have failed, heightening the political risks of extending new olive branches. In 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held a series of meetings with top Pakistani civilian and military officials, yielding accords to cooperate on cross-border terrorism and to train Afghan cadets in Pakistan. However, this newfound goodwill quickly evaporated amid continued attacks in Afghanistan that Kabul blamed on Pakistan-based militants. Ghani was widely criticised by the Afghan political class for reaching out to a hardened foe and gaining nothing in return.

The crisis in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations raises uncomfortable questions for the administration of US President Donald Trump. If Pakistani shelling resumes and intensifies, Kabul may invoke the bilateral security agreement that governs the US military presence in Afghanistan and call on American forces to help defend against Pakistani strikes. The agreement is not a defence pact that requires US forces to come to Afghanistan’s aid, but it does feature an “external aggression” provision that stipulates that “in the event of external aggression . . . the Parties shall hold consultations on an urgent basis to develop and implement an appropriate response, including . . . available political, diplomatic, military, and economic measures.”

Such a scenario would present a policy conundrum for Washington. US forces remain in Afghanistan to help Afghan forces, and according to the bilateral security agreement, the United States “shall regard with grave concern any external aggression or threat of external aggression against the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” of Afghanistan. And yet Washington wouldn’t want to formally side against Pakistan, a nation with which the United States seeks a workable relationship.

Additionally, Kabul may call on India, a friend to both Afghanistan and the United States, to scale up military support. New Delhi has long hesitated to provide weaponry to Kabul for fear of provoking Pakistan’s ire. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has telegraphed a willingness to be bold. In 2014, he signed off on a deal to send several Russia-manufactured fighter helicopters to Kabul—the first time India transported offensive weaponry to Afghanistan. And Afghanistan’s army chief visited New Delhi last summer to request additional lethal hardware.

In Pakistan, many observers contend that India is backing the Afghanistan-based terrorists attacking Pakistan. Stepped-up India-Afghanistan security cooperation—or mere perceptions of it—could prompt a piqued Pakistan to intensify its shelling in Afghanistan.

Washington faces the alarming prospect of an escalation in cross-border tensions involving three countries in a nuclear-armed region housing nearly 9,000 US troops. It’s high time the White House announced a new policy for Afghanistan and broader South Asia—one that addresses not only US troop levels but also the rising regional tensions that threaten to engulf a dangerous neighbourhood. This policy should position the United States as a formal mediator in the Afghanistan-Pakistan dispute—thereby affording Trump an opportunity to help broker an accord to ease bilateral tensions. This would be a challenge, to be sure, but a challenge that Trump—who prides himself on his dealmaking prowess—should relish.


Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rohan

    Well till Pakistan plays the good taliban and good taliban ,such terrorism events will keep happening and they deserve itRecommend

  • Ahmar Bilal Butt

    >>The Afghan army, warning that “Afghanistan will not allow any country to conduct any kind of military intervention on its soil,” threatened retaliation.<<

  • Radler21

    Wow, hope this scenario pans out, pakistan in a jackhammer squeeze from two sides, indian army IBG on eastern front, paratroopers from Iran and Ayni, naval blockade, plus afghan hammer blows on the Indian anvil. With modi in charge, it will be a battle to remember. All the americans need to do is to keep the chinese out for only one month, and issue a veto in the security council, whenevef needed, leave the rest to India.Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    Pakistan cannot bully Afghanistan. India will step in forcefully and protect Afghanistan. Hope Pakistani army applies common sense and does not escalate the tensions. The status quo must continue. Pak army is not in a position to take on combined might of India and Afghanistan.Recommend

  • Anon

    Another anti Pakistan article by Mr. Kegelman and kudos to Tribune for printing another anti-Pakistan voice. “Highly disciplined” Afghan special forces? I think it will be better for Afghanistan to try beat the Taliban who have taken 40% of the country with the few thousand “special forces” that they have rather than getting them killed fighting with Pakistan.Recommend

  • Anoop

    This is what India wanted. To Kabul’s credit, Afghanistan is already in war and has poor insiutions, schools, hospitals, etc. Its a war torn country. Threatening war on a country in such a shape hardly makes an impact.

    On the other hand, Kabul can bring Pakistan to its level. Pakistan, although a war torn country, has semi-stable institutions, some nice hospitals, few top class schools, a working bureaucracy. Kabul taking on Pakistan by following Pakistan’s time and tested formula of sheltering Terrorists but talking peace, is sure to work.

    India on the other hand is happy with this stalemate and want this to continue. Pakistan’s resources need to be stretched to the limit. Its generals are launching one failed operation after another without addressing the root of the problem – Islamic Radicalization.

    India needs to grow in peace. Pakistan’s sources need to be stretched to ensure it keeps away from hurting India’s growth story.Recommend

  • Feroz

    Since this does not subscribe to the Pakistani narrative very few if any comments will be allowed.Recommend

  • Bronco

    Afghanistan and the US will have to neutralize India from the equation i.e. their subversive activities from the consulates in the border regions. Pakistan will have to return the favor. AfPak is a non starter and should go back to the original Afghanistan/Pakistan/India as the problems are related. US administration will have to go back to the drawing board to sort out this mess. American policy of pitting Pakistan against India and vice versa hasn’t really worked. Unless world finds a way of integrating Afghanistan/Pakistan/India, no treaties will work. Be it pipeline, transit trade, cultural relations etc. Unless root cause of the problem is addressed, we will be running in circles for a foreseeable future. Problem is that western leaders are up against the psyche of enmity of South Asian culture which a very few understand including you.

  • Parvez

    Express Tribune is always very generous with allowing Indian comments, they have even been criticized for this…… surprised to see only one comment.Recommend

  • Jameel

    This is all due to Indian involvement in Afganistan. But Afganistan must not forgot that India will leave you one day but Pakistan is and will remain your neighbor and it is Pakistan who has always helped you.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    FYI, India has only TWO consulates in the border region, in same cities as Pakistani Consulates!Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Hmm, and just how has Pakistan “helped” Afghanistan by hosting the Afghan Taliban Quetta Shura and by providing those world famous FATA based “safe havens” for the Good Taliban terrorist proxies to attack Afghanistan the past 15 years?Recommend

  • gp65

    India has exactly 4 consulates in Afghanistan and in the same cities as Pakistan. Further only 2 out of the 4 consulates are close to Pakistani borders.Recommend

  • Sane

    No, till Pakistan will pledge for peace in the region and tolerant with India and Afghanistan (a proxy country of India), terrorism shall not stop. Pakistan need to fight with the same ‘sword’ its enemies are using.Recommend

  • Jameel

    As india has waged a proxy war through Afganistan, Pakistan has a right to defend his interests in the region by whatever means. By the way who is supporting unrest in Balochistan. Your PM Modi has allegedly accepted this and who is offering citizenship to Blochistan terrorists?Recommend

  • Rohan

    Pakistan fought and lost half their Territory which is now called Bangladesh.If you fight again you will lose balochistanRecommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Hmmm, please recall that Pakistan has openly boasted of creating the Jihadis to “Bleed India from a thousand cuts”!
    Note that Pakistan’s Good Taliban Terrorist proxies been tasked with destabilizing its neighbors the past two decades!Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    And where is your credible evidence that India has waged a proxy war against Pakistan through Afghanistan as you claim???
    The world well knows of Pakistan’s Good Taliban terrorist proxies but there is scant evidence of any India based comparable groups!Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Each country is demanding that the other immediately take out or turn over terrorists on the other’s soil—a very hard sell.

    Has it ever occurred to the author that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan exercise any control over the autonomous tribal territory that both claim to be part of their respective countries? Not a bad article which the author has written based on published reports about the region that he has no clues. Both countries political leaders should not talk over the so called terror groups but take the courage and talk to them direct.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rebel

    thinking about growing in peace by wrecking havoc and raging proxy wars in neighboring countries, is a wishful thinking.Recommend

  • Rebel

    You are forgetting one thing here, when Pakistan fought, it was not a nuclear power. Circumstances have been changed, the war strategy has been changed. Nukes are integral part of Pakistan’s military doctrine, and also, Pakistan didn’t sign any “No-First-Use” agreement and has no such policy, so India can test that any time, and will regret. Like Pervez Musharraf once said “dont push us, we didn’t make nukes to fire on Shab-e-Baraat” :)Recommend

  • Rohan

    Not scared of your borrowed defective Chinese toys,go play with them in your Gaddafi stadiumRecommend

  • Anoop

    India is peaceful. IPL is happening soon. Investors are not going anywhere. Last year there was record FDI. No fool will invest in a country which is not peaceful. As they say, just follow the money to get to the truth.
    Af-Pak has been in war for the past 30 or more years. It has had very little effect on the day to day lives of India, except for one high jacking of an indian plane in 1998.
    The reason for Af-Pak conflict not affecting India is because Pakistan acts as a buffer. If you look back be it Alexander or Afghan Raiders or Mughals, all came via area now considered Pakistan. Ghaznavi, on whom Pakistani missiles are named after, raided and looted parts which are now considered Pakistan.
    So, India is good, thanks. Pakistan needs to dismantle Kashmiri Jihadi groups and Taliban. Then, India will allow peace in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Sane

    Talks with Afghan clown, who is also an Indian proxy. Unable to understand.Recommend