As reported by Reuters:
Pakistani and Afghan troops exchanged fire for several hours on Friday along their disputed border, officials on both sides said, as tension between the neighbors flared into deadly violence.
Pakistan’s military said a census team – guarded by troops from its Frontier Corps (FC) – that was collecting population data in a village near the border town of Chaman came under fire and at least one person was killed and 18 wounded.
Zia Durani, police spokesman for Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, said Pakistani officials were using the census as a cover for “malicious activities and to provoke villagers against the government”.
The Pakistani-Afghan conflict is one of the most seriously underreported and unexplored geopolitical rivalries today. This is not the first time Pakistani and Afghan forces have traded fire: since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there have been multiple deadly clashes between the two countries. In November 2011, one battle involved NATO forces.
But the roots of the conflict go deep into history. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the ill-defined Durand Line – a colonial relic drawn by Great Britain to establish a buffer zone between czarist Russia and the British Raj in India. It split the region’s Pushtuns between two countries. Cue the geopolitical headaches.
It would be easy to say the conflict is just the two jostling over who holds dominion over the Pushtuns (or, conversely, who gets to ditch them to run a less ethnically diverse nation-state). But beyond yet another badly drawn colonial border, there are overlapping layers of insecurity. The India-Pakistan rivalry, the U.S.-Sunni supremacist war, and the Pakistani Deep State all produce a maelstrom of a geopolitical storm.
Pushtuns make up the majority of Afghanistan’s population. Hamid Karzai, the bungling first post-Taliban president, was a Pushtun. So too are the majority of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. So there are rivalries within the rivalry; calling it a contest to control the Pushtuns is an oversimplification. Afghan Pushtuns may or may not side with the central government; the same goes for the Pushtuns in the wild Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.
Sitting as they do on dry hardscrabble land, Pushtuns have long struggled to rise above tribalism and establish true security for their ethnic group. Their loyalties are thus hyperlocalized: one village may be Taliban and another an Afghan army base.
This fractured Pushtun political landscape only complicates the bigger games being played out on their turf.
Chief of those is the U.S-Sunni supremacist struggle. It’s more commonly called the War on Terror, which seeks to eradicate Sunni supremacism from planet Earth, and most specifically Afghanistan. That’s a big ask: Pushtuns have a long history of burying foreign soldiers, and trying to manage the disparate tribes via Special Forces and democracy-bringing NGOs is obviously not working very well.
If you want to slam the Americans as neocolonialists, you’re hammering a very nieve version of imperialism. Since Afghanistan lacks access to the ocean and is nowhere near Russia’s or China’s main population centers, it’s not a great neoimperial base. It’s vast mineral wealth is still very hidden under the ground, and besides, the United States has a poor track record of stealing resources from conquered foes anyway. Instead, the Americans are hoping that the Democratic Peace Theory will transform defeated Sunni supremacists into German or Japan-like rehabilitation projects.
Because the Taliban’s headquarters are in Pakistan in Quetta, the United States and its Afghan allies have long accused Pakistan’s central government of aiding the Taliban. That’s not wholly unfounded; Pakistan’s Deep State, anchored by its intelligence services, the ISI, has incentive to do just that.
But why does the Pakistani Deep State stir up trouble in Afghanistan? Two big reasons: India and its own Pushtuns.
It would be remiss for New Delhi not to take advantage of a regime change in Afghanistan to turn Pakistan’s flank. Since the U.S. doesn’t have much skin in the subcontinent’s geopolitical game, Pakistan and India have long had a lot of leverage to confront one another on their terms. India once successfully split Bangladesh from Pakistan, removing a thorn in its eastern flank. There’s plenty of evidence that it now hopes to woo Kabul to its side and turn Afghanistan into a client.
That makes Pakistan’s Deep State, hobbled today though still functional, deeply worried. If Afghanistan’s Pushtuns become Indian clients, they could readily filter into Pakistan over the poorly-held Durand Line and destabilize Pakistan. The notion wouldn’t be to destroy Pakistan, but to throw it so off balance that it surrenders Kashmir, or at the very least is unable to support terrorist attacks in India.
Thus the ISI wants to keep the Pushtun-heavy Taliban around as something of a Pushtun geopolitical police force. If the Taliban are fighting both the Americans and the Afghan government, Indian influence can be kept at a minimum: so long as the Americans remain, India cannot gain a strong enough foothold to use Afghanistan as a proxy.
Of course, this has backfired spectacularly: the Taliban are not easy puppets and have bombed and killed Pakistani soldiers just as readily as American ones. Yet to totally annihilate them, especially in Quetta, remains just off the table. Despite the blowback, the Pakistani Deep State still concludes the Taliban are worth the hassle.
The Americans are unlikely to leave until the Sunni supremacist threat is put down: that is a generational task, which means the U.S. will surely have troops in country until the late 2020s or even further. So long as they remain, Afghanistan will remain an odd hybrid of proxy and borderland: a proxy for the Americans, a borderland between India and Pakistan. Barring a breakthrough between New Delhi and Islamabad over their many contentious issues, the situation remains ripe for another deadly border clash.