At a time when the world is focused on repairing the Islamic State’s damage to the Iraq-Syria border, another key international boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan faces increasing pressure from jihadism. In fact, the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier is where transnational jihadism took root nearly two generations ago. It is also the battlespace for the longest war in American history, which started in 2001. Though it has been overshadowed by events in the Middle East since the 2011 uprisings, the jihadist war in Southwest Asia is likely to preoccupy the United States for many years to come.

  • Located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan has historically been a conduit for different powers pushing into different directions.
  • The jihadist conflict on the Afghan-Pakistani border is just the latest form of warfare in an area that has experienced conflict for centuries.
  • In the here and now, conflict in Afghanistan is once again spreading eastwards and destabilizing Pakistan.
  • While the Afghan-Pakistani border will not go the way of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier, Pakistan will deal with war on its western flank for many years to come.


On March 2, Pakistan’s Cabinet approved a plan to integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – a move that will end the autonomous status of the region that straddles the border with Afghanistan and has been a global hub of transnational jihadist activity. Meanwhile, official trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan was suspended on Feb. 15 when Islamabad closed its three main border crossings after a surge in tensions with Kabul. Unrelated to the border closure, Pakistani troops have been shelling what they claim are jihadist sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border. Furthermore, Pakistan’s newly appointed army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, threatened that his forces could cross the border and attack the Afghan hideouts of Taliban rebel factions responsible for the recent surge in terrorist violence after a decline in such attacks over the last two years. In February, at least 100 Pakistanis were killed in bombings across Pakistan; one of the bombings occurred at a popular shrine located in a rural area of the southeastern province of Sindh. Such incidents are rare in this area, as most attacks take place closer to the Afghanistan border.


Afghan women in a cart enter Afghanistan from Pakistan at the border crossing in Torkham, in Nangarhar province on June 18, 2016. A major Afghan-Pakistan border crossing reopened that day after it was closed for several days following deadly clashes between the two countries after the construction of a gate on the Pakistani side to control cross-border movement, officials said. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Formation of Southwest Asian Borderlands

The roots of the contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan jihadist conflict in the cross-border region date to at least the 10th century. The historical caliphate that was presided over by the Abbasids declined in the late 9th century, enabling the rise of multiple Persianate, Turkic and Mongolian dynastic dominions that controlled what we now call Afghanistan. One such Turkic polity was known as the Ghaznavid dynasty (977-1186); during its reign, Afghanistan became a springboard for these Muslim forces to invade India.

For the next eight centuries, successive Muslim dynasties from Central Asia, which all had a foothold in Afghanistan, invaded and ruled India (which included current Pakistani territory). The most notable of these dynasties was the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). This process continued until the decline of the Mughals in the 18th century. By 1857, all of Southwest Asia was either under British influence or ruled directly by the British. However, the area had been in a state of flux long before British borders prevented territories from frequently shifting hands.

The current 1,510-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the Durand Line, was established by Britain during the heyday of British colonial rule. It was named after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, who concluded an agreement with Afghanistan’s emir, Abdur Rahman Khan, in 1893. Designed to delineate the western periphery of British-ruled India, the Durand Line rendered Afghanistan a buffer state between British-controlled South Asia and Russian-controlled Central Asia. The Durand Line, adjusted slightly in accordance with a 1919 treaty, has been the de facto Afghan-Pakistani border since 1947, when the British partitioned the South Asian subcontinent into the two sovereign nation-states of India and Pakistan.


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Rise of Jihadism

Afghanistan refuses to officially recognize the Durand Line as its international border with Pakistan because it effectively divides ethnic Pashtuns into Afghan and Pakistani citizens and removes territory that Afghans claim ownership over. During the days of British rule, the Afghans were in no position to challenge the Durand Line. However, after Britain’s departure, King Mohammad Zahir Shah’s monarchical regime in Afghanistan supported Pashtun separatism in Pakistan. To counter this separatist Pashtunistan movement and the ethnic nationalism that was associated with it, Pakistan fortified its national identity by using Islam. Pakistan also began supporting Afghan Islamist groups several years prior to the1978 coup that allowed the communists to come to power in Afghanistan, and the Soviet military sent troops to prop up the communist regime the following year.

Over the course of the next decade, Pakistan served as the launchpad for the U.S.-led international effort to fight Soviet troops and their allied Afghan communist government. Radical Islamists from Arab countries and the wider Muslim world had to travel through Pakistan before arriving in Afghanistan to fight against the communists. For the first time, Islamists of different national, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds operated in a singular battlespace. In this way, the landlocked Southwest Asian country became the crucible in which transnational jihadism took shape.

Moscow was forced to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and the Soviet Union imploded within two years. These developments, along with a decade of battlefield experience, had a major psychological impact, especially on the international veterans of the Afghan war. It emboldened both the Afghan and foreign fighters to feel that they could serve as a global Muslim vanguard. The foreign fighters had come to Afghanistan to help fellow Muslims liberate their lands from the invading Russians but ended up subscribing to the view that an Islamic political order could be created through armed insurrection.

The Afghan experience thus reinforced the beliefs of those who already felt that jihad was the only way to establish Islamic governance. In addition, it rendered these beliefs, which until then had been organized along national lines, into a transnational movement under the banner of al-Qaida. Meanwhile, Afghanistan continued to descend into chaos as the Afghan Islamist insurgents, united in their fight against the communists, immediately turned their guns on each other when Afghanistan’s Marxist regime was toppled in 1992. The resulting intra-Islamist civil war, which ensued for the next four years, was critical because the anarchy created large swathes of ungoverned spaces. This allowed al-Qaida to establish its global headquarters in Afghanistan.


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The Emergence of the ‘AfPak’ Battlespace

The Taliban emerged from southern Afghanistan’s Pashtun population as a new faction, and many of its members had previously fought the communists as members of other jihadist groups. When the Afghan Taliban took Kabul in 1996, the movement eclipsed the factions that had successfully fought against the Soviets. While it adhered to nationalist jihadism, the Afghan Taliban regime provided al-Qaida-led transnational jihadists a major platform from which to operate and launch the 9/11 attacks. Pakistan had thrown its lot behind the Taliban as early as 1994, when it became clear that the organization was emerging as the dominant force in the Afghan Civil War. However, the Pakistanis ignored al-Qaida, not realizing that the transnational jihadist entity was competing with Islamabad when it came to influence over the Taliban.

The 9/11 attacks created a major crisis for Pakistan whereby Islamabad was forced to align with the United States against its Afghan proxy. When the Taliban regime was toppled, decades of Pakistan’s efforts to install a friendly regime in its western neighbor crashed down. Islamabad’s decision to align with Washington led to the rise of a Taliban rebel movement within its borders. During the early 2000s, an anti-Pakistan jihadist insurgency took shape in the tribal areas from which Pakistan had supported the anti-Soviet Islamist insurgents and, later on, the Afghan Taliban.

It was this outcome that forced Pakistan to try and balance its need to support the U.S.-led war against jihadism with its need to allow the Afghan Taliban to operate from its soil. From Pakistan’s point of view, the Americans have the option of packing up and leaving. The Pakistanis, however, cannot escape the geography that forces them to deal with fallout from Afghanistan. However, the balancing act did not work.

By December 2007, Pakistani military, intelligence and police forces had become a key target of a vicious insurgency planned by a well-organized domestic Taliban movement that has since claimed as many as 70,000 lives. The rise of this Taliban movement was aided by al-Qaida, which relocated to Pakistan after the destruction of its Afghanistan facilities in late 2001. While the Afghan Taliban distanced themselves from al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban fully subscribed to al-Qaida’s transnational outlook. As a result, the jihadist war spilled from Afghanistan into Pakistan and created what has come to be known as the “AfPak” battlespace.

Over the next two years, Pakistan lost control of not only the tribal badlands along its northwestern border with Afghanistan but also many districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In addition, jihadists established roots in major urban centers across the country and in the core province of Punjab. Furthermore, growing religious ultraconservatism has provided Pakistani jihadists with an enabling environment. Further complicating matters, the Pakistani state has been unwilling or unable to deny sanctuary to Afghan Taliban and anti-India militants; in other words, Pakistan lacks either the will or ability to crack down on these groups.


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The Pakistani Position

Since 2009, the Pakistani state has gradually regained the upper hand in the physical war against jihadists. That year, it retook the Swat district, which had become a de facto Taliban emirate deep inside the country. Islamabad also launched a major offensive in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas, with the exception of North Waziristan, which is home to not only anti-Pakistan jihadis and their al-Qaida allies but also the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban movement. It took another five years for the Pakistanis to mount an offensive in North Waziristan in June 2014, and the offensive gained further momentum after the December 2014 attack on an army school where 132 children were gunned down.

The frequency of attacks in Pakistan has considerably declined over the past two years, especially large-scale attacks. However, the recent wave suggests that the jihadist rebels retained their capabilities during the crackdown by going underground. During this time period, the Islamic State has set up shop both in-country and in neighboring Afghanistan. After fighting the Taliban insurgency and training Afghan forces to assume this role on its departure, NATO had withdrawn a significant portion of its Western troops by 2014. After the NATO drawdown, the Taliban insurgency gained considerable strength. The pullout of western forces, coupled with the Pakistani offensive on its side of the border, has led jihadis of various stripes to regroup in eastern Afghanistan. It is thus ironic that anti-Pakistan jihadis have found safe havens in Afghanistan while Afghan Taliban continue to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan.

Relations between the Afghan and Pakistani states have not been good since the post-Taliban regime was founded in 2002. However, infighting among various anti-Taliban factions within the Afghan state has created a situation where Kabul is becoming increasingly incoherent and unable to control its territory. This has led Afghanistan to increase its criticism of Pakistan for not delivering on its promise to crack down on the Afghan Taliban. Conversely, Islamabad accuses Kabul of allowing Pakistani Taliban to operate from Afghan soil.

Both countries struggle with their respective jihadist insurgencies, and very little cross-border cooperation takes place between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, the Kabul-Islamabad clash works to the jihadis’ advantage, especially those who would like to replicate the conditions that exist on the Syrian-Iraqi border at the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. However, transnational jihadis are unlikely to realize this desire because Pakistan is a much stronger state than both Syria and Iraq, and the core of the Afghan Taliban remain a nationalist force focused on gaining power in the country.

Conclusion: No End in Sight

The international strategy for managing the war at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has revolved around the notion that the Afghan Taliban needs to be negotiated with. For the longest time, Pakistan was seen as the one state actor that could bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table and steer it toward a settlement. However, Islamabad has lost its influence over the group over the last few years, so this has not happened. The Afghan Taliban has the upper hand over the Afghan government on the battlefield, which serves as a disincentive for the group to seriously enter into talks.


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Additionally, the Afghan Taliban is still very much an insurgent movement. As a military organization with very little political experience, it has not developed into a movement that could be incorporated into the existing political setup, and the war cannot be brought to an end until that happens. Furthermore, the political mainstream itself is virtually non-existent, and it therefore becomes difficult to integrate the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban seeks to replace the current dispensation with one that it can dominate, so it continues to push for a significant change to the current setup.

The Taliban are used to an autocratic form of governance, which was the setup they used while in power from 1996 to 2001. Because of this, they cannot function as a party in a democratic system and thus they push for the restoration of their old emirate. There is also a historical precedent for this type of system, which was in use from the 18th through the 20th centuries. The fate of the current Afghan polity remains unclear at best. While the Afghan Taliban’s ambitions remain limited to Afghanistan, its ideology overlaps with those jihadis who seek transnational caliphates. This explains the linkages between the various jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

Another problem is that Afghanistan and Pakistan are both Islamic republics. Put differently, the national identities of these neighboring states are exploited by their respective jihadist rebels, who claim ownership over political Islam and exploit the public sentiment that views the governments as insincere to religious ideals. Since it is unlikely that the ideological conflict over the role of religion in politics will be resolved anytime soon, the physical war is also unlikely to end in the near future. Consequently, the United States will be engaged in military and intelligence operations at the Afghan-Pakistani border for many years to come.