Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan are in a downward spiral. First came the war of words between President Hamid Karzai and General Pervez Musharraf over who was to blame for the resurgence of the Taliban along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border. Then, the Afghan parliament condemned Musharraf’s use of undiplomatic language about Karzai. Now, the head of Afghanistan’s Senate, Hazrat Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, has accused Musharraf and the ISI of instigating a suicide assassination attempt on Mujaddedi’s life. In between, Afghanistan demanded Pakistan stop naming its missiles after Afghan heroes and Pakistan claimed it was planning a fence along their complex 1,810 km border.

Musharraf and most Pakistani officials blame India for the deterioration in Islamabad’s ties with Kabul. But Karzai, Mujaddedi and the majority of Afghan parliamentarians now criticising Pakistani policy do not have a history of close ties with India. They lived as refugees in Pakistan between ’79 and ’88 when it served, with US help, as the staging ground for the guerrilla war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

India maintained cordial ties with the pro-Communist Kabul regime during that period. Pakistan’s extensive hospitality for millions of Afghan refugees strained Pakistani society. But the Afghan Jihad was justified by Pakistan’s establishment on grounds that it would create goodwill among Afghans and buy Pakistan influence across its northwestern border for years to come.

How did Pakistan manage to lose the goodwill generated by its support of Afghan refugees and Mujahideen during their anti-Soviet struggle? The answer can be found in the near-obsession of Pakistan’s establishment with extending its influence into Afghanistan. Pakistan should have been content with having friends in power in Kabul after the fall of the pro-communist regime in ’92. Instead, its intelligence community adopted the attitude of British officers of the 19th century.

Afghanistan’s frontier with British India was drawn by a British civil servant, Mortimer Durand, in 1893 and agreed upon by representatives of both governments. After Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistani leaders assumed that Pakistan would inherit the functions of India’s British government in guiding Afghan policy. But soon after Pakistan’s independence, Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s admission to the UN, arguing Afghanistan’s treaties with British India relating to Afghan borders were no longer valid since a new country was being created where none existed at the time of these treaties.

Although India publicly did not support the Afghan demand for “Pashtunistan”, Pakistan’s early leaders could not separate the Afghan questioning of Pakistani borders from their perception of an Indian grand design against Pakistan. They wanted to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from being “crushed by a sort of pincer movement” involving Afghanistan stirring the ethnic cauldron in Pakistan and India stepping in to undo the partition of the subcontinent. Pakistan’s response was a forward policy of encouraging Afghan Islamists that would subordinate ethnic nationalism to Islamic religious sentiment.

Pakistan’s concern about the lack of depth in its land defences led to the Pakistani generals’ strategic belief about the fusion of the defence of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s complicated role in Afghanistan beginning well before the Soviet invasion of 1979 and through the rise and fall of the Taliban can best be understood in light of this desire.

Karzai and other Afghan nationalists remain unwilling to accept Pakistan’s vision of Afghanistan as a subordinate state. Afghanistan maintains lose ties with India and expects to pursue an independent foreign policy. Pakistan has offended Afghans in the past with attempting to dictate their policies and by positioning itself as a major player in a contemporary version of the Great Game. Now, however, it also runs the risk of upsetting the US, which is militarily present in Afghanistan and has significant stakes in ensuring its stability.

Since the beginning of 2005, casualties in Afghanistan have been rising. The Taliban insurgency is weak and not yet as threatening as the challenge in Iraq. But Afghan insurgents are clearly getting arms, money and training. The Taliban are also recruiting new members and undertaking bolder attacks such as the one against Mujaddedi.

Intelligence-led covert operations invariably have unexpected consequences, often described as “blowback”. Pakistan and Afghanistan must defuse current tensions and build an open, diplomatic relationship in place of the Great Game legacy of intrigue and violence. A fence between Afghanistan and Pakistan is unrealistic, as is the complete separation of the two countries’ shared history. An American-brokered accord between Pakistan and Afghanistan to end the latent dispute over the Durand Line, coupled with international guarantees to end Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan, might be the basis for durable peace and friendship between the two Muslim states.