The Durand Line: A British legacy that fuels new tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan
The border between British India and Afghanistan was demarcated by a boundary commission headed by British representative, Sir Mortimer Durand, in 1893 at the zenith of power and prestige of the British empire.
The Afghan government had accepted the line drawn by the boundary commission albeit with some reservations. Since then, the issue has been raised several times by Kabul without any positive response from then-British India or post-Independence Pakistan.
In any consideration of the continuing validity of the Durand Line as an accepted border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a few facts have remained relevant: A treaty that was signed 130 years ago cannot be renegotiated; Kabul has never formally launched any initiative to rewrite the boundary agreement; Afghanistan has continued to abide by the clauses of the boundary agreement; Never has the country raised the issue formally with Islamabad on any forum. The immigration and customs checkpoints have continued to operate along the border – a testimony to the fact that Kabul recognizes the border as valid between the two countries.
Since the issue has not been raised in any form by Kabul, the best course would be to move on and confront several other challenges the two countries face. After signing the border agreement, Kabul has maintained a persistent stance that the British government, at the height of its power, ignored the genuine demands of Afghanistan and forced the latter to accept the Durand Line or face serious consequences.
In other words, the boundary line was drawn without regard to the views of the Afghan government. This is not corroborated by historic evidence because, in the latter way, Kabul had entered into more agreements with the British Indian government. Since the frontier areas, that now form part of Pakistan, were once under Kabul’s rule, there is an entrenched feeling in the Central Asian country that those areas are part of Afghanistan.
The issue of the Durand Line should have been resolved long ago. The Afghan side appears to be a prisoner of its past when the frontier areas were ruled by Kabul. Meanwhile, the Pakistani side has not approached the issue with any clarity either. On the other hand, Pakistan has further aggravated the border peace and stability by erecting a barrier over the 2,600-kilometer-long border at a stupendous cost of more than $1 billion.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
There is the ethnic factor as well. Afghanistan believes Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line have been historically part of the kingdom of Afghanistan. That is the reason no Afghan government has publicly or officially acknowledged the border crossing as an international boundary. It is believed in Kabul that any Afghan government that openly or formally accepts the Durand Line as a legitimate border would lose the support of the public. The policy then is to take a pragmatic view of the issue and accept the Line as a de facto border allowing the two countries to operate and manage the border, just like any other international border. Let sleeping dogs lie – that is the undeclared policy of Kabul.
But the recent statement of Mullah Yaqub Mujahid, the Taliban administration’s defense minister, appears to have reignited the issue. In an interview with ToloNews, Yaqoob asserted that the Durand Line was “just a line”, adding that the issue would be raised with Pakistan when the time was ripe. He also spoke about the role of the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in attacking government installations inside Pakistan. The banned outfit still has many of its leaders hiding in Afghanistan from where they operate and carry out attacks inside Pakistan.
Yaqoob, who is the son of Mullah Umar – the founder of the Taliban movement – also denied allegations of providing any covert support to TTP in their raids across the border. He disagreed with the view that from their safe havens in Afghanistan, the TTP has been operating with ease and confidence striking targets inside Pakistan.
He emphasized that such elements causing harm and destruction are actually inside Pakistani territory.
The issue of the Durand Line should have been resolved long ago. The Afghan side appears to be a prisoner of its past when the frontier areas were ruled by Kabul. Meanwhile, the Pakistani side has not approached the issue with any clarity either. On the other hand, Pakistan has further aggravated the border peace and stability by erecting a barrier over the 2,600-kilometer-long border at a stupendous cost of more than $1 billion. The policy was dictated by former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The sealing of the border has split families, stopped border trade, and prevented families from meeting with relatives on the other side of the border. This has gravely affected the lives of people of the same tribe on both sides. Tensions have risen and acrimony and anger have spread. The Afghan government, perhaps, cannot let such tensions continue indefinitely. Relations would certainly be affected by such measures that are taken in the name of security but bring incalculable harm and agony to the people on both sides.
There is a need for a dispassionate reappraisal of policy that takes into account the historic realities, the well-being of the tribes, and the unwarranted sealing of a long border considering the issue in the broad context of the current objective realities and an eye on the future as the two countries explore avenues of enduring cooperation in a host of sectors.
- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.