A border that was a product colonial jealousy and insecurity, the Durand Line divided what can be claimed as one of the world’s largest ethnic tribes, the Pashtuns, into two separate nation-states, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they compete for political prominence today.
In the late 1880s, the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, started demanding a clear demarcated border with the government of British India that had ventured into the Afghan land two times only to be sent back terribly beaten. Aware of the Tsarist Russia’s moves in Central Asia, the British too understood the urgency of creating a buffer state out of a land that it knew it could control the least. Afghanistan, was thus meant to be carved as a buffer state; one that would have been a part of its sphere of influence, if not so much as its physical territory.
As negotiations for demarcating were allowed to roll following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Afghan war, the Amir while permitting the British to control Afghanistan’s foreign policy, in return demanded zero interference from the British in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. A clearly defined and well delineated border would have been an appropriate solution. However, ever since 1893 when the then Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, finalized an agreement defining the Indo-Afghan border, the Durand Line became a bone of contention between Afghanistan and British India, and much more so between Afghanistan and Pakistan after 1947.
The said Line is 1,640 miles (2624 km) long. Representing the historical limits of British authority back in 1893 and what was to demarcate the territorial limits of Afghanistan and Pakistan following the latter’s creation in 1947; this line was drawn much like the other boundaries in the region- in a highly arbitrary fashion. And, it is with this that the seeds of the modern contention were sown.
With little consideration for tribal or ethnic boundaries, the border divided the Pashtuns tribes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since its creation, this border has been viewed with disdain and is largely overlooked by politicians and tribesmen on both sides of the divide, making it almost superficial and highly difficult to man and thus, immensely porous.
While the border does exist on the map, in practical terms it is neither enforced and, arguably nor enforceable. At countless places, the line of demarcation remains contested. In fact, at a few places, it dissects villages and even individual homes between the two countries. Tribesmen from both sides of the border continue to cross freely, often using hidden mountain trails that are very treacherous to say the least.
A significant number of tribesmen have family ties on both sides. The Durand Line is often seen by the Pashtuns on both sides as a ‘fault-line’ that has bequeathed a sense of tragedy on a nation of approximately forty million people who are today found on both sides of this artificial border.
The question of legality of the Durand Line is not of much interest to the international political and academic community. Most of the global powers readily buy Pakistan’s argument and agree that the Durand Line is a sacrosanct international boundary that it had inherited following its creation as a separate nation-state. With the departure of the British from the sub-continent in 1947, Pakistan claims that Durand Line became the internationally enforceable boundary separating it from Afghanistan. The historical presence of this contentious line for more than a century and the lack of legal-historical claims around it have made it possible for Pakistan to argue, and with legal force, that Durand Line has to continue into the modern times too.
In fact, Pakistan has also claimed that Afghanistan has no legal right to renounce any agreement concerning a shared border unilaterally. Pakistan, with support from the UK and China, has also further said that the Durand Line issue is a settled one and that there is nothing more to debate on it.
It would be interesting to note here that despite having a considerable presence of discontented Pashtuns within its provincial boundaries, the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Khalilur Rahman in 2005 was quoted by journalists saying that the Durand Line agreement had expired after 100 years of its signing- that is in 1993- and that he had already spoken with the then President, General Pervez Musharraf to request an arrangement for its renewal.
In October 2012, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Grossman made a remark on the Durand Line, stating that “it is an internationally recognized boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan”. The Afghanistan Government, however, retaliated by stating that the status of the Durand Line is a matter of historic importance for the Afghan people and that it rejects and considers irrelevant any statement by anyone about the legal status of this line.
Aimal Faizi, official spokesperson of the Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, also mentioned that “the comments of foreigners on the Durand Line will not have any effect on the verdict of the Afghan people, to whom the decision belongs”.
Backed by international support, where Pakistan has been quick to raise the claims of legality and colonial inheritance to dismiss any debate on the artificiality and arbitrariness of the Durand Line, findings are however available to prove otherwise.
In fact, the Agreement that was signed between the Amir and British Crown will be the first to take down the claims forwarded by Pakistan on the legal sanctity of this border. If one is to refer solely to the Durand Line agreement of 1893, it must be noted it was not initially a binding bilateral agreement to define a sovereign boundary. The idea behind the Line, in Sir Mortimer Durand’s own words was not to form a sovereign boundary, but to separate the British sphere of influence from the rule of the Amir of Afghanistan. The free tribes living on the British Indian side of the Durand Line were never actually subjects of the British Indian rule.
Having said so, it also needs to be recognized that unifying a giant ethnic tribe into a nation-state is not an easy task either. In fact, after centuries of co-optation and separation that have been both accepted and enforced upon them, to get Pashtuns on both sides of the border to form a separate homeland is not realizable.
The notion of a unified Pashtunistan has been predominantly symbolic, but which has been exploited by motivated political interests on both sides of the boundary. Trying to unite the fiercely independent and autonomous tribes into a cohesive whole is not only for how they have led their lives all along, but because they reject a higher authority over them to date. Their coming together can occur only under extreme duress or under the inspiration of a charismatic and compelling leader like the legendary Faqir of ippi who challenged the British administrative and military rule from the time he instigated a rebellion in Waziristan in 1936 until Britain’s departure in 1947.
In the case of contemporary revival of the idea of Pashtunistan, the previous Afghan governments have used this desire for a ‘national homeland’ as a political instrument against Pakistan. Since its inception, almost every Kabul ruler has repudiated the Durand Line as an official border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan and has called it an “undefined border”.
As both the countries dispute the claims pressed by the other, both at international forums and beyond its gaze, it is the Pashtun community as a whole that has been the biggest casualty of this political dodge-ball.
While the denials mounted by both the governments have not had much impact on the movement of Pashtuns along the porous Durand Line, it has most certainly taken attention off the development of this forty-million strong community. Embroiled in a conflict that is getting stretched at the political convenience of the regimes on both sides of this contentious border, the Pashtun community is increasingly becoming a disenchanted lot that has already had a lot of extremism affecting and afflicting it. In fact, sounding rather prophetic, the Pakistani ambassador, Mahmud Ali Durrani, had cautioned in March 2007 that, “I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don’t merge. If that happens, we’ve had it, and we’re on the verge of that.”
It is important to recognize that no legal battle can comfort the serious grievances and wounds that have been inflicted on the Pashtun psyche ever since they were divided arbitrarily in 1893. The need of the hour is to assuage the community as a whole before it is too late. In doing so, it would be of much help to not only conduct independent, bipartisan scholarly assessments on the nature of the agreement and all treaties signed after 1893 considering history, legality and future pertaining to the Durand Line rather, but also make the community in concern a part of these discussions and negotiations and not just their target audience.
Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments must address the longstanding conflicts over the frontier region in a way that arrests the rising disaffection among this community and not fan the flames of rivalry for petty political interests for this could result in a bigger catastrophe to unfold in the future otherwise.
By Attaullah Waziri, Kabul
The writer is the CEO of Waziri Human Development Organization, Kabul. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE PASHTUN TIMES