BY RYSZARD CZARNECKI, VICE PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT: Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have deteriorated sharply over the last few years, as also evident in the increase in exchange of fire between security forces of the two countries, along the Af-Pak border. The last such incident took place on May 7 at the Chaman border in Balochistan, when firing by the Pakistan Army resulted in the death of Afghan soldiers. While Pakistan maintained that it had killed 50 soldiers and injured more than 100, Afghanistan contended that only 2 had died. This incident was in retaliation to an earlier one in which 9 persons were killed and 45 injured on the Pak side, when Afghan border forces fired at Pakistan security personnel guarding a census team.
Such border skirmishes are a manifestation of the inherent friction between the two countries, due to differences over the Durand Line, the border separating them. The Afghans have always viewed the Durand Line as an artificial border imposed on them by the British colonial rulers of India. For British India, this border was an attempt to secure itself by providing it strategic depth, and a buffer against Russian advances into the Indian subcontinent, through Afghanistan. Drawn by the British in 1893, this artificial border resulted in the formal cessation of vast tracts of what is now Balochistan and Pashtun-dominated areas belonging to Afghanistan, to British India.
During the last days of the British colonial rule, the Pashtuns residing on the British Indian side of the Durand Line, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’, opposed the creation of Pakistan. Pashtun identity was driven by nationalism rather than religion, and hence was not able to come to terms with the idea of a ‘muslim’ Pakistan. However when it became clear that the British rulers would not agree to the Pashtun demand for accession to India, they demanded Pakhtunistan instead, a separate homeland for the Pashtuns, a demand supported by Afghanistan. Britain was, however, keen to create a strong Pakistan, and hence unwilling to undo the historical injustice that the Durand Line represented. Thus the Pashtun-dominated North Western Frontier Province (NWPF) became a part of Pakistan.
Despite more than 70 years having elapsed since then, the legacy of the Pakhtunistan movement, and the Afghan desire to get back areas of the province of NWFP or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and parts of Balochistan, lingers. Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, successive Afghan governments have refused to recognize the Durand Line as the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On its part, Pakistan has done everything possible to preserve the status quo, not allowing a strong government in Afghanistan, capable of challenging the validity of the existing border, assisting its proxies set up the government in Kabul and limiting the influence of countries like the US, Russia or India, which could pose a challenge to its domination. Within Pakistan, the Pashtun and Baloch areas have been deliberately neglected, promoting infighting among these ethnic groups, and reducing them to mere recruiting grounds for militants, thereby enabling Pakistan to maintain its strategic relevance in the region.
However all Afghan governments, including the Pak-supported Taliban regime, have resisted all moves by Pakistan to formalise the Durand Line. According to former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif, during the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, Pakistan tried three times to formalize the border, but was unsuccessful on each occasion. The recent decision by Pakistan to start fencing the border, and resultant cross-border firing by Afghan forces, is a continuation of this process.
In an effort to maintain its strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pak security agencies have used terror groups as proxies, to keep the country unstable and weak. Decades of instability along this border has led to a situation where the Pakistani state has lost effective control of its western border, allowing local tribesmen to easily cross back and forth between the two countries. As long as this demarcation, which was initially drawn to mark areas of influence rather than as an international border, is given sanctity by the international community, Pakistan will continue to play its own ‘great game’ in this area, even if it is at the cost of peace in the region.
The historical mistake, or more precisely the historical mischief, committed by British colonial rulers by dividing the Pashtun homeland, has been perpetuated in recent years by the US and other Western countries for their strategic interests. However over the years, the effect of instability prevailing on both sides of the Durand line is no longer limited to the region, having now spilled over also the western world. Continuous flows of Afghan refugees into Europe and terrorist incidents with links to the Af-Pak region, are the consequences. In 2015, new refugee applications filed by Afghans touched 175,000, second only to the Syrians.
The Af-Pak region has become a breeding ground for international terrorism, with terror groups spawned and trained in this area, planning and launching attacks worldwide. The September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York was a wake-up call for the West to re-visit its policy. Instead we decided to send our troops to fight the militants, while allowing the roots of the problem to fester. Since 2001, thousands of US and European troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so, as long as we choose to bury our heads in the sand.
On its part, Pakistan will continue to interfere and destabilize the areas across the Durand Line, with the objective of retaining it as its border with Afghanistan. If peace is to be restored in the region, there is an immediate need for the West to take a hard look at this artificial border, and restore the natural and historical frontier between the two countries. Balochistan and portions of the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas of Pakistan that were forcefully taken away and merged into British India need to be restored to their earlier status as the sovereign territory of Afghanistan. With the objective of fostering long-term peace, there is a need for the European Union and the US to review its Afghan policy, rather than pouring millions of Euros as aid to Afghanistan, and trying to win a war that cannot be won. A restive Afghanistan has the potential of adversely impacting the security and stability of its neighbourhood, and the world at large. It is time that hard decisions are taken, and the historical mistake know as the Durand Line, is set right. (Courtesy EP Today)