What Happens in Torkham Stays in Torkham

Dr. Kalim Ullah KhanThe emotions run high and the flares continue at Torkham, a border town located on both sides of the “Durand Line” that separates Pashtuns. Torkham is a town in the legendary Khyber Pass which is a witness to a lot of tales and is a popular subject of folk songs; it is a strategically important route used for trade and links Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line. In simple words, it has provided a bond between Kabul and Peshawar for many centuries.

Durand Line, however, is a controversial 2430 kilometers long Afghanistan-Pakistan border drawn by British colonial rulers of the subcontinent. This line depicts the Divide and Rule policy of our previous colonial masters.

Few weeks before, Torkham was under siege and tension hiked between Pakistani and Afghan forces which led to heavy casualties and fatalities on both sides. This confrontation of Pakistani and Afghan forces had a reason: the plans of Pakistan to erect a fence on Durand Line and construct a gate at Torkham border.

Pakistani civil and military officials portray these plans as a defensive mechanism against militants. Afghanistan, on the other hand, considers it as an intrusion because Afghans don’t recognise Durand Line as a regular border and consider it a disputed line drawn through Afghanistan. The history of this Afghan’s stance resonated even in Pakistan-backed Taliban regime.

It is frequently called devil line by Pashtuns due to the fact that it has separated Pashtuns and has remained a major reason for Great Game in the region. According to Pakistani officials, erecting a fence on the border and a gate at Torkham will limit the entry of insurgents into Pakistan. To support this proposition, they claim that those who attacked Bacha Khan University crossed the line at Torkham.

On the Afghan side, they consider this a reaction to the death of Mullah Mansour in Pakistan by a US drone strike and Afghanistan’s growing ties with India is also worrisome for Pakistan’s establishment. They also suppose that Modi’s recent visits to Afghanistan and Iran further fueled the fire of enmity and in rush, Pakistan came with these plans.

It is totally absurd that by constructing a fence and a gate on border will shrink the militants’ influx into Pakistan after contemplating on both views. This border is too long and militants rarely use the assigned points of exchange on border for their movement.

These spots are used by citizens of both countries, mostly Afghan citizens who cross border at Torkham, usually come for medical treatment in Peshawar and trucks’ crew members who carry goods to Afghanistan under Afghan Transit Trade Treaty. Due to these tensions between two countries, these poor souls are stuck at the border and suffer a lot.

Both for Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is an uphill struggle to identify a militant because militancy is highly pronounced in Pashtun belt on both sides. Pashtuns from both sides, share the same facial features, language, religion, customs, style and traditions. A Pashtun from Pakistan can easily intermingle with Pashtuns of Afghanistan and no one will be able to tell the difference. This situation has always fueled the blazes of war and combusted the whole region. Afghan Taliban presence in Pakistan proves this theory.

The history also reveals that soon after the demarcation of Durand Line in 1893, skirmishes and unrest marred the region. Durand Line Treaty was soon followed by Afridis’ uprising against the British Raj and eventually ignited the 3rd Anglo Afghan war. After independence of subcontinent, the Durand Line was a core issue of conflict between Afghanistan and newly born Pakistan and their relations deteriorated soon thereafter.

This tepid dispute got momentum in Sardar Dawood’s regime in Afghanistan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in Pakistan in the early 1970s. Some prominent names such as Burhan Uddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Masoud, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and others emerged who were later recruited to counter Afghan government’s policy of backing Pashtun nationalists.

These Jihadi assets were used by Pakistani and US agencies against the Afghan communist regime and USSR after the Saur revolution, which brought death and destruction for Afghanistan and especially for the Pashtun belt that continues till date. In all these conflicts, Durand Line played a pivotal role and is responsible for the blood of hundreds of thousands of lives and rightly deserves the name of “Devil Line”.

History candidly refutes the fact that raising fences and gates will help no one in stopping insurgents and decreasing militancy on both sides until and unless the fate of this line is not resolved. The US-Mexico border is a prime example of border management.

Afghan government is practically quiescent regarding this issue, even though, their verbal hostility is very pronounced. If Afghan government regards this issue disputed then the easy way is to create their internal consensus through parliament or referendum and then, they should take this issue to United Nation rather than blazing cold war on both sides.

However, I feel the Afghan government is in a conundrum from inception regarding the history and structure of the Durand Line Treaty. Now they blame their internal turmoil responsible for their apathy towards this issue but what did refrain them till 1979 when Afghanistan was politically and economically stable?

History enunciates that Amir Abdur Rehman Khan (Afghan King at the time of the Durand Line treaty) was happy with this treaty, expressed gratitude to God, eulogized British Raj in India and immediately started securing his border; Abdur Rahman Khan swiftly subdued the Nuristanis and converted them to Islam. The successor of Abdur Rehman Khan, Amir Habib Ullah Khan also pledged the British Raj that he will respect this treaty.

Walls and gates will never bring peace to this region but will bring more wars and another chapter of bloodbath because the enemy is always “known unknown” who cannot be halted by such ill-conceived plans. Presently, Pakistan is facing global alienation and this conflict has shattered the dreams of strategic depth or fifth province while Afghanistan is rejoicing new foreign bonds. However, the hammer stroke of these conflicts will fall the hardest on Pashtuns on both sides as usual and consequently, will bring another war which will last till our complete devastation.

This crisis also coincides with the enigmatic statement of Pakistani military officials to handover Angor Ada check-post to Afghan authorities located in South Waziristan. This statement was promptly disowned by Pakistani interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar and later on by Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz. This incident showed paradoxical stance and a fissure between Pakistani civil and military authorities in mutual communications and decisions making. After this clash, the disputes like Angora Ada will have a hazy future and will remain alive on both sides.

Pashtuns have to emphasize on their survival and need to come out of the Cold War mentality. Every war in their home will make them victims of terrorism and convert them to IDPs. Our enemy is the one who entice us to paint our hands with blood.

A possible short term solution is eradication of poverty and illiteracy in Pashtun belt, positive changes in attitudes, awareness, determination against extremism, leaving rhetoric of good/bad Taliban and strong commitment to avoid use of their soil against one another may break the wrath of extremism. But after examining intentions and positions on both sides, hoping so is like Alice in Wonderland.

The truth will still remain untarnished that in the presence of this line, this region will remain a center of proxies, instability and a safe haven for the known unknown enemy and we shall witness many Torkham like bloody engagements.

While writing these lines, the good news is that Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed on a cease fire which is a good omen for Pashtuns of both side. The hope is that the tensions go away and what happens in Torkham stays in Torkham!

Writer: Dr. Kalim Ullah Khan

The writer is a doctor by profession and working as a lecturer in a medical college in Peshawar. He can be reached at



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