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The gamble on Durand Line

The contradictory positions of Pakistan and Afghanistan on Durand Line necessitate a complete policy rethink to diffuse border tension

The gamble on Durand Line
Marred by contradiction, Kabul’s stand on Durand Line is dictated by its landlocked status.

The May’s Afghan shelling across Pak-Afghan border at Chaman once again brought to the limelight the saga surrounding the Durand Line. What are Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s respective positions on the Durand Line and how Islamabad can rationally respond to Kabul’s behaviour are two questions this article is meant to answer. Revisionistic in essence, Kabul’s position — antithetical to Islamabad’s stand on the Durand Line — perhaps stems from its geographical compulsion than irredentism.

Every Afghan, from government officials — monarchs, communists, Islamists and nationalists — to academicians to men in the street, firmly believes that the Durand Line agreement ceased to exist with the collapse of the British colonial edifice back in August 1947. Since then, Kabul has not ratified the border treaty which it used to confirm on several occasions before the partition of India.

In 1947, Afghanistan contended that ‘Pashtunistan’ issue to be resolved first, voted against Pakistan’s accession to the United Nations only to withdraw its objection a month later and established diplomatic relations in February 1948, however. A step with far-reaching consequences, in July 1949, a grand council assembly or loya jirga — traditionally considered as the source of all legal authority in Afghanistan — declared all border treaties, including the Durand Line agreement, between Afghanistan and British India as null and void.

Even the Taliban, the “strategic assets,” brushed aside Pakistan’s requests of formally recognising the Durand Line. “Pakistan formally approached us about the Durand Line three times,” Abu Bakar Siddique quotes former Taliban diplomat to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef in his book titled The Pashtun question: the unresolved key to the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We always told them that we are not a national government and we see ourselves as an emergency transition, which cannot decide on such important issues,” Zaeef is quoted to have said so. Hamid Karzai, former Afghan president, tweeted in March: “We remind the government of Pakistan that Afghanistan hasn’t and will not recognise the Durand Line.”

Afghan position notwithstanding, any serious opposition to Durand Line will be internal to the dynamics of politics inside Pakistan.

Afghan writers dispute the very existence of any border as international frontier between Afghanistan and British India. In his book titled A political and diplomatic history of Afghanistan: 1863-1901, Afghan historian Hassan Kakar writes: “As its text states, the Durand agreement was for the purpose of “. . . fixing the limit of their [Afghanistan and the British Government of India’s] respective spheres of influence.” Similarly, another Afghan scholar Zalmay A Gulzad, in his book External influences and the development of the Afghan state in the nineteenth century writes: “Nowhere in the agreement is the word boundary used to define the Durand Line. Rather, it was a line that functioned to illustrate where the Amir’s influence ceased and limitations of the British sphere”.

For Pakistan, the Durand Line is an international frontier. Seeing itself as the successor state of British India, the country claims succeeding all rights and duties that accrued from border agreements that the colonial administration had clinched with Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s claim as being the inheritor of colonial British is “an attitude” — in the words of Olaf Caroe in his book The Pathans —“ in which the United Kingdom Government has expressed its public agreement.” Speaking in the House of Commons on June 30, 1950, Noel Becker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, said: “It is His Majesty’s Government’s view that Pakistan is in international law the inheritor of the rights and duties of the old government of India, and of His Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom, in these territories, and that the Durand Line is the international frontier.”

Similarly, on March 1, 1956, British Prime Minister, in reply to a question, said: “Her Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom fully supports the government of Pakistan in maintaining their sovereignty over the areas East of the Durand Line and in regarding this Line as the international frontier with Afghanistan.”

Similarly, Ahmed Rashid contradicts Siddique’s claim of Pakistan asking thrice for Durand Line recognition as international border. In his book Descent into Chaos: the United States and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Rashid states that Pakistan did not ask for the formal recognition of Durand Line, neither during the era of Afghan jihad nor Mujahideen’s period of Afghanistan nor Taliban’s rule of the country despite UN’s prodding back in late 90s. Thus, whereas Kabul’s claim relating to Durand Line is revisionistic, Islamabad’s public posture is one informed by status quo. How should Pakistan respond?

Kabul’s stand on Durand Line, marred by contradiction, is seemingly dictated by its landlocked status. At times, especially after 1947, Kabul supported, at least theoretically, ‘Pashtunistan’ movement, one aimed to make an independent Pashtun state between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, Afghan president Muhammad Daud would claim that Afghan state extended up to Indus River.

Apparently, Afghan irredentism is a means to the end of securing sea access. Soft border policy and an uninterrupted access to sea will help assuage Kabul’s hardships as being a landlocked country. Secondly, the issue with Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has not been the craving for a friendly regime at the court of Kabul but the installation of an equally anti-Delhi government there too. Whereas Taliban provided for one back in the late 90s, the incumbent Afghan government and its predecessor are considered as quite the opposite of what Pakistan longs for, at least this is what one can read in Islamabad’s Kabul policy.

Policymakers need a rethink: perhaps, alleviating Pakistan’s national security concerns requires shedding the country’s obsession with having a veto on Afghanistan’s India policy. Whether Afghans have ever been enslaved in history or not is moot anyway, the fact that every Afghan, Islamist or nationalist, takes undiluted pride in that they have never bowed to the dictates of others have a definite clue for policy makers in Islamabad: Afghans abhor lecturing on who they shouldn’t befriend!

Afghan position notwithstanding, any serious opposition to Durand Line will be internal to the dynamics of politics inside Pakistan. Keeping in view the fact that Pashtuns’ commercial and economic interests are integrated well into both Pakistani state and society, no amount of Afghan propaganda will gain any significant traction with Pashtuns across Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line.

Farman Kakar

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