Flogging a dead horse

THE recent closure and subsequent reopening of the Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan must be seen in the wider of context of the two neighbours’ historical tensions over the Durand Line, the international boundary between the two countries. The Durand Line stretches over some 2,250 kilometres of mountainous and flat terrain. In the northwest it divides Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghan territory. Here the ‘line’ is about 460 km long.

Its demarcation began in 1893 under Afghan ruler Abdur Rehman and Sir Mortimer Durand, a state official in British India. The Durand agreement was reaffirmed by Abdur Rehman’s successor in April 1905 and then at the conclusion of the third Afghan War in 1919 between Britain and Afghanistan. Further reaffirmation resulted in the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1921. A letter attached to this treaty indicated that the British government, in a gesture of its benevolent feelings for the frontier tribes, undertook to inform the Afghans of any military operation which appeared necessary for the maintenance of order among the frontier tribes, “before the commencement of such operations”.

The main reason for this letter of comfort to the Afghan ruler lay in one peculiarity of the Durand Line — it became possible for the first time after 1893 to refer to a tribal belt as under British control between Afghanistan and the administered border of India. Olaf Caroe writes, “It is true that the agreement did not describe the line as the boundary of India but as the frontier of the amir’s dominions and the line beyond which neither side would exercise interference. This was because the British government did not intend to absorb the tribes into their administrative system, only to extend their own, and exclude the amir’s authority in the territory east and south of the line.”


The Durand Line issue continues to bedevil relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The Durand Line’s other effect was that it divided the approximately 50 million Pakhtuns of whom 31 million live in Pakistan and 14 million in Afghanistan. A perusal of Afghan history shows that at its core Afghanistan saw itself as a Pakhtun nation. This position is now strongly contested by the elite of the new Afghan state that was recreated after the 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan and its restructuring under the Bonn-1 formula of 2001.

While the Afghan Pakhtun elite, including Hamid Karzai, look at the new reality through the old lenses of the Durrani Pakhtun elite, much has changed. The Tajiks and other Afghan non-Pakhtun ethnicities think of their new identity in a more composite manner. The Pakhtun in Afghanistan feel marginalised and there is much angst in their depiction of the past 15 years. Meanwhile, other ethnicities of Afghanistan do not wish to return to their previous marginalised position.

Since the US began the war in Afghanistan, first to remove the Afghan Taliban and then to create a modern state, much blame has been attached to Pakistan. The May 12 editorial in the New York Times describing Pakistan as a “duplicitous and dangerous” US ally is based on Pakistan’s perceived failure to end the safe havens in Fata and the presence of Afghan Taliban in the Quetta Shura as well as on the latitude given to the Haqqani group.

Some of the difficulties between the Afghans and Pakistanis regarding the Durand Line arise from the Pakistani state’s wish to have a more regulated border so that it becomes difficult for militants to come and go as they please. In July 2003, Pakistan’s attempts to secure the Pak-Afghan border in Mohmand territory led to a clash between troops of the two countries. Upon recalibration, the border line was pushed back towards Pakistan.

Pakistan again reiterated its resolve to fence the boundary for better border management in 2006, when the army was directed to fence and mine the border with Afghanistan with legitimate entry permitted through designated check points.

In 2007, another clash between Pakistan and Afghan security occurred when the border was being fenced near Angoor Adda in South Waziristan. In 2009, Pakistan discussed measures with the then US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan on how to improve border management.

In 2009, the Frontier Corps in Fata announced it would take measures to end informal crossings on the Durand Line. Work started on a 60-kilometre mud wall along the Pak-Afghan border in Chaman, Balochistan, in May 2016; at the same time, the FC began fencing the Torkham border in Khyber Agency. This led to resistance by the Afghans and the stoppage of all movement along the Torkham border, until the stand-off ended after a meeting between the Afghan ambassador and the Pakistani army chief on May 14.

After Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the Afghans started demanding revisions to the Durand Line, and voted against Pakistan’s entry to the UN. They laid claim to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas inside Pakistan. In November 1947, Afghan king Zahir Shah dispatched a special envoy to Pakistan, demanding that a separate state be created out of KP and Fata, demands that Pakistan naturally found unrealistic.

Afghanistan’s claim on parts of Pakistan is based on the annexation of these territories in the 18th-century by Ahmad Shah Abdali, regarded as the father of modern-day Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah obtained sovereignty over modern-day Sindh and parts which compose today’s KP, Fata and Balochistan. But laying claim to territories based on past conquests is impractical. These annexations were short-lived. By the time of Ahmad Shah’s death, control of Punjab passed to the Sikhs, who at their peak, had annexed parts of modern-day KP and Fata.

Former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said in an interview in 2012 that the Durand Line was the international border and umbrage was taken to his statement by the Afghans. This position was reiterated by the US State Department in 2015 when its spokesperson declared that the US recognised the Durand Line. Clearly, there is no more capital to be gained through whipping a dead horse. Instead, the emphasis must be on regulating the border to defeat terrorism.

The writer is a former political agent and chief secretary, KP.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2016

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