Abstract: The British signed a document with the person of King Abdul Rahman Khan in 1893 referring to the borders between Afghanistan and British India. The line devised by the British was worked by the British Colonial Officer Durand and thus became known as the Durand Line. The document was to be ratified by the legislative body in Afghanistan. It never happened. It was to remain in force for one hundred years. It has not been revived on the deadline, which was 1993 either. Pakistan and now especially its military government is trying disparately to pressure Taleban into what Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Haider calls revival of the sanctification of the Durand Line. Legally the Durand Line remains as an imaginary line dividing families on both sides. It has never been demarcated either, especially from Khyber Agency north to Chitral. This artificial and imaginary line is increasingly becoming an area of conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan even with Taleban regime that ironically has the political and military support of the government of Pakistan. A recent visit by an armed convoy of Taleban officials to Mohmand Agency has touched many nerves in Pakistan and has left it in shock. Friday Times of Pakistan reported the incident.
Pakistan seems to be possessed with its insistence on what its interior minister Moinuddin Haider has called the need for sanctification of the Durand Line. This column has dealt with the historical perspective of the Durand Line in its earlier commentaries. (Refer to the commentary: Sanctity of the Unholy in this column's archives.) The same minister had traveled a few times into Afghanistan for talks with Taleban on the same issue. He has been reported pressing hard for recognition of this “imaginary line” by Taleban. Pakistani military government had even staged situations of conflict in the border areas in order to drive its point home for recognition of the border. Throughout, notwithstanding their relations with Pakistan, Taleban have resisted the pressure. Moinuddin Haider returned home from Afghanistan without any commitment from Taleban on the issue and as a matter of fact on any issue of importance including his government's request from Taleban not to destroy the historical statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.
No legislative body in Afghanistan ever ratified the Durand Line agreement, signed by the British with the person of King Abdul Rahman Khan in 1893, and therefore as far as its legality is concerned it remains as a defunct historical document showing colonial designs in the third world countries. The Line was devised by the British to strengthen the status of Afghanistan as a buffer between the British India and the expanding Russian empire desirous of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and for that matter the rich colonial lands of the subcontinent of India. But when the British left India in 1947 for good, it should have returned Afghan territory at least including the area up to the natural border, the River Indus to Afghanistan. Instead, still dreaming of keeping its colonial interests alive in the subcontinent the British gave this territory to Pakistan, thus creating a double buffer zone between the expansionist Soviet Union and the Indian Ocean. This deprived Afghanistan of direct access to the sea. But this was not the only objective, the British-authored project of Durand Line wanted to achieve. It wanted to separate the Pashtoonland by an imaginary line. It would divide not only the land, but would separate families, fathers from sons and brothers from brothers.
However, last Friday, the Friday Times of Pakistan published a comprehensive report on an important incident that challenges the very existence of the notion of the Durand Line. It reported a visit by a high level group of 95 Taleban including their interior minister in a convoy of heavily armed vehicles to Mohmand Agency. The report says the visit “has revived Afghanistan's claim on the area and left Islamabad shocked.” The report added TFT has learnt that the delegation, which was accorded a warm welcome by local chieftains and returned the same day whence it had come, visited a number of places in the agency, most notably the Khapakh area, some 20 kilometers west of Ghalanai. It seems that the visit had prompted the local assistant political agent Mutahar Zeb, to send urgent reports to the Home and Tribal Affairs Department. But Pakistani authorities have downplayed the significance of the visit stating that the group was there to offer condolence to a bereaved family. Manzoor Ahmed, additional secretary in the Department is reported to have said that the practice is normal since Mohmands live on both sides of the Durand Line and share their grief and happiness.
But this is exactly the point any political observer would make. If a tribe is so cohesively entwined, how could any imaginary line divide it? But the Friday Times report also deals with other aspects of the visit. It says: “However, he (Ahmed) could not explain why it was important for the Taleban interior minister to come to Mohmand Agency all the way from Kabul. According to one malik (chieftain) of the Khoizai tribe, the Taliban expressed anger at the Mohmand sub-tribes' urge to get Pakistani identity cards. " This is our land. We will give you the (identity) cards," the malik quoted one Taliban delegation member as saying at a tea party, attended among other chieftains by Malik Fazal Manan, a former member of Pakistan's national assembly. During one of the ceremonies, the delegation also hoisted the Taliban flag at Khapakh.” It is worth mentioning that the visit had scared the Pakistani government so much so that it went ahead and arrested two tribal chieftains namely Malik Abid and Malik Naseem for interrogation and released them after 72 hours. The report further states: “Kabul has refused to renew the Durand Line treaty since 1993 when it expired, " says an Afghanistan expert. One of the reasons Pakistan faced problems with the Kabul rulers right from its inception was Kabul's claim over the North West frontier Province." Kabul never accepted that line or the fact that the NWFP is part of Pakistan. This was one of the main policy planks used by Sardar Daoud's government when it tried to foment trouble by Pukhtoon nationalists in the NWFP on the issue of greater Pukhtoonistan," says this expert.”
The Durand Line treaty worked by the British was singed in 1893 and was to stay in force for one hundred years. Even if the treaty were ratified by a legal legislative body in Afghanistan its validity would have been expired in 1993 and there is no record of it ever having been revived. Pakistan heavily invested in Taleban for many reasons one of which was what its interior minister calls the sanctification of the Durand Line. However, it should be stated that matters such acceptance or rejection of international borders legally are the responsibility of legislative bodies within states and no executive officer can take over this right. In this respect Taleban are justified in having not taken any decision, as they are not legally qualified to do so. This extremely important and vital issue should be dealt with utmost care and true national representation. Even this imaginary line remains unmarked from Khyber Agency up into Chitral. It has been so for that past one hundred and four years. It will remain so for hundreds of years to come.
This is a testimony to the fact that no artificial line, not even those devised by colonial powers, can and should separate masses of humanity that belong together. ---08/11/01
Why the Durand Line is important for Pakistan
W. P. S. Sidhu
Tuesday, November 16, 1999
Pakistan's close relations with Afghanistan in general and the Taliban in particular are normally seen only in religious fundamentalist terms. The argument is that movements like the Taliban are naturally bound to ally with similar groups, such as the Deobandi groups, in Pakistan. Such an alliance, it is claimed, is driven purely by religious ideology and is, therefore, inherently anti-secular and anti-India.
This assertion, however compelling, does not tell the whole story. While there is no doubt that religious and ideological affinity provides a strong basis for the relationship between the two neighbours, Pakistan was bound to pursue a proactive Afghan policy.
There are two principal reasons for this: first, to preserve Pakistan's western border and, second, to provide `strategic depth' against India. In fact, it is more likely that Pakistan is using the `Islamic' garb to veil the significant national and strategic interests that it has in Afghanistan.
The primary reason for this is the legacy ofthe Durand Line which was drawn as part of an agreement signed on 12 November 1893 between the then ruler of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Shah, and Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the colonial government of India. This line, which was delineated in 1894-95, marked the boundary between Afghanistan and the British Indian empire.
In 1947, following the partition of India, it became the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This line, which runs though areas inhabited by the Pashtuns, was never accepted by either Afghanistan (which signed it under duress) or the Pashtuns (who sought to create their own homeland called Pashtunistan). As early as June 1949, Afghanistan's parliament cancelled all the treaties which former Afghan governments has signed with the British-India government including the Durand Treaty and proclaimed that the Afghan government does not recognise the Durand Line as a legal boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ever since then every government in Islamabad militaryand non-military has desperately tried to reach a bilateral agreement with successive regimes in Kabul to convert the Durand Line into the international border, but without any success. Despite propping up several pro-Pakistan regimes in Kabul, Islamabad was unable to get any of them to endorse the Durand Line as the international border. In 1996, when the Durand agreement and line completed a century, it was considered to have lapsed. Consequently, Pakistan's de jure western border ceased to exist.
This realisation made it imperative for Pakistan to get even more deeply involved in determining who rules in Kabul. According to a recent US Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare report Islamabad has always been anxious to secure a docile Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul. This explains Islamabad's continuing and increasing involvement in Afghan affairs.
This serves several strategic purposes for Islamabad.
- First, by co-opting the Pashtuns and promising them Kabul it neutralises the groupthat was most likely to challenge the non-existent Durand Line.
- Second, a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul is more likely to ensure the de facto preservation of the lapsed and abrogated Durand Line, even if it cannot be converted into an international border.
- Third, a Pakistani-dominated Afghanistan would then constitute a forward strategic depth on Pakistan's western flank.
The concept of the 'strategic depth' doctrine is not new: it was first articulated by the army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg and tried out in the high-profile Zarb-I-Momin military exercise in 1989-90.
Simply put, the doctrine calls for a dispersal of Pakistan's military assets in Afghanistan beyond the Durand Line and well beyond the current offensive capabilities of the Indian military. This would ensure the protection of Pakistan's military hardware.
However, to be really effective the doctrine calls for Pakistan having the ability to field these assets at a time and place of its choosing, which in turn requires not just neutralareas around the Durand Line but Pakistan-dominated areas well within Afghanistan.
Thus, like the 'Islamic bomb' slogan of the 1980s, Pakistan's leadership is now using the convenient 'Islamic' label not only to take along the Taliban fundamentalists but also to cover its own strategic and military involvement in Afghanistan. It is important to realise that Islamabad's strategy to counter India is not driven by religious and fundamentalist rhetoric but by cold military logic.
The writer is MacArthur Scholar at the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.