A wrinkle in time

Kanishk Tharoor
28 February 2007

Speaking last week at a ceremony for the late Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Afghan president Hamid Karzai ventured into the murky realm of cartography. He rejected the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as "unacceptable" and as a "line of hatred separating two brothers". The "brothers" are the Pashtuns, who straddle both sides of the border, and with whom Karzai - a Pashtun himself - is desperate to score points as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan gains momentum. Yet Karzai's salvo against the border is as much grounded in a century-old dispute as it is in contemporary political concerns. The Afghan president continued Kabul's longstanding rhetorical rejection of a border that remains at the core of instability in the region.

A foggy border

In technical terms, there may be no legal border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And there may not have been a legal border between the two countries since 1995.

The "border" separating Afghanistan and then British India was agreed upon in 1893 and put into effect in 1895. Named after Sir Mortimer Durand - then foreign secretary of the government of British India - who convinced the reluctant the ruler of Afghanistan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan to agree to it, the Durand Line has long been disputed by Afghan leaders. According to Kabul, stretches of modern-day Pakistan, including the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), belong in truth to Afghanistan. Rahman Khan signed the treaty under duress, Afghans claim, so modern Pakistan occupies Afghan land.

The dubious border turned into a lapsed border in 1993, when the treaty signed between Durand and Rahman Khan completed a century and expired. A de jure border dwindled into the murky realm of being only de facto. Pakistani scholars, with the backing of the US State Department, have belatedly tried to make the case that the border remains valid, but its legitimacy remains squarely in doubt. Pakistan still seeks reaffirmations from Kabul of the integrity of the Durand Line.

Historical baggage

Today's ongoing war-of-words between Afghanistan and Pakistan is, in many respects, a continuation of historical conflicts around the Durand Line. First, the border has divided more than territory; both Afghanistan and Pakistan have sat at the brink of separate geopolitical tectonic plates. The Durand Line was intended at its creation to delineate British and Russian influence - with British India insulated from Russian threat by Afghanistan - as part of the 19th century's "Great Game". After World War II and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Afghanistan eventually fell under Soviet influence while Pakistan maintained close strategic ties with Washington. For the bulk of its history, the Durand Line has been politicised in the largest terms.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the Durand Line cuts through lands predominantly peopled by Pashto-speaking groups. The Pashtuns (or "Pathans") make up nearly half of Afghanistan's total population (numbering around 15 million), while numbering about 25 million in Pakistan, many of whom live in the restive NWFP and FATA. The region has long been unruly, home to numerous revolts during British colonial rule. Pakistan inherited British problems with the lawless region, having to suppress large-scale Pashtun revolts between 1950 and 1955 which enjoyed the tacit backing of Kabul. Afghanistan openly declared the Durand Line "imaginary" in 1949 and reemphasised its claim to be the homeland of the Pashtuns, with rights to all the land from the Durand Line east to the Indus River. Numerous Pashtun nationalist movements emerged in ensuing decades on both sides of the border, challenging the legitimacy of the Durand Line and the authority of Pakistan over the Pashtuns.

Pakistan's "Pashtun problem"

Though the feud between Afghanistan and Pakistan dissipated somewhat in the mire of the cold war, its legacy is clearly visible today. Pakistan's historic support for the Taliban in the late 1990s stemmed in large part from its longstanding desire to have a friendly Pashtun government in Kabul that would not challenge the legitimacy of the Durand Line. Radicalised in madrasas on the Pakistani side of the border, Pashtuns make up the bulk of Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the region.

Nevertheless, Islamabad still struggles to contain the aspirations of nationalist Pashtuns and to maintain the volatile allegiance of their radical brethren. Musharraf's government caved into growing local pressure to sign a controversial peace treaty with tribal forces in the northwest in September 2006, essentially giving free reign to extremists in the NWFP. A further controversial measure to rename the NWFP and FATA "Pakhtunistan" - and thus bring the regions into line with the other ethnically-named parts of Pakistan - has gathered steam despite opposition from conservative forces in the Pakistani social and political heartland of Punjab.

The political future of the Pashtuns, particularly those on the Pakistani-side of the Durand Line, remains central to the crisis gripping the region. Pakistan's "Pashtun problem" has played a part in facilitating both the rise (and resurgence) of the Taliban and the growing unrest in Pakistan's northwest. With US and Nato forces engaged in intensifying battle in Afghanistan, more capitals than Islamabad and Kabul will have to deal with the inheritance of the Durand Line.

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