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Monday, September 27, 2021

Explained: Why Durand Line is a friction point between Afghanistan and Pakistan

The issue has sowed distrust between Afghans and Pakistan for decades, and is a potential flashpoint in relations between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: September 9, 2021 1:08:36 pm
People cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. (AP)

Earlier this week, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told a Pashto channel in Pakistan that Afghans oppose the fence erected by Pakistan along the Durand Line. “The new Afghan government will announce its position on this issue. The fencing has separated people and divided families. We want to create a secure and peaceful environment on the border so there is no need to create barriers,” Mujahid said.

The issue has sowed distrust between Afghans and Pakistan for decades, and is a potential flashpoint in relations between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Line dividing Pashtun

The Durand Line is a legacy of the 19th century Great Game between the Russian and British empires in which Afghanistan was used as a buffer by the British against a feared Russian expansionism to its east.

The agreement demarcating what became known as the Durand Line was signed on November 12, 1893 between the British civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand and Amir Abdur Rahman, then the Afghan ruler.

Abdur Rahman became king in 1880, two years after the end of the Second Afghan War in which the British took control of several areas that were part of the Afghan kingdom. He was essentially a British puppet. His agreement with Durand demarcated the limits of his and British India’s “spheres of influence” on the Afghan “frontier” with India.

The seven-clause agreement recognised a 2,670-km line which, according to Rajiv Dogra , author of Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart, Durand drew on the spot on a small map of Afghanistan during his negotiations with the Amir. The line stretches from the border with China to Afghanistan’s border with Iran.

Clause 4 said the “frontier line” would be laid down in detail and demarcated by British and Afghan commissioners “whose object will be to arrive by mutual understanding at a boundary which shall adhere with the greatest possible exactness to the line shown in the map attached to this agreement, having die regard to the existing local rights of villages adjoining the frontier”.

In reality, the line cut through Pashtun tribal areas, leaving villages, families, and land divided between the two “spheres of influence”. It has been described as a “line of hatred”, arbitrary, illogical, cruel and a trickery on the Pashtuns. Some historians believe it was a ploy to divide the Pashtuns so that the British could keep control over them easily. It also put on the British side the strategic Khyber Pass.

Cross-border tensions

With independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited the Durand Line, and with it also the Pashtun rejection of the line, and Afghanistan’s refusal to recognise it. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan joining the United Nations in 1947.

‘Pashtunistan’ — an independent country of the Pashtuns — was a demand made by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the time of Partition, although he later resigned himself to the reality of Partition. The proximity of the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ to India was a point of tension between the two countries almost immediately. The fear of Indian support to Pashtun nationalism haunts Pakistan to date, and is embedded in its Afghan policy.

Pakistan’s creation and support for the Taliban is seen by some as a move to obliterate ethnic Pashtun nationalism with an Islamic identity. But it did not work out the way Pakistan had planned. When the Taliban seized power in Kabul the first time, they rejected the Durand Line. They also strengthened Pashtun identity with an Islamic radicalism to produce the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, whose terrorist attacks since 2007 left the country shaken.

The fence

As cross-border tensions peaked in 2017 with several attacks on Pakistani border posts by militants that Pakistan accused Afghanistan of sheltering – while the Afghan government accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network – Pakistan began erecting a fence on the Durand Line. While it may have reduced the movement of militants from Afghanistan into Pakistan, it did little to stop the movement of Afghan Taliban across and back.

Now mostly completed, the fence has been a source of more tensions as Afghans, and Pashtuns on both sides of the border, see it as a move by Pakistan to formalise the boundary, making their division permanent. This is the fence that Zabiullah Mujahid said was not acceptable to the Taliban.

An Al Jazeera report said the $500 m fencing is actually two sets of chain-link fences with a 6-ft gap, filled with concertina wire coils. It is 11.6 ft high on the Pakistani side, and 13 ft on the Afghan side. It is fitted with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors, and punctuated by 1,000 watchtowers. Cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated points after the completion of the project.

Pakistan believes that in the new situation in Afghanistan, the fence will help control any spillover from unrest and chaos there.

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