Last month, Taliban soldiers stationed at the border in the Nangarhar province dismantled the fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (Durand Line), and days later stopped Pakistani soldiers from fixing it again.
Here’s a brief recap on how the Durand Line came to be, and why it is such a contentious issue between the two neighbours:
A brief history
The Durand Line was drawn up by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat, to safeguard the interests of the British Empire from Tsarist Russia.
The single-page Durand Line Agreement was signed by the King of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman, in November 1893, and essentially established Afghanistan as a buffer zone between the two expansionist empires.
Most historians agree that the line was drawn up to ensure that strategic regions such as the Khyber Pass remained on the side of the British Empire. Experts also believe that Durand had little idea of the ethnicity and geography of the region, and ended up ignorantly dividing traditional Pashtun tribal areas.
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Why Afghanistan opposes the Durand Line
Kabul claims that British India unilaterally imposed the line on Rahman, and divided families, referring to the Pashtuns — Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and the key to any regime seeking legitimacy.
No Afghanistan government, including the previous (1995-2001) and current Taliban regime, has recognized the Durand Line as Kabul’s international border with Pakistan.
When Pakistan was created in 1947 and inherited the Durand Line, Afghanistan questioned the legality of the Durand Line Agreement as it had been signed with the British Crown and ought to have lapsed at independence.
Even before this, when the British were preparing to exit India, Afghanistan had broached the possibility of bringing the Pashtun areas back under Afghanistan. The British, however, said that the issue could be discussed with the ‘successor authority’, namely Pakistan.
At the time of Partition, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun leader even demanded an independent country for the Pashtuns called ‘Pashtunistan’.
Afghanistan even voted against Pakistan joining the United Nations, arguing that Islamabad should not be recognised till the ‘Pashtunistan’ issue was resolved.
Since then, any attempt by Islamabad to legitimise the line has been quickly shot down by Afghanistan, and countless skirmishes have broken out in the area since 1947.
Just days after the recent tensions at the border, Zabihullah Mujahid, a top Taliban spokesperson, had rejected the fencing and the border itself, claiming that the Durand Line divided Afghanistan. “We do not want it at all … We want to create a secure and peaceful environment on the border so there is no need to create barriers,” he had said.
Some scholars also point out that the Durand Line Agreement was never ratified by any legislative bodies on either side and hence was legally untenable.
There are economic considerations too.
The Durand Line puts the resource-rich province of Balochistan in Pakistan, thereby depriving Kabul of its historic access to the Arabian Sea. The Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic community in the province.
Why Pakistan wants to fence the Durand Line
During the 2001-21 US war in Afghanistan, Pakistan took two major steps to secure its control over the porous border and adjacent areas.
First, Pakistan started fencing its border with Afghanistan in late 2014, after a spate of cross-border terror attacks attributed to militant organisations like Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which comprises small Pashtun militant groups sympathetic to the Taliban that is fighting for an independent ‘Pashtunistan’.
Second, it merged the semi-autonomous tribal districts along the Durand Line into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – the third largest territory in Pakistan.
Islamabad says it wants to fence the border in order to stop the ‘unchecked movement of terrorist elements’, and smuggling.
There are also geopolitical reasons.
After East Pakistan broke away in 1971 to become Bangladesh, Islamabad has been paranoid of any secessionist movement.
To stem any threats from Pashtun nationalism, Islamabad has been desperately trying to establish the Durand Line, which divides the Pashtun, as the legitimate international border. It has also built scores of madrassas in the western territories. These schools emphasise Islam over ethnic identity, which Islamabad hopes will dilute the movement for a unified territory for Pashtuns.
Things may come to head soon as Pakistan has directed its National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf to visit Kabul to discuss the Durand Line with the top Taliban leadership.
The visit is likely to take place in the next few weeks.