Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Durand Line Controversy Set to Resurface

The resolution of the longstanding frontier dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan is key to a rapprochement between the two countries.
By Yasin Bidar

The war in Afghanistan might have provided an unexpected opportunity to resolve a damaging, century-old dispute over the country's border with present-day Pakistan. Settlement of this issue could profoundly benefit the two countries who have been at odds since Pakistan's creation.

 

The matter was broached earlier this month during a visit to Pakistan by Hamid Karzai, chief of the newly installed Afghanistan interim authority. He and General Parvez Musharaf, Pakistan's military dictator, expressed determination to put previous hostilities aside and start afresh.

 

"We have agreed without reservations to work together to develop strong brotherly cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan in all spheres - our destinies are intertwined, " said Musharaf after his meeting with Karzai on February 8.

 

Pakistan promised 100 million US dollars to help the reconstruction of Afghanistan's shattered economy - 10 million dollars of which would go immediately towards consolidation of the interim authority. If progress is now made on the border problem, then Karzai's visit could prove a landmark in the affairs of southern Asia.

 

The problem dates back to 1893 when British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand drew an arbitrary line across the Hindu Kush mountains and proclaimed it the border between British Indian territory and fiercely independent Afghanistan to the north and west. The trouble was that the line cut through an area peopled by Pashtun tribes which had no wish to be separated from their kinfolk.

 

Afghanistan never accepted the Durand line and campaigned for creation of a "Pashtunistan" to unite the Pashtun tribes. The British in their day rejected this and so did Pakistan when it came into being with the partition of British India in 1948. The issue dogged Afghan-Pakistani relationships for the next 50 years, leaving both countries in a permanent state of semi-cold war.

 

In 1948, the Pakistan government conducted a plebiscite asking the Pashtuns whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan. Joining Afghanistan was not presented as an option. About 50 per cent of Pashtuns boycotted the poll and Kabul never recognised it as valid.

 

During the 1950s, Afghanistan vainly tried to settle the dispute through US mediation. But by then the cold war was in full swing. Afghanistan stuck to neutrality and a non-aligned foreign policy while Pakistan joined America in the anti-Soviet CENTO and SEATO military treaties. By the early 1960s, relations were so bad the two countries nearly went to war but stopped short of closing their mutual borders.

 

In 1975, Islamabad sent in mujahedin guerrillas to the Panshir valley north of Kabul to destabilise the regime of President Sardar Daud, a staunch advocate of Pashtunistan. This guerrilla activity led to the intervention of the USSR in December 1979.

 

Pakistan then became a springboard for American-backed military action against the Soviet occupation and the pro-communist Afghan government. By the 1990s, with the Taleban in power, Afghanistan was halfway to becoming a colony of Pakistan.

 

The Taleban effectively became Islamabad's puppet regime, supporting Islamabad on Kashmir, never questioning the Durand line and providing strategic depth for Pakistan in case of war with India. Had it not been for September 11, and the US decision to root out the al-Qaeda network, Afghanistan would have remained a quasi-colony for years to come.

 

During their talks, Musharaf and Karzai spoke at length about the importance of recognising each other's territorial integrity, but analysts say that there will have to be a serious reassessment of the border between the two countries if they really want to improve bilateral relations.

 

At the moment, Afghanistan is not strong enough to tackle negotiations over the Durand line - it has other priorities. Pakistan knows this and may also try to increase its influence amongst the Pashtuns, with the aim of persuading them to drop their objections to the Durand line.

 

For now, though, it's crucial that this highly controversial issue does not interfere with attempts by both countries to get on. Landlocked Afghanistan is dependent on the Pakistani port of Karachi for its trade. Islamabad, meanwhile, is keen to have access to the markets of Central Asia, for which Afghanistan is a key transit country. Of more immediate importance is the return of some 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and the repatriation of Pakistanis imprisoned in Afghanistan.

 

Yasin Bidar, former editor of the Kabul Times, is a Dutch-based freelance journalist.

More IWPR's Global Voices