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  • Heeba Hasan

National Existentialism – Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Durand Line

When one first thinks of Pakistan’s troubles, perhaps the issues that immediately come to mind are those to do with India, most likely the dispute over Kashmir and the great dilemmas regarding Pakistan’s northeastern borders. It is true, of course, that this has been a major trouble since independence and remains a source of plight not only for the warring parties but for those suffering individuals living in Kashmir, with no fixed identity or home.

What most people overlook, however, is the similarly problematic question of the Durand Line lying towards the country’s western frontiers, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and spanning approximately 1510 miles (2430 km) as it cuts across expanses of tribal land, dividing families and villages precipitously. This border, too, has proven to be highly unstable, threatening to strip Pakistan of more than half of its land as Afghan governments throughout the years have denied its legitimacy and existence, demanding the reintegration of Pakistan’s western parts into Afghanistan or into a new country, Pashtunistan.

At first, this sounds confounding. How can Afghanistan simply disregard what exists? Are governments and individuals then free to disregard and deny all that they find inconvenient? But, perhaps, studying a bit of the region’s history can help us understand Afghanistan’s policies. An examination of the nature of borders, especially those artificially planted in the East can aid this understanding. As Tim Marshall says in his bestseller, Prisoners of Geography, ‘The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen.’ It seems Marshall managed to put his finger on the answer – the very existence of borders in formerly colonised regions is questionable, not natural or logically constructed but rather by political manoeuvres, remnants of oppression and autocracy. The ‘lines on maps’ were made by temporary rulers in order to meet their demands rather than secure peace in the region. Indeed, it can be argued that they were often created with the opposite intention. They had no reasonable connection to the people they divided, their lifestyles, cultural systems or even their geography.

What Afghanistan experienced, then, was not straightforwardly ‘lawful’ but rather a takeover and breakup of its informal (as they were in those days) territory by the British, to be handed over to Pakistan later. It was, in fact, the result of a diplomatic decision: As Britain feared Soviet advances in Afghanistan, nearer than preferable to the Indian colonies, it was in search of a strategic move that would ensure that its hold over the subcontinent remained intact. Initially, the British employed their military powers but after losing both the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars in 1838-42 and 1878-1880 respectively, without any sizeable gains (only local occupations), they subsequently settled on their famous ‘divide and rule’ policy, (or ‘the Sandeman System’ as the British called it) by pressurising the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, into signing a treaty with Sir Mortimer Durand, the Foreigners' Secretary of India, that (some say) the Amir could not even read.

Afghanistan was paid 60,000 GBP a year with the promise of protection in exchange for the 40,000 square miles of land which was given up. On 12 November 1893, the country thereby gave up a large, now broken chunk of land in favour of the British, who gained a new buffer zone. They had created a tripartite frontier, with fronts at the base of the Sulaiman Hills, in the vassal states under British control and Afghanistan. This was to inhibit Russian growth in Central Asia and to control the Pashtuns that they governed by separating them. In addition, now land-locked Afghanistan’s access to the sea was stolen and the British had trade and access routes in their domain.

According to the treaty, the two areas now had ‘their respective spheres of influence’ and ‘the Government of India would at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of Afghanistan, and His Highness the Amir will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of India’. Such wording further complicates our understanding of a border. ‘Spheres of Influence’ is much vaguer than the modern term ‘border’ and raises questions regarding the legitimacy of today’s boundaries. However, it is true that whatever the definition may have been at the time, the treaty affirmed that neither party would interfere in the area of the other, just like a modern border. Some areas were not properly divided until the 1930s and the British faced severe rebuttals from the Pashtun tribes that found themselves spread over two different ‘spheres’. The fury of the British over this matter remains to this day as the Afghans have continuously denied the existence of the Durand Line. It is also true that Afghanistan also formally withdrew from the treaty in 1949 at a Loya Jirga (tribal assembly). However, according to Pakistan and the rest of the world, the agreement stands.

Afghanistan continuously raises concerns, noting provisions of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969). The country argues that based on Articles 51 and 52, we can say the border’s creation is illegal because the Amir was coerced into signing the treaty. Furthermore, as the country withdrew from all British agreements in 1949 and was initially unwilling to acknowledge Pakistan as a country; they believe the terms of the treaty to have been permanently dissolved.

Moreover, declassified files from the British Foreign Office also suggest that creating an international border was not the ultimate aim of the British –it was only to serve their interests at the time and they also feared that a formal partition would not benefit them. Furthermore, the Amir of Afghanistan pointed out that the buffer (of tribes like the Mahsud) would be erased if a partition was formalised. Perhaps, this can explain the word choice ‘sphere of influence’ instead of ‘boundary’ or ‘border’.

Afghanistan sees the agreements of the past as forced yet temporary settlements that were ultimately annulled. Pakistan, on the other hand, sees treaties from 1905, 1919, 1921, and 1930 as backing their support for the Durand Line’s legitimacy. It is necessary to note how drastic it would be for Pakistan to imagine what Afghanistan proposes – the loss of more than half of the country. This coupled with the Kashmir crisis severely threatens the nation as neighbours perpetually attempt to ‘take back’ land which the people of Pakistan never ‘took’ from them in the first place These areas are, in fact, parts of the country’s body that it was born with. The current situation is the child of British rule and erratic drawings on maps for colonial benefit. They have, truly, had severe and devastating effects on the stability of Central and South Asia.

It is interesting to note the present-day dynamics between the neighbours as we speculate the future of the complicated Durand Line. As bordering countries, they continue to require one another’s support in a multitude of ways, be it for port access or diplomatic protection and support. Though Afghanistan’s claims may make sense, it is undeniable that the entire world’s favour is toward the maintenance of the Durand Line. Abolishing it would also arguably severely harm Pakistan and bring no great benefit to the already unstable Afghanistan. While it may be true that the Afghani Amir was pressured into signing an agreement, his signature did confirm the deal and his successors would affirm this choice. Although Afghanistan ultimately withdrew from all agreements with the British, Pakistan’s creation posed a newer complication to the issue as the colonisers left the carcass in someone else's chamber before their departure. The Durand Line does, in these ways, illustrate to the world the impacts of border creation, the nuances of a single stroke of ‘ink’ and the nature of boundaries in the Middle East and South Asia.


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