As the Pakistanis put up a brave front towards the reestablishment of the Taliban Government in Afghanistan, an eerie and unsettled fate awaits the 2,670-kilometer-long land-border between the newly re-christened Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The border was officially demarcated in 1893 by the then Emirate of Afghanistan and a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand, to carve out British-controlled lands (though the preceding Treaty of Gandamak in 1879 had already led to the ceding of areas like Khyber, Quetta, Kurram, Pishin etc., to the British Raj).
Better known as Durand Line it was a product of the ‘Great Game’, to establish a buffer state i.e. Afghanistan, between the British Raj and the Russian sphere of influence. What the maps achieved on paper was the official splitting of the traditional Pashtun lands into two different reigns, something that had no significant bearing on movements of the Pashtun tribes in the area.
However, when the British left the subcontinent in 1947, the independent state of Pakistan inherited the Durand Line ‘divide’ as the rightful cartographical convention under uti possidetis juris, which supports the principle of ‘passed down’ status on to successor states.
Unlike in pre-partition days when the Durand Line border was not really respected in spirit, the newly formed sovereign state of Pakistan required more territorial integrity and assertion. Suddenly, the ‘divide’ of the Durand Line amongst the Pashtun lands became more than just a vacuous line on maps ~ it needed to be formally accepted, recognised and respected, by people on both sides of the line.
This acknowledgement was simply not forthcoming, as other than the unacceptability of the ‘divide’, the region was gripped by a movement that was not welcoming of the newly independent Pakistan. Abdul Gaffar Khan (or more popularly known as Bacha Khan or Sarhadi Gandhi) who led the Khudai Khidmatgar movement on both sides of the Durand Line was vehemently opposed to the idea of ‘partition’. Gaffar Khan had made common cause with the Indian National Congress, and had felt betrayed by its acceptance of the ‘partition’. His famous comment ‘you have thrown us to the wolves’ was indicative of his aversion to the idea of Pakistan, and instead of being forced to choose between India and Pakistan any more, he sought an independent Pashtunistan (land of Pashtuns), or the option of joining Afghanistan. The British disallowed this and post-independence, the Pakistanis came down heavily on the Khudai Khitmatgars and the infamous Babrra Massacre occurred (killing nearly a hundred and fifty Pashtun protestors). An uneasy integration of Pashtun land with Pakistan was announced, though not respected on ground. All along, Afghanistan made repeated pleas to the Cripps mission, the 1946 Cabinet mission to India etc., to have a say in the future of the artificially divided region across the Durand Line, then called the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Importantly, pursuant to Durand Line contestation, Afghanistan remained the only government that opposed entry of Pakistan into the United Nations. The border itself remained contested with aggressive posturing by Pakistan, which soon led the Afghan Government to officially declare that it recognised ‘neither the imaginary Durand nor any similar line’, and that all previous Durand Line agreements were unacceptable to it.
However, since the Pashtuns on the Pakistani side were given their due in officialdom, and the sudden ascent of a Pashtun, Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, as the second President of Pakistan (1958-1969), deligitimised the immediate concerns of any perceived discrimination amongst the Pashtuns in the newly independent State of Pakistan. Even his successor, General Yahya Khan, was a Pashtun. However, amongst the lawless tribes of the Af-Pak region around the Durand Line, only their own age-old tribal code of Pashtunwali mattered and, in some respects, the Pakistani state agreed to deliberately go soft in asserting its own sovereign footprint as a sop towards diffusing the demands for ‘Greater Afghanistan’ or Pashtunistan.
Afghan/Pashtun nationalism lingered as an invisible undercurrent, and no Afghan Government since 1947 has ever formalised the acceptance of the Durand Line. It has become an emotive rallying cry for all Afghan dispensations to win favour amongst the majority Pashtuns and from the Governments of Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, Najibullah, Taliban, Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani to yet again, the Taliban, none of them accept the Durand Line, to the consternation of Pakistan. Karzai called it, ‘A line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers’ and oddly enough, the earlier and the latest governments of the Taliban also concur with the sentiment.
While the Cold war of the 1980s, internecine Afghan wars of 90s and the ‘War on Terror’ of the first twenty years of the 21st Century may have kept the passions surrounding Durand Line on the backburner, the storming of Kabul by the Taliban in 2021 could bring back conversations pertaining to the Durand Line, back on the table.
Apparently reassuring statements by the Taliban such as ‘Pakistan is the second home to us’ may actually imply an embedded outreach that is worrisome for Islamabad, especially considering the unpredictable and violent expressions of the Taliban, per se.
In an inadvertently loaded remark, the Taliban have willy-nilly questioned the sovereign integrity of Pakistan by asking it to stop fencing the Durand Line, as it does not recognise it. Oddly enough, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban does not dispute the borders with other neighbours like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran or even China ~ but counterintuitively so only with its benefactor, Pakistan.
Imran Khan, himself of Pashtun stock from Mianwali, has an awkward job on hand as 80 per cent of the fencing along the Durand Line is believed to have been completed, the remaining 20 per cent will test his abilities with the irascible Taliban. The specter of reviving the subliminal sentiments of Pashtunistan are inevitable and the advent of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban will only accelerate the process, not decelerate it. Current smiles in Islamabad barely conceal the looming fear of Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Durand Line will stick out as a sore thumb as Pakistan takes control of its so-called ‘Strategic Depth’.