The Durand Line issue has continued to complicate the unpredictable nature of the Afghan-Pakistani relationship since the birth of Pakistan. Constant tension haunts their neighborly relations, as apprehensions and suspicions co-exist with some affable gestures. No Afghan government, including the present one headed by President Ashraf Ghani, has ever recognized the legitimacy of the Durand Line, which runs through mountainous terrain and remains largely unpoliced. The Durand Line, which is viewed by many Afghans as an arbitrary and nonsensical reflection of geography, history and culture, is an existential issue for Pakistan. Recent Pakistani attempts to establish fences and border posts along the disputed border have been met with stiff resistance from Afghanistan.
Periodic skirmishes and tensions between Pakistani and Afghan security personnel along the disputed border greatly aggravate an already worsening bilateral relationship, with each side accusing the other of insincerity in fighting terrorism. Violent clashes near the Chaman border post in early May 2017 left at least 13 people dead, and more than 80 wounded, most of whom were Pakistani. Pakistan alleged that Afghan security forces were given advance notice of the census-taking activity along the border areas. The Afghan side argued that Pakistani authorities were warned against conducting any census activity in the divided villages, which are located at the “zero point of the Durand Line.” After the incident, an editorial in The Dawn speculated that “Perhaps it was to lay down a marker in the ongoing diplomatic and security tussles between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Or perhaps it was the age-old refusal of Afghanistan to officially recognize the Durand Line—the census seemingly a threat because it would officially count the villagers on the Pakistani side of the border as Pakistani citizens.” Diplomatic back-and-forth following the border clashes may temporarily calm bilateral tensions, but given the complicated nature of the issue resulting from conflicting interpretations, no solution to the Afghanistan-Pakistan disagreement over the Durand Line seems to be in sight.
Troubles Rooted in British Colonialism
Pakistan has long had a strained and unstable relationship with its Afghan neighbor, as the two countries have been at odds ever since the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. Among other important factors, the roots of the Afghan-Pakistani conflict are the product of the controversial legacy of British colonialism in the region. In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a pawn in the so-called ‘Great Game’ between the Russian and British empires. As Russia began to grab one Central Asian khanate after another, the steadily expanding Czarist Empire began to move dangerously close to the Pamirs, the borderland of British India. In 1893, to secure control of the strategic Khyber Pass, the British had to send diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand to negotiate an agreement to delineate the border between Afghanistan and British India. The new border, dubbed the Durand Line, divided the Pashtun tribal lands in two. Half of the Pashtun tribal region became part of British India, and the other half remained as part of Afghanistan. The boundary has since been viewed with utter contempt and resentment by Pashtuns on both sides of the line, which also cause Afghanistan to lose the province of Baluchistan, depriving the country of its historic access to the Arabian Sea.
As the British prepared to leave India, Afghanistan demanded a revision of the border. Its request was denied. When Pakistan joined the United Nations in 1947, Afghanistan was the only member nation to vote against its membership. Subsequently, Afghanistan announced that all previous Durand Line agreements, including the subsequent Anglo-Afghan treaties upholding it, were invalid because Afghan rulers were coerced by British pressure. Kabul’s geopolitically ambitious, but strategically unrealistic, call for an independent Pashtunistan to be carved out of Pakistan would have expanded Afghanistan all the way to the Indus River. During the Cold War, Pakistan became an ally of the United States, while Afghanistan sought diplomatic and military support from the Soviet Union. The larger U.S.-Soviet rivalry overshadowed the Afghan-Pakistani dispute, preventing the resolution of the Durand Line problem.
Blowback from Pakistan’s Support for the Taliban
When the Soviets committed the historic blunder of invading Afghanistan in 1979, it ushered in a momentous turning point in U.S.-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. The intervention not only salvaged the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, but also laid the foundation for an expanded Pakistani role in Afghan internal affairs. With liberal funding from the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (I.S.I.) organized large numbers of mujahideen groups that it recruited mainly from the Pashtun tribal areas. General Zia hosted Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and emerged as the ‘godfather’ of the Afghan jihad. Pakistan now developed its own interventionist policy for Afghanistan, bankrolled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The policy came to be referred to as ‘strategic depth.’
Pakistan’s wholehearted involvement in the so-called Afghan jihad has had one far-reaching consequence: demonstrating to the Pakistani security establishment a model for how it could manipulate Afghanistan’s internal affairs to its own advantage. The fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992, and the subsequent chaos, would set the stage for the rise of the Taliban in 1996. It would also create an opportunity for the I.S.I. to emerge as the power-broker, as it became the Taliban’s principal financial, military, and diplomatic patron. Ultimately, Pakistan was unable to transform this achievement into an enduring legitimacy for the Durand Line.
During the brief Taliban rule over Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Pakistani military thought that the Taliban would not only recognize the Durand Line, but would also curb the undercurrents of Pashtun nationalism in the northwest frontier, thus providing an outlet for Pakistani Islamists. The actual result was the exact opposite. Categorically refusing to recognize the Durand Line, the Taliban went on to foster Pashtun nationalism, albeit of an Islamic character, which greatly affected Pakistani Pashtuns. The overthrow of the Taliban following the U.S. invasion in 2001 also transformed the nature and dimension of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy cost it the sympathy and support of the non-Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s tactical U-turn after 9/11, however, also undermined the loyalty of many of the Pashtun clans in Afghanistan.
Additionally, Pakistan’s attempt to prevent Pakistani Pashtuns from crossing the Durand Line to fight Western troops forced the Pakistani Taliban to redirect their fury against targets all over Pakistan. The Taliban were the ultimate I.S.I. ‘strategic assets’ in its campaign to secure control in Afghanistan. Instead, they aggravated exactly the problems they were supposed to solve—fostering Pashtun nationalism rather than restraining it, and shoring up Islamist radicals in Pakistan rather than redirecting their attention across the border. In fact, it was only after the blowback from the Pakistani Taliban that Islamabad thought of fencing the volatile border between the two countries. To do so, it started claiming that drug traffickers, small weapon paddlers, criminals, and terrorists were taking advantage of the porosity of border.
Pakistan has argued that the Durand Line is a legitimate border and that the state of Pakistan has legally inherited the border as the legitimate successor state of British India. Kabul’s open border policy regarding the Durand Line has Pakistan worried that Afghanistan harbors irredentist ambitions, and wishes to assert control over the Pashtun-speaking parts of Pakistan. This threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity is viewed in Islamabad as existential. Pakistani sensitivity to the issue can also be understood by the painful experience of losing what is now Bangladesh to Bengali nationalists (with Indian support) in a liberation war in 1971. The loss of around one-third of Pakistani territory also struck at the root of its raison d’être as a state in which Islam was supposed to supersede all ethnic and linguistic differences.
Pakistan’s firm belief about the intertwined nature of the Afghan and Indian threats, and the ability of Afghanistan, whether on its own or with India’s support, to undermine the Pakistani state, has been a constant theme in Pakistan’s military discourse. Any nationalist or secessionist tendency within Pashtun communities is considered inimical to Pakistan’s territorial integrity—perhaps even to its national survival. Since the 1990s, Pakistan’s security establishment has come to believe that Islamists would be more sympathetic to its strategic concerns in Afghanistan, and less aggressive in rejecting the Durand Line as the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Thus, it has a vested interest in mobilizing Afghans along religious rather than ethnic lines. The persistence of this mode of thinking continues to complicate the task of finding durable peace in Afghanistan. Pakistani efforts to consolidate its grip over its neighbor through the Taliban have been ambitious, but disastrous. If successful, it would have been one of the most defining strategic developments in the region in a generation. Instead, they have left Afghanistan on the brink of failure, and allowed a resurgent jihadist penetration deep inside Pakistan.
Islamabad has never been willing to risk a dynamic and powerful Afghan state controlling its own affairs. As Pakistani columnist Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad noted in a column in Pakistan Today after the Chaman incident,
“[Pakistani] governments have generally treated Afghanistan as Pakistan’s fifth province. No self-respecting nation can allow itself to be treated like this, least of all the Afghans who have withstood the might of the British and Russian empires, and the onslaught of the Soviet Union followed by the American invasion. What has been in the mind of those seeking strategic depth or treating Afghanistan as a backyard was Pakistan’s lager size, population and military might. They saw Afghanistan as a landlocked country which depended on Pakistan for import of basic food items and had a small and ineffectual army.”
Given that Pakistan enjoys almost unbridgeable demographic and military asymmetry over Afghanistan, the only viable strategic scenario under which Kabul could hope to regain its coveted territories would be as a result of a total collapse of the Pakistani state, either from a major Indo-Pakistani military confrontation or a civil war.
Resisting Pakistani Hegemony over Afghanistan
The former Afghan president and an influential leader, Hamid Karzai, recently disclosed that, during his presidency, Pakistan demanded Afghan recognition of the Durand Line and a reduction in bilateral ties between Kabul and New Delhi. Following Pakistan’s unilateral closure of the transit and travel routes along the border crossing in February, Karzai vehemently argued that “Pakistan has no legal authority to dictate terms on the Durand line.” Omar Zakhilwalal, the current Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, has also exposed the hollowness of the argument that the border closure is intended to stop terrorists from crossing over because “these points such as Torkham and Spin Boldak have been manned by hundreds of military and other security personnel ... Continuous unreasonable closure of legal Pak-Afghan trade and transit routes cannot have any other explanation except to be aimed at hurting the common Afghan people.” He has underlined the “need to change policies instead of erecting walls and fences” in order to eradicate terrorism. Clearly, these public utterances are a mixture of populism and a desperate reassertion of illegitimacy of the Durand Line, tempered with the need to emphasize Pakistan’s duplicity in the fight against terrorism.
However feeble they may appear, it is doubtless that the Afghan political elite has been employing all ideological, cultural, and institutional resources to counter Pakistani attempts at hegemonic control over the Afghan state. There is little evidence to suggest that either the current or any future Afghan regime would settle the Durand Line dispute until there is a demonstrable reconfiguration in Islamabad’s security-centric approach toward Kabul. Policy analysts often argue that the United States should encourage the Afghan government to initiate a sincere domestic debate on the issue of the Durand Line in return for guarantees of Afghan stability, access to trade, and access transport corridors to Pakistani ports. The question is: who would ensure that giving Pakistan what it wants from Afghanistan would translate into a meaningful reorientation in Pakistan’s Afghan policy?
Since the Durand Line divides the Pashtuns, it has never been popular in Afghanistan, which has always been averse to formally relinquish its claim to a larger Pashtunistan. Except for a negotiated settlement for some sort of division of the disputed territories or Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line in exchange for the absolute end of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, the dispute over the Durand Line will continue to poison the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan for the foreseeable future. In the current scenario, both are likely to see its own most dangerous characteristics in the other. Pakistan will continue to consider the Durand Line as settled, and the current problem as a security issue alone. Afghanistan will underline the unsettled nature of the border as the root cause of the problem.
 “At Least 13 Dead, 80 Wounded In Pakistani-Afghan Border Clashes”, Radio Free Europe/ Radio liberty, 5 May 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-afghanistan-border-shooting-census-tea…
“Border Attack” (Editorial), The Dawn, 5 May 2017, http://epaper.dawn.com/DetailImage.php?StoryImage=07_05_2017_008_002
 Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad, “Bringing Pakistan and Afghanistan together”, Pakistan Today, 7 May 2017, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/05/07/bringing-pakistan-and-afgha…
 “Building walls, fences won`t end cross-border terrorism, says Afghan envoy”, The Dawn, 12 April 2017, http://epaper.dawn.com/DetailImage.php?StoryImage=12_04_2017_003_009
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.