The Durand Line, as the British-Empire-drawn border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan is known, continues to haunt the region and its leaders. On Sept. 7, Afghanistan’s first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, opened Pandora’s box by saying in an interview that “No Afghan politician of national stature can overlook the issue of Durand Line.” In the same interview, he said — and later repeated on Twitter — that the Pakistani city of Peshawar was once the winter capital of Afghanistan and that it would be “unrealistic” for Pakistan to expect the Afghan government “to gift it for free.”
Saleh is a former intelligence chief and a known critic of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan. Just two days after his sensational comments, Saleh was targeted in a terror attack in Kabul that left 10 people dead and many more injured; the number of dead and wounded is likely to rise. The Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said that the “explosion in Kabul has nothing to do with the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate.” However, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban’s most violent affiliate, is suspected to be behind the attack, and the timing is no surprise. The latest attempt on Saleh’s life comes as the Afghan Taliban is getting ready to hold talks with the Afghan government in Qatar. Saleh had previously survived an assassination attempt last year just ahead of the presidential elections.
Saleh’s enemies are desperate to eliminate him. Their primary motive, it seems, is to silence those who are raising questions and issues that are uncomfortable for the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan. Saleh is a bugbear for the Taliban for several reasons. Before his appointment as chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in 2004, he had established close contacts with the American CIA and British MI6 in his capacity as a key aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famed anti-Taliban leader who was assassinated by al-Qaeda on Sept. 9, 2001. It is likely not a coincidence that Saleh was attacked on the 19th anniversary of his mentor’s death. During his tenure at the NDS, Saleh was vehemently critical of Pakistani intelligence — describing it at one point as “part of the landscape of destruction” — for helping the Taliban to mount numerous attacks inside Afghanistan. Once considered a close ally of then President Hamid Karzai, Saleh developed differences with his boss over the issue of releasing Taliban prisoners and came to be viewed as a hindrance to peace talks with the Taliban. His removal in 2010, ostensibly for a security breach, was celebrated by Pakistan, which considered Saleh a barrier to better relations with Afghanistan.
Saleh’s remarks on the Durand Line were not isolated, however. In August, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum went a step further when he asserted that Afghan territory was not confined by the Durand Line, but rightfully ought to extend all the way up to the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. He made these provocative comments following the Pakistani military’s shelling of Afghani security forces with rockets and artilleries at the end of July near Spin Boldak, a border city in Kandahar Province. Awarded Afghanistan’s highest military rank by President Ashraf Ghani, Dostum said that the “[Afghan] nation, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, north and south all should stand against this vampire enemy [Pakistan] and we should give them a tooth-breaking answer.”
A complicated history
As reflected by the recent statements from Saleh and Dostum, no Afghan government has ever officially recognized the Durand Line, which was drawn in 1893 as result of an agreement between the British Raj and the emir of Afghanistan. When the British departed India in 1947, partitioning their former colony into two independent nations, the newly created Pakistan claimed to have inherited this boundary with Afghanistan. But the Afghan leaders did not agree to this, alleging that the British had pressured their emir into submission and that the Afghan government was not beholden to decisions made by defunct entities like the British Raj and the Afghani Emirate. Due to this animosity, Afghanistan was the only country that opposed Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in 1947. Some Afghan leaders even supported the creation of an independent Pashtun nation called Pashtunistan or the outright annexation of Pashtun-majority regions. In either case, Pakistan stood to lose large swathes of its northern territory.
The relationship between the Pashtuns and the Pakistani state is a complicated one. The Pashtuns are an ethnic minority at the national level (comprising 15 percent of Pakistan’s population), but according to the 2017 census, over 75 percent of those living in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa speak Pashto as their native language. The province was called North West Frontier Province by the Pakistani government until 2011, when Pashtuns successfully advocated for renaming, with the argument that other provinces — Punjab, Sind, and Balochistan — are named after local ethnic majorities. Pashtun groups are also demanding greater autonomy from Islamabad. One champion of these demands is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Created in the aftermath of Pakistan’s brutal insurgency campaigns in Pashtun-dominated tribal areas, the PTM is a non-violent civil organization that demands respect of basic human rights from Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies. Undeterred by the assassinations and unexplained disappearances of prominent PTM voices in recent years, the group has consistently countered the Pakistan army’s narrative that real patriots would never criticize the military, as the country’s only protector against hostile powers. PTM’s criticism has fueled anti-Pakistan sentiment in the Pashtun belt along the Durand Line.
There are many Afghans, both common people and elites, who still believe that they might be able to reclaim the territories between the Durand Line and the Indus River that their country lost in the agreement with the Raj. Afghan claims have less to do with the Pashtun cause, whose goals remain largely undefined, than with the need of land-locked Afghanistan to gain direct access to the sea for trade and strategic purposes. Geostrategic and economic competition is one of the reasons why Pakistan has been trying to install a client regime in Kabul. A key tenet of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been to stamp out the rekindling of Pashtun nationalism across the Durand Line. At least since the Soviet invasion in 1979, all Pakistani governments have therefore supported non-state groups in Afghanistan that decry ethnic particularism and instead seek to spread pan-Islamist sentiment. Moreover, Pakistan is unilaterally fencing the border, as it is confident that Kabul lacks the strength to retaliate. Pakistan’s actions will remain a source of friction in the longer run, as there are twice as many Pashtuns living in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and the area has historically been a porous zone of contact between Pashtun groups. It is difficult to make blanket statements about the Pashtun position vis-à-vis the Durand Line, but maintaining cross-border mobility is an almost universal political priority for them.
The Durand Line bisects the territory of many Pashtun tribes, including the Mehsuds and the Haqqanis. If the Mehsuds have formed the core of the leadership and fighters for the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqanis have been at the forefront of their own lethal terrorist campaign against Afghans and Americans. Both of these terror groups seek to replace their countries’ governments with an Islamic caliphate based on their stringent interpretations of Islamic texts. Pakistan’s military establishment has used its territory adjoining the Durand Line as a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which has spread its footprint across Afghanistan and emerged as the most “critical player in the Afghan insurgency” due to “its appetite for the proliferation of worldwide jihad.”
The view from Washington
Beyond Afghani and Pakistani actors, the U.S. is also concerned with the border tensions. Alice Wells, a veteran American diplomat who recently retired as the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, extended support to Pakistan on the issue of the Durand Line. She tweeted that “Afghan politicians of national stature know that the Durand line is an internationally recognized border. Fanning nationalist or irredentist claims detracts from negotiating peace.” Her statement, clearly in response to Saleh’s comments, is no surprise. The United States is cognizant of Pakistan’s suppression of Pashtun identity and the sophisticated jihadist-terrorist ecosystem this has created, but is too distracted domestically and lacks the appetite to remain in Afghanistan on an open-ended basis. The Trump administration has been ramping up pressure on both sides to get the negotiations started without further delay now that many hurdles, like the issue of prisoner release, have been removed. In a brazen public attack against U.S. military leadership on Sept. 7, Trump left no doubts about his desire to withdraw American troops: “I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” Many in the Washington establishment are aware that the Taliban, whose ranks are primarily Pashtun, must be engaged in order to resolve the “Pashtun question,” an issue that fuels both the Afghan conflict and tensions between Kabul and Islamabad. At the same time, many are frustrated with America’s inability to reconcile the interests of multiple ethnic groups in Afghanistan despite two decades of military and diplomatic efforts. Constructing an internal ethnic balance has been complicated by Pakistani meddling.
In light of flagging American willpower, the intra-Afghan talks have been heralded as war-torn Afghanistan’s best chance to end four decades of incessant conflict, and Washington does not want Afghan politicians to spoil the atmosphere at this crucial moment by reviving the issue of the Durand Line. What is interesting is that the American determination to leave Afghanistan seems to have had no impact on the thinking of mainstream Afghan politicians regarding the legality of the Durand Line. Although they are perfectly aware that the Afghan state currently lacks the requisite political, economic, and military means to pursue any claim to Pakistani territory, they will continue to press the issue.
Whenever the Taliban is integrated into the Afghan governing apparatus after a final deal is signed, it will be extremely difficult for them to recognize the validity of the Durand Line for the simple reason that doing so would allow their opponents to brand them as caving in to Pakistan. None can dispute that a strong Taliban in Afghanistan suits Pakistan, but that is not the whole truth; the Taliban did not feel the need to make any concessions to Pakistan on the issue of the Durand Line when it was in power from 1996 to 2001, nor has it endorsed the Durand Line as Afghanistan’s legitimate border with Pakistan. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the Taliban will continue to place the interests of the Pakistani state above the wishes (however ill-defined) of Pashtun nationalists. And this very reasoning may have prompted Saleh to argue that the Durand Line’s “term is over, it needs to be negotiated.” Clearly, the aim is to force the Taliban to take a position when the issue crops up during the intra-Afghan talks.
Vinay Kaura, PhD, is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI's Afghanistan & Pakistan Program, an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, and the Coordinator at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images