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Pakistan vs Afghan Taliban: Tensions on the Durand Line reveal the complications of victory

The Taliban have acknowledged tensions with Pakistan and said that the “issues” with Islamabad would be addressed through diplomatic channels.

For decades, people living on either side of the border routinely travelled back and forth using routes without border controls. (Representational image: AP via IE)

By Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, (Retd)

In at least two incidents in late December and early January, Afghan Taliban soldiers intervened to block an ongoing Pakistani project to erect border fencing along the shared border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — the demarcation of which prior Afghan governments have never accepted. One of the incidents happened on the very day when representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) gathered in Islamabad to discuss Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis. Despite attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically, and the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan as a bridge to the international community, both sides remain at odds over the fence.

The Taliban have acknowledged tensions with Pakistan and said that the “issues” with Islamabad would be addressed through diplomatic channels. Taking to Twitter, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesperson of the Afghan Foreign Ministry added, “IEA believing in addressing problems through understanding, talks and good neighbourliness will address this issue through diplomatic channels.” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi acknowledged that there are “some complications” regarding the Pak-Afghan border fencing and the matter was being taken up with the Taliban.

They have also stated that Pakistan has no authority to fence the Durand Line since it causes division among the people of one nation and that they will continue to prevent Pakistan from doing that. The Taliban had also recently stopped Pakistani military personnel from building their outpost in Afghanistan’s western Nimroz province. The border clashes have come amid claims from both Taliban and Pakistan that they had resolved the row over border fencing by agreeing that further work on the project that led to a tense situation would be done through consensus.

The reason lies in the fact that the making of this 2640-km long border, known as Durand Line, has been rooted in treachery and deception. That is why most Afghans have not been able to accept it. In fact, Durand Line is a reminder of how Afghans were cheated by the British and an artificial border was created whose legitimacy continues to remain questionable. The Durand Line passes through ten provinces of present-day Afghanistan. In Pakistan, it passes through provinces such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan. At that time, however, it satisfied colonial aims of defining the British’s limits in the 19th century’s ‘Great Game’, with the aim of preventing Czarist Russia from challenging their regional suzerainty by seizing Kabul.

The agreement that created Durand Line was signed on 12 November 1893 between British diplomat Mortimer Durand and Adbur Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan at that time. The Durand agreement divided Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. Forty thousand square miles of the area under Afghanistan where almost half of the Pashtun population lived came under British rule as a result of this agreement. In lieu of this agreement, the annual British grant to Afghanistan was increased from Rupees 12 lakh to Rupees 18 lakh, a very small amount when it was compared to what Afghanistan had lost.

Interestingly, Rajiv Dogra in his superb book on the subject; ‘Durands Curse’ states that initially, it was agreed that the agreement would be signed in Persian. The Amir knew Persian but didn’t know English but Durand had excellent command over both languages. But the agreement was signed in English! The question is how would the Amir have known what was there in the agreement if it was signed in English as the Amir didn’t know the language.

He also goes on to mention in his book; “Once the Amir was brought around, the map-making was a casual affair. Durand’s was an instant line, drawn on a small copybook-type map and covered nearly 1,600 miles. Mortimer did not have the time to consult anyone, nor did he have the professional help of the kind that is necessary in such a major undertaking. And he consulted neither the historical evidence nor consulted any representative of the affected region. People who were to live on two sides of this line were given no say in the matter.”

For decades, people living on either side of the border routinely travelled back and forth using routes without border controls. For many Afghans, especially the predominantly Pashtuns, Pakistan’s efforts to formalise the border is therefore a reason of outrage.

Although it is officially recognised in the United Nations and throughout the international community as Pakistan’s western border, the Durand Line nonetheless divides Pashtun lands, tribes, and families and remains one of the sources of the instability which has plagued the region, especially since the creation of the Pakistan. Incidentally, in 1947, Afghanistan was the only country in the world to oppose Pakistan’s membership to the United Nations, on account of its refusal to recognise the Durand Line, and demanded that Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the line be given the right to self-determination. As recently as 2017, then-President Hamid Karzai continued to challenge the 1893 treaty, saying Afghanistan would ‘never recognise’ the Durand Line’. What is surprising, however, is that the Taliban has gone a step further than previous Afghan governments and openly confronted Pakistan’s fencing plan at a time when the government is heavily dependent on Islamabad for political and diplomatic support.

Pakistan has completed fencing some 90% of the Durand Line under a $500 million project launched in early 2017, by erecting two sets of chain-link barricades fitted with surveillance cameras and infra-red detectors to check infiltration. Work on the fencing has continued uninterrupted over nearly five years – even during the pandemic. Pakistan feels that the fencing, manned by armed garrisons, would physically reinforce, and more importantly, demarcate the Durand Line, curbing all calls for Pashtunistan.

But the Taliban by opposing all further work on fencing the border within four months of seizing power, have reignited territorial dilemma of Pashtunistan – other than in Baluchistan. Further, the Taliban’s leadership perceives some political benefit by a strong nationalist stance, given widespread perceptions of the Taliban’s close relationship with Pakistan, as most analysts believe that they are Pakistan’s proxy.

For Afghans, there is powerful symbolism in the Durand Line; it is widely viewed as a historic wrong that must be redressed, however unlikely the prospect. Conversely, Pakistan considers the line fundamental to its territorial integrity.

Though many predicted that tensions would sharpen between the Taliban and Pakistan over the Durand Line, the two countries managed to stabilise the flow of commercial and humanitarian border traffic in relatively quick and efficient manner after the Taliban’s swift takeover. While major disruptions to supply chains remain, the two largest border crossings had re-established at least some two-way commercial traffic — and the Taliban have since touted selective statistics suggesting that some exports have even increased to Pakistan since their takeover.

Another issue in the relations between the two governments seems to be the escalation of violence by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against Pakistan. Operating from bases in Afghanistan, and with a growing presence inside Pakistan, the group mounted an increasing number of attacks against Pakistani security forces — as well as against some critical Chinese interests in Pakistan. The insurgency also showed renewed political strength by bringing in splintered factions and improving internal cohesion. Additionally, Al-Qaeda signalled its continued alliance with the TTP. On 18 January, after an attack by the TTP on the police in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, Pakistan’s Interior Minister warned that more attacks by the group are likely.

The group, though ideologically aligned to the Afghan Taliban, is a separate entity and has been responsible for some horrific terrorist attacks over the past decade. After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban freed many TTP prisoners from Afghan jails. The TTP, in turn, proclaimed the Taliban to be a model for its war against Pakistan. Fears that fighters would use Afghanistan to launch cross-border attacks, prompted Pakistan to negotiate a one-month ceasefire with the group in November. But the TTP withdrew from the agreement in December, arguing that Pakistan had not honoured conditions such as releasing dozens of prisoners.

Taliban’s reluctance in acting against the TTP stems not just from ideological affinity. They are also worried that should they clamp down too much on the TTP, their cadre could cross over to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), swelling its ranks. Reports already allege that many existing ISKP members are ex-TTP fighters. Incidentally, Pakistani Taliban chief Noor Wali Mehsud had once stated; “We are hoping to take control of Pakistan’s border tribal region and make them independent.”

But the question that needs to be examined is whether these are isolated incidents or do they represent something of greater significance in Pakistan’s security calculus; namely the ‘strategic depth’ they hoped to gain in Afghanistan by having a pliable government in place. The stability Pakistan hoped to achieve by a Taliban government in place may not work in the manner perceived as tribal loyalties and traditions can bind people more closely than national identities. There is no doubt that a Pashtun prides himself as such overriding his national identity. Is there a fault line existing in this Western region of Pakistan that can be reignited and exploited; if incidents spiral out of control, Pakistani’s will be concerned as there are more than twice the number of Pashtuns in Pakistan ; than in Afghanistan.

Hence has the Taliban’s victory emboldened hard line forces on and within Pakistan’s borders? Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US, has said that “Every time . . . the Taliban have been in power, there has definitely been a spill over of Taliban beliefs and ideas into Pakistan,”

On 06 January Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, said; “The Durand Line is an issue of the whole nation, not the government. It doesn’t belong to the government. We will give the responsibility to the nation, so the nation will make the decision.” The definition of ‘whole nation’ is what will be top most in Pakistan’s mind as there is no doubt that it hints at Pashtuns on either side of the line.

As the complications in Pakistan’s victory in Afghanistan are beginning to reveal itself, the unresolved question of the 2,640 kilometre Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain an enduring source of instability. The challenging operational context seems to endure and Pakistan may soon find itself at the receiving end.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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