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An Indian View of the Durand Line

In his book, Tilak Devasher has raised questions over legitimacy of internationally recognized border between Pakistan and Afghanistan

by Khaled Ahmed

The Pashtuns: A Contested History by Tilak Devasher (Harper/Collins 2022) was written after he retired as a special secretary of the Government of India in 2014. Prior to penning this book, he had authored two books on Pakistan—Pakistan: Courting the Abyss (2016) and Pakistan: At the Helm (2018)—calling on his specialization in security issues pertaining to India’s neighborhood while serving in the cabinet secretariat. His latest book offers an interesting “Indian” point of view on the Durand Line, internationally recognized as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Durand Line Agreement of 1893 between Abdur Rahman Khan and Mortimer Durand, representing the British as then-foreign secretary of India, demarcated “spheres of influence” between British India and Afghanistan. Together with the Treaty of Gandamak, it gave the British control over what would become the NWFP, the erstwhile FATA and parts of Balochistan. According to Devasher, the agreement became controversial because no Afghan government has ever accepted the Durand Line as an international border, with some calling for its surrounding areas to be incorporated into Afghanistan, as others seek the creation of a new state of Pashtunistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, has always insisted that the Durand Line is its established international border with Afghanistan.

Philip Noel-Baker, then-secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, told the British House of Commons on June 30, 1950: “In His Majesty’s Government’s opinion Pakistan is, in the light of international law, the successor of rights and duties of the former Government of India and His Majesty’s government towards those territories, and the Durand Line is an international boundary.” Devasher, however, argues that this was derived from what was earlier designated an “area of influence.” He maintains this was likely because British military chiefs of staff had noted by 1947 that “the area of Pakistan is strategically the most important in the continent of India and the majority of our strategic requirements will be met.” This, he claims, reflected the British hope to leverage Pakistan for their objectives.

The ‘Pashtun’ factor

For many Pashtuns in Afghanistan, their boundary is the Indus River. These areas, for them, constitute Pashtunistan—they could be either merged with Pakistan or be an autonomous unit independent of or part of Pakistan. The position of Pakistan, as articulated since 1947, has mainly rested on the following: the 1893 Durand Line agreement was a  treaty defining a clear international border; the Durand Line as a valid international boundary was recognized and confirmed by Afghanistan on several occasions (as in 1905 and 1919): the Durand Line terminated Afghan sovereignty over the territory or influence over the people east of it; the British referendum of 1947 in NWFP foreclosed the question of self-determination for Pashtuns; and finally that Pakistan, as successor state (to British India), derived full sovereignty over this area and its people and had all the rights and obligations of a successor state. The Durand Line had not been referred to as an ‘international border’ prior this.

Pakistan secured support for its position on the Durand Line from Britain and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to varying extents. At the ministerial meeting of SEATO in Karachi on March 8, 1956, the Pakistani position on the Durand Line was supported. A joint statement cited all members of the council as declaring that their governments recognized the sovereignty of Pakistan extended up the Durand Line, the international boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and the Pashtun factor

Afghanistan’s interest in the Pashtuns of the British Raj began in 1944 when the Afghan government in a letter reminded the British Indian government that it was interested in their fate on the Indian side of the Durand Line. As viceroy, Lord Mountbatten conceded that agreements with the tribes in the North-West Frontier would have to be negotiated; with the appropriate successor authority.

On the eve of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Kabul’s main concern was allowing Pashtun regions to be offered additional options of either becoming independent states or joining with Afghanistan. Soon after the announcement of the Partition Plan in 1947, Afghanistan conveyed its protest in London: “The Afghan Government considered that the population should have the opportunity of deciding whether they wished to join Afghanistan or to form a separate state enjoying complete independence. This was followed up with a note verbale in which the Afghan government told Britain that the issue of NWFP was a matter on which it would like to deal with Britain directly. It added that the settlement of a matter not related to India could on no account be dependent on the future government or governments of India.”

After the 1992 Peshawar Accord

The mujahideen government of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, set up after the Peshawar Accord of 1992, had refused to accept the Durand Line as the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Pakistan tried many times to formalize the border during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s but it repeatedly received a negative response. The first time of these when Mullah Abdul Raziq was appointed the interior minister; the second during the visit of Pakistan’s interior minister Moinuddin Haider to Kabul and Kandahar, and the third during the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf.

The more recent Hamid Karzai government also refused to recognize the Durand Line as Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. “It is an emotionally recognized boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” noted U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman on a question about the Durand Line. Aimal Faizi, official spokesperson of Karzai, responded: “Durand Line will not have any effect on the verdict of the Afghan people, to whom the decision belongs.” Subsequently, too, Karzai stated that he did not accept the border demarcation because “it has built a wall between the two brothers.”

Doubts about the border

Devasher argues that while the legitimacy of the Durand Line as an international border is doubtful, it has nonetheless been recognized as the international border. He maintains that it was never an international border, and merely marked spheres of influence. Claiming that it was superseded with the 1921 agreement, which provided an exit clause that the Afghans exercised in 1949, he argues that, technically, the Durand Line does not exist and that the Indo-Afghan frontier as defined in the Treaty of Kabul 1921 was temporary and subject to denunciation. He attributes this to Pakistan’s multiple attempts to get Afghanistan to accept it and to resolve a critical territorial dispute.

Pakistan, thanks to both the tribal nexus and geography, had been unable to block the Durand Line from becoming a penetrable frontier. An agreement to fence it was signed in 1893 in Kabul and it has served as the official border between the two nations for over 100 years, yet it continues to cause controversy for the people who live near it. Today, Pakistan is still in the process of completing the fencing of the border and is faced with forcible penetration by rebels and smugglers on both sides of the border.

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