For almost two weeks now, tensions have been running high again at the Durand Line, the Afghan-Pakistani border not recognised by Kabul officials. Afghan troops have removed Pakistani border installations they perceived to be on their territory, security forces from both sides have exchanged fire and both governments have filed protests. Among Afghans, the issue of the Durand Line – and Pakistan’s role as the country’s arch-enemy – is the big unifier. Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst with AAN, summarises recent events and looks at how an unjust colonial border was drawn and how it continues to fan emotions among Afghans more than 100 years later.
It started at the so-called Goshta Gate, a small crossing on the Durand Line, the disputed Afghan-Pakistani border, almost two weeks ago. On the night of 1 May 2013, Afghan security forces took down Pakistani border installations that had been newly erected by the neighbouring country’s paramilitary forces at the Gorsal post on territory claimed by Afghanistan.
The gate and the other installations are located between the Afghan district of Goshta, in Nangrahar province, and the Mohmand Agency, one of the seven Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) administered by Pakistan. This has led to armed forces from both sides exchanging fire on various occasions, causing a number of casualties. The Kabul government put its forces on alert along the entire border, more 2,600 kilometres long. The government has also sent additional hundreds of troops to Goshta. President Hamed Karzai called US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the issue. Pakistan protested against what it called an ‘unprovoked’ incident.
The Goshta incident and Afghan reactions
An Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman claimed that the Pakistani posts are located up to 30 kilometres into Afghan territory, and the Afghan forces were reportedly following orders by President Karzai that had already been issued in April. According to a spokesman from the Afghan Border Police in Nangrahar province, its units also took back five Afghan police posts that had been occupied by Pakistani forces. During the following skirmish, an Afghan border policeman was killed; at least two more were wounded, as were two Pakistani soldiers. Afghan police initially claimed nine Pakistanis were killed but that seems exaggerated (reporting here, here and here). Rashid Waziri, a senior researcher at the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan and former advisor to the Afghan Minister of Border Affairs, told AAN that the installations in Goshta had already been built in 2003. Then, the Pakistani military faced local residents’ resistance on the Afghan side, but as the local population ‘did not receive the central government’s support, they discontinued their resistance’.
On 9 May 2013, a similar incident occurred in Kunar, according to Narai district authorities. They accused Pakistan that it had erected four new posts in disputed territory: ‘three check posts in zero point [sic] and one in[side] Afghanistan territory’. The provincial governor reportedly even accused Pakistan of wanting to annex Nuristan ‘like Waziristan’. (According to another report, here, he has denied that Pakistan has crossed the frontier – another sign that all media reporting on the issue has to be taken with a pinch of salt.) According to a Kandahar-based journalist who talked to AAN, there is a further dispute about border installations between Spin Boldak and Chaman. After Pakistan built a border gate there, allegedly 20 to 30 meters of it on Afghan soil, it was blocked by the Afghan border police in 2004. Reportedly, the cross-border traffic now just avoids the gate. During the current protests, demonstrators were asking the government’s permission to destroy this gate as well.
The Afghan public has reacted to the incident at the Goshta Gate with anger and anti-Pakistani outbursts. Demonstrators took to the streets in at least nine provinces during the following week, from Parwan to Khost and Helmand. In another wave, starting on Saturday 11 May, the protests spread to Herat, Farah, Faryab and Ghazni. The following report broadcasted by state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) on 8 May perfectly captures the mood:
A caravan in the name of defence from Kabul marched to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Young people from various parts of the country took part in this march. The goal of the caravan is to defend their soil.
Abdol Qader Hudkhel is reporting.
[Correspondent] The caravan in the name of defence from Afghanistan’s soil marched towards the eastern provinces with emotions running high, calling for defending the country. Civil society representatives, religious scholars, tribal elders and the general public took part in this march. A number of military and political experts chanted slogans of death to Pakistan and demanded a teeth-breaking response to Pakistan’s aggression on their soil.
[Unnamed old man] It is an absolutely people’s caravan. It shows what we are feeling. It is defending the country and the soil. We show in practice that it is true that ethnic groups live here, but when it comes to defending the prestige, we are united to march to achieve our national goal.
[Former commander of border police in the east, Gen Aminollah Amarkhel] If God willing and if the people of Afghanistan decide, they will teach them such a lesson with empty hands, the same many empires faced who were drowned here in Afghanistan.
[Unnamed old man] Their map does not exist in the whole world, not even in Asia. Besides, it is the Afghan nation’s territory up to Jelam [at the Indus river].
[Correspondent] Former governor of Ghor Province, Abdollah Hewad said that the march will go to Goshta after Jalalabad to declare support for the security forces.
[Abdollah Hewad, captioned] We will not end this war unless we have raised our flag on the Atak [sic – Attock, at the confluence of Kabul and Indus] Bridge on the other side of the Durand Line even if my children, my brothers, my nephews and the whole family if martyred in it.
[Correspondent] This is at a time when the Pakistani aggressors wanted to construct military facilities in Goshta District a few days ago and when the Afghan forces stopped them from doing so, the Pakistani forces opened fire, but they were given a tooth-breaking response by the strong Afghan forces.
Video shows the above mentioned individuals speaking, a group of people with a banner behind them that reads in Dari and Pashto – National Caravan for Defending Afghanistan’s Sacred Soil, cars and trucks with Afghan flags on them moving out of the main mosque in Kabul city and a Taleban-like patriotic song is played in the background without music.
(source: BBC Monitoring, 10 May 2013)
The protests were the most widespread ones since in the aftermath of the burning of religious materiel by US soldiers on the Bagram base in early 2012. These demonstrations, however, reportedly never exceeded a few hundred participants and remained peaceful in most places. Only in Maiwand, Kandahar province, on 8 May 2013, a protest got out of hand after Afghan security forces opened fire on participants, killing eight to ten people and wounding twenty; Kandahar’s provincial police chief, Abdul Razeq, claimed that armed insurgents had infiltrated the protest (here and here). Students from Nangrahar University in Jalalabad, known for the influence of radical groups, declared jehad against Pakistan, and even ‘hundreds of prisoners’ in Kabul’s Pul-e Charkhi prison went on hunger strike against Pakistan’s alleged aggression.
The Afghan border policeman killed on 1 May 2013 became a celebrity on the social media (see also here). His wife was received by President Karzai who promoted him posthumously, which gives her a government pension. Karzai even called on the Taleban to show patriotism and turn their guns against Pakistan, to ‘target the place that is hostile to Afghanistan’.(1)
Members of the Wolesi Jirga’s Commission on Internal Security, who had travelled to Goshta on 2 May 2013, accused provincial authorities and military commanders in Nangrahar and Kunar of having sold ‘parts’ of some border districts to Pakistan on the basis of secret ‘protocols’. One of them, Na’im Lalai, reportedly claimed such an agreement ‘was signed under the supervision of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’ who had been ISAF commander between June 2009 and June 2010 (reporting here and here). Similar claims have been raised in a letter from President Karzai to US President Barack Obama, dated 15 April, but reported only on 29 April. The letter sought Obama’s help ‘in retaking nearly a dozen border posts the Afghan president’s office believes Pakistani forces have unjustly occupied in the past decade’. According to the report, which quotes Karzai’s chief-of-staff Abdul Karim Khurram, this refers to military posts built by ISAF along the border with Pakistan, which Pakistani forces ‘occupied’ when ISAF troops ‘evacuated’ them again.
The conflict over the status of the Durand Line
What really angered the Afghan government was a comment by a spokesman for the Pakistan Foreign Ministry on 6 May 2013. He said, ‘The Durand Line is a settled issue’. This is not how many Afghans view the issues. In fact, since the creation of Pakistan on 15 August 1947 as a result of the partition of British India, all Afghan governments – royal, communist, mujahedin and even the Taleban(2) – have insisted that they do not recognise the Durand Line as the official border between the two countries.
The Karzai government has also stuck to this line. Already on 4 May 2013, at a press conference in Kabul, President Karzai described Pakistan’s establishment of military installations on Afghan territory as a ‘futile attempt’ to push his government to discuss the border issue with Islamabad, something he said his government ‘will never be ready for’. As Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi stated in October 2012, the government considers the Durand Line ‘an issue of historical importance for Afghanistan. The Afghan people, not the government, can take a final decision on it’.
While the issue of the Durand Line might have been a predominantly Pashtun one until the 1980s, as for example this commentary in Kabul-based daily 8 Sobh indicates, it has spread to the other ethnic groups as a result of Pakistani support for the Taleban regime and, later, the Taleban insurgency. Currently, there is no larger unifier of Afghans than their position vis-à-vis Pakistan. Whenever Afghans feel its eastern neighbour steps over the Line, like with the current Goshta incident, this leads to an outpouring of unified popular anger. The incident that overshadowed almost all others with reporting in the Afghan media for days also boosted the Afghan National Security Forces’ popular image for its perceived strong reaction, while a number of MPs and other politicians used it to improve their own public standing.
Interestingly, the events did not receive much attention among Pashtuns in Pakistan’s neighbouring Khyber Pashtunkhwa province, including politicians there – who were apparently busy with their election campaigns.
Even before the Afghan civil wars broke out in the late 1970s, there had been three major Afghan-Pakistani crises over the Durand Line. In 1947 and 1951, Pakistani governments stopped, or at least constricted, Afghan imports through its territory on which Afghanistan, as a landlocked country, is dependent. In 1961, it was the Afghan government that closed the border.(3) But also during the post-Taleban period, bilateral tensions continued over the location of border installations and involved cross-border shelling (see our analysis here and here) and accusations of support for Taleban insurgencies on both sides of the border.
The Durand Line: historical context
The problem of the Durand Line, however, is older than Pakistan. It is a result of colonialism on the subcontinent when the British Empire, advancing northeast towards independent Afghanistan throughout the 19th century, forced a series of Afghan rulers to give up more and more mainly Pashtun-inhabited territories. Britain took over areas including Peshawar – today a provincial capital in Pakistan – from a local Sikh ruler who had previously been a governor under an Afghan king. With the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak, Afghanistan lost Kurram and parts of Balochistan, and the British Indian border moved up to the Khaibar and Michni passes. This development culminated in the so-called Durand Line agreement of 1893.
This agreement was signed on 12 November 1893 in Kabul between Amir Abdul Rahman (ruled 1880-1901) and the British government represented by Sir Mortimer Durand.(4) As a result, the Afghan ruler agreed ‘that he will at no time exercise interference’ in Swat, Bajaur and Chitral while he ‘reliquishes his claim to the rest of the Waziri country and Dawar’ (except today’s Barmal district in Paktika) and more parts of Balochistan. A borderline was established that reached from the Wakhan in the north to the point in the southwest where today the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. The exact course of the line, however, was to be determined through on-the-ground demarcations that happened in the following years, with some corrections done as late as the 1930s. Up to 1930, Afghan kings reiterated their commitment to the agreement in several Anglo-Afghan treaties, including Amir Habibullah (in 1905) and King Amanullah (in 1919, with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, and in 1921, with the treaty signed in Kabul); in the 1921 treaty, Britain recognised Afghan full independence.
Few authors profess any doubt that Amir Abdul Rahman was coerced into signing the 1893 agreement. German author Carl Rathjens writes that ‘Afghanistan had to agree to the Durand Line under the pressure of the British Forward Policy’ (see Willy Kraus, Afghanistan, 1972, p 18). Ludwig W. Adamec uses the word ‘duress’ (though in quotation marks) in the latest edition of his Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan (2012, p 113), and Louis Dupree calls it ‘coercion’. Dupree, in his 1980 book Afghanistan, also asks, ‘At what point does coercion cease to be legal?’ and points out that the agreement also brought advantages for the Afghan Amir, namely, British support against what he then saw as a bigger threat—the onslaught of the Czarist armies just north of his border. The agreement also substantially raised (by 600,000) the subsidy of 1.2 million rupees that he received from the British India government (from Adamec, p 463).
There is also a debate about the legal nature of the Durand Line, whether it was designed as a permanent international border or merely constitutes a demarcation of spheres of influence. Article 2 of the Durand Line agreement itself point to the latter:
The Government of India will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of Afghanistan, and His Highness the Amir will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of India.
Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of the North-West Frontier Province established in 1901 (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), as well as British officials serving in the area confirmed:
It is true that the agreement did not describe the line as a boundary of India, but as the frontier of the Amir’s dominions and the line beyond which neither side would exercise interference. (Caroe)
… the line had none of the rigidity of other international frontiers.
(Elliott, in 1947; both quoted from Dupree, p 427)
The text of the Durand Line agreement, however, indicates that this might be different in different areas. In the cases of Chitral, Swat and Bajaur, the agreement excludes both sides from interfering on the other side of the Durand Line without referring to a ceding of territory while the Amir ‘relinquishe[d] his claim’ over what today are North and South Waziristan.
Demarcation and the Mohmand border
The actual demarcation of the line was controversial as well. For that purpose, the line was divided into eight sections and Afghan-British Joint Commissions were formed for each of them. The commissions worked in 1894 and 1895 but marked the border (with pillars) only in those sections where both sides agreed and where demarcation was possible as well. In most sections, both sides disagreed, and in others the local tribes resisted. As a result, only the documents for three of the eight sections bear signatures of both sides while four others were signed by the British Indian side only (see here, p 8 and here, p 11-12).
One of the areas where no agreement was reached was the area of the Mohmand tribe, exactly where the current Goshta tensions and clashes are happening.(5) In the 1919 Anglo-Afghan treaty with King Amanullah, however, Britain obtained Afghan ‘consent … also for the delimitation of the Mohmand territory’ but in advance, writes the author of the Aspen papers already quoted, but, as he continues:
The subsequent survey and delimitation of the Mohmand territory was done to Britain’s advantage…. This time the British were to take no chances as the Afghans were to be completely excluded from the process of survey and delimitation of the said territory.
However, ‘Afghanistan’s consent to the changes effected in 1919 was to be obtained by a subsequent Treaty (1921)’ (see here, p 12-13). This might be formally correct from a legal point of view (provided that the Afghan side was fully aware of what it was signing), but it does not sound like a fair procedure. On the other hand, if the Afghan government does not recognise the demarcation done while the British still ruled India, how can it claim that Pakistan has intruded however many kilometres into Afghan territory with its border gate at Goshta? One point that is not often heard in the current debate from Afghan sources is that all sides involved use different maps. This has been admitted by one Nangrahar MP in conversations with AAN.
The Durand Line after Pakistan’s emergence
Finally, even according to the administration of British India, the Durand Line was not identical to British India’s frontier. A secret British document dated 28 April 1947 (shortly before the partition of British India) was written to find out Afghanistan’s chances of regaining areas along the Durand Line before an international tribunal and was published by Adamec in 2012 (pp 466-8). The authors came to the conclusion that
… the North-West Frontier Province of British India did not extend as far as the Afghan frontier and that the tribal areas constituted a gap between the boundary of British India and the boundary of [pre-colonial?] India… On the 15th August 1947, therefore, the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier became a sort of international limbo, not being part of any state. … [i]t would appear that Pakistan could not have inherited either the frontier fixed by the Treaty with Afghanistan of 1921 or any right under Article 2 of that treaty.
Elliott had already written in 1947 that ‘the tribes between the administrative border [of British India] and the Durand Line were a buffer to a buffer’. Pakistan, as a successor state of British India (together with the Republic of India), also inherited the legal basis for the status of its borders. The secret British letter further states that:
The new situation [Pakistan’s emergence] did not give Afghanistan any right to extend her territories to include the tribal areas without the consent of the tribes [emphasis added] any more than it gave Pakistan the right to do so; but it may well be that Pakistan would not have been able to raise any legal objection if the tribes had placed themselves under the protection of Afghanistan or if, with the consent of the tribes, the tribal areas had been annexed by Afghanistan.
In 1947, the British Frontier Enquiry Commission agreed:
… if self-determination is to be allowed at all in India, it should surely be allowed to the Pathan race.
(quoted by Pazhwak, Pashtunistan: A new state in Central Asia, p 16)
Actually, the Afghan government repeatedly notified the British side that it considered what now was referred to as the ‘Pashtunistan question’ as open in the run-up to Indian partition and demanded the right to self-determination for all Pashtun areas beyond the Durand Line. It missed the opportunity to do so at the United Nations, however, and the tribes declared the independence too late, in 1949, two years after Pakistan emerged. On 12 August 1949, the Afridi established an assembly for an independent Pashtunistan on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, and further south an even larger assembly at Razmak (Waziristan) elected the Faqir of Ipi(6) as ‘President of Pushtunistan’.
Pakistan insists that by then the right of self-determination had already been exercised through the British-sponsored referendum of July 1947 in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) that went in favour of accession to Pakistan and a number of British-sponsored jirgas in the tribal agencies that also took the same option (see Dupree, pp 488-9). The Afghan government argues, however, that the participants in the referendum and the jirgas only had the choice between joining India or Pakistan and not of independence or direct accession to Afghanistan. The only organised political force of the NWFP Pashtuns, the Khudai Khedmatgaran (or ‘Red Shirts’) led by late Dr Khan Saheb and his late younger brother, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, called the ‘Frontier Gandhi’, was boycotting the referendum, making its outcome murky at best. Judging from recent experiences in Afghan elections, the official turn-out (55.5 per cent) and result of the referendum (55 per cent pro Pakistan; Dupree, p 489) – and the representativeness of the jirgas – might also be questioned.(7)
Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan did not recognise the outcome of the referendum. As the only member-state, it voted against Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations in September 1947. Although it withdrew the negative vote later in the same year and declared it would seek a solution bilaterally (Dupree, p 491), the conflict lingered on. On 26 July 1949, following a Pakistani airstrike on Afghan territory, a Loya Jirga was convened that resulted in the Afghan government declaring all previous agreements regarding the Durand Line void.
Which way out?
Although the UN, in the cases of former Yugoslavia, East Timor and South Sudan, has deviated in recent years from its principle of not touching colonial borders even if they are unjust (not wanting to open a Pandora’s box of irredentist and ethnic strife), Afghanistan stands alone with its position on the Durand Line. ‘No other state has accepted Afghanistan’s position’, states a 2007 paper by the Hollings Center that summarised the situation (here, p 11). Last year, the new US ambassador, James Cunningham, reiterated that ‘[n]ot only does the US but several other countries also recognise the Durand Line as a formal frontier’. As the US is disengaging from Afghanistan, it cannot be expected to support Kabul’s position on the Durand Line. It would risk ruining its already strained relationship with Pakistan for good.
An amicable solution of this problem likely needs some degree of an Afghan-Pakistani détente first. Although it might sound utopian, a solution á la France-Germany (two other former arch-enemies) might be the best way: taking a lot of time to develop mutual relations and breaking down mutual mistrust between the two governments and populations. An alternative was demonstrated in East Africa where differences over border maps led to a bloody and useless war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of the poorest countries on that continent, from 1998 and 2000 and claimed around 70,000 lives.
One Afghan MP from Ghor province seems to agree. In the 6 May Wolesi Jirga plenary session, he said:
I agree with the view that the Durand Line is cruel. However, the most problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan due to the Durand Line are linked to our weak diplomacy. I suggest the Wolesi Jirga take a role in diplomacy, especially its International Affairs Commission, to figure out a fundamental diplomatic solution to the dilemma of the Durand Line.
(1) The Taleban, meanwhile, have responded with a – relatively mild – statement, condemning ‘the invasion of our country and its people by the neighbouring as well as the world powers’, declaring their readiness ‘for the safeguard and defense of our national interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity’ and urging ‘all the neighbouring countries especially, Iran and Pakistan, to fully observe the Islamic, human and neighborhood [sic] rights with Afghans and Afghanistan and to build a strategy on the basis of these values which could pave the road for good neighborhood and peaceful co-existence’.
(2) According to one contemporary press report, the Taleban even claimed sovereignty over the Mohmand Agency in November 2001.
(3) The most detailed rendering of these events is here: Louis Dupree,Afghanistan, 1980, pp 491ff.
(4) Despite an often-heard claim on the Afghan side – that the Durand Line agreement was valid for only 100 years, and therefore expired in 1994 – the agreement has no sunset clause (see here).
(5) The September 2011 Aspen Institute paper says ‘[T]he section between Sikaram peak and Nawa Pass could not be attempted for delimitation because of fundamental differences that were to arise on the question of division of the Mohmand territory’ (p 11).
(6) The Faqir’s actual name was Mirza Ali Khan (1892/7-1960). He was a Torikhel Wazir from the Mirali area of North Waziristan and waged war against the British and, after 1947, against Pakistan, for the independence of Pashtunistan (more detail in this paper).
(7) This means that, even according to official figures, almost half of the eligible voters did not take part, and that 40 per cent of participants cast invalid votes (there were only 5 per cent pro-India votes).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020