Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

In Afghan war, enter Sir Mortimer Durand


When the British decided to define the outer limits of their Indian empire, they fudged the question. After two disastrous wars in Afghanistan, they sent the Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, to Kabul in 1893 to agree the limits of British and Afghan influence. The result was the Durand Line which Pakistan considers today as its border and Afghanistan refuses to recognise. Then, rather than extend the rule of the Raj out to the Durand Line, the British baulked at pacifying the tribes in what is now Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Instead, they used the still-extant Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901 to keep them at bay, if necessary through collective punishment.  The Pashtun tribes living on either side of the Durand Line continued to move back and forth, resenting outside interference and rejecting an arbitrary division of their lands by a foreign power.

The situation remains as nebulous to this day. Pakistan, like the British Raj before it, wants a secure western frontier and has been ready to back Islamist militants in Afghanistan to obtain it. Indeed, its emphasis on Islam has been used as a means of countering ethnic Pashtun nationalism, lest the Pashtun lay claim to a Pashtunistan covering both sides of the Durand Line. Meanwhile, remembering the days when Peshawar was a fabled Afghan city, some Afghans hanker after a Greater Afghanistan, incorporating the lands of all Pashtun (or Afghan) tribes as far as the Indus river. (Historically, the identification of Afghanistan with the Pashtun was such that the words “Afghan” and “Pashtun” were treated as synonyms.)  And even those Afghans who recognise how unrealistic it would be to claim a sizeable chunk of modern-day Pakistan retain a proprietary sense over the Pashtun living on the other side of the Durand Line.  Meanwhile the Pashtun themselves resent their arbitrary separation between two countries, which has reduced their capacity to exercise political power.

With the worsening of the Afghan war, the situation on either side of the Durand Line has become even more explosive. Islamabad complains about its sovereignty being breached by U.S. drone strikes in FATA; Kabul accuses Pakistan of sheltering and supporting Afghan Taliban militants on its side; Pakistan shells the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan where it says some of the Pakistani Taliban have taken refuge.

It was into this minefield that the United States stepped when – in what appeared to be almost a casual comment – U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman reaffirmed during a visit to the region that Washington recognises the Durand Line as the international boundary. In case there were any doubts about what he said, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the same point when asked at a briefing about the official U.S. position on the Durand Line. “Well, our policy on this has not changed,” she said. “It was correctly stated by Ambassador Grossman that we see this as the internationally recognised boundary.”