Today in Central Asian history: the Durand Line is drawn (1893)

The Durand Line (in red, via Wikimedia)

The Durand Line, AKA “the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” is one of those legacies of colonial times that everybody’s still, unfortunately, living with today. Named after the guy who dreamed it up, British Foreign Secretary for India (at the time) Sir Mortimer Durand, it was meant to fix the border between British India and Central Asia, a place where Britain liked to toss around its influence — they were trying to win the Great Game with Russia, after all — but that it had no interest in defending by force if push came to shove. It was also meant to prevent another Anglo-Afghan war — the first two, in 1839-42 and 1878-80, had been costly affairs that really didn’t accomplish much — which it totally did ha ha, it did not. Durand’s line followed the contours of the Hindu Kush mountains, though he was careful to draw it in such a way that it left the crucial Khyber Pass into the Punjab in British hands. On November 12, 1893, Durand and Abdur Rahman Khan (d.1901), the Barakzai Emir of Afghanistan, agreed to fix the line as the Afghan-India border.

The problem, as we are well aware today, is that Durand’s line cut smack through the ancient (they’re attested in Herodotus, for Pete’s sake) homeland of the Pashtun, and for good measure it also bifurcated the Baloch people to the south. Durand’s mistake, which would be repeated by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in the Middle East about 23 years later, was in assuming that a geographic feature that would be an insurmountable obstacle to your average European bureaucrat must ipso facto be an insurmountable obstacle to everybody. In Sykes-Picot’s case, they assumed that the Syrian Desert must be impassable to anybody, without noting that Bedouin had been using that desert as a highway for centuries. For Durand, he figured the Hindu Kush, apart from the main Khyber Pass, must be impassable, without checking with the Pashtun who’d been passing through the mountains regularly for millennia. You’d like to think that Abdur Rahman Khan knew better, but he was in no position to argue with the British, who had actually put him on the throne in 1881, after they’d won the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The Great Game ended, for a while at least, with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, which divided Iran into “zones of control,” set Afghanistan as a buffer zone between the Russian and British empires in Asia, and united the two powers in an alliance meant to check the rising power of Germany. But the Durand Line very quickly became a problem for Afghanistan, precisely because of what it did to the Pashtun. The Third Anglo-Afghan War (oops), fought in 1919, was fought explicitly over whether the line would hold or Afghanistan would absorb the entire Pashtun region (and, implicitly, it was fought because new Afghan Emir Amanullah Khan needed to do something bold to shore up his support, so he invaded British India). The line held, not because it works as a border but because the British military was able to shake off the Afghans pretty easily by that point. Afghanistan was forced to affirm Durand as its border with India, later Pakistan, but in 1949 the Afghan government formally repudiated the line and said it had been forced upon them back in 1893, though they opted not to actually do anything about it.

The Afghan government still refuses to accept Durand nowadays (the official position is that the “Afghan people” need to decide what Afghanistan’s borders should be); Pakistan (which presumably gets a say here as well) does accept the line, but it also notoriously has trouble controlling its Pashtun areas. The Pashtun mostly ignore it, passing between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a matter of routine, using countless mountain passes that can’t possibly all be monitored.

During the Afghan-Soviet War, the porousness of the border was a real boon to people trying to, say, smuggle weapons and, I don’t know, foreign volunteer fighters into Afghanistan to aid the resistance. Later it was an asset for, say, any Pakistani intelligence agencies who might have been interested, theoretically, in cultivating a student-led religious movement that eventually toppled Afghanistan’s post-Soviet government and took power for themselves. Still later, it became a real headache for people trying to, I don’t know, defeat the Taliban and track down any well-known international terrorists they might have been harboring. These days people are still trying to defeat the Taliban, whose ability to move people and things back and forth across the Durand Line is still complicating that effort.

Pakistan suffers from the lack of a stable border as well, with various Pakistani Taliban-affiliated groups allegedly basing themselves in Afghanistan and carrying out strikes across the border in Pakistan. Both countries accuse one another of aiding these cross-border insurgent movements, and both are probably right though the evidence is better established for Pakistan supporting the Afghan Taliban than vice versa. Islamabad has talked about building a wall along the border, which might help the security situation but is anathema in Afghanistan (because, again, of the Pashtun situation).

There are periodic border clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, especially when fighting between the Taliban and Afghan/NATO forces gets too close to the line. For example, there was this one in 2011 that killed a reported 42 Afghans and may have been an “accident,” but probably wasn’t.

So, ah, happy anniversary, I guess?

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Author: DWD

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