Wed Oct 31 2012
The Durand Line is back in the news thanks to the assertion of a top US diplomat that it constitutes the “international border” between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The remarks by the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, during a recent visit to the region, have drawn an angry response from Kabul.
No one in Afghanistan, not even the Taliban that is widely seen as a proxy for Pakistan, is willing to accept the Durand
Line as the nation’s legitimate eastern border.
The 2,600 km line is named after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, undivided India’s foreign secretary who “negotiated” it with the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, in 1893. At the end of the 19th century, when the power of the Raj was at its apogee, the rulers of Kabul had no choice but to acquiesce. After the Partition of the subcontinent, the Afghans were less obliged to accept the claims of Pakistan that inherited the Durand Line.
Protesting Grossman’s remarks, the foreign office in Kabul said it “rejects and considers irrelevant any statement by anyone about the legal status of this line”. Meanwhile, the ministry of foreign affairs in Islamabad insisted the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan is “a closed and settled issue”.
Although London and Washington have long supported Pakistan’s claims on the Durand Line, some Western scholars say the decision was motivated by the logic of mobilising Pakistan’s support in the Cold War. A report of the House of Commons Library published in June 2010 argues, “The legal status of the Durand Line has never been definitively settled.” It suggests there is much credibility to the Afghan claim that the Durand Line was never meant to mark the separation of the territorial sovereignties of the Raj and Afghanistan.
The line, according to some scholars, was about differentiating the spheres of influence of Calcutta and Kabul in the Pashtun lands across the Indus rather than defining the boundary.
India has largely stayed away from the controversy over the legitimacy of the Durand Line. Its silence though is widely interpreted as supporting Pakistan’s position.
In 1978, after the communist revolution in Afghanistan, India’s then foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, reportedly called on the new government to respect the Durand Line and urged Kabul and Islamabad to settle their differences through negotiations.
Sections of the Indian strategic community feel India is too passive on the disputes between Kabul and Islamabad. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has underlined the virtues of Indian diplomatic ambiguity on the Durand Line.
“It may be worthwhile for us to signal that we do not necessarily recognise the Durand Line as a legitimate frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Saran wrote about two years ago. For a New Delhi that shuns all political risk, that might be too bold a course.
Borders & Orders
A border becomes one only when both sides accept its legitimacy. Consider for example Delhi’s oft- repeated position that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and it does not recognise any dispute over the territory.
In the real world, Pakistan does not accept India’s claim, is in occupation of a part of J&K, and has proxies operating across the Line of Control. Much like Kashmir that has put India and Pakistan at odds for so long, the dispute over the Durand Line deeply divides Kabul and Islamabad.
While claiming it to be an international border, Pakistan does everything to undermine the Durand Line. The Pakistan army and the ISI behave as if the line does not exist, intervene in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and support insurgent groups trying to destabilise Kabul.
From another perspective, the war in Afghanistan has already spilled over into Pakistan; the US rains drones from across the Durand Line. Some Pakistani insurgent groups take shelter in Afghanistan and launch repeated raids across the Line. The Durand Line, then, is only on the map. Rawalpindi’s own search for strategic depth in Afghanistan has undone what little legitimacy the Line had.
The problem of the Durand Line can only be settled as part of a larger political reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such reconciliation would involve skirting the question of sovereignty, promoting transborder economic connectivity and cooperation, meeting the aspirations of the Pashtuns on both sides of the Line, and ending support to cross-border terrorism.
The writer is distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’