Last month the US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a congressional hearing he believes both Afghanistan and Pakistan recognise the Durand line as their de facto border. He was commenting on a report by the Afghanistan Study Group which urged the US to ease tensions between the Asian neighbours by persuading Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line as the official border. “I think both sides do operate with that as the border; they shoot across it to protect it,” he said. “They operate border posts on it, and our goal has been to try to reduce those tensions and get them to work in a cooperative manner across that line.”
The Durand Line is an arbitrary hangover from the age of imperialism. The British demarcated the Line and signed it into an 1893 treaty with the Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rehman Khan. The treaty demarked the 2,450km border between British India and Afghanistan. It was to stay in force for one hundred years – and therefore should have expired in 1993. The disputed land (Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province) should then have legally returned to Afghanistan in a similar manner to the Hong Kong Accord.
However the treaty was written in English and never signed in Pashto by Rehman Khan. Pakistan was the inheritor state of the British India of the border. The line has always been a source of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1947 Afghanistan cast a vote in the General Assembly against the admission of Pakistan to the UN. Two years later Afghanistan’s “Loya Jirga” (Grand Council) declared the Durand Line Agreement invalid, but because it was considered a unilateral declaration, it was unenforceable. In any case, the border is immensely porous and an attack by an occupying force against Pashtuns on one side is seen as an attack against the other side as well.
Today, 37 million Pashtun people straddle the border. In 1893, Britain found it convenient to divide the Pashtuns in order to maintain peace and bribed tribal chiefs on the eastern (Pakistani) side of the Durand Line to cooperate with them. Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the border were kept in line with threats of a continual Russian takeover. Afghan Pashtuns came to the aid of their Pakistani brethren who launched an armed revolt in 1957-58 but this was brutally crushed. After the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1978, Pashtuns on both sides were allowed to co-operate. However the Russians were eventually driven out by CIA supported Mujahideen.
When the Taliban took control, aided by Pakistan, the issue of Pashtun independence sat on the back burner. When they were ousted in 2001, they slipped easily across to Pakistan where they regrouped. Today the Durand Line area is ruled by the gun. The Pashtuns were alienated by the Pakistani ruling class after many of their number were killed in the Islamabad Red Mosque attack by defence forces. While Pakistani troops remain tied down in the disputed Kashmir, the western Pashtun and Waziri provinces have become increasingly lawless.
The area is also desperately poor. Millions have no access to health care, clean water, education or jobs. In Balochistan there is one doctor for every 8,000 people. Foreign journalists are banned from Pashtun lands. These conditions have made the area a fertile ground for Taliban and Al Qaeda recruitment. Ashley Bommer, a former employee of the US mission to the UN during the Clinton administration, says the situation is eroding the stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan and local population need help to “resist domination by the insurgency”. The real issue, says Bommer, is not an imaginary line on a map but “provision of water, roads, transportation, health care, education, employment opportunities and security to live and work”.