Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The line Durand drew

If a border isn't recognised by those on either side, does it still exist? That has long been the burning question along the Durand Line, the 112-year-old frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In theory, there is a border. Customs and immigration officials check passports and IDs at crossing points. Smugglers smuggle. There is an elaborate, twisting ballet at the frontier as vehicles switch sides on the road, driving from the left side in Pakistan to the right in Afghanistan. What more obvious way to denote a different country?

But a different country is not that evident elsewhere along the frontier, away from the official border posts. Most of the Durand Line goes through remote, uninhabited terrain – the High Pamirs in the far north, down through the snowbound Hindukush and into the Spin Ghar range. This last has been made recently infamous as a battleground between Osama bin Laden and the US military, ever since the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC. Thereafter, mountains give way to dust devils and deserts, with occasional moon-rock outcrops, all the way to the border with Iran.

No customs officers man gates along these stretches. No signs welcome visitors or urge caution on the highways. Instead, more than six million Pashtun tribal people live in these villages, valleys and occasional towns, refusing to tolerate any notion of a border. To them, this is Pukhtoonkhwa, Pashtunistan, their homeland; part of Afghanistan perhaps, but definitely not, on pain of death, to be considered Pakistani.

Memories are unrepentantly long in these parts. The day in November 1893 when Britain forced the Afghan Amir to accept the Durand Line as a border – this might as well have been yesterday. It was unjust then; it remains so now. Never mind that Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 and has based its existence on the notion of this frontier ever since. Up here, Pashtuns know better. Islamabad does not rule them.

Theoretically, the tribesmen are right. Tired of decades of skirmishing with elusive, irregular militias known as lashkars, colonial Britain granted semi-autonomy to vast tracts of mountainous land along the Durand Line. These so-called 'Tribal Agencies' remain a major thorn in the side of modern-day Pakistan. Tribal leaders, most of whom owe their lineage to British times, rule the roost in these parts. Only major roads belong to Islamabad.

Before 11 September 2001, tribal zones such as South Waziristan and Kurram were infamous mostly as either smugglers' havens or places to manufacture hashish and heroin. Guns were sold openly in the bazaars. Foreigners and non-Pashtuns were and remain unwelcome. Today, South Waziristan and Kurram are known as hotbeds of al-Qaeda and Taliban activity. A white face in Waziristan is an invitation for assisted suicide. Osama bin Laden almost certainly lives near the Durand Line, along with his lieutenant and spiritual advisor, Ayaman al-Zawahiri. The Taliban may not rule in Kabul anymore, but their austere, tribal version of Islam still holds sway in what these days passes for Pukhtoonkhwa.

By any measure, the notional border of the Durand Line is a mixed blessing to the local people. By not recognising it, tribesmen (no one really knows about the women – they're barely allowed out of their homes) have guaranteed themselves infamy, income and illiteracy. The lawlessness and gun culture that helps keep al-Qaeda's leaders safe from America's wrath assures that they will remain infamous into the foreseeable future. Income derived from smuggling goods into Pakistan as part of the lucrative Afghan transit trade, worth anywhere from USD 500 million to USD 5 billion every year, offers a regular, irregular income. The region's inherent isolation means that it is backward in education, health and governance. Illiteracy is entrenched.

International reinforcement

Adding to tribal obstinacy, Afghanistan itself has never recognised the Durand Line as a border, even though Amir Abdur Rahman Khan agreed to it in 1893. Afghans believe that the agreement the Amir signed with Sir Mortimer Durand was only valid for 100 years and has now ceased to exist. Of course, even a cursory reading of the document shows this not to be the case. Afghan reluctance to accept the border, together with the country's perpetual instability, have exacerbated volatility along the Durand Line, guaranteeing that the frontier remains a haven for crime, terrorism and backwardness – no matter what might happen elsewhere.

This is increasingly unacceptable to Pakistanis. President Pervez Musharraf has long wanted to demarcate and fence-off parts of the Line to increase his country's control over contraband and rebel activity. President Hamid Karzai probably agrees, but his authority is limited to Kabul and holds no sway along the frontier. But the presence of al-Qaeda and the continuing narcotics trade in the region are drawing international attention to the nature of the frontier. Everybody who is not a local seems to want a secure border through the Hindukush and beyond – Washington DC, London, Berlin, Beijing and the United Nations.

International opinion has in effect come to something of a consensus: Pashtun stubbornness and pride, not to mention warlordism and greed, is holding everyone hostage. However controversial or ineffectual has been George W Bush's 'war on terror', there remains a need to eliminate political violence affecting the innocent. A major step towards achieving that goal would be to secure the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, and to enforce the decisions of central government in Islamabad and Kabul. Then, the region's smuggling, gunrunning, drug trafficking and militancy just might diminish or disappear. The children might even be able to grow up literate.

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