G Parthasarathy

Durand Line, and Pak's ‘imperial' ambitions

G.PARTHASARATHY | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on October 25, 2011

If Islamabad envisages that international isolation will push Afghanistan into becoming a client-state of Pakistan, it may be making a key strategic miscalculation.

As the “end game” of American withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan begins, there is increasing resort to bravado and bluster challenging American power in Pakistani pronouncements. The Pakistan army's grandiose schemes for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan are premised on ensuring that Afghanistan is ruled by an internationally isolated regime, which would result in it becoming a de facto client-state of Pakistan.

But, behind this bluster and bravado, lies a key strategic calculation. An isolated regime in Kabul would have neither the influence nor power to aggressively assert Afghanistan's historical claims to territories seized from defeated Afghan rulers by Imperial British power. No Afghan Pashtun ruler has ever accepted the Durand Line, which divided and separated Pashtuns between Afghanistan and British India, as its international border with Pakistan.

The Prime Minister's Special envoy to Afpak, Mr Satinder Lambah, has recently published a study of the Imperial machinations that led to the Durand Line being imposed as the “frontier line” between British India and Afghanistan in 1893, following negotiations between Afghanistan's then Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan and Sir Mortimer Durand, the then Foreign Secretary of British India.

The first time the Durand Line was referred to as an “international boundary” was in a statement by Pakistan in 1947. The British Government, thereafter, referred to the Durand Line as the “International Frontier'' between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1950. This was not surprising.

Pro-Pakistan tilt

Egged on by its erstwhile Governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, Sir Olaf Caroe, the British, who had developed a distinct distaste for Prime Minister Nehru's leftist oriented non-alignment, decided to adopt a pro-Pakistani tilt.

Caroe, an ardent admirer of Jinnah, persuaded American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that it was essential for the western allies to support Pakistan, as a Muslim state that was to be designated to safeguard western access to the “wells of power''— the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.

The Afghans held that the disputed Pashtun region should not only have been given the option of joining either India or Pakistan, but also the additional option of becoming an independent state joining with Afghanistan, through a referendum. The Afghan position remains that areas which historically and legally formed a part of Afghanistan, were forcibly taken away between 1879 and 1921 and subsequently made a part of Pakistan.

Afghanistan's claim that territories extending till the River Indus constituted its frontier, together with its demand for inclusion of the port of Karachi in Afghanistan, was voiced in secret negotiations with Nazi Germany.

Thereafter, in November 1944, the Afghans urged the British that Pashtun tribal areas under British rule, should be given the choice of independence, or of reuniting with their “motherland”.

They also urged the British that Afghanistan should be given a “corridor” to the sea through Baluchistan. The Afghan National Assembly passed a resolution in July 1949, rejecting all “unequal” treaties signed with the British and denouncing the description of the Durand Line as the International Frontier with Pakistan. The Afghan Government also staunchly opposed the grant of UN membership to Pakistan.

Delusions of grandeur

Under pressure from Afghanistan over the Durand Line, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto retaliated by inviting the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to organise a cross-border insurgency, to destabilise the Daoud Regime in Afghanistan.

General Zia ul Haq thereafter used the opportunity of the ill-advised Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to put together an alliance of Wahhabi-oriented parties, to wage an armed struggle against the Soviets and with Western backing, to seize power in Afghanistan.

According to a German journalist who interviewed him the day before he died, Zia was beset with delusions of grandeur and spoke of Pakistani influence extending from the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort, across Afghanistan, to Central Asia.

Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid asserts: “Zia's vision of a Pakistani-influenced region extending into Central Asia depended on an undefined border with Afghanistan, so that the army could justify interference in that country and beyond, as a defined frontier would have entailed recognising international law and the sovereignty of Afghanistan”.

Pakistan thereafter entered into a dangerous game of imperial overreach into Afghanistan and Central Asia, by challenging the international community, through support for what Ahmed Rashid describes as “surrogate regimes such as the Taliban”. It has left virtually no space for backing off on this score.

While the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani military may have brutalised lightly armed Baluchis and Bangladeshis, it fears the Pashtuns. Kayani thus has a difficult choice. If he chooses to try and fulfil Zia's ambitions, he will have to confront American and Western wrath, amidst concern in Iran, Central Asia and Russia.

Even if the Taliban succeed in capturing substantial portions of Pashtun areas in Southern Afghanistan, they will find that, unlike in the past, they will be faced with determined resistance from the non-Pashtun majority in the country, backed by the Western powers, Russia, Iran and the neighbouring Central Asian states.

In the ensuing turmoil, the already dwindling writ of the Pakistani state in its Pakhtunkhwa Province and tribal areas will be further eroded. We will then have a de facto Talibanised “Pakhtunistan” on both sides of the Durand Line.

Have Gen Kayani and his Islamist Corps Commanders seriously thought through the consequences of their ill-advised policies on the unity and territorial integrity of present day Pakistan? I think not.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on October 25, 2011
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