Why the Durand Line is important

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Wed Nov 17 04:15:36 MST 1999

The Indian Express
 Tuesday, November 16, 1999
Why the Durand Line is important
W. P. S. Sidhu

Pakistan's close relations with Afghanistan in general and the Taliban in
particular are normally seen only in religious fundamentalist terms. The
argument is that movements like the Taliban are naturally bound to ally with
similar groups, such as the Deobandi groups, in Pakistan. Such an alliance,
it is claimed, is driven purely by religious ideology and is, therefore,
inherently anti-secular and anti-India.
This assertion, however compelling, does not tell the whole story. While
there is no doubt that religious and ideological affinity provides a strong
basis for the relationship between the two neighbours, Pakistan was bound to
pursue a proactive Afghan policy.
There are two principal reasons for this: first, to preserve Pakistan's
western border and, second, to provide `strategic depth' against India. In
fact, it is more likely that Pakistan is using the `Islamic' garb to veil
the significant national and strategic interests that it has in Afghanistan.
The primary reason for this is the legacy ofthe Durand Line which was drawn
as part of an agreement signed on 12 November 1893 between the then ruler of
Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Shah, and Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign
secretary of the colonial government of India. This line, which was
delineated in 1894-95, marked the boundary between Afghanistan and the
British Indian empire.
In 1947, following the partition of India, it became the border between
Pakistan and Afghanistan. This line, which runs though areas inhabited by
the Pashtuns, was never accepted by either Afghanistan (which signed it
under duress) or the Pashtuns (who sought to create their own homeland
called Pashtunistan). As early as June 1949, Afghanistan's parliament
cancelled all the treaties which former Afghan governments has signed with
the British-India government including the Durand Treaty and proclaimed that
the Afghan government does not recognise the Durand Line as a legal boundary
between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ever since then every government in Islamabad militaryand non-military has
desperately tried to reach a bilateral agreement with successive regimes in
Kabul to convert the Durand Line into the international border, but without
any success. Despite propping up several pro-Pakistan regimes in Kabul,
Islamabad was unable to get any of them to endorse the Durand Line as the
international border. In 1996, when the Durand agreement and line completed
a century, it was considered to have lapsed. Consequently, Pakistan's de
jure western border ceased to exist.
This realisation made it imperative for Pakistan to get even more deeply
involved in determining who rules in Kabul. According to a recent US Task
Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare report Islamabad has always
been anxious to secure a docile Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul. This
explains Islamabad's continuing and increasing involvement in Afghan
This serves several strategic purposes for Islamabad. First, by co-opting
the Pashtuns and promising them Kabul it neutralises the groupthat was most
likely to challenge the non-existent Durand Line. Second, a pro-Pakistan
regime in Kabul is more likely to ensure the de facto preservation of the
lapsed and abrogated Durand Line, even if it cannot be converted into an
international border. Third, a Pakistani-dominated Afghanistan would then
constitute a forward strategic depth on Pakistan's western flank.
The concept of the 'strategic depth' doctrine is not new: it was first
articulated by the army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg and tried out in the
high-profile Zarb-I-Momin military exercise in 1989-90.
Simply put, the doctrine calls for a dispersal of Pakistan's military assets
in Afghanistan beyond the Durand Line and well beyond the current offensive
capabilities of the Indian military. This would ensure the protection of
Pakistan's military hardware.
However, to be really effective the doctrine calls for Pakistan having the
ability to field these assets at a time and place of its choosing, which in
turn requires not just neutralareas around the Durand Line but
Pakistan-dominated areas well within Afghanistan.
Thus, like the 'Islamic bomb' slogan of the 1980s, Pakistan's leadership is
now using the convenient 'Islamic' label not only to take along the Taliban
fundamentalists but also to cover its own strategic and military involvement
in Afghanistan. It is important to realise that Islamabad's strategy to
counter India is not driven by religious and fundamentalist rhetoric but by
cold military logic.
The writer is MacArthur Scholar at the Centre for International Studies,
University of Oxford
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

The Indian Express

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