The Durand Line: Separating myth from reality



2022-02-11 05:21:07

The Durand Treaty, contrary to what many Afghans allege, did not have any time limit.

It is one of the great ironies of history that Afghans wanted the Partition of India as far back as the 1930s, even before Indian Muslims themselves started demanding Pakistan, but the same Afghans chose not to have cordial relations with Pakistan when it was founded. According to William Fraser-Tytler, the former British Minister in Kabul (1935 – 41), the Afghans used to say:

“If they [the British] were going there was only one possible solution to the Indian problem, and that was a division of sovereignty between Muslim and Hindu [sic]. Such a solution, difficult though it might be, had some small chance of success; no solution based on a Union of India could lead to anything but chaos and ruin. It is interesting to recollect that this point of view was held in Kabul long before its validity was admitted in Britain or India.” (Sir William K Fraser-Tytler, Afghanistan: A Study of Political Development in Central Asia, P256)

A few days after Partition, the then Afghan King Mohammad Zahir declared,

“When we see India in its present state, we feel for our co-religionists. I have sent messages of greetings to both Pakistan and India. Our brothers are Pakistanis, and we will help them even with our blood and with the sword.”

In October 1947, Afghanistan withdrew its negative vote, which it had exercised in September 1947, against Pakistan’s admission into the United Nations (UN). Both sides exchanged ambassadors in 1948, with Afghanistan sending the fluent Urdu-speaking Sardar Shah Wali Khan, Zahir Shah’s uncle and a former ambassador to London, as ambassador to Karachi. Wali once stated in Karachi that whatever claims Afghanistan may have had on Pakhtun-majority areas in Pakistan, it would now forgo such claims in favour of Pakistan. Despite these initial positive developments, the Durand Line drama continued to unfold.

Historical and legal standpoints

Between 1809 and 1947, Afghan rulers and British officials signed numerous agreements and treaties. However, the one treaty that keeps resurfacing is an 1893 treaty (or the so-called Durand Treaty) between the Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British Indian Foreign Secretary Sir Mortimer Durand. As such, several generations of Afghans, without adequate scrutiny, have bought into the fiction and fabrication that Afghanistan lost all the territories between the Indus River and its current border with Pakistan – the so-called Durand Line – as a result of the Durand Treaty.

For instance, the last time an Afghan army set foot in Peshawar was in 1849 (not in 1893), towards the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, when Afghan sovereignty actually did not extend beyond the Ali Masjid Fort, at the entrance to the Khyber Pass. Interestingly enough, in March 1855 and January 1857, Afghan ruler Amir Dost Mohammad Khan signed two agreements with British officials confirming his respect for existing frontiers between Afghanistan and India – with the Afghan frontier ending at Ali Masjid, not the Indus River. As a result of the 1857 agreement, Dost got 4,000 muskets and a monthly subsidy of 100,000 rupees.

Furthermore, Dost Mohammad’s grandson Amir Yaqub Khan, who had succeeded his father Amir Sher Ali Khan to the Kabul throne a few months earlier, signed another treaty with the British in May 1879 at Gandumak (thereby the Gandumak Treaty) in Kabul. According to the Gandumak Treaty, Yaqub relinquished Afghan sovereignty over Khyber, Sibi, Kurram and Pishin. Afterward, Yaqub’s cousin and successor, Rahman, before ascending the Kabul throne in July 1880, agreed to a set of British conditions, which clearly instructed Rahman that he could become the Amir of Kabul, but that Qandahar would not be part of his dominion (the British wanted to have sovereignty over Qandahar through a puppet ruler).

Herat, where Yaqub’s younger brother Ayub Khan was the governor, also fell outside Rahman’s domain, unless he was able to capture it by force. Rahman agreed to become the Amir of Kabul in exchange for forgoing his claim to Qandahar, 600 kilometres away from the Indus River at its nearest point. It was only after Ayub Khan defeated the British at Maiwand in July 1880 that the latter’s position in Qandahar became untenable, and they decided to withdraw from Qandahar. Thus, exploiting the vacuum left behind by the British, Rahman captured both Qandahar and Herat from Ayub Khan in 1881.

Then came the momentous year of 1893, when Rahman entered into a treaty with the British delimiting the Indo-Afghan frontier, and their respective spheres of influence. As a result of the Durand Treaty, Afghanistan relinquished its sovereignty over some frontier districts such as Bajuar, Swat, Chitral and Chaghey, but brought under its sovereignty other districts such as Asmar, Kafiristan and Birmal, over which it had exercised little to no control previously.

Most of the territory between the Indus River and the Durand Line, which Afghans allege they lost as result of the 1893 Durand Treaty, had actually been lost between the 1810s and 1870s. On the contrary, the benefit of the Durand Treaty was that it delimited the frontier of Afghanistan and India, and after a long time, Afghans themselves became aware where their frontier with India started and ended. In fact, through the Durand Treaty, Afghans would cede some territory to the British for the last time, not for the first time.

The Durand Treaty, again contrary to what many Afghans allege, did not have any time limit. It was not signed for 100 years, or any other time frame. It was a personal treaty between Rahman and Durand. With Rahman’s death in 1901, both the 1880 agreement and the 1893 treaty lapsed. However, Rahman’s son and successor Amir Habibullah reaffirmed with Britain in 1905 all of his father’s arrangements and agreements, including accepting the Durand Line as the frontier with India. Habibullah’s son and successor Amir Amanullah reaffirmed with Britain in 1919 at Rawalpindi and in 1921 at Kabul all previously agreed upon border arrangements between Afghanistan and India. In 1930, under King Mohammad Nadir (1929-1933), Afghanistan reaffirmed the 1921 Anglo-Afghan treaty signed at Kabul, thereby recognising the Durand Line as a border between Afghanistan and India.

Consequently, the Afghan claim that Afghanistan has never recognised the Durand Line as a border or boundary with anyone stands in stark contrast to historical facts. Yes, Afghans have never recognised the Durand Line as a border with Pakistan. However, Afghans had recognised and acknowledged on multiple occasions previously, during the British presence in India, the status of the Durand Line as a border between Afghanistan and India. Pakistan, as a successor state to Britain (British India), has inherited all the legal rights and responsibilities that Britain used to exercise with regards to the Durand Line.

As mentioned above, Afghanistan lost most of the territory between the Durand Line and the Indus River in a gradual process which lasted 60 to 70 years (from the 1810s to the 1870s). In fact, when the disintegration process started in the 1810s, the name Afghanistan was not even being used. What later came to be known as Afghanistan was known as Kabul or the Kingdom of Kabul, which did not include present-day northern and western Afghanistan. The signing of the Durand Treaty, however, was a significant event. Thus, one cannot undo a lengthy process spanning over seven decades by just undoing an event and revoking the Durand Treaty and its subsequent reaffirmations. Even if one were to reverse and revoke the Durand Treaty and all the subsequent Afghan reaffirmations of it, Afghanistan would still only get the above mentioned districts (Bajuar, Swat, Chitral and Chaghey), but would also have to cede the districts that it bagged (Asmar, Kafiristan and Birmal) under the Durand Treaty.

Logical standpoint

Although Afghanistan keeps reiterating that it does not recognise the Durand Line as the border with Pakistan, it has not yet presented its position clearly as to what the status of Pakistan’s Pakhtun-majority areas should be. The claims that Afghanistan has advanced since 1947 regarding Pakistan’s Pakhtun-majority areas range from independence to autonomy to self-determination. The irony is not lost on anyone when Afghans include Balochistan as part and parcel of their imaginary Pakhtunistan, which is to be established out of the Pakhtun and Baloch majority areas of Pakistan. On the one hand, Afghans want autonomy, or self-determination, or even independence for Pakistani Pakhtuns. On the other hand, without Baloch consent, Afghans bundle them with Pakhtuns as part of the so-called Pakhtunistan to make sure Afghanistan gets an outlet to the sea in case Pakhtunistan materialises.

Secondly, even if one agrees for a minute with the Afghan allegation that Afghanistan lost all the territory between the Durand Line and the Indus River as a result of the 1893 Durand Treaty, then one must also keep in mind that history did not begin in 1893. If one is going to revive history, then one must go back three to five centuries. Before 1747, when Ahmad Shah Durrani founded his kingdom in Qandahar, the territory that comprises present-day Afghanistan was divided between Safavid Persia, Mughal India and the Uzbek rulers of Central Asia. For centuries, Mughal India ruled southern and central (and sometimes even northern) Afghanistan from Lahore, Delhi and Agra. Pakistan, as a successor state to the Mughal Empire in the northern subcontinent, would be more deserving of laying a claim to southern, central and even northern Afghanistan than Afghanistan would be of claiming Pakistan’s Pakhtun-majority areas.

Thirdly, if for instance, a foreign power occupied the Pakhtun-majority areas of Pakistan – like the Sikhs did in the 19th century – Afghan attempts at liberating these areas by alleging that Afghans would retake their land would perhaps make some sense. But the irony is that when the Sikhs were actually encroaching on present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the 1820s and 1830s, Afghans (except for the Battle of Jamrud in 1837) retired to the comfort of Kabul and Jalalabad and abandoned the present-day KP pakhtuns.

Today, however, Pakistani pakhtuns are free, independent and not under anyone’s occupation. Therefore, one must ask the Afghans whether the people of Peshawar have more right over the territory of Peshawar, or the people of Qandahar or Nangarhar. We no longer live in the age of empires whereby emperors would own their domains and subjects. Thus, Afghan rulers have no right to allege that the pakhtun-majority areas of Pakistan are theirs. The pakhtun-majority areas of Pakistan belong to Pakistani pakhtuns themselves, who, unlike Afghanistan’s pakhtuns, rule themselves by electing their provincial and federal governments.

Ethnic standpoint

If the Afghan logic, which states that countries should be formed on the basis of ethnicity (like all pakhtuns should be in Afghanistan), is translated into practice, then Afghanistan itself would cease to exist as a country. By the Afghan logic, Afghanistan’s Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens should also be allowed to join their fellow ethnic groups in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively. Secondly, Pakistani pakhtuns outnumber Afghan pakhtuns at least two to one. Therefore, if the pakhtuns were to come together and unite in a single country, that country would be Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

In addition, as a result of Russian and British decisions – which, from the 1870s to the 1890s, delimited Afghanistan’s northern frontiers without the involvement of Afghans in the process – villages and families in northern Afghanistan were torn apart and divided between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Despite being on the sidelines when decisions were made by Britain and Russia about Afghanistan’s northern borders, northern Afghanistan’s residents (the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens, who were impacted by these decisions) have long accepted the legality of Afghanistan’s northern border with Central Asian states. On the contrary, despite Afghan rulers’ direct involvement in signing treaties with Britain to relinquish their claims on Frontier Pakhtun territories, Afghans (especially Pakhtuns) are not content with accepting the legality of the border with Pakistan.

More importantly, Afghan allegations have few supporters amongst the majority of Pakistani pakhtuns. Who would want to become part of Afghanistan today? Afghans themselves are fleeing Afghanistan in droves, including arriving by the thousands at the Pakistani border for a variety of purposes. It is obvious that Afghan rulers, from royal to communist and from religious fundamentalist to the so-called liberal, have all kept the Durand Line saga alive for domestic reasons. It is unfortunate that the Afghan rulers have not realised (or purposefully ignored) that by exploiting the sentiments of ordinary Afghans through turning the Durand Line non-issue into an emotional issue, they are creating permanent divisions between the people of two Muslim and brotherly countries. The same Afghan rulers who kept relations with Pakistan tense over the Durand Line have also created unbridgeable divisions between pakhtuns and non-pakhtuns along ethnic and linguistic lines in Afghanistan.

Lately, there also appears to be a growing gap between Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s pakhtuns, especially over the Durand Line and its fencing. Pakistani pakhtuns are beginning to realise that Afghanistan’s pakhtuns, at least in theory, have a nefarious design on their territory. Generally speaking, since 1947, Afghans have wasted much-needed energy, time and resources on this issue – which otherwise could have been directed to other quarters to benefit ordinary Afghans. The sooner sanity dawns on the Afghans, the better. Instead of wasting further resources and time on non-issues like the Durand Line, Afghans must strive to stand on their own two feet to achieve true political and economic independence in the 21st century.

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