Implications of Afghan-Pakistani Clashes Along the Durand Line

By November 26, 2019

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,355, November 26, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Frequent violent clashes between Afghan and Pakistani security forces along their disputed border, the colonial-era Durand Line drawn in 1893, have strained ties between Islamabad and Kabul. Afghanistan does not accept the legitimacy of the Durand Line, claiming it is a violation of its sovereignty, while Pakistan believes it is an accepted international border. These tensions will likely worsen following the pending departure of the Americans from Afghanistan.

Pakistani forces are building border fortifications along the Durand Line, the colonial-era border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Durand Line is controversial for Afghans as it divides the dominant Pashtun tribes living in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamabad claims the fortifications are being built for counterterrorism purposes, but their construction is sparking violent clashes and diplomatic tensions with the fragile Afghan government.

The Durand line has been a major irritant between Islamabad and Kabul ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947 following the partition of British India, and there is little prospect for a resolution of the matter anytime soon. The looming American withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate these tensions.

Two recent incidents highlight the tricky and tangled geopolitics of the Durand Line. Last week saw Afghan and Pakistani border troops engaging in cross-border clashes resulting in casualties on both sides, with each accusing the other of committing aggression. The fighting took place after Afghan forces and local tribal leaders attempted to prevent Pakistani forces from setting up a military outpost along the border.

Another incident relates to Pakistan’s decision to strip the citizenship of Maulana Hafiz Hamdullah, a Pakistani politician, on the grounds that he forged his citizenship documents and is a “confirmed Afghan”.

Periodic tensions between Pakistani and Afghan security personnel along the disputed border are not uncommon. In the past couple of years, clashes have often erupted when Afghan troops allegedly opened fire on Pakistani soldiers trying to erect a security fence on the disputed border. These frequent clashes have led to the deterioration of bilateral ties. Sometimes, they lead to a situation in which the countries find themselves unable to back down without external mediation.

Pakistan claims to be plugging the largely porous Afghan-Pakistani border to stop terrorist infiltration into its territory from the neighboring country. Construction on the border fence, which Pakistan calls a “paradigm change” and “an epoch shift”, was initiated two years ago along the more than 2,600km Durand Line. Seen as Pakistan’s response to persistent criticism of its failure to control the movement of the Taliban across the border, the barrier is envisaged to be an institutionalized divider backed with closed-circuit TV cameras and drone footage, along with hundreds of military checkpoints.

According to Pakistan’s Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, approximately 1,250km of the border have been fenced, with the remainder likely to be completed in 2020. Islamabad alleges that instead of cooperating with Pakistan to fence the border, the Afghan government has been frustrating its efforts, which it claims are aimed at effective border management and control.

Whatever Pakistan’s public proclamations, it is not difficult to understand Kabul’s suspicion of Islamabad’s motives. The disputed Durand Line continues to decide the destiny of millions of people living as a seamless society in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand Line Agreement, signed between Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rahman and British diplomat Mortimer Durand in 1893 in Kabul, has not been recognized as a legitimate international border by any Afghan government, all of which have insisted that it arbitrarily divides Afghanistan’s territory. Neither the Taliban regime that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, nor the post-Taliban regimes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, accepted the boundary as legitimate. Nor is the new Afghan president expected to consider such a step.

For its part, Pakistan considers the disputed boundary a settled historical fact. As the successor state of the British Raj, Pakistan asserts the Durand Line as its established international border with Afghanistan. After an incident of cross-border fire on October 27-28, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a statement stating, “We consider the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as an internationally recognized official border between the two countries in accordance with all relevant international laws and conventions. The Afghan position on this issue is unwarranted.” Pakistan issued a similar statement in September rejecting the Afghan government’s argument that it does not recognize the Durand Line as an official border. (These particular diplomatic strains erupted after the two countries began round-the-clock operations at the Torkham crossing and Pakistan installed a sign that called Torkham a border.)

Because the Durand Line divides the dominant Pashtun tribes, it has never been popular among them in either country. Countermeasures by Pakistan’s ruling establishment, dominated by the Punjabi elite, have resulted in the exploitation and co-option of Pashtuns in order to wean them away from the seductive appeal of an elusive Pashtunistan.

The Durand Line virtually disappeared during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when Pakistan-based mujahideen groups fought a decade-long Afghan jihad against the Soviets. But the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 completely changed the regional dynamics. Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy had already cost it the support of many non-Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan, but when General Pervez Musharraf was forced to make a U-turn on Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Pakistan lost the loyalty of many of the Pashtun tribes. (Pakistan’s security establishment perceives “strategic depth” in Afghanistan as having a subservient Kabul regime. This is seen as serving two purposes: it solves the Pashtun problem and functions as an insurance policy against a potential Indian military offensive.)

When Pakistan-based Islamist groups grew hostile to the Pakistan army, Islamabad had little option but to firm up its border with Afghanistan. But it did so selectively so as to avoid disturbing the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistani towns and cities.

The ordinary Pashtun have suffered a great deal at the hands of the Pakistani army – particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), which was once considered a haven for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other non-state violent groups. FATA’s full integration into the country’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018 alienated the Pashtuns further.

The decision of Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to declare Hafiz Hamdullah an alien needs to seen against the backdrop of Pakistan’s relentless attempts to victimize Pashtuns and render their cross-border relationships and myriad interactions illegal and impossible. Hamdullah is a well-known Pakistani politician of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and the Pakistani government’s claims that he “fraudulently” got his computerized national identity card (CNIC) cannot be believed. Hamdullah was appointed health minister of Balochistan province in 2002 after being elected to the provincial assembly on a Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) ticket. Later he was elected to the upper house of Pakistani parliament as a JUI-F candidate.

Hamdullah may be one of the three million Afghan refugees – unaccounted numbers of them are fully absorbed and integrated – in Pakistan. But the Pakistani government does not know how many Afghans came into the country during the last two decades of the war. The distinction between who is a Pakistani citizen and who is an Afghan cannot be made along the disputed boundary, which arbitrarily divided the Pashtun homeland in two.

The Afghan refugees have watched Pakistani society succumb to jihadist terror rather than develop the political will to fight it. That is why hardly anyone loves Pakistan in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns least of all.

In view of its willingness to ignore Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on its own soil, Pakistan’s repeated attempts at international fora to project itself as a victim of terrorism are ridiculous and self-serving. Pashtuns are more aware now that what really prevents Islamabad’s counterterrorism cooperation with Kabul is not so much the porous Durand Line but the shelter and support the Afghan Taliban continue to receive from the Pakistani state.

For Pakistan, which is essentially a national security state, the anti-India obsession trumps all concerns for the mobility of communities living along both sides of the Durand Line.

Pakistan’s continuing efforts to force the Pashtuns to live as separate communities in two hostile countries are fraught with undesirable consequences for regional security. American interests in the region are in flux as the Trump administration seems desperate to wind down its presence in Afghanistan. China has emerged as a more significant actor in the region than it was two decades ago.

The frequent crises along the Durand Line underscore that no Afghan leader will take the personal risk of accepting its legitimacy. With that in mind, scholars and policymakers need to analyze some questions: What are the beliefs on each side about crisis management, and are there shared ideas about de-escalation? How receptive are both countries to third party mediation? Is the ongoing peace negotiation between the US and the Afghan Taliban for a political solution to the Afghan conflict addressing this issue? Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as third parties interested in trying to facilitate crisis de-escalation, should plan for a range of contingencies.

Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Security Studies and Coordinator of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, India.