Pakistan’s British-Drawn BordersBy Robert Mackey
In their fascinating account of a series of interviews with a Taliban tactician in Tuesday’s New York Times, Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah point to “one distinct Taliban advantage: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan barely exists for the Taliban.”
In previous posts on The Lede, we’ve mentioned that Pakistan and the rest of the world believes that Afghanistan ends (and Pakistan begins) more or less where a 1,600-mile line was drawn on the world map in 1893, at the direction of a British colonial officer named Henry Mortimer Durand, who sought to define the outer edge of what was then British India. At the time, the Afghans grudgingly accepted this map, despite the fact that what became known as the Durand Line cut right through Pashtun tribal areas and even villages that they considered part of Afghanistan.
Sir Henry, whose portrait can be seen in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery in London, drew his line with the memory of Britain’s two failed wars against the Afghans fresh in his mind. Not long before, in 1879, during what the British call the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Sir Henry had completed and published an account of “The First Afghan War and Its Causes” begun by his father, Sir Henry Marion Durand. As Sir Henry noted in his introduction to the book (which has been scanned and posted online in its entirety by Google), his father, who died before he could complete the history, “had some special qualifications for the task,” having participated in that first, disastrous attempt to subdue Afghanistan, four decades earlier.
So, as the entry on Pakistan in the Encarta encyclopedia explains, splitting the Pashtun tribes was in some sense the whole point of what is still known today as the Durand Line:
As the British sought to expand their empire into the northwest frontier, they clashed with the Pashtun tribes that held lands extending from the western boundary of the Punjab plains into the kingdom of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns strongly resisted British invasions into their territories. After suffering many casualties, the British finally admitted they could not conquer the Pashtuns. In 1893 Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the colonial government of India, negotiated an agreement with the king of Afghanistan, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, to delineate a border. The so-called Durand Line cut through Pashtun territories, dividing them between British and Afghan areas of influence. However, the Pashtuns refused to be subjugated under British colonial rule. The British compromised by creating a new province in 1901, named the North-West Frontier Province, as a loosely administered territory where the Pashtuns would not be subject to colonial laws.
In November, 2001, as the United States confronted the Taliban in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Cener and the Pentagon, Vartan Gregorian explained on The Times’s Op-Ed page how the arbitrary line the British colonial administration in India drew through “Pashtunistan” in the 19th century, which still forms much of the modern border, created problems that have still not been resolved in this volatile border region.
As the scholar Barnett Rubin noted in an article in Foreign Affairs in 2007, when the British left India in 1947 and the northwest part of the territory was carved into the new state of Pakistan, the Afghans stopped recognizing the Durand Line as a border:
Afghanistan claimed that Pakistan was a new state, not a successor to British India, and that all past border treaties had lapsed. A loya jirga in Kabul denied that the Durand Line was an international border and called for self-determination of the tribal territories as Pashtunistan. Skirmishes across the Durand Line began with the covert support of both governments.
While the two governments today are not actually fighting a war over the location of the border, the fact that the Durand Line runs right through the traditional Pashtun lands means that Taliban fighters from Afghanistan blend easily into the local population on the Pakistani side of the frontier. Suggestions from Pakistan to stop illegal border crossings by either putting down land mines or erecting a fence have been rejected by Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, who is himself Pashtun.
In January, Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon official, told Bill Moyers in a discussion of American strategy for fighting militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border, calling the Pashtuns who live along both sides of the Durand Line “a tribe,” can be misleading. In an interview, Mr. Sprey said:
It’s not a tribe. It’s a nation. This is 40 million people spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, who don’t even recognize that border. It’s their land. … There’s 40 million of them. That’s a nation, not a tribe. Within it are tribal groupings and so on. But they all speak the common language. And they all have a very similar, very rigid, in lots of ways very admirable code of honor much stronger than their adherence to Islam.
Pakistan’s other borders were created in 1947 by another British colonial officer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was made chairman of the boundary commission and given six weeks to carve a Muslim-majority state from British India. As the historian Karl Meyer wrote in his book “The Dust of Empire,” Sir Cyril “was a curious choice,” since he had never previously visited India. In a chapter called “Pakistan: Sins of Partition,” Mr. Meyer explained:
As Radcliffe’s former private secretary, Christopher Beaumont, later remarked in an interview, the chairman had never traveled east and “was a bit flummoxed by the whole thing. It was a rather impossible assignment, really. To partition that subcontinent in six weeks was absurd.”
Hundreds of thousands of people died in the ethnic cleansing that followed the imposition of the new border Sir Cyril drew between India and Pakistan. W.H. Auden made the absurdity of the way the border was created the subject of the poem “Partition,” published in 1966:
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.