Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Why is the Durand Line important?

[Note: Although this article was published in 1999, it contains pertinent information and insight, and thus worth a read]

- by WPS Sidhu, 16th November 1999, The Indian Express

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 affairs.

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.

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