The Af-Pak boundary is not a border
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 18 Sep , 2011

There has been a heated debate on the validity and legality of Sir Henry Mortimer Durand’s line, a line some 2,640 kilometres long between former British India and Afghanistan, which now divides Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The single-page treaty was signed by Amir Abdur Rehman Khan and Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, British India’s foreign secretary, in October 1893 in Kabul. The Afghans maintain that the treaty was signed under duress.

Sir Henry Mortimer Durands line, imposed on a reluctant people, has little relevance or validity in todays geopolitical environment. It is an anachronism of history, out of place and out of date.

This was the era of the Great Game, the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s novelKim. Apprehensive of Russian expansion and influence being thrust towards the Indian border, the British were keen to push their frontiers into Afghanistan to form a buffer against such designs.

The other lines drawn by the British government were the Johnson-Ardagh Line in Ladakh/Tibet in 1865, [the basis for defining the Ladakh/Tibet border] followed by the Macartney-MacDonald line in 1899. Then came Sir Henry McMahon, who drew his line dividing China (then Tibet) and India in 1914. And 1947 saw the Radcliffe Line dividing India and Pakistan.

There were other lines drawn by the British in Africa, as also the lines drawn by Sir Mark Sykes [ of the MI-6 ] and his French foreign office colleague Georges Picot in 1916, carving out the Ottoman empire to further the imperial interests of Britain and France , thus largely contributing to the unstable environment that currently obtains in the middle east. The Picot/Sykes agreement was endorsed by Tsarist Russia but later denounced by the Bolsheviks. In 1919, former viceroy and foreign secretary George Nathaniel Curzon drew the Curzon line between Poland and Bolshevik Russia.

India wants to counter Pakistani influence by a series of developmental measures. Indias support of the Karzai regime is resented by Pakistan, which is taking measures to counter the Indian influence.

The 19th century saw the emergence of the Great Game being played by Britain and Russia. The first Anglo-Afghan war was fought from 1838 to 1842 to pre-empt Russian influence in the region. A British Indian force of some 16,000 comprising mainly Indian soldiers was holed up in Kabul . The commander, Lord Elphinstone [immortalised as Elphie Bey in MacDonald Fraser’s historical novel Flashman) negotiated with the Afghans for their safe passage back to India. But the retreating columns were attacked en route and massacred. The only survivor who reached Jalalabad was Doctor William Brydon.

The Mughals, and later the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had also tried to exert control over Kabul in order to prevent tribal forays into their territories but with little success.

Much later, the Soviet occupation ended in disaster for their armed forces leading to a humiliating withdrawal. This was one of the factors leading to demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a truncated Russia.

There were turbulent conditions in the border areas and several armed forays by Afghan tribesmen. The British then formulated a forward policy, pushing outposts deep into the tribal controlled areas.

The second Anglo-Afghan war from 1878 to 1880 saw the annihilation of General Burroughs’ British Indian force by Ayub Khan’s forces at Maiwand. Despite counter attacks at Kandahar, the British were forced to withdraw in 1880. The only major gain for the British was the control of the Khyber Pass.

The overall situation in Afghanistan remains in a state of flux, despite the troop surge and the increased military efforts of the American led NATO forces.

In 1893, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand ‘persuaded’ the Afghan King, Amir Abdur Rehman Khan to sign a single page treaty defining the Durand Line as the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. The treaty was never ratified by the Afghans. the clause in contention reads:

‘The government of India will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of Afghanistan and his highness the Amir will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of India. ‘ Surely this clause cannot be construed for the basis for making the Durand Line an international boundary.

Post Independence, Pakistan maintains that the treaty is binding, and confirmed by further treaties in 1905, 1919 and 1921. But the Afghans maintain that the treaty was not only signed under duress but was never ratified. This line was not a boundary but only a frontier and the line merely defined spheres of influence. The Afghans also dispute that Pakistan is the legal successor of the British government and as such all treaties made earlier under the British and Afghan governments have lapsed. The British support the Pakistani position. The Americans, now fighting a war against terror in that region, are ambivalent on the issue.

NATO will not be able to unify the country. when NATO forces leave, as leave they will have to one day, the country will in all probability be taken over by the various warlords once again.

Perhaps it is pertinent to quote Durand himself who after the treaty said:

The tribes on the Indian side are not to be considered to be within British territory. they are simply under our influence in the technical sense of the term, that is to say, so far as the Amir is concerned and so far as they submit to our influence or we exert it. ‘ [ Javed Khan , the News, 4 November 2007

Confirming Durand’s statement above, Lord Elgin the Viceroy wrote in 1896:

‘The Durand line was an agreement to define the respective spheres of influence of the British government and the Amir. Its object was to preserve and maintain the Amir’s acceptance of the status quo.

The single page treaty was intended to define spheres of influence, and not to delimit an international border. It was never intended to be an international border. The line was drawn in the context of the Great Game to counter what the British then perceived to be the threat of Russian designs of expansion to the borders of India. These conditions no longer obtain.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen JFR Jacob

General JFR Jacob, the hero of the 1971 India Pakistan war, recalls how former comrades in arms turned into bitter, life-long enemies post partition.

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