The Complexity of the Durand Line: An Excuse for Western Inaction

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When the Europeans think of the Durand Line, their minds usually possesses no other descriptions than those relating to violence, death and chaos. Ambiguous and confusing concepts like “failed state” or non-space force their imaginations to misrepresent the area. Consequently western analysis and scientific researches suffer from dangerous vices. They observe from the surface instead of studying in depth. Very important aspects relating to the political geography of the Durand Line (aspects that influence enormously political actions) are too often forgotten, or considered unimportant.

One of the main cause that deflects western researchers’ analysis on the Durand Line is the unseen difference between border and frontier. A static line on a map the first and an incredibly dynamic network, the second. The Durand Line has a special position for the West. Neither a border nor a frontier but an exceptional place where things are too complex to be understood. Considering this, a very few people are interested in addressing aspects related to political geography or critical geopolitics.

But is this really the state of things that this frontier deserve?

In this paper, I try to fill the vacuum of western researchers on the subject, trying to explain a western perspective. In Europe, the argument stating that the dynamics have made the Durand Line a hardly controllable territory do not fall within the logics of capitalism and colonial exploitation is very popular. But contrary to the common belief, I argue that the unbridled capitalist logics and the thirst for colonial power have determined, for now, the harsh fate of the Durand Line.

Western colonialism in the Durand Line

At the end of the nineteenth century, in the final phase of the Great Game, the issue of the Durand Line suddenly collared the attention of the international community. This historical phase marked the end of the competition between Soviets — advancing in Central Asia —  and the British Empire which was defending its Indian pearl. Following the failure of the Anglo-Afghan wars, fought respectively in 1839 and 1878, London decided to transform Afghanistan into a “buffer state” whose foreign policy it would control in order to consolidate its dominion in India and defend it from Russian expansionist goals. A fundamental part of the British project was the delimitation of the Afghan borders. The strategic northern border was aimed precisely at curbing Russian influence and would be controlled by Afghan troops equipped with British weapons. The southern border instead, in the English project, was not so much the purpose of preventing the Russian advance, but that of stemming and subduing the Pashtuns.

Before consolidating the tracing of the border line, the British took the opportunity to uncork areas they considered strategic from a commercial and a communication point of view, such as the Khyber and Michni passes or the districts of Pishin and Sibi. On November 12, 1893 Abdur Rahman and Mortimer Duran signed a treaty delineating a 2500km border that started from the Sarikol mountain and reached the Iranian border. The institutionalization of the border destroyed the political project of the Pashtuns to create a nation-state centered on the Pashtun element dominant in the country since the 1700s. The signing of the agreement, still much discussed today, provoked the reaction of the frontier tribes, very quickly repressed by the British.[1]

Durand Line History

The activism of jihadists groups

Those who suffered the most from the transformation of the Durand Line were the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan who lived — and still live — along both sides of the border. In the early 1970s, with the emergence of jihadist groups, the Pashtun tribes saw their tribal system and political power greatly weakened. The causes of marginalization of these tribes are different, but the weak role of the two states and the emergence of religious leaders at the head of the border areas can be considered elements in common in both cases. In Pakistan, tribal leaders lost political power as Islamist parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami waged war against them. In the Afghan case, the Taliban marginalized the tribes in the east of the country, a place where they were more institutionalized and therefore more present at the local level. Furthermore, the strong presence of tribal leaders in the Afghan institutions was not tolerated by the Taliban, because they were ideologically averse to any kind of tribal system within their political project.

The deteriorating economy of the Durand Line

The absence of a central power or of a communion of powers which effectively controlled the border areas, has favored the emergence of a smuggling economy that still sees millions and millions of dollars in illegal trade. The high profits are attracting different criminal organizations that mainly trade opium, timber and other products. The rampant phenomenon of smuggling has been fed for years by a widespread aversion towards the central administration and causes enormous damage to the budgets of the two countries every year. The presence of smuggled foreign products – cheaper than local ones – has reduced and discouraged any private initiative in border regions. Even today illegal trade seems to be the only source of income for traffickers and entire local communities along the Durand Line.

The consolidation of a trans-national jihadist cooperation

The 1980s was the period that favored consolidation of cooperation between jihadist organizations along the Durand Line. Due to its permeability and indeterminacy, these organizations have had the opportunity to take refuge, reorganize and train in this area, choosing it as a “safe base” for launching military incursions. With the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 the Durand Line became, for the first time, a zone of global importance. The Soviet Union attempted to reshape the contours of the spheres of influence in South Asia but the United States began to finance the mujahedeen in their armed struggle against Moscow. Also supported by Saudi Arabia, the mujahedeen took advantage of the permeability of the border and penetrated Afghan soil to carry on their anti-Soviet struggle.

The western failures

The Durand Line is a transnational, dynamic and open space that moves away from the classic concept of border. Its past made up of colonialism and exploitation has done nothing but irreparably damage the fate of this system which, before the European intervention, lived according to its own rules. Capitalism and colonialism have dictated their rules for decades and now those who live in those areas are paying the consequences. The international community needs to be aware that what is done is not enough, that the UN policies are not adequate and that the Durand Line is not a border but a frontier, which is something quite different.

It is a space of connection and movement, a real dynamic space in which dense networks of social interactions intersect. It is of course complex, networks are complex for definition, but we do see opportunities for actions in complexity. It is widely agreed that action research can help to address complex challenges and governance systems. Western researchers should seize the opportunity to develop a new understanding of the Durand Line as an interconnected network notwithstanding its complexity. Studies on this area of the world should be more humble, more open and constantly updated. Because what is needed the most is the understanding that frontiers are not borders, they cannot be controlled. These are systems prone to surprising, seemingly uncontrollable, where a greater emphasis should be placed not on controlling and investing in the law enforcement system but rather on building resilience and on fostering a culture of policy experimentation for the benefit of the population.

[1] Bijan Omrani (2009) THE DURAND LINE: HISTORY AND PROBLEMS OF THE AFGHAN-PAKISTAN BORDER, Asian Affairs, 40:2, 177-195, DOI: 10.1080/03068370902871508
B.Omrani. The Durand Line: History and Problems of the Afghan-Pakistan Border, Asian Affairs, 2009.
Schetter. The Durand Line: The Afghan-Pakistani Border Region between Pashtunistan, Tribalistan and Talibanistan, Internationales Asienforum, 2017.
Mohammad, I. Tabassum, Geography, Insurgency in the Pashtun belt along Durand Line, Pak-Afghan Border, Research Journal of Area Study Centre (Russia, China & Central Asia).
W.K. Fraser-Tytler. Afghanistan: A Study of Political Developments in Central and Southern Asia, Oxford, 1951.
T. Ginsburg, An Economic Interpretation of the Pashtunwali, University of Chicago Law School, 2011

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