The Platform

Afghans along the Afghan-Pakistan border after being expelled from Pakistan. (Sayed Habib Bidell/UN Women)

Afghans have always detested the Durand Line so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Taliban is revisiting the issue.

The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Taliban, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, pronounced last month at a public event that the Durand Line’s status as an official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a notion bereft of mutual recognition. He emphatically stated that Afghanistan’s stance is one of staunch refusal to acknowledge this colonial-era demarcation as their frontier with Pakistan.

This sentiment isn’t an isolated occurrence within the Taliban’s echelons. Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, previously articulated that the Durand Line exists merely as a nominal delineation, a ‘line’ with no substantial legitimacy. Mujahid alluded to a future juncture when Afghanistan would broach the subject with Islamabad, contingent on the Afghan populace’s will. Since the Taliban’s ascent in Kabul, the disputed boundary has been a flashpoint, with confrontations leading to numerous casualties — a reminder that this dispute is far from a recent development. Indeed, Afghanistan’s sole vote against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in 1947 was propelled by this very issue. The enduring dispute over the Durand Line bears testament to the turbulent and unpredictable Afghan-Pakistani relationship since Pakistan’s inception.

Peering into this contentious border’s genesis, we encounter the specter of imperial Russian expansion in the 19th century — a harbinger of anxiety for the British in India. The Great Game, as it was termed, saw escalating political and diplomatic tensions, culminating in the construction of the Trans-Caspian Railway that touched the Afghan border. The British Raj, ever wary of Russian encroachment, perceived these developments as threats that could pivot the regional balance.

The Anglo-Afghan wars, Britain’s military response to these anxieties, failed to secure direct control over Afghanistan. Instead, the British fashioned Afghanistan into a buffer state, equipped with military support to defend against Russian advances. This tactic, although strategic, was deemed insufficient in the long run, leading to the imperative of delineating Afghanistan’s borders. The annexation of territory by the British, with strategic economic and geopolitical objectives, preceded formal border negotiations led by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893 with the Amir of Afghanistan. The resulting Durand Line cleaved the Pashtun population, igniting a perennial debate over its legitimacy as more than a mere line of control.

Subsequent Afghan administrations have consistently refuted the line’s status as a legitimate border, citing its origin in coercion and its intent as a demarcation of influence rather than sovereignty. The narrative persists that the Amir acquiesced under duress, with an economic embargo looming and the ominous prospect of a British-Russian conflict on Afghan soil.

Afghan appeals for border discussions were historically disregarded by British authorities. As the British Empire prepared to relinquish control over India, Afghanistan’s calls for revising the border were again rebuffed. Consequently, Afghan legislation declared all Durand Line treaties void, intensifying the nation’s repudiation of what they deem a deceptively imposed boundary.

The turmoil of the late 20th century in Afghanistan provided a vacuum that Pakistan filled, expanding its influence and controversially considering Afghanistan as a de facto fifth province. A resilient and autonomous Afghanistan poses a challenge to Pakistan’s ambitions, as it would likely repudiate the disputed boundary.

The Durand Line remains a symbol not merely of a border dispute but embodies deeper questions of identity, ethnicity, and sovereignty. The enduring contention over this line will persist in casting a shadow over Afghan-Pakistani relations until a mutual consensus emerges, one that reconciles the historical fissures with the contemporary needs of both states.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.