It has become almost routine these days to hear about the ways in which the Pakistan-Afghan border, formed by the Durand Line which Kabul refuses to recognise, is being violated. Captured Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif recently confessed that Mullah Omar is being kept in a hideout in Quetta by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials. Around the same time, during the visit of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to Afghanistan, American intelligence officials claimed that cross-border attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan have increased three-fold since September 2006.
One of the great tragedies of the world has been visited on the Pakhtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For their role in giving the British a hard time in the 19th century, their homeland was arbitrarily divided by the British through the Durand Line, defining the border between British India and Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 launched the second round of the tragedy when the largely Pakhtun populace fought the Soviet armies, only to see Pakistan snatch the fruits of victory through its manipulation of the Pakhtun tribal leaders.
Recent declarations by Pakistani authorities about fencing the Durand Line or mining it have generated a great deal of resentment. No modern government in Afghanistan, be it pro- or anti-Pakistan, has recognised the validity of the Durand Line. In fact, the ISI squad that arrested Afghan president Najibullah from his refuge in the UN compound in Kabul in 1996, tried to make him sign a document validating the Durand Line, but he had refused. Najib paid the price for this by being strung up by the ISI in the name of the Taliban. Failing to get Afghan acquiescence, the Pakistanis have tried to destabilise Afghanistan and keep the Pakhtuns in line. They have adopted a forward policy of interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan to set up a government in Kabul that will not challenge their western border.
So deep was the bitterness between the Afghans and the British, that the Afghan representative cast the lone vote against the entry of Pakistan into the UN in September 1947. Though Kabul later revised its vote, the point was made. An Afghan loya jirga in 1949 deemed the Durand Line as invalid and cancelled all treaties between British India and Afghanistan. There is a persisting belief — not, however, based on the text of the treaty — that the Durand Line agreement expired after 100 years, i.e. in 1993. So persistent is the rumour that in September 2005, the governor of the North-west Frontier Province, Khalilur Rehman, declared that the Durand Line agreement that was valid for 100 years had expired in 1993. He wanted the government to renegotiate it with the Afghan government. But the Pakistan government maintains that there is no challenge to the validity of the border. Most countries of the world continue to recognise the line as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
However, the issue is not so much about the border as it is about the division of the Pakhtun people. The consequences of this are now being felt in the Pakistani manipulation of the situation on behalf of the Taliban, as well as the continuing destabilisation of Afghanistan. Pakistani governments have now begun to see Afghanistan as part of their sphere of influence and resent any sign of independence or perceived Indian dominance. To this end, they manipulate the politics of the NWFP.
India has huge stakes in the Pakhtun issue. This is not just a matter of a feeling of guilt arising out of the abandonment of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars in 1947. One reason for the Pakistani tribal raid in Kashmir was to ensure that no part of India be contiguous to the Pakistani tribal areas where Badshah Khan was still a towering figure. Since then, a lot of water has flown down the Indus. The Badshah’s son, Wali Khan, too, has expired and his legacy is now being kept alive by Afsandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami National Party.
Badshah Khan’s vision for the Pakhtuns was that of a community that would be at peace with all. Pakhtuns constitute the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, and the largest in Afghanistan. Many Pakhtun leaders are tired of the continuing bloodshed and want out of the games being played by Islamabad.
It is important for India to support all efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring peace and development to the Pakhtun people. That is the only guarantee that the Taliban and al-Qaeda will not re-establish themselves in Afghanistan or gain ground in Pakistan.
PN Khera is Editor, Asia Defence News International