Will Pashtuns Ever Reconcile With The Durand Line?

Will Pashtuns Ever Reconcile With The Durand Line?
From the very beginning, Pashtun nationalism has been at odds with Pakistan’s identity. For millennia, Pashtuns lived on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, which was created in 1893 during the British Raj by the Foreign Secretary for India, Mortimer Durand.

In his well-researched book, Pashtuns: A Contested History, Indian author and analyst Tilak Devasher, who has two books on Pakistan to his credit, explores the ramifications of this clash.

He finds that no Afghan government has accepted the Durand Line. More tellingly, he says that no Pashtun on either side of the border has accepted it either. When a retired Pakistani general, Naseerullah Babar, told Mullah Omar of the Taliban that “all problems will be resolved” if the Durand Line was recognized, Omar got so offended that he asked Babar to leave at once. In a similar vein, Musharraf’s appeal to the Taliban not to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas fell on deaf ears.

Pashtuns share the same ethnic identity regardless of which side of the border they are on. Culturally, there are no divisions between them. They regard the Durand Line as an artifact of colonialism.

For these reasons, even after Pakistan was created, its border with Afghanistan remained porous. Pashtuns crossed it freely to visit friends and relatives and engage in commerce and trade. Starting in 2017, Pakistan started fencing the Durand Line to contain terrorism, much to the irritation of the Pashtuns.

The book sets the present struggles against the long backdrop of Pashtun history. Going back to prehistoric times, these areas were part of the civilizations of Harappa (also called Indus Valley) and Bactria. The same was true in the ancient period (1500 to 250 BC), which included the Gandhara Kingdom, Alexander’s empire and the Mauryan Empire. It was also true in the Classical Period (250 BC to 565 AD), which included the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Indo-Parthians, Sassanians (Persians) and Huns.

Throughout this period, Pashtuns resisted foreign occupation fiercely. Even Alexander the Great is reported to have said, “May God keep you away from the revenge of the Afghans.” His statement has reverberated through the ages, with every invader rediscovering it to his chagrin. In modern times, that fate has befallen the British, Soviets and Americans.

Why do others keep on invading Afghanistan? It sits at the crossroads of civilization. It has always been seen as a gateway to India. Every invader has discovered to his regret that the land of the Pashtuns is the graveyard of empires.

Ironically, once the invaders leave the area, the Pashtuns start fighting with each other. Unsurprisingly, this infighting takes a terrible toll on them. Through much of its history, Afghanistan has been one of the poorest nations on earth. Today, much government revenue comes from drug trafficking. Compounding the problems is an intolerant and primitive culture which espouses religious extremism, persecution of minorities, and unrepentant misogyny.

When Pakistan was created, there was a sense of frustration among the Pashtuns in the NWFP. Pashtun leaders from Abdul Ghaffar Khan to Khan Abdul Wali Khan felt like they were second-class citizens. After the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, things seemed to improve.
The Afghan governments installed by the Americans were hostile to Pakistan and friendly toward India. Pashtun nationalism saw a resurgence. This led to the birth of the Pakistani Taliban, which wanted to establish Islamic rule in Pakistan.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there was additional improvement. Pakistan saw an opportunity to enhance its influence in the region by teaming up with the US and Saudi Arabia and funding, arming and training the Mujahideen. General Ziaul Haq told the American journalist Selig Harrison that Pakistan was seeking to “bring about a strategic realignment in South Asia,” and it had now “earned the right” to have a friendly regime in Kabul. Thus began the implementation of the “strategic depth” doctrine.

Ziaul Haq felt his moment had arrived when the Soviets were defeated. He was about to launch a Pan-Islamic initiative in the Central Asian Soviet republics when he died in a mysterious plane crash.

Infighting engulfed the Mujahideen and the Kalashnikov culture spilled over into Pakistan. In the vacuum, the Taliban seized power in Kabul and a new political order set in.

In the mid-nineties, Pakistan felt the moment had arrived to cozy up to the Taliban, citing commonality of religion and ethnicity. By doing so, it hoped to minimize Indian influence in Afghanistan and to diffuse the Pasthun identity crisis. General Musharraf said, “The Taliban cannot be alienated by Pakistan. We have a national security interest there.”

Courting the Taliban led to a blowback. The Taliban gave refuge to al-Qaeda fighters, headed by Osama bin Laden, who carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In October 2001, the US bombed and invaded Afghanistan. By December, the Taliban had been deposed. Twelve years after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Americans had taken their place.

The al-Qaeda fighters and many of the Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan and were given refuge by the Pakistani Pashtuns. The US resorted to drone attacks. One by one, the leading terrorists were taken out but not without the loss of thousands of innocent lives. Imran Khan, seeking to propel himself into the headlines, began condemning the attacks leading the West to dubbing him “Taliban Khan.”

The Afghan governments installed by the Americans were hostile to Pakistan and friendly toward India. Pashtun nationalism saw a resurgence. This led to the birth of the Pakistani Taliban, which wanted to establish Islamic rule in Pakistan. They engaged in a large-scale campaign of terror, forcing Pakistan to begin distinguishing between the good Taliban, who were in Afghanistan, and the bad Taliban, who were in Pakistan.

Of course, both Taliban had the same ethnicity and the same zealotry. Pakistan ended up looking double-faced not only to the Taliban but also to the rest of the world. Thus far, the Afghan Taliban have not shown any inclination to honour Pakistan’s request to not give refuge to the Pakistan Taliban.

Worn out by spending 20 years in Afghanistan, the US left Afghanistan during the Joe Biden presidency. The withdrawal of US forces was bungled and Biden was left holding the blame.

The Taliban returned to power and promised change. So far, they are displaying the same tyrannical style of governance as their predecessors. No hand of friendship has been extended to Pakistan. India is waiting in the wings.

The book stops short of laying out scenarios of the future. Will religious harmony with Pakistan overcome the bonds of Pashtun nationalism? Or will the differences continue to simmer along the Durand Line?

The book’s narration would have been easier to follow if it had included some tables, charts and pictures. Even with these limitations, it’s an enjoyable and thoughtful read.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui