Under New Pakistani Policies, Families Divided By Durand Line Face Separation

In Pakistan's border region of Chaman, the inhabitants have been dependent on their agrarian lands in Afghanistan

Under New Pakistani Policies, Families Divided By Durand Line Face Separation

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals in the report

“I was born in Kandahar’s Ghra Kali (mountain village), and we the Achakzais have our ancestral lands in Toba Achakzai, even before the Soviet-backed revolution, we transferred our homes to Chaman,” says Zarina Bibi, who is in her sixties, with white hair, surrounded by her female grandchildren.

“My father had played his role in the fight against the British in Kandahar [referring to the third Anglo Afghan War] – he died at the age of 100 years; his Jaghurai gun used to be our childhood history lesson linking us back to Afghanistan.”

States divide humans regardless of whether they are of the same culture, history, geography. And this has been the reason that independent humans become the subject of politics, wars, conflicts. 

Zarina's daughter Zulaikha (28) is married to Sadullah (30), a member of her tribe but having his ancestral lands in Takhtapul—the wooden bridge area of Kandahar, Afghanistan. They have a daughter. She is now concerned that if she is unable to join her husband in the exodus to Afghanistan caused by Pakistani authorities’ crackdown, “How will I keep in contact with my daughter? She is my only daughter – won’t I become mad if I don't see her?” asks Zarina.

The land shares not only the Pashtunwali code, it goes further back in time to the era of Zoroastrian and Buddhist influences. From Bamiyan to Peshawar, one can see the same stupas of Buddhism. The old influences are shown not just by the many ruins of ancient Buddhist stupas: they can also be detected in folk attitudes. Mothers, for instance, warn their young children not to play with ‘ants’ as the fragile insects may die – this is obviously a remnant of ancient Buddhist attitudes. The remains of Zoroastrianism similarly exist in the culture of these people to date—the old ladies don’t extinguish fires in their stoves, these people have Svastika on their buildings as signs of ‘good omen.’

Sadullah, married to Zulaikha (a Pakistani citizen), has no documents of Pakistani citizenship though he is the third generation raised in the Pakistani city of Chaman—an entry point to Afghanistan’s Spin Boldak district. He is running his automobile spare-parts business in Spin Boldak and used to cross the boundary every day in the morning and come back to his home located in Pakistan. Now he is concerned that Pakistan will not remain a place where he can earn a living through his business. “If we the people are restricted through the passport policy, Chaman won’t be our destiny because we have only our homes here, we earn our bread from across the Durand Line in Spin Boldak,” says Sadullah.

The colonialist British government has a history of using the buffer zone, from the era of the Great Game. They invaded the Afghan lands and controlled them first through the Gandamak (1879) and then the Durand Line (1893). The agreements used to be a boundary to keep the Afghans divided—cut from Afghanistan and separated in different units inside the then British India. But still, there used to be no control over the common masses, and they would go to both sides without any restriction.

“Why would the government stop us from remaining a family and remaining in contact with our relatives?” asks Zulaikha—whose everyday concerns are different from states and their policies. “Look, we aren’t a burden over others; we live our own lives, why still would it hurdle us getting our homes in Spin-Boldak and Chaman (the two cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan)?”

Like Zulaikha, millions of Afghans would be asking these questions by every passing moment. They are not only Pashtuns: the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Aimaq, Pashais and Nuristanis all live connected on both sides of the Durand Line from Chitral to Nushki comprising of 2600 km in between the two countries.

Chaman has a substantial population of 434,561 as per the 2017 country-wide census of Pakistan, and the residents here lack any significant industry, agriculture, mines, or minerals as a means of livelihood. Historically, the inhabitants, predominantly Achakzais, Noorzais, and Alokozais, have been entirely dependent on their agrarian lands in Afghanistan. Traditionally, they would settle in the mountainous region of Toba Achakzai during the summer to graze their livestock, while in winter, they would cross the Durand Line along with their livestock herds back to Reg—the desert regions—for grazing. Notably, neither the British nor the earlier Pakistani government impeded the movement of people across the Durand Line, even during the days of the anti-USSR holy war when American petrodollar sponsorship supported around four million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The people in Chaman find themselves compelled to question the imposition of the 'passport' policy by Pakistani authorities, as it is being implemented without the consent of the public across the Durand Line. This perspective is conveyed by Olasyar Achakzai, 35, the spokesperson of the Chaman Sit-in, where thousands of individuals gather to peacefully express their opposition to the government's policies through slogans and collective action. “We are campaigning in a peaceful way, and asking for our right of peaceful movement in between Pakistan and Afghanistan without any restrictions because we have our lands, businesses, properties, families, mosques, and graveyards on both sides of the Durand Line,” says Olasyar.

“Look at the European Union member countries that are having a single policy for movement. Hard border concepts are being seen as against human liberties everywhere, but here in Pakistan without any consultation we are forcefully divided through the barbed wire and people’s bread is snatched from them.”

The division of our people and pushing them to the wall would mean a violation of the Constitution of Pakistan, the United Nations Charter for Human Rights and international-law. “There should be a mechanism to retain the mobility in place since the British era, and let the masses keep their peaceful relations on both sides of the Durand Line,” adds Olasyar.

“Peaceful movement is the right of the people of Chaman and every city located around the Durand Line as per international law, but who would consider human rights when it comes to the politics of division by states?” asks Advocate Ajab Khan, 37, a practicing lawyer at Balochistan High Court.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan have a dark history of relations but the deadly militarisation in the Cold War disturbed everything, and this is the reason millions of Afghans suffered. Until the Taliban take-over of Kabul, these Afghans were part of the Pakistani foreign policy. What happened now? Why did the foreign policy shift against Afghanistan and against those of Pakistan’s own citizens who have their geographic, cultural, business, trade, and family links to each other? It is unfortunate that passport imposition became a tool of the state,” says Ajab Khan.

Policies in Pakistan are crafted by minority elites who prioritize strategic interests, often disregarding human rights without a second thought. Afghanistan has the potential to be a valuable ally for Pakistan. Given its adversaries in the East—India—and the shifting dynamics with communist China, maintaining a positive relationship in the west with Iran is crucial. Afghanistan's unique connection with the Pashtuns across the Durand Line, who are essentially one people, makes fostering unity imperative. “The divisive 'hate-based' politics serves neither country's broader interests,” says Ajab Khan.

Jan Achakzai, a government official and provincial information minister for Balochistan, has played a significant role in disseminating information about the new passport policy. He staunchly supports the interim government's decision to close entry points across the Durand Line, including the one in Chaman, which was previously traversed by thousands of people. 

“We raised 50 million Afghan refugees for four decades. We faced economic crisis, but we did our best with Afghanistan. So we will avenge the losses in the Dera Ismail Khan terror attack. We honour our martyrs, terrorists are anti-Islam.” In Achakzai’s view, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have been unable to convincingly distance themselves from the attack. “They are damaging their identity in the world,” he says.

Similar to Jan Achakzai, Pakistani media pundits consistently attribute the country's conflicts and attacks to Afghanistan, consistently identifying culprits from across the border. However, the Taliban government rejects these allegations, emphasizing that Pakistan should maintain its internal stability, especially after the inconclusive dialogue between the Pakistani government and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan. Notably, Jan Achakzai deleted a recent tweet on X (formerly Twitter), suggesting that the Pakistani government was open to handing over its airbases for American drone strikes in Afghanistan. These developments coincide with the official visit of the Pakistani military chief to the United States.

As Pakistan continues its role as a 'war on terror' partner within the American coalition, it has endured losses in military operations, terrorist attacks, sectarian violence, and the Baloch nationalist insurgency for over two decades. Both Western allies and nationalists in Pakistan view the 'war on terror' as a double-edged game, where terrorists are simultaneously eliminated and exploited as strategic depth tools. This complex situation has resulted in millions of Pashtuns within Pakistan becoming Internally Displaced People (IDPs), particularly from Swat and the merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Throughout various regimes in Afghanistan, Pakistani rulers have pointed fingers, whether during the time of the USSR-supported socialist government, the Mujahideen government following Dr. Najibullah's resignation, or the Taliban regime from 1994 to 2001, led by Mullah Muhammad Omer. Subsequently, in the post-9/11 era, both President Hamid Karzai and Dr. Ashraf Ghani's democratic government continued to be blamed by the Pakistani government. In contrast, the Afghan Republic considered Pakistan the sponsor of the Afghan Taliban, accusing them of causing bloodshed in their country. Naseer Nangyal, a 39-year-old Ph.D. scholar with a focus on literature in the post-9/11 conflict era at the University of Balochistan, shares insights into this complex narrative. 

“Humanity suffers when the neighbours plan their strategic depths in Afghanistan and consider it a hotcake. It is regrettable that policies based on war have afflicted the masses of Pakhtunkhwa and the Pashtuns on the other side of the Durand Line. It is time for Pakistan to consider Afghanistan as an equal sovereign nation and cease its conflict policies, opting instead for business and people-to-people contact-based Track-II diplomacy. Otherwise, division will incur a substantial loss, given that Afghanistan remains its biggest market and a gateway for industrial products to Central Asia,” he opines.

"We don’t know anything about government and politics, but my family and families of our people should never get separated. It is simply inhumane," says Zarina Bibi, feeling emotional when she thinks that she will not see her daughter Zulaikha. "None can separate people from their families and their lands, no matter whatever the situation. I am hopeful that one day the government changes its mind and respects our feelings, relations, and families – just like their own families and people."