What Afghanistan needs to change
On the whole, Afghanistan needs to recognise the need for a solution that is practically possible and acceptable for both countries. With militancy growing stronger in Afghanistan’s border regions with Pakistan, both countries need to cooperate to ensure stronger and effective border management rather than undermining each other which would only favour insurgent groups patrolling the region
The recent wave of hostility between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the border dispute that resulted in the deaths of number of civilian and military officials on both sides of the Durand Line has again drawn attention to the historic dispute surrounding the demarcation of the border.
Reportedly, both countries have agreed to use different technological means to resolve the border dispute. However, what is missing in both countries current determination to resolve the issue is their willingness to actually recognise the current demarcation as an international border. While Afghanistan has agreed to become part of a joint geological survey to “highlight” the de fecto boundaries, Kabul has not agreed to accept the status quo border position as a legitimate international border. In strategic terms, the mutually agreed upon geological survey leaves the issue unresolved, underlining historic dangers that the dispute presents to the regional peace and security.
So the question remains: is the resolution of the longstanding border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan possible?
If history is any guide, Afghanistan was the only nation that opposed Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations largely on the basis of the former’s unresolved border dispute with Pakistan. During the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan sponsored a Pashtun separatist movement in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, the province now known asKhyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). In the late 1970s, the then Afghan prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, explicitly stated Kabul’s aspiration for a “greater Afghanistan.” The Durand Line, he said, “tore us apart.” Salig Harrison, an eminent historian, in his book, In Afghanistan’s Shadow: Baluchistan’s Nationalism and Soviet Temptations, notes that it was Amin who is known to have said that “we will do our historical duty [of taking back areas that were part of Afghanistan] when the time is right.”
Successive governments in Afghanistan have also refused to openly accept the Durand Line as an international border. Even the Afghan Taliban, which were once in power in Afghanistan and were considered close allies of Islamabad – Pakistan was one of the three countries globally that recognised the Taliban regime in Kabul – refused to recognise the Durand Line as an internationally accepted border.
In this regard, the fundamental issue with any government in Afghanistan remains with the underlying historic ties and claims which the Afghan people claim to have with areas – particularly parts of KPK and Baluchistan – that are now part of Pakistan. Any government in Afghanistan, which might accept the Durand Line as an official border, risks domestic political isolation: “There is just a domestic political problem inside Afghanistan that prevents the Afghan state from openly accepting a border it has implicitly recognised many times,” says Barnett Rubin, an expert on South Asian affairs.
Historically, in response to Afghanistan’s efforts to exploit ethno nationalist connections in Pakistan, Islamabad has mainly employed an approach of Islamic identity to counter such threats. This ‘Islam over tribe’ approach became the mainstay of Pakistan’s policies on the frontier and has characterised its profound involvement in Afghan conflicts over the last thirty years.
While Afghanistan has domestic constraints when it comes to recognising the present demarcation as an accepted border, the question is will Islamabad ever agree to a different border demarcation with Afghanistan given Pakistan’s longstanding position that the current form of the border should be accepted as an international border? It’s unrealistic that Pakistan will ever agree to any border demarcation which is in anyway different than the present boundary line. Arguably, it’s the border dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan which drives Islamabad’s questionable policies of supporting insurgent groups in Afghanistan, for Kabul has always resorted to hostility when it comes to settling the longstanding dispute, underling Islamabad’s security fears.
The practical way forward which appears as the most likely resolution of the dispute is a negotiated settlement between both countries. The most probable negotiated settlement can come from Afghanistan’s implicit, if not explicit, acceptance of the current border as an international border. China and Russia are two major regional states, with stakes in peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which can play a pivotal role as mediators of any settlement.
In 2012, Washington signed an agreement with Afghanistan which proposed the removal of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the agreement has not been implemented successfully, any such resolution that is strategically formulated and doesn’t raise major political questions on both sides should be seen as the final resolution of the decades long dispute.
On the whole, Afghanistan needs to recognise the need for a solution that is practically possible and acceptable for both countries. With militancy growing stronger in Afghanistan’s border regions with Pakistan, both countries need to cooperate to ensure stronger and effective border management rather than undermining each other which would only favour insurgent groups patrolling the region.
If Afghanistan continues down the path of a strategy that appeals to hostility, volatility will continue to plague the region, to the benefit of transnational militant networks.