The “Durand Line” in the 21st Century

Spearhead Analysis – 17.06.2014

By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan

Durand LineAfghanistan and Pakistan cannot be stabilized unless and until the border shared by the two countries – and the adjoining tribal areas on both sides – are secured bilaterally through an effective, durable, implementable and dynamic consensus strategy or mechanism which can be enforced by the state security forces as well as the tribal security apparatus that still exists to this day


The border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan have a history of instability since the de facto borderline that demarcated the spheres of influence between the-then Afghan Empire and erstwhile British India was a result of two wars between the Barakzai dynasty and Indian (mostly Sikh) forces led and supported by the British East India Company. Afghanistan was long seen as a threat by the British, particularly because of the proximity of Russia in the north, and the Safavid empire (of Iran) allied to them in the South. This was the “Great Game” period: the attempts of the British to counter Tsarist intentions in South Asia by deterring a possible invasion of India through Afghanistan. To acquire a degree of “strategic depth” and secure the Crown’s possessions in India meant that the borders of British India (and its spheres of influence) had to be expanded towards the west. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) resulted in a resounding defeat for the British, including the massacre of British-led Indian units of the 44th Regiment of Foot, under the command of Major General William Elphinstone), in an attack by Ghilzai warriors in the treacherous mountain passes between the Kabul River and the Gandamak Pass: all soldiers of the 44th were killed except Captain James Souter, Sergeant Fair, and seven soldiers who were all taken prisoner, and the only Briton to reach Jalalabad was Dr. William Brydon. Lady Elizabeth Butler’s painting of a disheveled Dr. Bryndon reaching the British outpost in Jalalabad was an inconic representation of Afghanistan as the graveyard of foreign enemies.


In 1849, the map of South Asia and the Persian Gulf resembled the following cartography:

The British invaded again in 1878, starting the Second Anglo-British War (1878-1880), and achieved their geopolitical objectives through the Treaty of Gandamak (signed on May 26, 1879) ceding control of Afghanistan’s frontier areas such as the Korram and Pishin valleys, the Sibi district, and the Khyber Pass to the British and also surrendering the Afghan Empire’s foreign relations to British jurisdiction. The Treaty of Gandamak is considered one of the most humiliating agreements ever signed by an Afghan ruler: it made the Afghan Emir essentially a feudatory of the British East India Company (and indirectly, the British Crown). Fourteen years later, in 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand of the British civil service (and a diplomat of the British Indian government) was dispatched to Kabul to sign an agreement with Afghanistan’s Emir, Abdur Rehman Khan (the successor to Mohammad Yaqub Khan, and a virtual appointee of the British government). On November 12 of that year, an agreement demarcating the British and Afghan spheres of influence in South Asia was reached: the resulting borderline was named the “Durand Line”, and formally ceded vast parts of what is now Baluchistan, and Pashtun dominated areas in Afghanistan’s east, to British control. By 1880, Afghanistan (after the Durand Line agreement) under the control of Emir Abdur Rehman Khan looked like this:

The Durand Line agreement or treaty led to the creation of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, later renamed “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa” by Pakistan) and also gave the British jurisdiction over Multan, Mianwali, the Bahawalpur state and Dera Ghazi Khan: these areas were part of the Afghan empire from 1709 till the 1820s when the Sikh Empire invaded Afghanistan and wrested control of these areas. As late as 1970, these areas were made part of an enlarged Punjab province in Pakistan, resulting in a shrunken NWFP/KP province.

A demarcation effort for the Durand Line was undertaken between 1894 and 1896, and the mapping and survey effort covered approximately 800 miles. The Third Anglo-Afghan War – precipitated by the events of the First World War, where the Ottoman Emperor had called for a Jihad against the Allies (and British defeat at the hands of the Turks aided Turkish agents in Afghanistan in their efforts to incite the Muslims of Afghanistan, particularly the Mohmand and Mehsud tribesmen) – erupted in May 1919, and ended only three months later: the Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed on August 08, 1919, which affirmed Afghan sovereignty over their own foreign relations, and assured that the British would never extend their dominion beyond the Khyber Pass. It also affirmed the Durand Line as the border between British India and the Afghan Empire. The Third Anglo-Afghan War was an important moment in British military history, as the importance of airpower was recognized as a powerful instrument of war; this despite the fact that the Afghan Empire had a 50,000-man standing army (albeit equipped with outdated weapons) and was supported by 80,000 tribesmen. And though the war concluded in August 1919, the effects of the sedition and the nationalism movement that ignited the war in the first place remained till the end of the British Raj – particularly in Waziristan.


After the 1919 treaty Afghan Emperor Amanullah Khan ended his country’s traditional isolation in the international community, and undertook a tour of Europe and Turkey in 1927-28, which encouraged him to launch modernization reforms in Afghanistan. Afghanistan promulgated a Constitution in 1923, but the pace of modernization did not appeal to the local population: Amanullah was forced to abdicate in January 1929 by Habibullah Kalakani, who was in turn defeated and killed by Amanullah’s cousin, Nadir Shah, in November 1929. While King Nadir Shah adopted a gradual approach to the modernization reforms, he was assassinated in 1933 by a Hazara student, Abdul Khaliq. Nadir Shah’s 19-year-old son, Zahir Shah, ascended to the throne and ruled for forty years. In 1973, he was replaced by his own cousin and brother-in-law, Prince Mohammad Daoud Khan (whom Zahir Shah had appointed as his Prime Minister): while the King was on an official visit overseas, Daoud Khan established a republic and declared himself President of Afghanistan.

By this time, Afghanistan and Pakistan had already experienced over 25 years of bitter relations: as Pakistan gravitated towards the United States, Daoud sought closer relations with the U.S.S.R. despite the fact that Afghanistan was non-aligned in the Second World War and in the ensuing Cold War between the two global superpowers. Even as King Zahir Shah’s Prime Minister, Daoud adopted a confrontational approach with Pakistan – and his predecessor as the King’s Prime Minister, Shah Mahmud Khan, had advocated the policy of not supporting Pakistan’s induction in the United Nations in 1947. President Daoud had also been supporting a secessionist movement in Pakistan (i.e. the Pashtunistan movement) by rallying the Pashtuns of the country to cede from Pakistan and create their own independent state (if not rejoin Afghanistan, which was “the home of the Pashtuns”). By April 1978, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in Afghanistan in the Saur Revolution: in response, opponents of the communist government launched an anti-government uprising in eastern Afghanistan that quickly engulfed the landlocked country into a civil war between militants (who were allegedly trained at camps and centers inside Pakistan) and government forces (who were aided by thousands of Soviet military advisors). By the beginning of the 1980’s, foreign involvement at the highest echelons of the Afghan government (by the U.S.S.R.) and the continuation of the militant insurgency (by Pakistan) weakened Afghan sovereignty, and converted it into a ripe Cold War battlefield. In fact, in September 1979, Soviet special forces assassinated Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, and the U.S.S.R. installed Babrak Karmal as the country’s president: at the same time, the Soviet Union inserted troops into Afghanistan to support the Afghan forces against the rebel insurgency which was directed against the communist government.

The Durand Line became as irrelevant to the concept of Afghan statehood as the Amu Darya – the former was the borderline between Pakistan and Afghanistan, used by Islamic fundamentalist militants to infiltrate the country and “wage jihad” and against the “godless communists”, while the latter was the frontier between the U.S.S.R.’s Central Asian states and Afghanistan, and the main route for Soviet military forces to enter the country with whom they had signed a “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation”. The 10-year civil war in Afghanistan had a massive impact on the region as well as the world: masses of Afghan refugees left the country to escape the civil war, while by the end of the war, the Soviet Union was financially destroyed (it eventually imploded in the political sense by 1991). By 1992, President Najibullah’s government had fallen to the “mujahideen” militants who had won the civil war, or war of freedom against the Soviets; afterwards, Afghan political parties agreed on a peace and power-sharing agreement (which became known as the Peshawar Accords). The accords created the “Islamic State of Afghanistan” and appointed an interim government for a transitional period to be followed by general elections. However, Afghanistan could not experience any stability, since it continued to be used as a battleground for proxy warfare between various competitors: whether it was the ISI trying to expand its reach into Central Asia, or whether it was Saudi Arabia and Iran supporting Afghan factions opposed to each other. By 1994, a Taliban (Islamic student) movement took control of most of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, dominated by Pashtuns: these Islamic fundamentalists had been trained and indoctrinated by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) seminaries run in Pakistan for Afghan refugees. On September 27, 1996, the Taliban seized control of Kabul from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the “Northern Alliance” of rebels who had tried but failed to govern Afghanistan and control Kabul after the fall of the Najibullah government. By late 1996, Afghanistan was roughly divided into the control of three main factions – two led by warlords, and one by the Taliban:

As such, though the civil war continued, and casualties mounted on all sides, a stalemate existed and no force could deliver a decisive blow which would make it the sole ruling power of Afghanistan.


Pakistan’s state support to the anti-Soviet forces, and both state and non-state support to Taliban forces (which were mostly ethnic Pashtuns), made the Durand Line even more redundant: no effective state existed on Pakistan’s west, and Pashtun tribesmen could easily cross into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and come back. But two major events would take place that would force Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the rest of the world, to revisit the importance of the Durand Line, and also the importance of having a stable and effective government in Kabul whose writ extends to the whole of Afghanistan. The “freedom struggle” against an oppressive, dictatorial Communist (i.e. un-Islamic) regime in the 1970’s and 1980’s would turn into a deadly militant insurgency fueled by radical Islam (and labeled “terrorism”) in the 1990’s and 21st century.

On September 09, 2001, two Arab suicide attackers posing as journalists assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the main opponent of the Taliban in the fight for control of Afghanistan. Two days later, on September 11, five planes were hijacked in New York and crashed into the financial epicenter and military headquarters of the U.S.: the World Trade Center towers were so badly damaged that they collapsed completely, while another plane hit the Pentagon. More than 3,000 American citizens were killed, and then-U.S. President George Bush launched a “War on Terror” to hunt down the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and bring them to justice.

Evidently, the attacks were planned by Al Qaeda, a terrorist group led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden, who had participated in the “Afghan jihad” and was a guest of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. As the Taliban asked for proof of bin Laden’s involvement, and resisted American demands to hand bin Laden over (according to a Pashtun code, or Pashtunwali, whereby a Pashtun defends his guest and his guest’s honour even if it means that the Pashtun himself must face danger or the threat of death). The U.S. launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in October 2001, and supported the anti-Taliban forces (the Northern Alliance) in the retaking of major Afghan cities one by one: and while the Taliban rank and file were at the mercy of the victorious Northern Alliance troops (who took part in revenge killings of Pashtuns and Pakistanis), the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership allegedly crossed over the porous Durand Line border into Pakistan, found refuge in the country, and by 2005, regrouped and started launching attacks on the U.S. and their NATO-ISAF (U.N. mandated International Security Assistance Force) allied forces in Afghanistan. Despite numerous offensives by the ISAF as well as the newly-raised Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Taliban “momentum” has not receded in the past four/five years: as international troops leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, many are concerned about whether Afghanistan would (again) descend into full-fledged civil war, or whether the ANSF will be able to eliminate the Taliban if the new/incoming Afghan President (elected on June 14, but yet to be announced) does not accommodate the Taliban leadership into a power-sharing deal that could bring sustainable peace to Afghanistan.


Cross-border attacks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are a new aspect of the relationship between the two countries: while Pakistan served as a conduit for U.S. and allied troops and materiel flowing into and out of Afghanistan (covertly against the Soviets, but openly against Al Qaeda and the Taliban), attacks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by militants were primarily part of a strategy to target the U.S. and NATO-OSAF supply lines. These were attacks by the Taliban and militants in Pakistan allied to the Taliban to attack NATO supplies and make supply routes through Pakistan vulnerable, so that international troops cannot launch decisive operations against the Taliban and so that their supplies and logistics remain unsecured. In 2007, Pakistan witnessed the formation of its own, homegrown Taliban movement – the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had its own operational commander (Baitullah Mehsud at the time) but owed allegiance to the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar. While the TTP launched devastating attacks against civilians and security forces in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of over 50,000 Pakistanis (soldiers and civilians) as well as an approximation of more than US$ 100 billion in damages to the economy, it also supported Taliban offensives against foreign troops in Afghanistan, and proved to be valuable resource pool of recruits and fighters, particularly from the Mehsud tribesmen from North and South Waziristan (now tribal agencies within Pakistan’s FATA region). The TTP took part in the Afghan Taliban’s annual spring offensives against foreign and Afghan state troops: battle-hardened and trained TTP fighters returned to Pakistan to wreak havoc in the major cities of the country.

But more recently, cross-border attacks have started to take place in a different format: attacks on Pakistani border troops by masses of militants, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, attempting to either kill all Pakistani security forces, or to overwhelm and overpower them, and then take them hostage. A number of cross-border skirmish episodes also occurred between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries, most notably the 2011 Salala check post attack, which resulted in the martyrdom of over a dozen Pakistani soldiers because Afghan troops called for ISAF air support during an operation near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That led to a shutdown of the NATO supply routes running through Pakistan as well as widespread anger against the U.S. for running a unilateral drone program in the country’s tribal areas, targeting Pakistani tribesmen at will.

As recently as May 2014, outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that his country has never formally accepted the Durand Line as the border between the two countries: in this aspect, his thinking is closer to those of the Taliban militants, who are not hindered by the international de facto border between the two countries. 2,600km long and stretching over rugged terrain and impassable mountains, there are as many as eleven known and officially operational border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan – but because the militants belong to the area and would know it better than any outsider, they would know how many ways there are to cross the border through unknown, hidden and unmonitored border crossings that run through mountain crevices and other passages. Attempts to completely transform the Durand Line into the international border – using barbed wire fences, or building a border wall – have failed. As of the end of May, Pakistan is digging a ditch on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border to stem the flow of incoming militants: Commander of Pakistan Army’s Southern Command, Lieutenant General Nasser Khan Janjua, made an announcement to this effect last month.

The fact of the matter is this: while militants are able to make full use of the porous nature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, both countries and their state security forces – and the U.S. and NATO-ISAF forces – are unable to develop a mechanism whereby they can jointly monitor and patrol the border, and stem the flow of militants in either direction. Militant groups are operating and cooperating more effectively on both sides of the border, and in a much better and advanced way in terms of achieving their goals, whether they are attacks on NATO supplies in Pakistan (or at the Torkham border crossing, where they cross over into Afghanistan), or whether it is the use of Pakistani militants in Afghanistan or foreign fighters in Pakistan. That the three states – two of whom will have to bear the brunt of unfettered militancy and rising waves of radicalism in society – have not been able to effectively coordinate border security on the Durand Line for over a decade is not only a matter of shame, but also betrays the lack of trust that the different sides feel and express/exhibit towards each other.


2014 was dubbed a crucial year by many analysts and top security officials for years: now, half of 2014 has already gone by. Some immediate, focused and concerted steps need to be taken by Afghanistan, by Pakistan, and by both countries bilaterally, to corner the militants within the border areas. Whether the militants should be dealt with on the negotiating table or on the field of war is a matter for the politicians to decide; as far as the military is concerned, its job is to wipe out any and every threat – internal and external – to the nation-state (and a relatively more effective military is able to achieve this goal in a consistent and dynamic fashion).

Recognition of the border by Afghanistan – even as an interim demarcation line – must be on top of the list. If it is not, Pakistan will continue to launch hot pursuit raids on militants who use Afghan soil as safe haven to launch attacks on Pakistani troops, whether at the border posts or anywhere inside the country.

At the same time, many wonder why Afghanistan and Pakistan have not yet come up with a joint or common border security protocol – even though a Trilateral Commission is said to be operating between the U.S., Pakistani and Afghan militaries. Any border violation, or any incident of “friendly fire” (i.e. Afghan and Pakistani border troops firing on each other) is a dangerous sign of confusion and disarray that the Taliban will (and do) take full advantage of; at least one such incident took place in May, when Afghan officials alleged that they fired on Pakistani troops who were “attempting to set up a post inside Afghan territory”. All the more reason to demarcate the border or agree to it! Even though hostile cross-border firing incidents take place on Pakistan’s eastern border (particularly on the Line of Control or LoC in Kashmir), there are mechanisms for coordination between border security forces on the ground and in the bases and headquarters – “hotline” service facilities are also available for prompt communication between the higher echelons of the military command(s). If there can be a “hotline” between traditional adversaries, why is there no “hotline” between “conjoined twins”? Finally, border patrolling by ground troops must be supplemented by modern technologies such as surveillance drones, so that HUMINT and ELINT can be coordinated and their output quality maximized for the purposes of border security and effective response(s) to infiltration.

Cross-border infiltration needs to be prevented in BOTH directions: but that only depends on which side is more proactive about managing border security, and which side is busier with managing internal security that it neither has the manpower nor the SOP to deploy troops on the border. If a country’s borders are porous and insecure, then its internal security cannot be managed by increasing troop numbers in cities or volatile areas, even if militancy is localized to certain specific areas. A holistic approach to border security is the best way to secure both Afghanistan and Pakistan internally. To prevent infiltration into Pakistan as well as into Afghanistan, effective coordination of security operations is required – including advance notice of border security operations wherever necessary. If an effective “hammer and anvil” approach can be adopted on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (though that has not been the case since 2001) then “hot pursuit” of “invading” terrorists and militants becomes a last resort maneuver. Minimizing and deterring cross-border infiltration also requires the appropriate choice in battle frame weapons: night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, gunship helicopters, artillery support, fighter aircraft, rockets and heavy weapons, etc. This materiel must be available and deployed based on active reconnaissance of suspected areas which are used by militants for illegal border-crossing.

In the end, better coordination between state security forces and allied militaries as opposed to militant groups is the need of the hour: it is the determining factor for who is winning and who’s losing, who has the momentum and who has lost it, and who will gain strategic depth and who will suffer a strategic death…


The elected government in Pakistan has made overtures for cooperation and peace to Afghanistan and India. After the failure of dialogue with the TTP the government has given a political directive to the military for an operation in North Waziristan to eliminate the terrorists. Pakistan has also asked Afghanistan to seal the border on its side to facilitate the operation code named-Zarb-e-Azb. This operation is underway and the entire nation supports it. It is important that this operation be supported by an operation to root out militants from urban areas and deny them sanctuaries in mosques, madressahs and among the Pashtun population in the cities. This is also the time when a plan must be worked out to re-establish the non-existent administration in the FATA areas as a first step towards mainstreaming these areas into Pakistan subsequently. It is after this consolidation that Pakistan and Afghanistan can discuss the land border between them to remove misunderstandings and ambiguities.