The Durand Line— then & now

November marks the 129th birthday of the "Durand Line," a British colonial legacy that Pakistan inherited after its independence. The Durand Line is still a source of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there is currently no sign of a resolution as the present Taliban leadership, like all prior Afghan governments, is refusing to recognize the Durand Line.


The Durand Line defines the 2,670-kilometer border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The eastern end reaches China’s border, while the western end reaches Iran’s border. Since at least 500 B.C., the local Pashtun population has lived in the region where the Durand Line passes. The Pashtuns were exposed to Islam when Arab Muslims conquered the region in the seventh century. The Pashtuns in the Sulaiman Mountains are thought to have coexisted with some of the earliest Arab settlers there. It is thought that Arabic chronicles from as early as the 10th century refer to these Pashtuns as “Afghans,” a term that they have used traditionally. The Pashtun region was ruled by the Ghaznavid Empire in the tenth century, then by the Ghurid, Timurid, Mughal, Hotaki, Durrani, and finally, the Sikhs.

India-based British forces invaded Afghanistan in 1839, starting the First Anglo-Afghan War. The conflict was over in 1842 when the British were defeated. The Treaty of Gandamak was ratified in 1880 after the British invaded Afghanistan once more in 1878 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The British were successful in placing Abdur Rahman Khan as the country’s new Amir. The British Empire was given sovereignty over some Afghan frontier regions. Due to the hard terrain, harsh and unpredictable weather, shattered tribal politics, and tense ties with the indigenous populace and armed citizens, the British withdrew in 1842. The British Indian government sent Mortimer Durand to Kabul in 1893 to negotiate a sphere-of-influence agreement with Amir Abdur Rahman Khan to foster better economic and diplomatic ties.

Read more: Kabul and Islamabad: Danger on the Durand line – Michael Kugelman

The Durand Line Agreement was established on November 12, 1893. The border was later marked with a campout between the two parties at Parachinar, a small Afghan village close to Khost that is now a part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Mortimer Durand and Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum, political agents for the Khyber Agency and the British Viceroy and Governor General, respectively, attended the camp from the British side. Sahibzada Abdul Latif and Sardar Shireendil Khan, a former Afghan provincial governor who represented Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, were the Afghan representatives. English and Dari were used to translate the original 1893 Durand Line Agreement. The resultant agreement resulted in the formation of the North-West Frontier Province, today known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province of Pakistan that encompasses FATA and the Frontier Regions. In addition, Wakhan and Nuristan were given to Afghanistan. A joint Afghan-British survey and mapping operation that stretched 1,300 kilometers from 1894 to 1896 resulted in the original and principal demarcation. The British Library’s Survey of India collection has detailed topographic maps showing the locations of hundreds of border delineation pillars. In 1933–1934, a very brief adjustment to the delineation was made. After the Third Anglo-Afghan War broke out in May 1919 and the British Royal Air Force bombarded Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s eastern region, the Durand Line became the focus of a protracted dispute between the governments of Afghanistan and the British Indian Empire. In the Treaty of Rawalpindi (1919) and then again in 1921 and 1930, Afghan rulers reaffirmed their acceptance of the Indo-Afghan line.

The Treaty of Rawalpindi and the 1893 Pact were passed to Pakistan after British India was divided in 1947. Pakistan and Afghanistan have never signed or ratified a formal agreement. Pakistan has the opinion that establishing the border should not require a formal agreement; the Vienna Convention and numerous international courts have consistently ruled that binding bilateral agreements are “passed down” to successor governments. Therefore, changing boundaries unilaterally by one party is ineffective; bilateral modifications are required. The native Pashtun people who lived on the Afghan border at the time of independence had only the option of joining either India or Pakistan. Furthermore, leading Pashtun nationalists like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgar movement promoted a united India at the time of the Indian independence movement rather than a united Afghanistan, illustrating the extent to which infrastructure and instability together started to weaken Pashtun self-identification with Afghanistan. By the time of independence, the majority of Pashtuns held the view that they should join the newly formed state of Pakistan, while the minority preferred to join the Dominion of India. Ghaffar Khan declared allegiance to Pakistan and began advocating for the autonomy of Pakistan’s Pashtuns after the concept of a unified India fell through.

Read more: The Afghan cross-border terrorism against Pakistan

After a Pakistani military plane attacked a village on the Afghan side in response to a cross-border shooting from the Afghan side on July 26, 1949, a loya jirga was held in Afghanistan. The Afghan government responded by saying that all prior Durand Line agreements were null and void and that it did not recognize “the imaginary Durand Line nor any similar line.” Additionally, Afghanistan declared that the Durand ethnic division line had been placed on it against its will. The ambitious but unachievable geopolitical plan of Afghanistan to separate an independent Pashtunistan from Pakistan would have extended Afghanistan all the way to the Indus River. Pakistan joined the United States as an ally during the Cold War, whereas Afghanistan looked to the Soviet Union for diplomatic and military aid. The Afghan-Pakistani conflict was overshadowed by the greater US-Soviet competition, which made it impossible to resolve the Durand Line issue. In addition to losing the sympathy and support of the non-Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan due to Pakistan’s involvement in the War Against Terror after 9/11, the Afghan population also began displaying strong anti-Pakistan sentiments, particularly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Pakistan has already completed 94 percent of the barrier along the porous border since 2007. Due to the Afghanistan side’s refusal to accept the Durand Line, there have been numerous attacks on the border that have resulted in the deaths of both civilians and soldiers. Any attempt to take down the fence is likewise fraught with financial considerations. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border has always been porous, allowing for the free movement of products across the border. Unlawfully crossing the border puts both formal and informal trade in danger. Smuggling is a potential source of income for traders and businesspeople. Smuggling across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has grown into a separate industry. Legislation or patriotism cannot prevail over the commercial interests of the traffickers, or smugglers, who are already well-established in both countries. They come from all different ethnic groups and smuggle a wide variety of goods. Their interests have been compromised by the border fence. In the spirit of Pashtun ethnic nationalism, these individuals are allegedly responsible for encouraging the locals and setting up their go-betweens to commit vandalism and destroy the barrier. The fence appears to be being attempted by dissatisfied Afghans, but the real offenders are greedy businesspeople.

Approximately 3 million Afghans lived in Pakistan as of January 2022; of them, 1.4 million have a Proof of Registration (PoR) card, 840 000 have an Afghan Citizen Card (ACC), and an estimated 775,000 remain undocumented. There is no getting around the fact that the Pashtunistan issue struggles to remain relevant among those who reject the realities of the international boundary and others who continue to envision a greater Afghanistan. Making Afghanistan a part of Pakistan’s strategic depth policy was a solution Pakistan looked for in the past. In other words, Afghanistan should be connected with Pakistan in order to alleviate the Durand Line problem if it cannot be completely eliminated. This strategy failed.

Read more: Durand line and the nascent Taliban regime

It is critical for Pakistan to maintain awareness of the situation in Afghanistan while concentrating on the greater geostrategic benefit that Pakistan receives from the Emirate’s rise to power. Pakistan should never let tiny, petty issues distract it from bigger prospects. A joint Pak-Afghan Border Commission should resolve any local demarcation disagreement amicably. The Taliban must also exercise caution, establish itself, and control its unsuspecting rank and file. Even if the Durand Line has “allegedly” lost its meaning and function in an evolving and modified geostrategic framework, Pakistan should continue to cooperate with Afghanistan on the issue.

Those who strive for any notion, including the word “greater,” and those who oppose the concept may try to comprehend that the reality of globalization—despite all its dangers—is meant for integration and assimilation, not for creating endemic claims for separatism and jingoism.

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