The Durand Line: Beyond Nationalist Fables

For decades, the Durand Line has triggered deeply emotional debates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As is usual, what was a historically complex evolutionary process is boiled down to several allegations, of varying accuracy. The first of these is the notion that Pashtun inhabited lands were sold to British India by Kabul. The second notion, even more ludicrous, is that the Durand Line was intended to serve as Afghanistan’s boundary for a hundred years. The third and most naïve point of contention revolves around the legality of the Durand Line as a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the present day. This article will deconstruct these talking points, based on comprehensive research and the study of history as an academic discipline, rather than to bolster state-sponsored narratives. The aim of this article being to aid history enthusiasts in viewing the Durand Line as a geopolitical reality, however distasteful, through a comprehensive lens, beyond prejudices and reductionist soundbites.

US forces, occupying Afghanistan since 2001, are expected to withdraw. This could mark a turning point in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. One issue, as ever, remains a sticking point: the controversial Durand Line, a thorn in bilateral relations since 1947. The dispute over the Durand Line touches at sacrosanct concepts such as sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Line is widely perceived as a historic injustice in Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent in Pakistan), whilst generally viewed as a legitimate border in Pakistan. Discussions surrounding the Line have evolved from petty squabbles into an entirely different dimension. This dimension has assumed a pseudo-academic character rife with masses of untruths and half-truths and inductively reasoned history, where partisans decide their conclusions before selecting their favoured decontextualised historic events to point fingers. This is problematic as history becomes simplified to grand tales of betrayal and a sense of victimhood on both sides is actively encouraged. These grand tales provide added impetus for Islamabad and Kabul to derail the path of common understanding in favour of appeasing those whose appetite for belligerence to the opposite side is insatiable and underpinned by an unrelenting sense of victimhood.

What is the Durand Line?

The Durand Line is the international boundary separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Line was signed into agreement in 1893 between the Afghan Amir Abdul Rahman Khan and British India to fix “the limit of their [Afghanistan and British India’s] respective spheres of influence.” [1] As a boundary, it was reconfirmed by Afghan rulers with the British Empire in 1905, 1919, 1921 and 1930. The Line split lands traditionally inhabited by Baloch and Pashtuns (or ‘Afghans’), including those that at one point constituted the core of ‘Afghanistan’. Pakistan inherited the Line in 1947 as successor state to the British Raj when it gained its independence, much to Kabul’s opposition. The Line remains unrecognised by Kabul, at least officially, as a legitimate border.

The Popular History

The popular history relating to the Line is shaped by a few notions. There is firstly the notion that territories east of the Durand Line were under Afghan control until 1893, when the Afghan Amir Abdul Rahman signed the Durand Agreement with British India, in return being paid handsomely. In addition to this, there is the notion that the Line, as a border, was intended to function as the Indo-Afghan border for a period of 100 years. To put it bluntly, this is categorically wrong.

The notion that Abdul-Rahman signed the Agreement in exchange for cash is misleading at best. This is based on a warped understanding in which Afghanistan controlled the territories east of the Line until the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878, following which Amir Muhammad Yaqub Khan surrendered the Khyber Pass, Kurram, Sibi and Pshin to British India, receiving 600,000 rupees in return. Later, Amir Abdul Rahman (Yaqub’s cousin) signed the Durand Agreement later in 1893. Abdul Rahman was already in receipt of a subsidy from the British, duly increased in the aftermath of the Durand Agreement.

These (mis)understandings have contemporary implications. If the Line was intended to remain as a boundary for 100 years, this would mean that Afghanistan would have had to reclaim its rightful territories in 1993. If Abdul Rahman sold his subjects and his territory to the British, this undermines Kabul’s claims over those same territories and its former subjects. Ultimately, who would want to join the same state that sold its land and subjects to a foreign empire?

These perspectives raise several questions. How long was the Durand Agreement intended to remain in effect? Does the Line suffice as a boundary that carries relevance to the present day and why did multiple Afghan rulers confirm the Line? Were traditionally ‘Afghan’ lands ‘sold’?

To critically answer these questions, it’s imperative to understand the wider context in which Afghan cessions of territory took place. This happened primarily following Afghan wars with two eastern neighbours: the Sikhs, and the British, the latter succeeding the former.

The Sikhs

In the 1820s the once formidable Durrani Empire collapsed. Dynastic infighting metastasised into clan feuds between the Sadozai descended from the fabled Ahmad Shah Durrani and the Barakzai-Muhammadzai: Durrani kinsmen of the Sadozai. The Muhammadzai, traditionally serving as viziers in the Empire, toppled the heretofore royal Sadozai. It wasn’t long before the Muhammadzai, in the ensuing chaos, started feuding amongst themselves. This sliced the Afghan kingdom into rival principalities centred around the major cities of Qandahar, Kabul and Peshawar. Herat remained the final bastion of Sadozai rule, repelling repeated Persian assaults, only reincorporated into the Afghan kingdom in 1863. [2]

Within the intra-Muhammadzai game of thrones, Dost Muhammad Khan emerged as ruler of Kabul. Peshawar, the Afghan winter capital, was under threat from the Sikhs and governed by Dost Muhammad’s half-brother: Sultan Muhammad Khan Telayi. Menaced from Kabul by Dost Muhammad, and to the east by Ranjit Singh’s rising Sikh Empire, Telayi made a deal with the devil. Telayi accepted Ranjit’s suzerainty over the Peshawar Valley. Telayi, together with the local nobility, consisting primarily of the heads of Afghan tribes like the Yusufzai, conspired to end the ongoing jihad against Ranjit being led by Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed [3]. This served two purposes. It cemented the positions of the local nobility, whilst eliminating the potential danger caused by the jihad, which could be directed at the tribal system of governance Telayi and his allies were beneficiaries of. The quasi-alliance, by Islamic and tribal standards, was nothing short of treachery.

The marriage didn’t last long. In 1834, Peshawar was annexed by the Sikhs and thereafter subjected to a heavy-handed occupation [4]. This was made possible by Shah Shuja ul-Mulk Durrani, who attacked Qandahar: the beloved capital of his grandfather Ahmad Shah Durrani, in an assault conducted in clandestine cooperation with the British East India Company and Ranjit Singh [5]. Shuja’s assault meant that Afghan forces, now scurrying to protect Qandahar from the avaricious clutches of Shuja, could ill-afford to offer resistance to Ranjit Singh’s takeover of Peshawar. Thus, Afghan woes to the east of today’s Durand Line started prior to 1834, in which Peshawar slipped away from Afghan dominion, initially a temporary state of affairs but now a lasting reality.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War

The Second Anglo-Afghan War broke out in 1878. The casus belli was Amir Sher Ali Khan’s refusal to bow before a British ultimatum demanding he receive a British diplomatic mission to Kabul [6]. The Amir refused to receive the British mission and even stopped it from entering Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass. In their hubris, the British: furious at being snubbed by what was to them a petty Kingdom, promptly invaded Afghanistan. Sher Ali, stranded in Mazar Sharif, mourning the abrupt loss of his beloved son and wali-ahd (heir apparent) Abdullah Jan mere weeks earlier, witnessing the defeats suffered by his meticulously assembled army, seeing his kingdom unravel before the British and predictably betrayed by his Russian allies who had offered him support in the event of war [7], died on 21st February 1879 [8]. His courage was not matched by his political acumen, or choice of allies.

Sher Ali had, prior to his death, ordered the release of his son Muhammad Yaqub Khan: imprisoned after rebelling against his father’s decision to nominate Abdullah Jan as heir-apparent. Once a virile prince, Yaqub’s incarceration sapped him of his physical strength. He was said to lack even the ability to walk straight [9]. Yaqub, seeking to end the war, duly signed the Treaty of Gandumak: a treaty engraved in the Afghan psyche as being emblematic of humiliation.

Article 3 of the Treaty of Gandumak surrendered control of Afghan foreign affairs to British India. Rigorously opposed by previous Afghan Amirs, Article 4 of the Treaty guaranteed the presence of a permanent British Representative in Kabul. There were territorial cessions. Per Article 9, the British retained the Khyber and Michni Passes, whilst Kurram, Sibi and Pshin were to remain under British control but ‘shall not be considered as permanently severed from the Afghan Kingdom’. Article 10 assigned a 600,000-rupee subsidy to the Amir to aid ‘in the recovery and maintenance of his authority’ as well as for the ‘efficient fulfilment in their entirety of the engagements stipulated’. These engagements included the security of a telegraph line to be constructed, the safety of the British Representative and the safe passage of trade. [10]

The two articles in the Treaty in which an annual subsidy to the Amir was fixed and territory was ceded are frequently juxtaposed. When configured as such, the image painted is less of a humiliating treaty imposed on the defeated by the victor, but more a financial transaction in which Yaqub sold his land and subjects to the British Empire. The interest in misconstruing history as such is undeniable.

The history of Kabul’s subsidies

To understand the receipt of British subsidies it is essential to contextualise Anglo-Afghan relations prior to Gandumak. The First-Anglo Afghan War was rooted in the Afghan-Sikh stand-off over Peshawar and ended disastrously for the East India Company in 1842. By 1855, however, things had changed. Dost Muhammad ruled in Kabul again, but felt insecure in the wider chessboard between him, his ongoing re-subjugation of what is now northern Afghanistan, and his Persian backed half-brothers in Qandahar. [11]

Having once sacrificed his throne for Peshawar, Dost Muhammad now made overtures to his eastern neighbour and the new masters of Peshawar: the British. The result was the 1855 Treaty of Peshawar, cementing an Anglo-Afghan alliance [12]. He was granted 500,000 rupees and 4000 flintmuskets with 200 ammunition per musket, with gun flints and bayonets [13], allowing him to annex Qandahar soon thereafter. In 1857, the alliance was strengthened in the context of the Anglo-Persian War, with Persian designs on Herat a major factor. Dost Muhammad was granted 4000 percussion muskets, with 200 rounds of ammunition per musket and bayonets, together with a subsidy of 1,200,000 rupees per year for the war’s duration. This totalled 2,100,000 rupees. [14]

The trend continued after Dost Muhammad’s death. Amir Sher Ali received further grants. In 1868-1869, he received 10,000 muskets, four 18-pounder siege guns (300 rounds per gun), two 8-inch howitzers (200 rounds per gun), four 3-pounder mountain train guns, two 12-pounder guns and 1,200,000 rupees. In 1870, Sher Ali received 1200 two-grooved Brunswick rifles, 1200 three-grooved carbines, 1,000 smooth bore pistols, 50,000 friction tubes and 1,000,000 percussion caps. In 1872, Sher Ali received a thousand muskets (100 rounds of ammunition per musket), 200 Brunswick rifles (100 rounds of ammunition per rifle) as well as 200,000 rupees. The last grants were in 1873: 15,000 Enfield rifles, 5000 Snider rifles (200 cartridges and rounds of ammunition per rifle) and 1,000,000 rupees were granted to Sher Ali. None of these grants or subsidies, either of cash or arms, were accompanied by any territorial cessions. [15]

Bilateral relations deteriorated in 1873. The 1,000,000 rupees granted in 1873 remained in the Kohat treasury, never to be withdrawn by the prideful Amir [16]. The history of British grants to Kabul far prior to the Second Anglo-Afghan War provides refreshing context to the Treaty of Gandumak. Whilst Gandumak’s punitive facet was undeniable, its allocation of a subsidy was not an aberration, but a restitution of the status quo ante bellum.

There remains a simple question. Why was Britain, having once invaded Afghanistan, granting huge sums of cash and arming the Amirs of Kabul to the teeth? The British Viceroy John Lawrence summed this up best in a letter to Sher Ali, upon the latter’s assumption of the throne. Lawrence wrote that:

“As further proof of the desire… to see a strong, just and merciful government established…throughout Afghanistan…six lakhs of [600,000] rupees will be placed at your entire control [to achieve] the consolidation of your authority.” [17]

Aiding the consolidation of Sher Ali’s authority was not motivated by benevolence. From a British perspective, granting cash and arms to Kabul ensured a strong Afghan state that could provide stability for India’s frontier. The parallels here between British India and Pakistan are uncanny, for good reason. The latter inherited the former’s geography vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

The looming threat of Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, or the Soviet Union in the 20th, busy with absorbing multiple Central Asian Khanates to Afghanistan’s north, was always a consideration. Grants were not unique to the 19th century. In 1930, Muhammad Nader Khan, a Muhammadzai relative of Amanullah Khan, seized the throne of Kabul from Habibullah Kalakani. Confronted with rebellions by the Shinwaris, in Khost and in Kohdaman, Nader’s control seemed tenuous at best. Perceived a reliable partner and a legitimate contender for the throne, Nader received a grant of £175,000, 10,000 rifles and 500,000 cartridges [18], further illustrating the rationale driving British grants to Kabul.

Partitioning Afghanistan

There was a brief interregnum in this policy. The interregnum was triggered after mutinous Afghan troops, primarily of the Wardag tribe, killed Pierre Louis Cavagnari: the British Representative whose very presence in Kabul had been mandated by Gandumak itself [19]. This unveiled the second phase of the war that Gandumak was supposed to conclude, where an active British plan of partitioning Afghanistan was pursued. Qandahar was to be placed under a nominally independent Muhammadzai ruler or Wali, in effect becoming an Indian princely state [20]. Herat’s status was left vague, with proposals to ‘influence’ it with a rail-line from Qandahar [21], or even transfer it to Persia [22]. The success of the plan, deeply unpopular at the local level, rested on the British finding local collaborators. The British found a perfect ally in a “man of about forty, of middle height, and rather stout… [with] an exceedingly intelligent face, brown eyes, a pleasant smile, and a frank, courteous manner.” He was “by far the most possessing of all the Barakzai Sirdars…and in conversation showed both good sense and sound political judgment.[23]

That man, willing to consent to the breakup of the Afghan Kingdom assembled by his grandfather, was Abdul Rahman Khan.

Unlike his fatigued cousin Yaqub, his diligent uncle Sher Ali, or his fabled grandfather Dost Muhammad, Abdul Rahman was recognised merely as Amir of Kabul, not of Afghanistan [24]. This, however, did not last long. The unpopularity of the experiment with Qandahar’s quasi-independence became clear when the forces of the British puppet ruler, barring 500 cavalry [25], defected en masse to join Sardar Ayyub Khan in his advance upon Maiwand: the site of his famous victory. The plan was abandoned, Qandahar was evacuated. Abdul Rahman annexed the city, massacring local leaders and scholars who had opposed him due to his alliance with the British occupiers. [26]

Abdul Rahman was willing to go to the extent of ceding Qandahar: the first Afghan capital and his tribal Durrani-Barakzai-Muhammadzai heartland, in his quest for the throne. His eventual sovereignty over Qandahar transpired more by coincidence than design. Understanding Abdul Rahman’s ascent contextualises the motivations behind his actions: a rapacious pursuit and preservation of his personal power. The most prominent of his later actions was his signing of the Durand Agreement in 1893. The Agreement left a sizeable number of Afghan tribes outside of Afghanistan’s newly drawn perimeter.

Interpreting this as treasonous against the entirety of the tribes now finding themselves on the British side of the Line would make the anachronistic error of viewing such a diverse group as a monolith entirely opposed to British imperialism. The relations of local tribes with the British varied on a case-by-case basis, veering between outright war to warm cooperation. More often, Kabul rarely had a say. Examples are many, a few of which will be provided below.

Tribal collaboration with the British Empire

The Turi of Kurram were and are distinguished from neighbouring tribes by their Shia faith. After Kurram was seized from Kabul in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Turi preferences became clear. A petition to the British from the Bangash and Turi tribes of Kurram wrote that their ‘hatred’ for the Durranis was so visceral that “if our flesh and bones and their [Durrani] flesh and bones were boiled together in one pot, the water would not unite.” [27] The loyalty of the Turi to their British overlords was firmly ‘assured’ [28]. The Turi extracted a promise from British officials, some of whom considered Kurram ‘absolutely worthless’ [29], that they would never again be allowed to be ruled from Kabul. [30]

Further south, the Bhittani had fluctuating relations with the British. The British made the Bhittani responsible for road security from Bannu into their territory in 1861 [31]. In 1876 the Bhittani assumed responsibility for passes to the south along their part of the Dera Ismail Khan border [32]. During this time, they clashed frequently with the Mehsud [33]. In 1879, the Mehsud attacked and looted the town of Tank in 1879. The Bhittani garrisons either offered no resistance or actively collaborated with the Mehsud, following which the Bhittani were punished [34]. In 1883, the same year Amir Abdul Rahman laid claim over Waziristan [35], the Bhittani had rekindled their relationship with the British, once again reinstated in their previous frontier service [36]. British relations with the Mehsud remained mired in mutual suspicion and tension for decades thereafter.

Other tribes, like the Khattak, were in the employ of the British government. Khattak levies protected roads around Thul [37]. At its height, 7.7% of the British Indian Army was staffed by Pashtuns of various tribes [38]. Some Pashtuns ascended to the very top. These included Pakistani Presidents Yahya Khan as well as Ayub Khan. On the eve of Pakistani independence, Ayub was commanding a whole brigade in North Waziristan, fighting fellow Pashtuns on behalf of the British Crown. [39]

There were, of course, the Afridi: the Khyber Pass’ most powerful tribe. Following the Durand Agreement in 1893, the British were emboldened in governing the frontier tribes more directly, triggering a massive tribal rebellion in 1897, with the valiant stand of the Yusufzai at the Siege of Malakand the most prominent feature. The Afridi also rebelled, even approaching Abdul Rahman, in the spirit of Afghan and Islamic solidarity, for assistance in their jihad. Abdul Rahman blanketly rejected their plea for direct help [40], even as he turned a blind eye to and discreetly aided an ‘exodus’ of Afghans traversing the Line to join their brethren in fighting the British. [41]

The Afridi had traditionally received subsidies for keeping the Khyber Pass open for trade. Amir Dost Muhammad had fixed subsidies of 25,000 Rupees to be given to the tribes of the Pass [42]. These were discontinued after the tribes failed to give safe passage for travellers. The start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War therefore provided the Afridi with an opportunity to reach an improved arrangement with the British, now invading Afghanistan via Afridi territory.

The new Anglo-Afridi arrangement entailed a subsidy of 87,540 rupees [43]: a staggering three and a half times increase from Dost Muhammad’s time. The Afridi also set up irregular units to protect the security of the Pass. The upkeep cost of these was 87,392 rupees: funded entirely by the British government [44]. Resistance to the British was token. Abdulla Nur, an employee of Sher Ali and an Afridi Malik of the Kukikhel clan, offered feeble opposition to advancing British columns. According to Louis Cavagnari: the British Representative to Kabul, Abdullah Nur ‘was only acting a part to save his allowances’ [45]. Lord Roberts, the British general who defeated an Afghan force at the Battle of Qandahar stated that the Afridi ‘were, as they said, weighing in the balance the fortunes of the British government and the ruler of Kabul.’ [46]

By 1897, the Afridi balancing act failed disastrously. Machiavelli’s advice, cautioning against neutrality, would have served the Afridi well. Machiavelli wrote that a neutral party would be considered ‘doubtful’ by the winner, whilst the loser wouldn’t ‘harbour you because you did not willingly come to his aid’. That’s assuming the Afridi were ‘neutral’. They weren’t. By facilitating the passage of British troops into Afghanistan in exchange for cash, the Afridi were, in essence, collaborators. It is thus interesting that the Afridi considered it remotely likely that an Amir who owed his throne and was willing even to cede Qandahar to the British, would help them: erstwhile British clients. The Durand Agreement ultimately allowed the British: paymasters of the Afridi, to encroach on their territory, forcing the Afridi to sacrifice their financial well-being for the cherished independence they themselves had jeopardised. They lost both. Curiously, in 1930, Afghan Prime Minister Muhammad Hashim Khan viewed the Afridi with suspicion, this time based on their alleged proximity to Hindu nationalists. [47]

The above examples do not suffice to prove, nor do they intend to prove, that the Afghan tribes now east of the Durand Line did not fight British colonialism (they did). They are, however, enough to illustrate that such resistance was not uniform, unending or wholly comprehensive.

The Path To The Durand Agreement

The Durand Agreement was signed in 1893. The Amir had first reached out to the Government of India in 1888, asking for a settlement of their respective spheres. There was a tense runup to the Agreement, with British officials halting the transit of arms imports to Afghanistan whilst Abdul Rahman was waging a war of almost genocidal proportions against the Hazara [48]. Having spent his initial years as Amir subjugating fellow Pashtuns to Kabul’s south and east, Abdul Rahman was naturally interested in extending his influence in undefined tribal territories now to the east of the Line, where Kabul and the British were competing for influence. The Amir’s officials in Zhob (Kakaristan) and Wana (Waziristan) were threatened and chased out [49]. Viceroy Landsowne warned that if the Amir did not agree to the mutual delineation of territory, the Indian government would ‘draw its own conclusions’. [50]

The Amir was fearful of the extension of a railway line through the Khojak Hill, close to Qandahar, which he said was akin to ‘pushing a knife into my vitals’ [51]. Abdul Rahman pleaded that splitting the Afghan tribes would ensure they wouldn’t be ‘of any use to you, nor to me’, adding that the tribes split from him would continue their fight against the British [52]. Finally, he implored that splitting those tribes ‘who are people of my nationality and my religion… will injure my prestige in the eyes of my subjects and will make me weak’ [53]. Abdul Rahman was perfectly correct on both predictions. The tribal rebellion of 1897, as he himself pointed out [54], vindicated his prediction on the frontier tribes. The splitting of the tribes through the Line earnt him lasting criticism. Some of this criticism, as demonstrated, is unreasonable, given the way in which tribes (or at least sections of them) like the Afridi, Turi and the Bhittani at critical junctures cooperated with the British.

Regardless, Abdul Rahman’s reservations mattered little. The British could coerce Abdul Rahman, thus they did. Following the Agreement, arms shipments once again flowed unimpeded to Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman was in receipt of a British subsidy of 1,200,000 rupees since 1883, with Viceroy Lord Ripon stating it was the British ‘duty’ to enable Abdul Rahman to re-establish the government authority destroyed by the British themselves in the Second Anglo-Afghan War [55]. As a gesture of goodwill, the subsidy was increased to 1,800,000 rupees [56]. Abdul Rahman convened a gathering celebrating the Durand Agreement for putting the two parties on a ‘closer footing’. Those invited to the gathering were courtiers or men handpicked by the Amir. They dared not criticise the Agreement: entirely the work of the notoriously brutal and perpetually mentally unstable [57] Iron Amir.

The Durand Line was subsequently confirmed by Amir Habibullah Khan in 1905 [58], Amir Amanullah Khan in 1919 [59] and 1921. [60]

The 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi finalised the Third Anglo-Afghan War, ended British control over Afghan foreign affairs and confirmed the Durand Line. Amanullah Khan is portrayed as an Afghan nationalist icon despite his hurried signing of Rawalpindi leaving the Wazir and the Mehsud: fellow Afghans who had fought valiantly for him at great risk, on the wrong side of the Line and at the mercy of a British ‘Forward Policy’, vociferously opposed by General Nader Khan [61]. Nader failed to achieve the widely shared goal of incorporating Waziristan into Afghanistan but succeeded in pushing Amanullah to extract some concessions. The upgraded 1921 Treaty stipulated each party “would inform the other in the future of… military operations of major importance… among the frontier tribes residing within their respective sphere”. [62]

In 1930, Nader conquered Kabul with an army of Wazir and Mehsud tribesmen with whom he was on friendly terms since the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Despite previous differences with Amanullah regarding the Line, with his authority in tatters and beset by rebellions, Nader too, perhaps uncharacteristically, confirmed the Durand Line. [63]

The Legal Fallacy

Contemporary arguments revolve around the Durand Line’s ‘legality’. The general argument is as follows: Pakistan is the successor state to the British Raj, thus inheriting the Raj’s agreements with Afghanistan. The Durand Line, confirmed by multiple Afghan rulers, is one such agreement. The law stands even if Abdul Rahman signed the Agreement under duress. The understanding that multiple confirmations of the Line confer further legitimacy upon it, undermines, rather than reinforces the Line’s credibility. Bilateral relations are not paused upon transfers of power and restarted after previous agreements are reconfirmed by the other side. The Line was confirmed by Habibullah in 1905 after a protracted stand-off that almost took both sides to war [64]. Why would the threat of war be used to confirm what was already a permanent reality? If Anglo-Afghan relations were conditional on Kabul’s recognition of the Line every time a new leader assumed power, to the extent of war, it follows that the Line was not considered a permanent reality. The Durand Line was not initially the result of a Treaty signed bilaterally, but an Agreement between a ruler of one state and the representatives of another, requiring renewal upon the change of ruler. This would mean that the initial period of the Line’s validity prior to 1921 was even shorter than the 100 years alleged today. If so, there is little argument against Kabul reserving the right to no longer recognise the Line after Pakistan gained its independence, even if Kabul lacked the means to do anything about this. The succession of the British Raj by Pakistan was a transfer of power to a new government, much like Habibullah succeeding Abdul Rahman was.

Neither is ‘law’ relevant. Law, according to which the Line enjoys legitimacy, reveals that the actual framework of the Line’s creation is redundant. If legal language be considered, Article 2 of the 1921 Treaty to which both Afghanistan and Pakistan are ‘successors’ dictates Pakistan was and remains duty-bound to inform Afghanistan regarding its operations in the tribal belt, including operation Zarb e Azb. This was because the 1921 Treaty was signed with the British understanding the tribal belt under its jurisdiction as its ‘respective sphere’. This understanding is redundant; Pakistan considers the tribal belt not as its ‘sphere’, but as its sovereign territory. If Islamabad were ‘sovereign’, a concept missing in the 1921 Treaty, there would be little need to inform Kabul about Pakistani operations against Pakistani nationals on Pakistani soil.

What becomes clear is that an emphasis on legality (or lack thereof) cannot comprehensively account for past or present realities. From a strictly realist perspective, law is an instrument of power to which the powerful themselves are not beholden. Britain seizing Kurram, Pshin, Chaman, Khyber and Michni was not ‘legal’, at least not until the Treaty of Gandumak was signed. It was only after the Treaty was signed that ‘legality’ was conferred on a pre-existing reality borne out of brute military power used ‘illegally’. States do not what is right, or what is lawful, but what they can.

Former Afghan territories are now in Pakistan. This isn’t because the law allows Pakistan to hold these territories. It is because Pakistan can. Popular sentiment as to whether inhabitants are or aren’t content, means little. Why? The apparent right to self-determination comes a distant second to the state’s ability to project raw military power in holding territory. This reality of the imperfect international order is one that the region knows well. If self-determination were the determinant behind why states hold territory, parts of what is now Khyber Pashtunkhwa would have never fallen under British jurisdiction. Despite the valiant stands taken by Afghan tribes against the British, what mattered was not tribal sentiment, even if rooted in the admirable love of independence. What mattered was that those tribes lacked the means to overthrow the British, who in turn possessed the means to occupy their territory. By the same token, India occupies Kashmir beyond the LoC, quite simply, because India can. India possesses the military capability to occupy the land just as Pakistan lacks the capacity to liberate it. India does this not just in defiance of self-determination of Kashmir’s native inhabitants and Pakistan, but in defiance of the international law whose irrelevance could not be clearer. The same rationale applies to Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman annexed Nuristan and Hazarajat because he could. Not because law permitted it, nor because native inhabitants exercised their self-determination. Might, as grim as it may be in our inherently imperfect world, is mostly right.

A Realist Perspective

In 1857, the Governor General of India, Lord Canning stated:

“I do not share the opinion that there is danger or trouble to British India in the consolidation of the Afghan nation… The Afghans themselves, even if united, can never be formidable to the British power… Their strength as aggressors ceased to be of any reasonable source of alarm to us from the time when the plains of Peshawur and the Trans- Indus Valley passed away from them.[65]

The Durand Line was designed to maximise British India’s security and strength at Afghanistan’s expense. Canning’s statement, predating the Durand Agreement by almost four decades, recognised the importance of the blow struck to Afghan power by the loss of Peshawar and its surrounding environs. As the decades progressed, losses of territory continued. Realising the geopolitical weakness caused by being landlocked and by the Line, Afghan rulers has predictably schemed against the Line. Abdul Rahman, even after the Durand Agreement, was intriguing to place his client in charge of Chital in 1895[66]. Pakistan, for its part, has made practical use of the Line’s porous nature for decades to aid Afghan groups friendly to its interests, even using the Line as a bargaining chip in talks with Hamid Karzai, despite an official posture of unquestioned sovereignty [67]. The Line also features as a factor in domestic policies. The political ascent of Sardar Daud Khan, Afghanistan’s Prime Minister and later President, was facilitated by weaponising the Durand Line against his uncles [68]. In Pakistan, the fencing of the Line is in full swing, ostensibly for counter-terrorism purposes, but also to demonstrate tangibly the writ of the state over a notoriously ill-defined and anxiety-inducing colonial boundary. Both states, in their ongoing struggle to enhance their power at each other’s expense, make ample use of the Line.

The controversy over the Durand Line, therefore, is motivated not by perceived legal irregularities, neither will it be resolved by resorting to legal lexicon. Neither can it be attributed in its entirety to ethnic Afghan irredentism. The romantic notions that ethnic Afghans shared a common national consciousness that was cut short by the Durand Line is belied by history, which illustrates that a shared Afghan ethnicity between tribesmen and Kabul’s Amirs counted for little. The tribesmen often acted contrary to Kabul, either for financial reasons or to preserve their independence, whilst Kabul repeatedly tried to assert influence.

The credibility of ethnic Afghan irredentism is further belied by the ex-Afghan Prime Minister Muhammad Hashim Khan, who stated in 1947 that if an independent Pashtunistan could not be established “the frontier province should join Afghanistan…[which] needs an outlet to the sea, which is very essential.” [69] Access to the sea would mean Kabul ruling vast swathes of Baloch territory, undermining, by definition, the credibility of a pan-Afghan union. This would rely on, amongst other things, the fact that the Khan of Kalat was until 1876 Kabul’s nominal subject, conveniently ignoring that the Khan independently concluded his own agreements with the British, becoming subject to them, allowing Quetta to pass into British hands. This infuriated Sher Ali, who was, as one British official put it ‘vexed at Quetta, because we command him from there.’ [70]

The Way Forward

The Durand Line, its weaponisation, its controversies, are fundamentally about power. All belong to an obsolete paradigm.

Recently, Kabul and Islamabad moulded the War on Terror against one another as part of the wider paradigm. The War on Terror gave birth to and sustains Kabul, whilst Pakistan’s Army became an active participant through a mixture of being bullied and lucrative military/economic assistance. Whichever success either side achieved against the other backfired spectacularly, exacerbating mutual animosity, further devastating the tribal belt.

If power is the aim, there is added reason to abandon the obsolete paradigm with its obsession on the Line, its legitimacy (or lack thereof) or lack of its official recognition. The current trajectory in which the Line and its controversies are prominent features has led to an impasse. Kabul, with its symbolic rejection of the Line’s legitimacy, cannot alter the existing reality on the ground, whilst Pakistan could not coerce an official recognition of the Line at the height of its influence in Afghanistan during the Taliban Emirate. Such a level of influence is unlikely to return. This perspective offers an opportunity for both sides to realise what they can do: view the Line as a barrier to overcome for closer relations, not an exploitable colonial boundary.

The controversies surrounding the Line are underpinned by victimhood infused pseudo-history. These primarily include the idea that land was sold, or the fixed term expiration of the Line. Worst of all, the reliance upon flabby notions of international law instead of a realist perspective on intra-state interactions further handicaps a holistic perspective. A discerning view would demonstrate if Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute two separate ‘sides’, neither of the two can be painted as hero or villain. The Line’s creation was at various stages enabled by various actors on both sides, whilst opposed by other actors. On both sides.

A newer framework is not inconceivable. Even the 1921 Agreement at least implicitly recognised the inherent interest both sides have in the stability of their respective tribal belt, despite it being redundant theoretically if ideas of ‘sovereignty’ are to be entertained. In fact, the pooling of sovereignty was discussed in the 1930s/1940s [71]. Ex-Pakistani ambassador to Kabul Muhammad Aslam Khattak even documented attempts to create a confederacy of both states, indicating that even the instigators of the current impasse never viewed the other with ceaseless hostility. Renewed Afghan interest in the North-West Frontier Province in the 1930s was initially provoked by Kabul’s paranoia being left bordering a majoritarian Hindu India after a British flight from the subcontinent [72], very much a contemporary reality. Even Zahir Shah proclaimed, during Afghan Independence Day celebrations in 1947 mere days after Indian and Pakistani independence that “when we see India in its present state we feel for our co-religionists. I have sent messages of greetings to both Pakistan and India. Our brothers are Pakistanis, and we will help them even with our blood and with the sword.” [73].

Whilst the Muhammadzai monarchy is a distant memory, instances of cooperation, combined with the shared history on both sides of the Line contradicts the narrative of irrevocable and perpetual enmity. Historically antagonistic neighbours have, after all, smoothed their differences over disputed boundaries by creating constructive frameworks incentivising cooperation. France and Germany, for example, have far fewer commonalities than Afghanistan and Pakistan, who, after seven decades, have little reason to remain at loggerheads whilst overwhelmingly professing Sunni Islam and tied by common tribes, ethnicities, language, culture and history.

1) Sir Percy Sykes (1940). A History of Afghanistan Vol. II. London: Macmillan & Company Ltd. p. 353-354.
2) Alder, G.J., 1974. The key to India? Britain and the Herat problem, 1830–1863—part II. Middle Eastern Studies, 10(3), pp.287-311. p.300
3) Farrukh Husain (2018). Afghanistan in the Age of Empires. Silk Road Books. P. 42
4) Ibid, p. 43
5) Ibid
6) Kakar, M.H., 2006. A political and diplomatic history of Afghanistan, 1863-1901.Leiden: Brill. p. 166
7) Saikal, A.,Farhadi, R. and Nourzhanov, K., 2004. Modern Afghanistan. Tauris. p.34
8) Kakar, M.H.,2006. A political and diplomatic history of Afghanistan, 1863-1901. Leiden: Brill. p. 27
9) Ibid
10) Government of India. 1878/1879. Afghanistan, no. 6. Despatch from the Government of India, no. 136 of 1879, Forwarding Treaty of Peace. LVI. 689 C. 2362. London.Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Accessed at:
11) India Office Records/L/PS/6/532, Coll 59/16. p. 2
12) Ibid, pp. 82-83
13) Ibid
14) India Office. 1882. Afghanistan (grants to the Ameers). Returns of the Amount of Money Given by the Indian Government to the Different Ameers of Afghanistan Since the Time of Dost Mahommed (inclusive); and, Of the Amount of Ammunition, And the Number of Guns and Rifles Given During the Same Period. London. Accessed at IOR/L/MIL/17/14/52
15) Ibid
16) Ibid
17) H Lepoer Wynne (1871). NARRATIVE OF RECENT EVENTS IN AFGHANISTAN, FROM THE RECOVERY OF CANDAHAR TO THE CONCLUSION OF THE REBELLION OF YACOOB KHAN. Foreign Department Calcutta: Government of India Foreign Department. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/B6
18) Tripodi, C., 2012. ‘Politicals’, Tribes and Musahibans: The Indian Political Service and Anglo-Afghan Relations 1929–39. The International History Review, 34(4), pp.865-886. p. 871
19) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881) No. 1. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Recognition of Sirdar Abdul Rahman Khan as Amir of Kabul. Vol. 70 C. 2776. London. Her Majesty’s StationeryOffice. Page 3. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO2/29
20) Ibid
21) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881) No. 1. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Recognition of Sirdar Abdul Rahmman Khan as Amir of Kabul. Vol. 70 C. 2776. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 14. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO2/29
22) Ibid, p.6
23) Ibid, p.52
24) Ibid
25) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881) No. 5. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Transfer of the Administration of Kandahar to Amir Abdul-Rahman Khan. LXX C. 3090. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 21. Accessed at IOR/L/MIL/17/14/51.
26) The author’s family oral history
27) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881) No. 1. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Recognition of Sirdar Abdul Rahaman Khan as Amir of Kabul. Vol. 70 C. 2776. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 102. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO2/29
28) Sir Percy Sykes (1940). A History of Afghanistan Vol. II. London: Macmillan & Company Ltd. p. 156
29) Government ofIndia. 1881. Afghanistan (1881)No. 1. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Recognition of Sirdar Abdul Rahaman Khan as Amir of Kabul. Vol. 70 C. 2776. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 82. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO2/29
30) Ibid, p. 104
31) Beattie, H., 1997. Tribe and state in Waziristan 1849-1883 (Doctoral dissertation, SOAS University of London). p.105
32) Ibid, p.98
33) Ibid, p.99
34) Ibid, p.123
35) Ibid, p.131
36) Ibid, p.131
37) Government of India. 1880. Afghanistan (1880) no. 1. Correspondence Relative to The Affairs of Afghanistan. LII. 403 C. 2457. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 103 Accessed at URL:
38) Roy, K., 2013. Race and Recruitment in the Indian Army: 1880–1918. Modern Asian Studies, pp.1310-1347.
39) Khan, Mohammad Ayub, and Not Masters Friends. A political autobiography. Oxford UP, 1967. 14 – 17
40) Angus Hamilton (1906). Afghanistan. London: William Heinemann. Page 424.
41) Ibid, p.419
42) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881) No. 5. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Transfer of the Administration of Kandahar to Amir Abdul-Rahman Khan. LXX C. 3090. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 37. Accessed at IOR/L/MIL/17/14/51.
43) Ibid
44) Ibid, p.76
45) Government of India. 1878/1879. Afghanistan. Correspondence Respecting the Relations between the British Government and that of Afghanistan Since the Accession of the Ameer Shere Ali Khan. LVI C. 2190. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 249. Accessed at IOR/L/MIL/17/14/36.
46) Government of India. 1881. Afghanistan (1881)No. 1. Further Correspondence Relating to the Affairs of Afghanistan, Including the Recognition of Sirdar Abdul Rahaman Khan as Amir of Kabul. Vol. 70 C. 2776. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Page 69. Accessed at IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO2/29
47) Tripodi, C., 2012. ‘Politicals’, Tribes and Musahibans: The Indian Political Service and Anglo-Afghan Relations 1929–39. The International History Review, 34(4),pp.865-886. p. 872
48) Sir Percy Sykes (1940). A History of Afghanistan Vol. II. London: Macmillan & Company Ltd. p. 173
49) Sultan Mahomed Khan (1900). The Life of Abdur Rahman: Amir of Afghanistan (Vol. II). London: John Murray. p. 158
50) Ibid, p. 156
51) Ibid, p. 159
52) Ibid, pp. 157-158
53) Ibid
54) Ibid, p. 164
55) Kakar, M.H., 2006. A political and diplomatic history of Afghanistan, 1863-1901. Leiden: Brill. p. 171
56) Lee, J., 1991. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Khān and the” maraẓ ul-mulūk”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1(2), pp.209-242.
57) Sir Percy Sykes (1940). A History of Afghanistan Vol. II. London: Macmillan & Company Ltd. p. 353-354.
58) Government of India. 1905. East India, (Afghanistan). Treaty Between the British Government and the Amir of Afghanistan, dated 21st March, 1905, with papers relating thereto. LVII C. 2534. London. His Majesty’s Stationery Office. Accessed at URL:
59) Spain, J.W., 1961. The Pathan Borderlands. The Middle East Journal, pp.165-177. p. 170
60) Ibid
61) Tripodi, C., 2012. ‘Politicals’, Tribes and Musahibans: The Indian Political Service and Anglo-Afghan Relations 1929–39. The International History Review, 34(4), pp.865-886. p. 869
62) Spain, J.W., 1961. The Pathan Borderlands. The Middle East Journal, pp.165-177. p. 170
63) 57) Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. 1930. Treaty Series No. 23. Exchange of Notes between His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Afghanistan Regarding Treaty Relations with Afghanistan. Vol. 31 C. 3592. London. His Majesty’s Stationery Office. Accessed at URL:
64) Saikal, A., Farhadi, R. and Nourzhanov, K., 2004. Modern Afghanistan. Tauris. P.50
65) India Office. 1878/1879. Copy of minutes recorded by Lord Canning and the members of his council in February 1857 as to the agreement with Afghanistan. (HoC, LVI 72, 1878/1879). Accessed at IOR/L/MIL/17/14/33. See p. 3
66) Kakar, M.H., 2006. A political and diplomatic history of Afghanistan, 1863-1901. Leiden: Brill. p.78
67) Coll, S., 2019. Directorate S: the CIA and America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Penguin Books. p.305
68) Bezhan, F., 2014. The Pashtunistan issue and politics in Afghanistan, 1947–1952. The Middle East Journal, 68(2), pp.197-209. – p.199
69) Emadi, H., 1990. Durand Line and Afghan-Pak Relations. Economic and Political Weekly, pp.1515-1516. P.1515
70) Letter from Owen Tudor Burne, Private Secretary to the Viceroy (20th November 1877) to Lewis Pelly. Accessed at Mss Eur F126/5, FF15-20
71) Khan, A. and Wagner, C., 2013. The changing character of the Durand Line. Strategic Studies, 33(2), pp.19-32.
72) Tripodi, C., 2012. ‘Politicals’, Tribes and Musahibans: The Indian Political Service and Anglo-Afghan Relations 1929–39. The International History Review, 34(4), pp.865-886. pp. 867 & 879
73) Diary of Randolph Bezzant Holmes. p.131. Accessed at: IOR F 265/16

Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar is an analyst who focuses on Afghanistan. He attained an MA in World History from King's College London. He also completed a BSc in Politics and History.

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