Over 30 million Pathans are in Pakistan while another 14 million are on the other side of the Durand Line in Afghanistan.
Festering wounds on both sides of the 2,640-km-long Durand Line, demarcating the contentious border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have flared up again. AfPak relationships have hit a new low in recent times with each side accusing the other of insincerity in fighting terrorism. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a relatively new believer in Pakistani duplicitousness, after having given Islamabad the initial long rope in the failed hope that the Pakistani state-within-the-state, the ISI, would rein in the anti-Kabul terror groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network — the recent attack on the Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Sindh, has led to counter-accusations by the Pakistanis on Afghans to be soft-peddling on anti-Pakistan terror groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban, based out of the Afghan hinterland. Each time tempers rise, the unsettled legacy of the Durand Line is invoked by the Afghans to chafe and remind Islamabad of the historical consequences of fingering the irascible Pathans or Pashtuns. Recently, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated: “We remind the Government of Pakistan that Afghanistan hasn’t and will not recognise the Durand Line,” and that Pakistan has, “no legal authority to dictate terms on the Durand Line”. This outburst was fuelled by the Pakistani move to close the AfPak border posts indefinitely and restrict the free flow of people and trade ostensibly to check and control the spiralling terror attacks in Pakistan. The border was later reopened.
The “great game” of the 19th century between the competing imperial powers of Russia and Britain led to a cartographical truce, illogically knifing the lands of Pasthunistan or Pakhtunistan (land of the “Pasthuns”) into two parts — between modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan. British colonial civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, along with the then emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, agreed upon a territorial demarcation (Durand Line) for administrative purposes, splicing the restive Pashtun or Pathan-dominated area. Today, over 30 million Pathans are in Pakistan while another 14 million are on the other side of the Durand Line in Afghanistan. The tribal-feudal nature of this society and its bloody past that has seen the blood-letting of marauding conquerors like Darius I, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghor, Genghis Khan, Timur, Babur to the later-day imperial powers of the British empire and to the more recent history of the Soviets first, and now the Western forces — violent lawlessness and a constant fight for its unique independent identity is a way of life here. The only thing that has survived the test of time in the region is the grit of the inviolable Pasthunwali code that emphasises death to dishonour, as the old Afghan saying goes, “A man with the power to fight doesn’t need to bargain.”
What recently riled the Pathans even further were the unprecedented accusations of “Pathan profiling” in Pakistan with the implied logic of labelling them as terror suspects by default or design. Official circulars and notifications seeking the reporting of anyone with “Pasthun attire and having Pasthun looks” willy-nilly perpetuates the negative stereotypes of the Pathans to be barbaric and lawless terrorists. Chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Pervez Khattak, himself a Pathan, had to intervene and ask: “Is Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif more Pakistani than us?” He then presciently warned, “We should not be pushed against the wall, or we become rebels.”
Compounding the sense of Pathan suspicion is the ill-timed plan to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This step can be potentially volatile if it is contextualised locally as yet another attempt by the “Punjabis” in Islamabad to tinker with the Pasthtun narrative. It potentially repeals the time-honoured tenets of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), that loosely applies as governing laws to the seven tribal agencies (districts) and six frontier regions of the FATA and subsumes the same to come under the standard Pakistani laws that are applicable in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. The increasing firepower of the Pakistani military (earlier through Operation Zarb-e-Azb) in the region, more recently with the questionable counter-“neutralising” of over 100 terrorists in the aftermath of the terror attack in Sehwan, and the frequent cross-border firing and attack, across and into the Afghanistan border, has upped the ante of the co-Pathans on both sides of the invisible Durand Line.
While it is still early days for the immediate spectre of a return to the ghosts of a Pathan nation or Pasthunistan — but with the Afghan Taliban on the ascendancy in Afghanistan (they too reject the Durand Line) and with a irritable Pathan populace on the other side in Pakistan, apparently suffering a “second-class” treatment, allusions to the “war of independence” in 1919 (also known as the Third Anglo-Afghan War), when Pathans on both sides of the Durand Line meshed and fought for a common cause, always lurks menacingly in the shadows. Hypothetical dissolution of the Durand Line tantamount to questioning Pakistani sovereignty on 60 per cent of its controlled land mass — this after the blow of Bangladesh in 1971 could be disastrous for the integrity of Pakistan, specially with other areas like Balochistan smarting under Pakistani ham-handedness. Islamabad would do anything to curb opening yet another frontier of friction for its severely overstretched resources, therefore it would continue playing its dangerously patented, divide and rule policy of pandering to certain specific elements/groups of terrorists in the region, who would act as proxies of the Pakistan state and continue checkmating notional threats from Afghanistan and India, as indeed keep the restive and temperamental Pashtuns divided amongst themselves.
The Afghans know that the Durand Line issue is a weak spot for Islamabad and an emotionally uniting issue amongst Pathans on both sides, which could tie the Pakistani state into intractable knots. No technical legality of the principle of uti possidetis juris (honouring borders signed during/with colonial powers) will cut ice with the Pathans on either side. Similarly, Pakistanis disagree on a 100-year shelf life for the Durand Line treaty, as that makes its legality untenable — the Pathans are always prone to invoking their uncompromisable izzat, codes and the feudal camaraderie to make a common cause. With a disgruntled and traditionally armed Pasthun population, not just on the Durand Line but also spread out across other Pakistani provinces (Karachi itself has over seven million), the vulnerability of the Pakistani state to control the growing Pathan angst and ire, should it escalate even further, will be severely tested.