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Blood Line: Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Unspoken Border Dispute

By Amir Ramin and Nadia Siddiqui

Afghanistan and Pakistan are in talks to sign a strategic agreement by the end of 2013. This is the first time Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to discuss a strategic partnership with the aim of creating a blueprint for long-term, binding cooperation on areas of mutual concern. Stability in Afghanistan, and the region as a whole, depends directly on cooperation from Pakistan. This dependence will only increase as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. A strategic agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a framework aimed at resolving key differences between the two, would be a major step in improving stability and security within and between both countries, while at the same time bolstering existing agreements Afghanistan has with other international and regional partners. 

This is easier said than done, considering how strained Afghanistan-Pakistan relations have been since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Despite a string of government-to-government talks that produced few tangible results, there is reason to be hopeful that the new round of talks may yield a viable agreement. Recent bilateral meetings held in Pakistan in November 2012 included agreement on the importance of close and consistent cooperation between the two countries. To ensure the process does not stall, as other attempts at negotiations have, both parties must address complex issues including security, insurgency and safe havens, trade, transit, and water rights, which remain unresolved. None of this can occur without open and honest discussion of the main point of contention underpinning all other issues: the Durand Line.

A colonial-era relic, the Durand Line is the 2,640-kilometer border separating Afghanistan from what is now Pakistan and dividing the homeland of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. British Envoy Sir Mortimer Durand and the Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan agreed to this boundary in November 1893. But no Afghan government has recognized this border since 1947, after the partition of India and the establishment of the state of Pakistan. The decades-long standoff between the two countries has its roots in the so-called “Pashtunistan” territory that starts in southern Afghanistan, straddles the Durand Line and cuts a vertical swath over nearly half of modern Pakistan, including the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the east, Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the northwest, Baluchistan to the south and its coastline on the Arabian Sea.

Much tension has come from the large disputed territory, along with the fact that the Afghan government, in not recognizing the Durand Line, did not originally recognize the Pakistani state. Historically, the Afghan government’s stance has led Pakistan to view Afghanistan as an enemy that could threaten its territorial sovereignty, especially with India’s history of maintaining strong diplomatic ties to most Afghan regimes. Thus, Pakistan could see a weak and destabilized Afghanistan as in its best interests and even critical to its survival. At the same time, neither Afghan diplomacy nor government actions have been effective in allaying these concerns. A recent example of this was the Afghan government’s strong reaction to U.S. Envoy Mark Grossman’s statements recognizing the Durand Line as an international border, which only served to further substantiate Pakistan’s fears.

The dispute over the Durand Line then has become the subtext for nearly every other disagreement between the two neighbors. Despite this, the Durand Line has never been explicitly discussed in negotiations. Past talks and confidence-building measures have focused on specific issues rather than underlying tensions, yielding little in the way of necessary action toward peace and stability in both countries.

A strategic agreement putting this issue forward will be the first and most important step to genuinely improving relations between the neighboring countries and developing a long-term road map for cooperation. The biggest barrier for both Afghanistan and Pakistan will be overcoming the pervasive culture of silence concerning the Durand Line and openly recognizing that it is central to most other disputes between the countries. While it is unlikely that Afghanistan will recognize this border or that Pakistan will give up any disputed territory, a discussion of the Durand Line within the setting of a partnership agreement could help re-contextualize the issue from an ingrained cultural and historical stance on both sides to a more proactive understanding of sources of tension.  This could incite a process of collaboration that would enable both parties to approach other issues of mutual concern with more confidence.

The process to reach and, most importantly, implement such an agreement will not be easy and will require the leadership of both countries to take decisive, courageous action in the name of peace and stability. This is imperative not only for Afghanistan and Pakistan but for the region as a whole, especially with the 2014 deadline for U.S. departure from Afghanistan fast approaching and an uncertain political and security situation looming beyond. While no war has previously been fought over the territory and the chances of either side going to war now are very slim (as Afghanistan is not strong enough to do so on its own and Pakistan is not likely to invade a country that has proved a quagmire for countless others including the U.S.), continued silence on this issue is a commitment to the status quo in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. 

This in and of itself is a major threat to political stability and security in the region. The recent assassination attempt against the chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and President Karzai’s implication that the plot had some connection with Pakistani intelligence attests to this and follows a regular pattern of attacks in Afghanistan with official statements leveled at Pakistan for attempting to destabilize the country.  To prevent further cycles of retaliation and to keep negotiations on track, the two parties must come to an understanding on ways to move forward over their major sources of conflict and tension.

The Durand Line must be broached in a way that demonstrates to officials on both sides that their entrenched views are hindering prospects for peace and security. One way to begin is to assemble a mutually agreed upon working group of relevant government and non-governmental stakeholders tasked with researching and analyzing root causes of tension on a range of issues the two nations face. This joint process of data collection could create a mutually understood factual framework and thus a stable foundation for strategic partnership. The working group’s findings could then serve as roadmap to more frank and open discussion of the key issues that need to be included in a strategic agreement and recommendations for how to begin to resolve them. 

Current Afghanistan-Pakistan negotiations have gotten off to a promising start; however, if they are to truly succeed and break this cycle of mistrust, instability, and violence, the unspoken must be spoken. And it must happen soon.

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Amir Ramin is currently a fellow at the East-West Center and political adviser to the Afghan High Peace Council.

Nadia Siddiqui has previously worked on both Afghanistan and international policy relations programming at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

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