Why is Balochistan important? Let's revisit the tale of the Durand Line

On Monday, India's 70th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort. In his lengthy speech, Modi signalled a hardening stance against Pakistan and raised the issue of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK).

Rutu Shah August 16, 2016 16:17:35 IST
Why is Balochistan important? Let's revisit the tale of the Durand Line

On Monday, India's 70th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort. In his lengthy speech, Modi signalled a hardening stance against Pakistan and raised the issue of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK).

Modi said, "I want to express my gratitude to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK for the way they whole-heartedly thanked me, the way they expressed gratitude to me.... People of a distant land I haven't even seen....When they thank the Indian prime minister, it's an honour for the 125 crore people of the country..."

Modi's stand sent a clear signal to Islamabad that India too is ready to target the integrity and unity of Pakistan.

But why is Balochistan relevant to India? How can India influence Afghanistan-Pakistan ties? What is the Durand Line?

To answer these questions, it is important to take a look at the history of Afghanistan, its geo-political positioning and its 19th century relations with British-ruled Indian empire, when the Durand line was stretched to separate Afghanistan from the rest of the Indian-subcontinent.

Why is Balochistan important Lets revisit the tale of the Durand Line

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the ramparts of the historical Red Fort on the Independence Day in New Delhi. AP

Geographical location of Afghanistan

Afghanistan of the 19th Century was a gateway between Central and South-East Asia. Due to its strategic geographical positioning, the country enjoyed a passage to most of the trade-rich countries in Asia. Its proximity to India was a concern to many.

Since it was the shortest route from central Asia to the Indian Ocean, this was the route that Persian conqueror Darius I took in 516 BC and Alexander took in 326 BC.

Various Muslim rulers too took this passage to enter into India. In 1526, the Moghul emperor Babur who established a flourishing empire in India,  passed the Khyber Pass to take entry into India and conquered much of South-east Asia.

Now lets take a look at Afghanistan from a geographical stand-point. India has the Himalayas in the north, hence it blocks access from central Asia. The Hindu-Kush — the western most extension of the mountain range — houses the Salang Pass which separates the northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country. The Khyber Pass through the Spin Ghar mountains — the range which connects Pakistan and Afghanistan — is an extension of the Hindu Kush. These two passes have given many invaders a direct passage to India and have also played a pivotal role in the trade and in these regions. Due to this coveted placement, Afghanistan has been fought over by various super powers foremost of them all — the British Empire and Russia.

The Great Game

In the 19th century the two great empires — Russia and Britain — engaged in a competition to conquer territories between each empire's colonial possessions. This mutual contest was later termed 'The Great Game', where Afghanistan became the key to their struggle.

British intelligence suspected that Russia was trying to access the Indian sub-continent through Afghanistan. By 1770, Britain had a monopoly on opium production in India and wanted to spread cultivation to Afghanistan too. Since India was a jewel in the crown of their empire, it was impertinent for them to protect trade routes, for which Afghanistan was a strategic defense stand-point.

Russia which too was busy spreading its reign over central Asia was afraid that the British were gaining a commercial and military expansion in central Asia through India. Hence began the struggle between the British empire and Afghanistan in the form of the Anglo-Afghan wars which eventually resulted in the demarcation of territories, depriving Afghanistan of its strong-hold in central Asia.

Why is Balochistan important Lets revisit the tale of the Durand Line

Anglo-Afghan wars and the birth of the Durand Line

Britain engaged in three wars with Afghanistan which were later touted as the Anglo-Afghan wars. The friction between the two empires began when Britain grew anxious over the friendly relations between Afghan king Dost Mohammed and the Russians. The Britishers felt that Dost Mohammed was too hostile to them and hence in 1839 after failed negotiations, sent an expeditionary force of 12,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to dethrone the king and set-up their hand-picked king, Shah Shoja.

The Britishers won the war but Shah Shoja was soon dethroned after spontaneous rebellions by the Afghan people. Dost Mohammed who had escaped after the war, returned to Afghnistan, only to surrender to the Britishers in 1840 in a battle at Parwan.

Britain's position in Afghanistan was still intolerable due to civilian protests, and they soon discussed the terms of withdrawal with Dost Mohammed's son Akbar khan. As the British and Indian troops were making their way back, the Afghans killed as many as 12,000 of them in a guerrilla attack.

In 1843, Dost Mohammed was restored to the throne.

Despite the return to power, the Afghan government lacked the resources to sustain the nation. In 1859 England took control of all Afghan territory between Indus river and Hindu Kush including Balochistan, denying Afghanistan access to the sea. But the growing influence of the Russians was still a point of concern for the Britishers.

In 1878 when Sher Ali Khan — the third son of Dost Mohammed and the successor of the throne upon father's death — gave special treatment to Russia and denied entry to the British governor-general's envoy of the time This proved as a catalyst to the second Afghan war. It was waged between 1878 and 1880 complete with a British invasion, death of Sher Ali Khan in exile and the rise of the modern Afghanistan.

In 1893, taking stock of their territory, England created the Durand Line — an arbitrary 1,500-mile border separating 'British' India and Afghanistan. The agreement was signed between Sir Mortimer Durand, the Indian Foreign Secretary of the time and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in Kabul. This new border divided the Pashtun tribal lands —also called Pasthhunustan — into two, one half of it remaining with Afghanistan and the other half residing with the British India. The line ensured that a thin strip of Afghanistan stretched to the Chinese border, to separate Russian empire from the British empire.

This line became the principle issue in the foreign policy of Afghanistan and now is the contingent issue in the Afghan-Pak relationship.

According to the Durand Line agreement, Afghanistan gave up a few territories like the Swat, Chitral and Chageh, but gained other like Nuristan and Asmar. The original treaty was over a page long and was written in English — a language that Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan did not understand. Bowing under the might of the British empire, the Afghanistan reaffirmed the border line by additional treaties and agreements in 1905, 1919, 1921 and 1930.

At the advent of the 20th century, the Durand line still remained a long-running dispute between the government of Afghanistan and Great Britain and this prompted the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919. Afganistan had trouble accepting the division of states especially since the separation of Balochistan robbed the country of its direct passage to the sea.

However in 1905, Amir Habibullah Khan — the successor of Abdur Rahman Khan — had signed a new agreement to confirm the legality of Durand Line. This legality was reaffirmed by the Anglo-Afghan treaty of 1919 (also known as the Rawalpindi agreement) on the basis of which Afghanistan reclaimed its independence. The Kabul agreement of 1921 surpassed even the Rawalpindi agreement and stated that the Durand line will be recognised as an international border.

Despite the annulment of the treaty (in three years) according to a clause of the Kabul Agreement, the border was reinforced by the king in 1921. According to some scholars, King Amanullah Khan — the Amir who saw one of the most progressive phases of Afghanistan — wanted to secure the independence of Afghanistan by any means.

The birth of Pakistan

After the founding of Pakistan in 1947, Afghanistan demanded that the Pashtuns living in the newly-created Pakistan should be given the choice to cross over the Durand Line and live in Afghanistan. This demand was not met by Britain or Pakistan and soon the Afghan government began to ignore the Durand Line, asserting claim over various parts near the border.

There were various instances of attacks and illegal immigration which further soured the relations of the two nations. The animosity was so apparent that in 1948, Afghanistan was the only nation which opposed Paksitan's membership in the United Nations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan drew great support from the United States, but after Pakistan struck an arms deal with the superpower, Kabul realised that the balance of power had tipped in the favour of Islamabad. Following suit, Afghanistan too approached the US for an arms deal. Looking to contain the Soviet Union, Washington conditioned that Kabul should improve its relations with Pakistan. However Kabul declined and turned to Russia to empower their military.

Experts believe that during this time, Afghanistan's dependence on Russia grew both economically and in military but it lead to an eventual fall-out.

Current stand of Afganistan

Soon after coming to power in 2014, President Ashraf Ghani realised that he needed to mend fences with Pakistan. The rise of Taliban and the power it wields, is of great concern for Afghanistan. As pointed out in an earlier Firstpost article Taliban has been steadily gaining more territories ever since the United States and Nato vacated Afghanistan in December 2014. Since that day the government forces and citizens of Afghanistan have come under constant attack. Many speculate this Taliban too is preparing for a time when it is ready for a political settlement. When that day comes, it will make the negotiations from a position of power.

This is probably why Afghanistan remains tight-lipped on the issue of the Durand Line. When quizzed about the issue, various Afghan leaders have assumed a diplomatic position. According to a report by The Atlantic, Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, the head of Kabul's Centre for Regional Studies in Afghanistan said that the Durand Line is a matter of national import but its future will be decided by the Pashtuns. "Recognising the legitimacy of this line is in the hands of the masses that live on either side of the border. This is also the formal position of the Afghan government," he reportedly said.

The United States considers the Durand line as a modern-day border between the two nations, however Afghanistan has strongly resisted against making the border official. In 2016, the violent clashes between the two nations on the Torkham border crossing brought the issue back to light. Many believe that the construction of a border post on Pakistan's side of the line, created tension because Kabul feared that the structure would make the border official. Even though Pakistan's claim of creating the post and controlling the flow of immigrants was within reason, Kabul strongly opposed it.

Afghanistan also believes that the imposed border was supposed to be annulled after the death of the king. Some speculate that the Durand agreement was signed under threat of a war and hence did not hold true after the independence of India. Many Afghans believe that the original agreement with Great Britain was only for 100 years after which the lands in question would revert back to Afghanistan. Some scholars also maintain that Afghan laws guide that the treaty was restricted to the lifetime of the king i.e. the agreement of the border should hold true only till the ruler who signed it is alive.

This presumption has a strong hold over the psyche of the Afghan people.

Why is Balochistan important Lets revisit the tale of the Durand Line

A file photo of Indian  prime minster Narendra Modi (L), Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif (C), Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani (R). AFP

Current stand of Pakistan

Over the years, Pakistan has tried to control the Kabul regime and infiltrated the country with terrorists, killing thousands of Afghans. Pakistan has been reluctant to engage in a dialogue with Afghanistan on trade as well as peace talks because of a lack of trust.

Islamabad also believes that the Durand Agreement should hold considering the Rawalpindi agreement had cemented its existence.

However many Pashtuns still hope to reclaim the territories of their forefathers lost between the Indus river and the Durand Line. Many believe that the dream is unrealistic and cannot be realised because firstly Afghanistan lacks the political, military and economic means of doing so and there are 30 million Pakistani Pashtuns as opposed to 15 million Afghan Pashtuns.

Pakistan also has six times the population of Afghanistan and hence their military might is greater. The only way Kabul can dream of regaining its old territories is if there is a complete collapse of government in Pakistan.

Today Pakistan continues to rely on United States and China for the security of its territories. Hence the complexity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India relationships has direct consequence on the United States-Russia-China relationship.

Pakistan will use Taliban and other jihadist groups to maintain control over Afghanistan and hence, the issue surrounding the Durrand Line will have an impact on the formulation of the US policy in the region.

So maybe Modi's passing reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech was meant as a signal of support to Afganistan, even though it might not amount to much.

Maybe, India is finally waking up to the tit-for-tat strategy that Pakistan has assumed so long. And maybe, to reclaim their lost land, Afghanistan will find a friend in India.

After all an enemy's enemy is a friend.

Updated Date:

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