The Troubled Afghan-Pakistani Border

The Troubled Afghan-Pakistani Border

The contentious border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a site of major conflict, and houses some of the world’s most dangerous militants.

Last updated March 20, 2009 8:00 am (EST)

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Afghanistan shares borders with six countries, but the approximate 1500-mile-long Durand Line along Pakistan remains the most dangerous. Kabul has never recognized the line as an international border, instead claiming the Pashtun territories in Pakistan that comprise the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of North West Frontier Province along the border. Incidents of violence have increased on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. In the last several years, U.S. officials and national intelligence reports have repeatedly attributed the growing strength of al-Qaeda and resurgence of the Taliban to safe havens in this border region. By early 2009, there was growing consensus in Washington that to win the war in Afghanistan, it had to address the chaos in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In March 2009, Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, told the Newshour the only way to break the stalemate is to take "an Afghanistan-Pakistan approach to this insurgency."

Historical Conflict

The region that is today known as Afghanistan was long torn by ethnic and tribal rivalries. It started evolving as a modern state in the early nineteenth century when the British East India Company began expanding in the northwest of British-held India. This was also the time of the “great game”—the geopolitical struggle between the British and the Russian empires. The British held the Indian subcontinent while the Russians held the Central Asian lands to the north. Their spheres of influence overlapped in Afghanistan. Britain, concerned about Russian expansion, invaded Afghanistan in 1839 and fought the First Anglo-Afghan War. This led to a decade of machinations between the British and the Russians and two more bloody wars, at the end of which in 1919, Afghanistan won its independence.

Durand Line

The Durand Line is named after foreign secretary of the colonial government of India, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, who demarcated the frontier between British India and Afghanistan in 1893. The line was drawn after negotiations between the British government and Afghan King Abdur Rahman Khan, founder of modern Afghanistan. This line brought the tribal lands (now a part of Pakistan) under British control. Barnett R. Rubin, director of studies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, writes in Foreign Affairs that the British established a three-tiered border to separate their empire from Russia. The first frontier separated the areas of the Indian subcontinent under direct British administration from those areas under Pashtun control (today this line divides those areas administered by the Pakistani state from the FATA). The second frontier, the Durand Line, divided the Pashtun tribal areas from the territories under Afghanistan’s administration. This now forms the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The outer frontier, Afghanistan’s border with Russia, Iran, and China, demarcated the British sphere of influence.

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The Pakistan side of the Durand Line border includes the provinces of Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the seven tribal agencies of the FATA. On the Afghan side, the frontier stretches from Nuristan province in the northeast to Nimruz in the southwest. The British devised a special legal structure called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) to rule the tribal lands and this continues to be the legal regime in the FATA today.

Tribal Connections

The ongoing border frictions are due in large part to tribal allegiances that have never recognized the century-old frontier. Forty percent of Afghanistan’s population is made up of Pashtuns; in Pakistan, Pashtuns represent 15 percent to 20 percent of the country’s population. Ethnic Balochis also live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border as well as in neighboring Iran. "People on both sides of the Durand line consider it a soft border," Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, told in 2007 (he was then the director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations). He adds: "Pashtuns consider it their own land even though there is also a loyalty to the respective states along with a desire to freely move back and forth."

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Interactive Map: Pakistan’s Troubled Tribal Belt Frederick Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes that the Pashtun question (PDF) is "an ethnic, political and geopolitical problem." At the time of India’s partition, Pashtuns were only given the choice of either becoming a part of India or Pakistan. Many Pashtun nationalists on both sides of the Durand Line continue to demand an independent state of Pashtunistan. In Balochistan too, several organizations demand an independent state.

Neighbor’s Interference

A report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) coauthored by Rubin and Abubakar Siddique points out: “The long history of each state offering sanctuary to the other’s opponents has built bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbors.” Afghanistan sheltered Baloch nationalists in the 1970s while Pakistan extended refuge and training to the mujahadeen in the 1980s and then later supported the Afghani Taliban. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s then military ruler Zia ul-Haq promoted the jihad in Afghanistan, funded thousands of Islamic madrassas, armed domestic Islamist organizations, and in the process “militarized and radicalized the border region,” says the USIP report.

Experts say that underlying Pakistani actions in the region is concern about bolstering security against India. The USIP report notes Pakistan sought to support a “client regime in Afghanistan” that would be hostile to India, “giving the Pakistani military a secure border and strategic depth.” By supporting Islamist militias among the Pashtun, Pakistan’s government has tried to neutralize Baloch and Pashtun nationalism within its borders. The International Crisis group in October 2007 reported that Pakistan still supports Pashtun Islamist parties in a bid to counter Baloch and Pashtun forces. “Using Balochistan as a base of operation and sanctuary” and recruiting from its extensive madrassa network, the report says, the “Taliban and its Pakistani allies are undermining the state-building effort in Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf had repeatedly denied this.

Porous Borders

Both the Pashtuns and Balochis gain much of their income from cross-border smuggling, says the USIP paper. Thanks to the largely porous border and people from similar ethnic groups straddling both its sides, “the borderlands already have become a land bridge for the criminal (drugs) and criminalized (transit trade) economies of the region.” The transborder political and military networks between the two countries are reinforced as well as funded and armed by criminal activities such as trafficking in drugs, arms, and even people.

“The long history of each state offering sanctuary to the other’s opponents has built bitterness and mistrust.”- United States Institute of Peace

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Afghanistan is the world’s largest cultivator and supplier of opium (93 percent of the global opiates market). According to the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, opium cultivation in the country is no longer associated with poverty. In fact, quite the opposite. The report notes 98 percent of all Afghanistan’s opium is grown in the seven provinces in the southwest where there are permanent Taliban settlements, and where organized crime groups profit from the instability. "Since drugs and insurgency are caused by, and effect, each other, they need to be dealt with at the same time--and urgently," it asserts.

The War on Terror

Since 9/11, “there is a large asymmetry of interests between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” according to Carnegie’s Grare. For Islamabad, Afghanistan is only one element in a larger game involving its policy toward India as well as its global standing, writes Grare. The relationship is mainly a bilateral issue for Afghanistan.

After 9/11, Pakistan allied itself with the United States in its war on terror. This created a dilemma for Pakistan, as it now had to hunt down the Taliban and the Islamic militant organizations it reportedly helped create in the first place. It also had to send its troops into the tribal lands where the Pakistani military has never been welcome. Incidents of Pakistani soldiers surrendering without a fight to militant organizations became common during 2007.

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“People on both sides of the Durand line consider it a soft border.”– Husain Haqqani

Before 9/11, especially during the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and U.S. policies in the border region converged; a friendly government in Afghanistan gave Islamabad strategic depth against India as well as a land bridge across Central Asia, and an open border ensured easy access to Kabul. This fit well into Washington’s strategic objective, which looked to Pakistan as a vantage ground to prevent Soviet hegemony in the region. But post-9/11, the United States wants greater controls on the border. Pakistan’s national interest now conflicts with its foreign policy and the most powerful state institution, the Pakistani military, is caught in the middle. Experts say that while the Pakistani army would like to continue its support of some of these militant groups to counter what it perceives as the security threat from India and its continued claim to Kashmir, it now has to appease the United States for strategic, military, and foreign aid. Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government writes (PDF) that extremism has been rising in Pakistan’s border areas and they continue to provide sanctuary to militants who spread insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army has shown it is not sufficiently equipped to fight insurgency in these areas. Former CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Mahnaz Ispahani says there is some validity to the argument that the Pakistani army cannot entirely control or close the border with Afghanistan. Islamabad and the FATA regions have long followed a policy of “live and let live,” with minimal interference in one another’s affairs, but Ispahani says the United States would like to see this changed.

Looking Ahead

The security challenges of Pakistan’s tribal areas lie at the center of broader regional and global threats to stability, notes CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey in an August 2008 Council Special Report. Former U.S. President Bush committed to a five-year $750 million assistance program in the FATA. Frustrated by Pakistan Army efforts to control the militants, the United States has also been using unmanned aerial drones to target suspected militants in the border region. But this tactic has led to deep resentment among innocents on the ground who are vulnerable to such attacks. Some experts say Washington may expand (NYT) U.S. air strikes in Pakistan, as well as the use of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Operations commandos for ground missions, a program approved by President Bush. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs assists the Frontier Corps, a Pakistani federal paramilitary force stationed in the NWFP and Balochistan,with financing for counternarcotics work.

Experts say that underlying Pakistani actions in the region is concern about bolstering security against India.

To restructure the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a Council Special Report, authored by Rubin, recommends recognition of an international border by the two countries and cooperative development of the tribal areas on either side. It also suggests transforming the status of the tribal areas in Pakistan and empowering the people by allowing them to participate in elections.


Ispahani says besides security and military cooperation, the two countries must focus more on economic issues. Being a landlocked country and sharing one of its longest borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan’s economy is “incredibly dependent on Pakistan” and this has moderated Afghan’s policy with its neighbor, she says. Marvin G. Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, writes (PDF) that Pakistan’s wide-ranging exports to Afghanistan amounts to roughly $1.2 billion per year and it imports more than $ 700 million worth of goods.

Markey, in the 2008 report, recommends the United States and other international partners include trade routes through Pakistan’s tribal areas as an essential part of the regional development strategy for Afghanistan. It also suggests USAID should identify and fund several high-profile, economically important development projects in the tribal belt, possibly in the power generation or water management sectors, in addition to funding a wide variety of programs that might benefit from a less prominent U.S. face.



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