Central Asia

Dangerous line in the sand
By Ramtanu Maitra

The recent visit to the United States by the President of Afghanistan's transitional government, Hamid Karzai, made clear how fragile the stability in Afghanistan is today. Karzai's recent assurances to American lawmakers that Afghanistan's polity is on the right track, and that all he needs is more money to speed up the reconstruction work, fell on deaf ears.

Too much news has come out in recent months indicating that despite the best intentions of Karzai, things are as murky and unstable today in Afghanistan as they were in January 2002, when the Taliban fled Kabul in the face of the invading American and Northern Alliance troops.

Just days before Karzai's arrival in Washington, his Minister of Mines and Industries, Juma Muhammad Muhammadi, a former World Bank official and an American citizen, died in a plane crash over troubled Pakistan - the third senior member of Karzai's cabinet to meet sudden and unnatural death. The first two were outright assassinations. Muhammadi died soon after his plane took off from the Pakistani port city of Karachi on a clear and a sunny day. In the absence of a detailed investigative report, the assumption is that he, like the other two ministers, was also assassinated.

No security
Still, Karzai and his friends in Washington put on a brave front and tried to convince American lawmakers that their prime concern in Afghanistan should be the slow pace of reconstruction due to inadequate international financial help. Karzai and others believe it is urgent to put more money into reconstruction, but it is arguable whether it is at all possible to carry out any meaningful reconstruction in a security environment that is not just dicey, but outright dangerous.

A number of factors have made Afghanistan a dangerous place, but perhaps the most fundamental is that Afghanistan is a nation without any institutional structure. The only institution in Afghan history that united the people and was respected by the various ethnic and tribal groupings was the nobility of southern Afghanistan, who ruled the country and kept it together.

But the Afghan communists in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, the US-backed mujahideen and the Northern Alliance targeted the nobility, assailing it and undermining its influence and driving much of it into exile. Finally, in the 1990s, the Taliban systematically and completely uprooted the last remnants of the nobility as an institutional presence.

In place of the nobility, Afghanistan was left with a bunch of poppy-growing armed warlords who worked hand-in-glove with the international narcotics mafia and some intelligence officers from Pakistan and the United States. Societal harmony generally has broken down, and the average Afghan now depends mostly on handouts from international community or smuggling to survive. Many regular farmers grow poppy.

The geopoliticians and resource-hungry materialists, who have used Afghanistan as the cockpit of Asia during the past three decades, facilitated this criminalization of Afghan society. Southern Afghanistan remains firmly under the influence of the Americans, British and French, while the north bows to Russia. Now, both India and China have shown growing interest in the oil, gas and mineral wealth in the rich steppes of Central Asia.

The Durand Line
On the ground, however, the criminalization of Afghanistan is directly linked to the Durand Line, the boundary line separating Afghanistan in its east from Pakistan. This line created and perpetuates a region of permanent instability encompassing eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

During their rule over India, British colonials were forced to the negotiating table with Afghanistan by a pair of costly defeats to their expeditionary forces in the 19th century. Britain wanted Afghanistan in its fold for an advantage in the famous "Great Game" with Russia, so in 1893 the British agreed on a border with the Afghan King Abdur Rahman Khan. The British negotiator was Sir Mortimer Durand, and the new eastern, southern and northern boundaries of Afghanistan went into history books as the Durand Line. From its inception, this wholly artificial line has served as a convenience or inconvenience, depending on the period and the interested party. From time to time, it ceases to exist altogether - for instance, during Afghanistan's occupation by the Soviet troops in the late 1970s when millions of Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan without let or hindrance.

The heart of the problem is that the Durand Line runs through the middle of the lands of the most important eastern Afghan Pashtun tribes, and since the line was drawn, these eastern Pashtun have resolutely refused to recognize it. The Pashtun are divided into more than 60 clans, all speaking the common Pashto language. They number some 12.5 million in Afghanistan, where the major clans are the Durrani and Ghilzai, and 14 million in Pakistan. In Pakistan, Pashto speakers are only 8 percent of the population of 145 million, which is otherwise dominated by Punjabis and four lesser ethnic groups. In Afghanistan, however, with a population of barely 26 million, the Pashtun constitute nearly half and naturally dominate Afghan affairs.

No Afghan regime after 1893, even the Taliban, has accepted the validity of the Durand Line. But Pakistan - formed out of old British India in 1947, and as the successor state to the Sikh empire - has always sought to make it permanent while trying to keep the problem at arm's length. The fact that 14 million Pashtun inhabit western Pakistan is why Pakistan has tolerated the "Free" Tribal area west of Peshawar. This fact also explains why Islamabad always enjoyed better relations with the southeastern Kandahari Pashtuns, who are fewer and had not suffered at all from the 1893 map-making.

Pakistan continued its "arm's length" policy by putting the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA), as the Pashtun-inhabited border area with Afghanistan is identified in Pakistan, under the direct control of the central government. Frontier regulations stipulated that the clans could retain their own legal order, with elders' councils and local jirgas (courts), as well as the practice of going to war to resolve tribal feuds over land and livestock. There remain to this day places in FATA where general tribal law is in force. The head of the clan rules in the clan's name. Above all, the regulations allowed smuggling to go on - of weapons and washing machines, drugs and television sets.

Some Afghan voices over the years have demanded an independent Pashtunistan; others have sought incorporation by Afghanistan on the grounds that, with the withdrawal of the British, the Durand Line was no longer valid. But Pakistan, which was reduced to its present size - about twice that of California - when Bangladesh seceded in 1971, refuses to countenance a further shrinking of its territory.

The price of holding the line
Pakistan wants an Afghan government dominated by ethnic Pashtuns that will provide it strategic depth both in its conflict with India and in maintaining access to Central Asian resources. This is why Pakistan trained and armed the Taliban, and continues to do so even after joining the US in the war on terrorism, thus parlaying the border ambiguities into geopolitical gains. But an unstable Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not a trouble-free proposition for Pakistan. While it may work in favor of Pakistan's geopolitical interest, it hurts the country's wallet.

For one thing, resurgent agitation for an independent Pashtunistan is a problem. The Pakistan-Afghanistan Agreement on Shipping, which in reality legalizes smuggling, is one means of controlling latent tribal irredentism, and maintaining the border as a kind of legal fiction - but it costs Pakistan US$4 billion each year in lost customs. The agreement guarantees free movement across the extremely porous border of mountain passes and deep ravines. Traveling from Parachinar in Pakistan to Khost in Afghanistan, one would become aware of the border only after it had been crossed: an on-coming truck would signal the change, because in Afghanistan, unlike in Pakistan, they drive on the right side of the road.

Even prior to the present war on terrorism, it was apparent that the old Durand Line was more hindrance than help, even to Pakistan. During the 1990s, sectarian elements belonging to the madrassas, run by the orthodox Jamaat factions within Pakistan's political mainstream, used to cross over to Afghanistan, get trained at the so-called jihadi training camps and return to indulge in sectarian violence and terror against the Shi'ites as well as in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), escaping from law enforcement agencies to sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the smuggling institutionalized by the shipping agreement arguably costs Pakistan more than lost customs fees. Apart from the trafficking in narcotics, goods from Russia and Central Asia are brought into Afghanistan from all over the world to be smuggled into Pakistan. This is over and above the smuggling that has been going on for ages through the transit trade arrangement between Pakistan and land-locked Afghanistan from the very outset. This massive smuggling is one of the major reasons why Pakistan's economy is in such a shambles today.

According to the annual United Nations' International Narcotics Control Strategy, released February 28, "Pakistan remains a substantial trafficking country for heroin, morphine, and hashish from Afghanistan. Pakistani traffickers also play an important role in financing and organizing opium production in Afghanistan. Successful interdiction operations occur, but drug convoys are small, well guarded, and mobile, with good communications capability and the ability to take advantage of difficult terrain and widely dispersed law enforcement personnel to smuggle drugs through Pakistan. The steady flow of drugs transiting Pakistan has left a social toll, fueling domestic addiction and contributing to persistent low-level corruption. Pakistan has established a chemical controls program that monitors the importation of controlled chemicals ..."

Afghanistan's sovereignty at stake
The loose, undefined border is also under constant dispute. In recent weeks, tribal delegations have been streaming into Kabul from border regions to complain to Karzai about alleged Pakistani incursions, government officials say. According to one group of elders from the eastern province of NangaRhar, Pakistani troops visited their village six months ago and offered to provide schools and wells if they agreed to become part of Pakistan. Similar complaints can be heard from many Afghans residing in the border areas. There are accusations that Pakistani troops have captured four to five kilometers of Afghan territory across the Durand Line.

Pakistan, of course, denies the allegations and insists there is no question over the demarcation of the border. "Pakistan has not moved any checkpoints and it has not taken any Afghan territory," said government spokesman Major-General Rashid Qureshi said last December.

But the porosity of the border is widely acknowledged - not least by the American and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) operating within Afghanistan, which ran into the ambiguities of the Durand Line while tracking down al-Qaeda and Taliban militia. In recent days, the US military in Afghanistan stated it had the right to cross into Pakistan while in pursuit of suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. American forces "reserve the right to go after them and pursue them", said military spokesman Major Stephen Clutter, adding that Pakistan was aware of what he called the "long-standing policy".

It is evident that the Durand Line poses a problem for Afghanistan in maintaining its sovereignty. It weakens the Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, preventing them from functioning as a coherent political entity. The only solution to the problem is to push the Durand Line eastward to the River Indus to bring all the Pashtuns under Afghanistan, making sure to keep the Afghanistan border with Pakistan's Balochistan province, however, where it is now. This is not formation of a "Greater Pashtunistan"; it is to bring all the Pashtuns under one flag. Such a proposal would no doubt meet with strong resistance from among Pakistan's geopoliticians, at least initially. But the potential merits in terms of regional stability are hard to deny. Moreover, it would help to reduce drug trafficking and illegal smuggling into Pakistan, which could be expected to benefit the country significantly financially.

Within Afghanistan, the country requires a Federalist approach. While Kabul would remain the capital, the country would have three definite autonomous regions - one dominated by the Pashtuns, the other two by the Hazara Shi'ites and the Tajik-Uzbek ethnic groups. The administration of Afghanistan would remain the responsibility of all three ethnic groups, and this could be organized through the traditional Afghan loya jirga.

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Mar 13, 2003




Planting seeds of terror in Afghan soil (Mar 11, '03)

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Afghanistan: The war gathers momentum (Jan 17, '03)

 

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