No Afghan government, not even the Taliban regime, has ever accepted the Durand Line as the international border with Pakistan; nor would any Afghan leader ever consider such a step. For the Afghans, especially the Pashtuns, the country’s leading ethnic group, it is a symbol of a historic injustice deceitfully forced upon them by the British. For Pakistan, which considers itself as a successor state, to persuade the Afghans to make it the formal border has always been a top foreign policy priority.
Rajiv Dogra’s engaging book, Durand’s Curse, narrates how the Durand Line was ‘negotiated’ by the foreign secretary of British India, Sir Mortimer Durand, with Amir Abdur Rehman Khan, the Afghan ruler, in 1893. But more than that, it is an extensive account of the Great Game in the 19th century between Britain and Russia, with Afghanistan as the hapless victim. That is the sad fate of weak states located in the path, real or perceived, of great powers engaged in prolonged confrontation.
By the closing years of the 18th century the British were on their way to becoming the predominant power in India. It was now a prized possession to be guarded against the envious gaze, briefly of Napoleon’s France, and later the Russian Bear. The former threat led to the British shoring up contacts with Persia, the latter to initially sending emissaries to Afghanistan, beginning with Mountstuart Elphinstone in 1809 and then after a gap of over two decades, Alexander Burnes. As Russia advanced in Central Asia, the British were convinced that the process would inexorably lead them towards India. In this context, the British were determined to ensure that they were kept out of Afghanistan. Thus, reports of Russian agents in Afghanistan always set alarm bells ringing.
Through the 19th century British approaches to achieve the aim of keeping Russia out of Afghanistan fluctuated between ‘masterly inactivity’—monitoring the actions of Afghan amirs but not intervening directly in the country—to adopting a ‘forward policy’ of full intervention, including what is now called regime change. In the book Dogra goes into known territory but does so in a coherent manner through a flowing narrative. He looks into British fears, indeed paranoia, of the Russian advance and clearly leans towards the view that these were unjustified, for the Bear had decided that it would not cross the Amu Darya. It would have been useful to analyse if the real British fear was not of a Russian and Afghan invasion but of the impact on different sections of Indians if one was perceived as a true possibility.
Running as a thread through Dogra’s work is a diatribe against British colonial motivations, exploitation and arrogant righteousness towards ‘lesser breeds without the law’. This is, of course, entirely true and in Afghanistan the Pushtoons paid the price, including, as Dogra puts it, with the Durand Line, which became “a line across the Pathan Heart”. However, his return again and again to the evils of colonialism, albeit in indignant and angry prose, could have been avoided, for the facts themselves tell the sorry tale.
While Dogra’s focus is on the Great Game, an account of the ethnic situation of Afghanistan would have been appropriate. The Pashtuns consider themselves as rightful masters of the country. This has been historically resented by non-Pushtoon groups, who claim that taken together they constitute a majority. The worst off have been the Shia Hazaras who bitterly recall that their women were sold in the slave markets of Central Asia. Thus, the victims can be oppressors too.
Dogra makes a contribution to scholarship on the Durand Line, but his many assumptions undermine his effort to a degree. The Afghans are certainly not a ‘gullible’ people.
Dogra makes a true contribution on the Durand Line issue when he relates the solid evidence which shows that the Durand Agreement “had, in reality, fixed only, ‘the limit of their respective spheres of influence’ rather than being a demarcation of sovereignty”. Many generalisations, suppositions and assumptions undermine Dogra’s valuable effort to a degree. Indeed, three pages into the book Dogra opines, “In fact, history has proved over and over again, that if the Afghans are stoic fighters, they are also gullible”. Stoic, yes. But gullible, and an Afghan? Dogra is critical of Nehru’s approach towards the Pathan areas within British India, when he headed the interim government just prior to independence. In hindsight, he makes a plausible case.
Pakistan is a Punjabi dominated state. They have both exploited the Pathans as well as co-opted them. No longer does the merger of Pathan majority areas of the frontier with Afghanistan resonate in a majority of Pakistani Pathan hearts, while Afghan non-Pashtuns do not want it either. Thus, Mortimer Durand’s ‘curse’ will continue and cast its negative shadow on Afghan-Pakistan ties.