The Durand Line

by S. Ghilzai / January 24, 2016

The eastern, southeastern and southern border of Afghanistan with its’ neighbor Pakistan, is not just a static boundary between two countries. It is, in fact, an unstable force, a politically and emotionally charged line, a cause of drama for over a century. In today’s day and age, the Durand Line is the ‘official’ border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. An area inhabited by ethnically Pashtun and Baloch people, filled with treacherous, tall mountains, and dry steppe valleys.

However the 2640-kilometer border’s history is a sordid affair, filled with wars, lies, treaties, protests, separation of families, and much more, dating back to before Pakistan was even a small thought in someone’s head 1. Back when it was known not as a border, but as The Durand Line…

What is the Durand Line? And what is its’ history?

Before Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ISI, and the Taliban, India and Afghanistan shared an intertwined history. From the Mughal dynasty, to being under the rule of Buddhists who spread their religion throughout the region, the two countries have been brought together, pulled apart, and brought back together again, for hundreds of years.

The year is 1879, the British Raj is implanted in India, The Great Game being played by the Russians and the British over Afghanistan, and on the throws of a second Anglo-Afghan war, the Treaty of Gandamak was signed. Signed by Major Pierre Louis Napolean Cavagnari representing the British Raj and Amir Muhammad Yaqub, the emir of Afghanistan, it has been defined as ‘the most humiliating [treaty] ever signed by an Afghan ruler’. The treaty in short handed over all Afghan foreign relations to the British Raj, allowed a British mission to be stationed in Kabul, parts of the country to be under the British jurisdiction, and Afghanistan to become a ‘protectorate’ of the British Empire. This was divine for the British, as they did not want anything to happen to their prized possession of India- by securing some prime geopolitical footing in Afghanistan, meant one less border that the Russians could invade.2 With the British making out like bandits in the treaty, they generously threw in a 600,000 Indian rupee stipend each year to Afghanistan, in exchange.3

Fast forward a few years, Yaqub’s been ousted out of emir-ship and instead, been replaced with the hand-picked-by-the-Brits Abdur Rahman Khan. That is when it happened.

It is 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, a secretary of the British Indian government, went to “great lengths” to procure Abdur Rahman’s signature on a 100 year, one page agreement he had drawn up. The agreement, coming in the midst of the many disputes and scrimmages between the Brits and the Afghans, was to establish a jurisdiction of the British Indian rule, and the Afghan rule, a designated line being the separator. There is a strong irony in the fact that the line was named after a white, British man, almost as an ode and foreshadowing to the future Afghanistan was awaiting, filled with many white men coming and trying to divide, distribute, demarcate, push, pull, pillage, the country- the meddling of Western men that would shape Afghanistan’s contemporary history…

Article I, Paragraph II of the Durand Line:
‘The government of India will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of Afghanistan and His Highness the Amir will at no time exercise interference in the territory lying beyond this line on the side of India.’4

Map of Afghanistan – before the signing of the Durand Line. Click on image to enlarge. (Source: Library of Congress)

With this agreement not only was British India a little more protected, with key routes into the country in case of war or for trading, were protected. It also was an attempt ‘to divide the power of Afghans into pieces in order to decline the unbeatable power of Afghans against the British troops’.5 However, the Amir was not all too eager to sign and to finally coerce his Highness into the deed (as well as throwing several violent threats around), Durand upped the yearling British subsidy from the Gandamak Treaty to 1.8 million rupees, more arms and ammunition quotas.6 The agreement was to serve as a ‘frontier to the Amir’s dominions’ rather than an international border, with other British administrators agreeing, later, it was more to define ‘spheres of influence’.7

The division cut part of Afghanistan’s territory, an amount which without made Afghanistan nearly half it’s former size; it cut off Afghanistan’s one and only access to a large body of water (the Arabian Sea, and ultimately the Indian Ocean). And that was just the start of the problems the line caused…

The Aftermath

After the signing of the Durand Line agreement, people went mad. Pashtuns burned down the British Boundary Commission office in the small town of Wana, near the Durand Line, and protests, turmoil and instability escalated. The Pashtuns didn’t want that frontier, they did not want to be divided between two governments, when they used to be just ruled under one. The British sent in 60,000 troops to calm the high tensions over the agreement.8 Well described by Mary Schons, ‘[t]hroughout history, colonial forces like the British have set boundaries that cause great tension for people who lived in the colony’- because of the British lack of consideration as to how exactly they were affecting the tribal areas that lived in the region where the Durand Line cut, through many ‘battles’ have been fought, then and now, because the people of the frontier did not want to live under that rule.9

In 1905, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan’s son and successor Amir Habibullah, renewed the Durand Line agreement. And when Afghanistan fought British India for independence, and the elimination of their status as a ‘protectorate state’, and won, in 1919, Amir Habibullah’s son and successor King Amanullah Khan, agreed to the terms of 1905, ‘frontier’-wise.

There was riots every few years, by the Pashtuns living along the Durand Line frontier, which anthropologist Louis Dupree discusses in his monumental book, Afghanistan, ‘[t]he major difficulty developed over the rights of the [Pashtun people] on the Indian side of the Durand Line, especially those who had fought against the British in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghans wanted a loose suzerainty over the [Pashtun] on both sides of the Durand Line.’ Since the Pashtuns fought with the Afghans against British India, it could be seen that the people along the frontier felt more patriotic to Afghanistan, a feeling that could not be shrugged off just by an informal boundary.

India partition, the creation of Pakistan and its’ respective issues

A quick succession of events happened in the region that affected, and was affected by the Durand Line agreement, in the mid-1900’s, Hazrat Bahar writing for Khaama Press, adequately describes:

‘During the India Partition (1947), Afghan government expressed her concern about the Durand Line first to the U.K. and later cast a negative vote when Pakistan was joining U.N. membership in 1948. Two years later after the establishment of the Pakistan (July 1949) the Afghan parliament unanimously passed a resolution nullifying the covenants signed by Afghanistan and British India and declared the Durand Line a ‘bogus and fictitious’ border. Pakistan that claims as a successor of the British India has been dominating the Durand Line since 1947 and sees the ‘frontier’ as de jureborder.’10

The Durand Line, Today

No matter how much Afghanistan fought for the Durand Line to be suspended after Pakistan’s inauguration, Pakistan amassed the land, and since then a new chapter of the Durand Line saga began. A heated subject of debate… who should be in control of the land?

The Legal Perspective

One can see the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan as just a border, but from an international law point of view it is an area of land taken illegally…Firstly, throughout the one page agreement of the Durand Line, the line is referred to as a ‘frontier’, never an international ‘border’ or ‘boundary’ between two sovereign nations. If in the agreement, it was never claimed to be a border between two states, than why is it now supposed to act as one?

According to the Vienna Convention, if a treaty is ‘procured through corruption’, force or threat it is considered null and void. Would the Durand Line agreement’s annual stipend jumping from the 600,000 rupees during the Gandamak Treaty, to the 1.8 million used to coerce Amir Rahman Khan into signing not be considered corruption? Or would Sir Durand’s insistent threats of violence and his threats of ousting towards the Amir to sign the agreement not be considered force and threat? Just on these grounds, in an international court of law, would not these aspects alone nullify the Durand Line agreement of 1893?

If the agreement was signed for a fluid 100 years, even if it was renewed in 1905, in 2005, at the latest, would not a reestablishment of the terms had to have happened? Of course, it did not.

International law requires ‘all parties that are affected by any agreement wherein border demarcation are set to be party to the agreement otherwise the agreement does not hold legality’.11 Who are the parties affected by the Durand Line? The Afghan people, of course, technically represented by the Amir, the people of British India, represented by Sir Durand, but what about the people of the area, the people most affected by the Durand Line? The tribal Pashtun elders or Baloch authorities who control the autonomous regions, were they present? No. One could play Devil’s advocate and claim that Amir Abdul Rahman Khan was a Pashtun, so he could represent the Pashtun people of the area the Durand Line slashes across, but what about the Balochi people? How could a boundary be demarcated without the people who it most greatly affected not present?

To make matters worse, on an international level, the Durand Line agreement seemed to be very informal and casual, and was never registered with the British Parliament, or the United Nations. How could we now recognize the Durand Line as the official border of Afghanistan and Pakistan when it was never recognized as a formal enough agreement, to be taken, for example, to the international level of the United Nations?

Now, once Pakistan annexed from India, the legality of the line becomes even more complicated. Hazrat Bahar discusses:

‘Pakistan assumes herself as a successor of the British India. This succession seems very open to be questioned. Before the occupation of the subcontinent of India by the Britain, Pakistan did not exist. In other words, the U.K. occupied the India not a Pakistan. After the occupation in 1947, India automatically became the United Nations member (she did not apply for a UN membership), while Pakistan needed to apply […] Pakistan was created as a new country on the 14th of August 1947. If Pakistan, as she argues, is an original successor [of British India], they not need to apply for a U.N. membership, as India did not. Here it is arguable whether India- a predecessor of the subcontinent-is the successor or Pakistan- a newly born country.’12

Because Pakistan is not British India’s immediate successor, only the country of India was, then the Durand Line could not automatically become Pakistan’s de jure border with Afghanistan. The agreement would have to be re-established, since Pakistan was a completely new country.

Author and historian Bijan Omrani brings another perspective to the legality claim over the Durand Line, ‘international agreements have two kinds of clauses, ‘executory’ and ‘executed’ that describes a continual act and an act to be done only once respectively […] the clause in the 1893 Durand Treaty had the appearance of being executory rather than executed clause…and open to repudiation by either party.’13 Meaning, either British India (or her successor) or Afghanistan could at anytime question the agreement during its’ duration. Is the Durand Line agreement of 1893 even legal and valid? The agreement that shaped Afghanistan’s entire contemporary history?

The Line, Now

Since Pakistan’s formation, no Afghan head of state, be it a King, a President, or even the Taliban, ever recognized the Durand Line as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The tricky issue about the Durand Line right now, is the area is already fragile which causes two things to happen. One, because of the failure to agree on the jurisdictions of control between the two countries, the area is extra volatile with a lot of illegal activity, terrorist meddling, illegal border crossing, drug and arms businesses, poverty, and so on. Second, as the area’s stability gets worse, the area becomes harder to rule. For example, the North-Western Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are nearly impossible to rule (at this point their practically their own autonomous region), which then causes a more difficult atmosphere to negotiate some kind of agreement with what happens to the land between the two governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Let’s look closer at what exactly is happening in and around the Durand Line as of now, as well as the bigger picture that the Durand Line influences and is influenced by. As long as there is instability in the entire country of Afghanistan, then the Afghan government cannot focus on fighting and negotiating for the land that was once theirs, for the land that was taken away from them in illegally. Could not it be said then that out of any other country in the region, Pakistan would have the most incentive to keep Afghanistan unstable enough to never had the question of the Durand Line arise? Because of the Durand line, Pakistan has access to water, to trading routes, and has a substantial amount of land. As General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar province, said, ‘Pakistan is not doing anything to stop terrorism, if they want to stop it, they should stop producing it.’14 Besides the instability in Afghanistan bringing in billions of American dollars to the Pakistani government, it also keeps the Durand Line affair in check. Pakistan makes a big show of trying to eliminate their own Taliban, yet, quietly tolerates the Afghan Taliban ‘as a means of preserving influence in Kabul.’15 It is not unknown that Pakistan has been funding the Taliban since its formation. This way, by keeping the extremists and radical Islamists in the forefront, no nationalistic government, with the country’s well being in mind, can ever come to power in Afghanistan.

How did a line that was not even registered with the United Nations go to becoming the international recognized border between two countries? There is the opinion that as Pakistan worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. government in their affairs in the region, that to obtain Pakistan’s complete support, the United States gave the Durand Line as a gift (i.e. they helped support Pakistan on an international level so Pakistan could keep the land).

It’s hard to imagine how any kind of negotiation could be made is Pakistan is being supported by the U.S, and Afghanistan isn’t stable enough to find a solution, but as of now the line is a problem. Families have been torn apart, the area is rampant with poverty and little access to healthcare. The line is difficult to manage as it is very rugged in parts, and there is always people crossing illegal (as one needs an visa to Pakistan with an Afghan citizenship, and visa versa). This movement across the border isn’t always necessarily ‘negative’, as some families are literally half on one side of the line and half on the other. But there is also movement across the border that is detrimental, such as the movement of Taliban insurgents, who use Pakistan as a go-between, as well as drugs, arms and ammunition movement on the loosely regulated ‘border’. If there was border recognition, there could be more border management.16

If Afghanistan were to reclaim the land, somehow, would the people on the Pakistani side of the line even want to be a part of the country? At least Pakistan is a bit more stable, with a better economy, better access to basic necessities, than Afghanistan is. For someone who was raised on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, could they even imagine being a part of Afghanistan? On the other hand, Pashtuns originated from Afghanistan, wouldn’t the Pashtuns on the Pakistani side like to be in a country where their ethnic group was the majority? Where their voices would be heard, their culture and language recognized? They are not integrated into Pakistan as it is. Would the people of Afghanistan want that? Minority ethnic groups could become frazzled with the idea of the Pashtun population rising in numbers almost two fold, as Hazaras, Tajiks, and all the other minority ethnic groups of Afghanistan have been struggling for their rights for years? As politician and intellectual Ramazan Bashardost thinks, the Durand Line is ‘a fake issue created by the ruling elite to divert public attention from the core issue i.e. […] the corrupt leadership in both countries’.17 And maybe he’s right…


Videos on the playlist below:
The History of The Durand Line By Paul Fitzgerald – Part 1
The History of The Durand Line By Paul Fitzgerald – Part 2
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Durand Line History
Shafie Ayar – Durand Line – Afghanistan-Pakistan border dispute (in Farsi)

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Durand Line History
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Durand Line History
« of 4 »


1 – Khan, Mirwais, and Lynne O’Donnell. “Pakistan Trench Along Afghan Border Enrages Kabul.” ABC News. News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

2 – “Lessons Unlearned.” Economist n.d.: n. pag. The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 26 Jan. 2013. Web. 18 July 2015.

3 – Hanifi, Muhammad Jamil. “Treaty of Gandomak.” Khyber. Khyber, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

4 – Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973. Print.

5 – Javid, Saleem. “Afghan “Gandhi” Ramazan Bashardost Seeks End to Foreign Interference.” Dawn. Dawn News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 July 2015.

6 – Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973. Print.

7 – Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

8 – Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

9 – Schons, Mary. “The Durand Line.” National Geographic. National Geographic, 21 Jan. 2011. Web. 22 July 2015.

10 – Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

11 – Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

12 – Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

13 – Omrani, Bijan. “The Durand Line: History and Problems of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border.” Asian Affairs 40.2 (2009): 177-95. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 22 Aug. 2015.

14 – Khan, Mirwais, and Lynne O’Donnell. “Pakistan Trench Along Afghan Border Enrages Kabul.” ABC News. News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

15 – Khan, Mirwais, and Lynne O’Donnell. “Pakistan Trench Along Afghan Border Enrages Kabul.” ABC News. News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

16 – Afghan refugees smuggling themselves over the border to Pakistan, in the long run, helps the country, as aid organizations, and governments around the world pledge hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pakistan for housing Afghan refugees (which rarely ever goes to the refugees and refugee camps).

17 – Javid, Saleem. “Afghan “Gandhi” Ramazan Bashardost Seeks End to Foreign Interference.” Dawn. Dawn News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 July 2015.

Complete Bibliography
Brasseur, Brad L. Recognizing The Durand Line: A Way Forward for Afghanistan and Pakistan? EastWest Institute. EastWest Institute, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 10 July 2015.

Chaudhary, Shamila N. “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014′ by Carlotta Gall.” The Washington Post 18 Apr. 2014: n. pag. The Washington Post. 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

Chopra, Aruj. “How Pakistan Fell in Love With Bollywood.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 15 Mar. 2010. Web. 10 July 2015.

Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973. Print.

Hazrat Bahar. “Durand Line; The Legal Perspective.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

Javid, Saleem. “Afghan “Gandhi” Ramazan Bashardost Seeks End to Foreign Interference.” Dawn. Dawn News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 July 2015.

Khan, Mirwais, and Lynne O’Donnell. “Pakistan Trench Along Afghan Border Enrages Kabul.” ABC News. ABC News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

Khattak, Iqbal. “Taliban Claim Mohmand Agency.” The Friday Times Pakistan [Lahore] 10 Aug. 2001: n. pag. Print.

“Musharraf Admits Pakistan Sought to Undermine Karzai’s Government.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 July 2015.

The Myth of Pashtunistan. Rep. Peshawar: Forum for Area Studies and Information Center, 2007. Print.

“Pakistan.” Theodora. CIA World Factbook, 20 June 2014. Web. 10 July 2015. .

“Pakistan Wants Afghanistan to Halt Ties with India: Karzai.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

Rizwan, Mohammed. “Durand Line Agreement: 1893 Pact Had No Expiry Limit, Expert.” The Daily Times Pakistan [Lahore/Karachi] 30 Sept. 2005: n. pag. Print.

Salim, Husna. “A Study of the Durand Line.” The Durand Line. The Durand Line, n.d. Web. 10 July 2015.

Sethi, Najam. “In the National Interest.” Editorial. Friday Times Pakistan 12 Oct. 2001: n. pag. Print.

Sharifi, Arian. “If You Think Pakistan Will Abandon the Taliban, Think Again!” Khaama Press. Ed. Meena Haseeb. Khaama Press, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 July 2015.

Shinwari, Sadaf. “The Importance of Durand Line Recognition.” Khaama Press. Khaama Press, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 July 2015.