Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Historical Milestones of Afghanistan - Part 1, The Pashtun Identity and the Durand Line

In order to comprehend the politics and the complexity of the various forces that shapes the current Afghan nation, it is necessary to examine the historical milestones along with the economic infrastructure, and the composition of the major influential tribes distinguished by linguistic and religious affiliations: Pashtun, Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik, Aimaq, Turkoman, Baloch and other smaller tribes. I intend to produce a series of articles that will seek to analyse these factors. The primary objective is to give an overview, so that those who are not familiar with the region get acquainted with the basic facts rapidly, and one can refer to other scholarly materials for further in-depth analysis. 

I am less interested in ancient history, as the evidence is scant for such material, and less relevant to the current situation. Nor do I think it is necessary to cover the events chronologically, which can be dull, and readers will be more interested to get familiar with the current events via which the history is introduced.
From the media coverage, everyone knows the Taliban as a militant group that took control of Afghanistan, from the ashes of the civil war that followed the Soviet exit. They were trained and organised in Pakistan, with a view of bringing stability; they seized power in 1996 until ousted by the Americans through the post 9/11 invasion. The Taliban gave refuge to Al-Qaeda fighters, who are largely made up of Muslims from the Arab and central Asian region, led by the charismatic Usamah Bin Laden, whose history goes back to the Russian invasion in 1979.  The loose alliance with the Al-Qaeda meant they shared similar viewpoint; the outside world view them as fanatical, intolerant, misogynist, literalist, rejection of western values including imperialism (or ‘trade’). However, unlike the fighters from Al-Qaeda, many of the Taliban are far less educated in the conventional sense.  The subject of the rise of Taliban and the Al-Qaeda will be analysed further in a future article.

What is the composition of the Taliban? They are mainly from the Pashtun tribe, which is by far the largest ethnic group, constituting between 40-60% of the total Afghan population.

The Pashtun are largely Sunni Muslims, they speak Pashtu (or Pakhto); it is an Indo-European language, written using the Arabic alphabet that was adopted after the arrival of Islam. They are also called Pathans or Afghanis in the Indian subcontinent, reputed for their handsome features; they are physically taller and fairer, compared to other sections of the Indo subcontinent population. Many of the prominent Bollywood stars today (Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Zayed Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Fardeen Khan, Aamir Khan) are of Pathan origin; another prominent example is the dashing Imran Khan, the former cricketing star, and a playboy in his younger days.  

The frequent reports appearing in the media depict the Taliban as the sole representative of the Pashtun tribe, as a consequence, the two have almost become synonymous; thus, automatically we assume that the vast majority of Pashtun are Afghans and historically they were also called Afghans by others, and the Taliban operate primarily from Afghanistan. However, the Pashtun tribes are found on both sides of the Durand border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, likewise there is the Taliban led by the respective leaders in each side of the border; their ideology is similar but the two operate as independent entities.

The roots of the modern state of Afghanistan can be traced back to the Durrani Empire, established by Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722 – 1772), also known as Ahmad Khan Abdali. He was a cavalry general under the Persian emperor Nadir Shah; a skilful military leader that rose through the ranks quickly, united the various Pashtu tribes and began to conquer territories from Khorasan (Eastern Iran) reaching the cities of northern India. However, it is through the period of British colonialism and the partition in 1947 that ultimately defined the permanent borders, with the exception of the Durand line that separates it from Pakistan. 

Indeed,  the creation of the Durand line, a long porous border between the neighbouring countries, was a decisive historical event that resulted from the agreement between Mortimer Durand of British India and Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, in 1893. Initially, it was to demarcate the limit of their respective spheres of influence, like a truce, rather than defining a permanent fixed border between the nations. Subsequently, the line became a buffer zone between colonial Britain and Russia competing for influence in the region.  

After the partition in 1947, the Durand Line has never been accepted formally by the Afghan government as its international border; however, Pakistan and various international bodies including the former colonial power in the region, has endorsed it as a legal frontier. In August 2007, Pakistani politician and the leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-IslamFazal-ur-Rehman, urged Afghanistan to recognise the Durand Line formally. In contrast, the opposing Pashtun voices have argued that the 1893 treaty expired in 1993, after 100 years elapsed, and should be treated similar to the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. The counter argument is the treaty of 1893 does not state an expiry date unlike the one cited for Hong Kong.

Because the Durand Line divides the Pashtun and Baloch people, it continues to be a source of tension between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In both countries, Pashtun politicians vigorously object to the existence of the Durand Line dividing their community. If there is a rise of Pashtun nationalism in the future, it could incite a rebellion and call for secession from Pakistan and Afghanistan causing serious instability. It would almost mirror the Kashmir based groups calling for the formation of an independent homeland. Thus, it could be argued that the Islamic orientated Taliban is contributing towards some stability indirectly, by preventing the rise of Pashtun nationalism. It would be in the interest of Afghanistan and Pakistan to formally ratify this historical issue, thus ensuring this is not made a point of conflict in the future.   

Yamin Zakaria (
Published on 03/04/2013
London, UK,

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