Pakistan, Taliban and the Durrand Line

Two decades of American intervention did not enable Afghanistan to address the Durrand Line problem

Syed Mohammad Ali February 16, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


Like many other parts of the formerly colonised world, the Indian subcontinent continues struggling with the consequences of arbitrarily drawn colonial borders. Problematic colonial border demarcations became a major cause for the fracture of east and west Pakistan in 1971. Territorial disputes are a lingering source of tension not only between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, but also between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The over 1,600-mile boundary drawn by the British in 1893 to safeguard its South Asian empire remains a thorn in the side of Afghan-Pakistan relations, no matter who controls Afghanistan. This unresolved border dispute is why Afghanistan was the only country to oppose Pakistan’s inclusion in the United Nations when it became an independent nation.

The Durrand Line issue remained unresolved when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Despite funneling American and Saudi support to train the mujahideen to repel the Soviet invasion, and continued support to the Taliban which enabled them to take over Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Pakistan was not able to convince Afghanistan to accept the Durrand Line as an international border.

After toppling the Taliban regime in 2001, the US propped up and supported successively shaky Afghan governments. Yet, two decades of American intervention did not help resolve the lingering Durrand Line problem.

Pakistan has experienced increased smuggling and cross-border attacks on its soil via the Durrand Line, by Baloch nationalists pushing back against the state’s hegemony, and by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, which wants to topple the Pakistani state in its bid to establish its own version of an Islamic state.

By 2017, Pakistan began fencing the Durrand Line, and has fenced off most of it by now, at the estimated cost of around half a billion dollars. Pakistan has also set up many border posts and military fortifications, and it has deployed surveillance technologies like drones and radars along the contested border.

The resurgent Taliban have, however, repeatedly clashed with Pakistani soldiers engaged in the fencing effort and they have even torn down parts of the fence. Despite the fencing, Pakistan has not been able to halt cross-border militant movements. Besides its frustration with the Taliban regime, Pakistan has also blamed Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil for the domestic terrorism spike, and sent back many Afghan refugees over these past few months.

Ideally, the border demarcation between the two countries should have been agreed upon by the governments on both sides. However, like their predecessors, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan disagree with Pakistan on where the international border demarcation should be, and they have not put forth any feasible options to resolve this longstanding problem either. The hard fencing of a unilaterally determined Durrand Line by Pakistan is not only causing tensions with the Taliban regime, but this move is also criticised for undermining the “easement rights” of local tribes straddling this border region.

Clearly, more effective border management is needed between the neighbouring countries which, along with greater economic integration, is vital for improving bilateral ties. Yet, it is unfortunate that Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been able to develop an integrated border management system over these past several decades to improve border security and to minimise illegal movement. Institutional coordination, with input from local communities, could have been enabled during the two decades long NATO-led intervention, which instead squandered staggering amounts of resources in the failed attempt to stabilise Afghanistan using hard-power.

The cash-strapped and internationally ostracised Taliban regime remains ill-equipped to establish and maintain an effective joint border management mechanism. Thus, it is likely that Pakistan will probably double down on the need for a unilaterally fenced border, despite such a stance remaining a source of lingering friction with Afghanistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2024.

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