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British Legacy Lingers in Afghan-Pakistan Border Clashes

  • Henry Ridgwell

Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are high after a series of cross-border clashes in recent weeks, including one in which an Afghan policeman died. The frontier is a legacy of British rule in India and disputed by Afghanistan. Critics say it is another example of Britain’s lingering colonial legacy - a history that the British are now being forced to confront.

Afghanistan has sent hundreds of troop reinforcements to the border in recent days. It accuses its neighbor of building a military border gate in the mountainous Goshta region, which Afghanistan says lies well within its territory.

Pakistan denies any encroachment - saying the gate lies on the Durand Line, the frontier established by British diplomat Mortimer Durand in 1893.

Despite widespread international recognition, the frontier is disputed, says Myra MacDonald, author of a book on the region and security correspondent for Reuters.

“The Afghans have never recognized it. And even under Taliban rule, the Taliban would not recognize it. Pakistan has always wanted it recognized. The Afghans consider it something that was imposed on them by the colonial British,” MacDonald said.

Bijan Omrani, a central Asia historian, says archive documents suggest the British never intended for the Durand Line to be an international frontier - but rather a buffer against Russian attacks on the empire.

“Ordinary British Indian law went up to the foothills of the mountains. But, in those mountain areas where the Pashtun tribal peoples were, they had something called the Frontier Crimes Regulation. And that has been in existence ever since the frontier was demarcated. This regulation doesn’t accord with any modern norms of human rights and it has held the frontier region back,” Omrani said.

MacDonald says this regulation has huge implications for the region today.
“As far as America is concerned, it’s where all the drone attacks are taking place as well.

So it’s a place with a very ambiguous status, whose people are not really able to speak freely and clearly about what’s going on there, and with serious problems of Islamist militancy,” MacDonald said.

The Durand Line divided Pashtun tribal lands. Afghanistan has long desired to reclaim that territory, according to historian Bijan Omrani.

“Pakistan fears that Afghanistan will try and reunite it and take a huge chunk out of Pakistan. And the Afghans always know that the Pakistanis, certainly in the Taliban era, used those difficult-to-access tribal areas to train the Taliban to interfere in Afghanistan,” Omrani said.

The tension on the former frontiers of its empire come as Britain is forced to confront its wider colonial legacy. Three elderly Kenyans won a court case allowing them to sue Britain for compensation. They say they were brutally tortured under British rule in the 1950s.

Lawyers say the case could open the way for many other claims from across the world.

The British government says it is an enduring feature of its democracy that it is willing to learn from its history.