Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan is a powder keg. Last year, Taliban fighters were recorded shouting ‘Death to Pakistan’ and warning ‘if you come a step further, I will fight you’. Actual confrontations have become commonplace in recent weeks: the Taliban has attempted to destroy sections of fencing, and skirmishes have caused several deaths on both sides. To better understand this current crisis, we must look at Afghanistan’s history.
At first glance, Afghanistan stands out as an anomaly. Unlike most states in South Asia, it was never directly colonised by Europeans, and its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’ highlights the difficulties it has posed to numerous invaders. Yet, Afghanistan itself was a colonial conception. How can we explain this paradox, and how do the legacies of colonialism continue to afflict Afghanistan?
The British Empire was never able to conquer Afghanistan, despite repeated attempts. In one instance, the Afghans utterly humiliated a supposedly ‘superior’ force, slaughtering thousands of soldiers and civilians in 1842.[i] But such defeats were tactical, not strategic. In fact, Britain’s primary goal was always to protect India—the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’—from Russian expansion. In this imperial rivalry (known as the ‘Great Game’), complete control over Afghanistan was only one way of turning it into a buffer state. A ‘semi-colonial’ arrangement suited the British just fine; it was easier, in fact equally effective, to influence Afghanistan’s politics from afar.[ii]
This ‘semi-colonialism’ enabled the British to define the borders—and thus the fundamental meaning—of ‘Afghanistan’ as a nation-state. Before British meddling, Afghanistan did not exist as the clearly defined territorial entity that it is today. That was until 1893 when Mortimer Durand set out to demarcate Afghanistan’s frontier with British India. The resulting Durand Line carved the Pashtun people, a significant ethnic group, in two. Like most artificially designed colonial boundaries, the line ignored existing demarcations and cut through villages and even individual homes. Paying little heed to such consequences, the British mapped the border along with topographical features that would block mountain pathways into their sphere of influence. The Western Pashtuns were incorporated first into British India, and then Pakistan following the partition in 1947.[iii]
Much of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s present difficulties stem from this traumatic separation. The Afghan government has never accepted the Durand Line, which President Karzai called ‘a line of hatred that raised a wall between… two brothers’. Afghanistan’s repeated demands for an independent ‘Pashtunistan’ have heightened tensions surrounding the border. Pakistan, though, does recognise the Durand Line, seeing it as fundamental to preserving its territorial integrity. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan is an artificial construct, and it has struggled to hold itself together. In 1971, East Pakistan fought a war of independence against West Pakistan and became Bangladesh. Subsequently, Pakistan has clung to the Durand Line, fearing that its extensive Pashtun population would seek independence too, and the country would collapse.[iv]
It is this border dispute, and the history of British colonialism, that help to explain the Taliban’s rise. Ever since its imperial subjugation, Afghanistan’s rulers have been made dependent on external resources. [v] Emir Abdur Rahman, for example, relied on cash subsidies from British India and therefore had to accept the Durand Line.[vi] The Afghan mujahidin were also hampered by dependency. They had defeated the Soviet invaders but were unable to fill the power vacuum that emerged. They possessed little unifying ideology and splintered into competing factions, a reflection of wider Afghan society, whose tribal divisions became deeply entrenched due to British rule. What’s more, the United States and Saudi Arabia no longer wished to fund Afghanistan after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.
Pakistan, however, kept a close eye on its neighbour, seeking to establish a sympathetic regime that would be dominated by Pashtuns. It found its answer in the Taliban, a deeply fundamentalist Islamist group, which by 1998 controlled almost all areas of Afghanistan. During the Soviet-Afghan war, Pakistan had become a rear base of operations for some mujahidin factions and the Pakistani-Taliban relationship had been formalised. While the security the Taliban provided was popular, its oppressive religious doctrine was not, and it led to the Taliban’s isolation from the international community. Thus, it increasingly sought the backing of Pakistan and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.[vii] Despite officially changing its policy after 9/11 and declaring that it would join the ‘war against terrorism’, sympathies toward the Taliban persist in Pakistan.[viii]
The contested nature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has had significant implications for the War on Terror. On a map, the Durand Line appears clear, but on the ground, neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan possesses true sovereignty.[ix] Though they were quickly routed following the invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda members were able to escape across Pakistan’s porous border, where the social code (Pashtunwali) compelled Pashtuns to provide hospitality.[x] Many prominent al-Qaeda leaders—including Osama bin Laden—remained undetected there for years. Had US special forces teams been able to trap them within Afghanistan, the war would not have dragged on for so long.
Yet, thanks to its permeability, the Durand Line became a hotbed of the insurgency in Afghanistan, characterised by brutal violence. In 2008, CIA director Michael Hayden warned that the border ‘presents a clear and present danger’. The Taliban taking refuge there targeted Pakistani soldiers and police with suicide attacks and IEDs.[xi] US drone strikes, which have killed more than 9,000, including 1,000-2,000 civilians, have further violated the border’s sovereignty. Recently, the Taliban’s return to power has created an extensive refugee crisis, with many attempting to cross into Pakistan. Citing national security concerns, Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan and is attempting to complete the many miles of fencing being constructed across the Durand Line.[xii]
Afghanistan’s colonial borders also account for the failure of state-building there. Unable to subsume it into their empire, the British viewed Afghanistan as a ‘savage frontier’ that needed to be isolated from ‘civilization’. The Durand Line symbolised this marginalisation. Thus, Afghanistan was subjected to external control without any of the ‘benefits’ brought by outright colonisation; when the British left India, new elites could use pre-existing institutions to build a postcolonial state that imitated European ideals of behaviour. This was not possible in Afghanistan, yet the country is still expected to act as a Weberian state.[xiii]
During their occupation of Afghanistan, the US and the international community attempted to impose state institutions from the top down. They poured billions of dollars into the country for little gain, with one official claiming they were ‘given money, told to spend it and did, without reason’. Vast sums found their way into the hands of corrupt officials and warlords, many of whom had committed or profited from human rights abuses. Several of these same actors quickly sided with the Taliban when the opportunity arose.[xiv]
When these policies failed, the US blamed Afghanistan and its culture for failing to meet its expectations of statehood. Alternative social formations, such as the jirga process (an assembly of tribal leaders aiming to solve disputes through consensus), were condemned for undermining the state-building process. However, due partly to Britain’s colonial policies, Afghan society is based on customs and norms, and the state does not possess any universal monopoly or legitimacy, being only one of several competing forces.[xv]
Nor did President Biden take sufficient responsibility for the US’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left thousands stranded, including those who had fought hard for incremental increases in their liberties. Instead, he blamed the Afghans, remarking that ‘we gave’ them ‘every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for it’. The United States was shocked by the pace at which the Taliban was able to destroy the systems they had constructed over the course of two decades. But, given Afghanistan’s history of colonialism, should this be so surprising?
[i] Christian Tripodi, ‘Grand Strategy and the Graveyard of Assumptions: Britain and Afghanistan, 1839–1919’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 33, No. 5 (2010), p. 713
[ii] Ibid., pp. 710-711
[iii] Nick Cullather, ‘Damning Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 2 (2002), pp. 512-537, and Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, ‘No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier’, International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2008), pp. 67-68
[iv] Elisabeth Leake and Daniel Haines, ‘Lines of (In)Convenience: Sovereignty and Border-Making in Postcolonial South Asia, 1947–1965’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 76, No. 4 (2017), pp. 973-974, and Johnson and Mason, ‘No Sign Until the Burst of Fire’, pp. 67-68
[v] Thomas Barfield, ‘Problems in establishing legitimacy in Afghanistan, Iranian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2004), p. 285
[vi] Nivi Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 81
[vii] Barfield, ‘legitimacy’, p. 288
[viii] Ijaz Ahmad Khan, ‘Understanding Pakistan’s Pro-Taliban Afghan Policy’, Pakistan Horizon, Vol. 60, No. 2 (2007), p. 141
[ix] Leake and Haines ‘Lines of (In)Convenience’, pp. 963-985
[x] Johnson and Mason, ‘No Sign Until the Burst of Fire’, p. 63
[xi] Ibid., p. 65
[xiii] B.D. Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 168-173, and Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan, p. 86
[xiv] Kimberly Marten, ‘The Danger of Tribal Militias in Afghanistan: Learning from the British Empire’, Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 63, No. 1 (2009), p. 163
[xv] Hopkins, Modern Afghanistan, p. 172
Gabriel is currently undertaking an MA in National Security Studies at King’s College London. Prior to this, he completed his undergraduate degree in War Studies and History, also at King’s. His interests include imperialism, terrorism, intelligence, and strategy.