How Did Afghanistan Receive Its Current Borders?

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Originally published 9-23-02

William F. Shughart II is the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University.

Straddling the mountain passes that link the plains of India with Central Asia and beyond, Afghanistan was a frequently moved pawn in the Great Game played by the British and Russian empires in the late nineteenth century. Immortalized in Rudyard Kipling's Kim, intrigue sporadically erupting in open warfare helped each side maintain a buffer zone against the other's expansionist aims. Before that, Afghanistan and its neighbors sat astride the path of vital East-West trade convoys moving over the famous Silk Route. Playing its own version of the Great Game in the waning years of the Cold War, the United States countered the Soviet invasion by supporting the Afghani "freedom fighters" generously. America equipped the Mujahedeen with $4 to $5 billion worth of modern weapons, including 900 Stinger missiles, supplying them covertly through Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence agency.

Afghanistan, like many of the nation-states fashioned from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, is a wholly artificial construct. Its southern border was drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand, the colonial government of India's foreign secretary, expressly to divide the Pashtun tribe's homeland in half, thereby establishing a buffer state on India's northwest frontier. When the Pashtuns who found themselves on the Indian side of the Durand line failed to integrate themselves peaceably under the Raj, the North-West Frontier Province was sliced off from the Punjab to establish a second, inner buffer. These two tribal belts were incorporated formally within the boundaries of Pakistan when that nation separated from a newly independent India under the Partition Plan effective 14 August 1947; the Durand line still stands.

Afghanistan's northern border, along with the boundaries of all of today's Central Asian Republics, were drawn by Josef Stalin. Formalized in the "Settlement of 1922," a series of treaties between the Soviet Union and its southern neighbors, the new borders carved up a region, "comprising modern day Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan," that, according to Rashid, had been "one contiguous territory for centuries." Like Sir Mortimer Durand, Stalin was apparently keen to create his own buffer zone against the Pashtuns (and the Raj) by stranding sizeable Tajik and Uzbek populations in what thenceforth became northern Afghanistan. With the same purpose in mind, Stalin forcibly relocated millions of ethnic Russians to Central Asia.

The map's failure to respect customary tribal territorial claims and to accommodate existing regional trade patterns and social networks has had disastrous consequences for Afghanistan, as it also has had in much of Central Asia. Members of some close-knit tribes found themselves on opposite sides of new, unwanted national borders; others were compelled to share ground with their enemies of old. Ethnic violence has been the predictable outcome as each group seeks control of local, regional and national levers of political power. Strongmen rise and fall as their supporters periodically gain the upper hand. Political authority is exercised, not by sharing power with rivals, but by repressing them. Despotic governments throughout the region, still dependent on Russian trade, continue to crush the aspirations for political and religious freedom unleashed by the Soviet Union's collapse.

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sidiq zaheer - 1/2/2004

Please tell me how the durand line was technically establihed. Is the demarcation visible on the ground? Am I correct to assume that the line is also drawn on a map with cartographic coordinations that can be verified by a professional surveyor regarless of a visible line on the ground.

Thanks a lot for your help. Sidiq Zaheer

Alec Lloyd - 9/26/2002

You raise a valid point. The borders of the most stable and advanced nation-states were determined through a series of wars and often accompanied population transfers. While this is lamentable, it is perhaps the only way to sort out the interminable tribal warfare the plagues much of the world.

Perhaps the only workable solution to ethnic violence is the Balkan one: redrawing the map. Would this be Wilsonian idealism or hard-headed realism?

Patrick Casey - 9/25/2002

The artificial borders of Afghanistan, as well as those of myriad other states (Iraq, Jordan, much of Africa to name a few) created by outside imperialists in the 19th and 20th Centuries, continue to add to the woes of those forced to endure them. A major question though is what remedies are possible? In a perfect world, a Woodrow Wilson-like self-determination sounds tempting: let the affected peoples determine their own borders. But in this way less than perfect universe that seems unworkable -- but it it?