The Durand Line: Practical issues

When Manzur Qadir became Foreign Minister, he immedi ately proved the adage that a lawyer wins the argument, but loses a friend. One of his first acts in office was to summon the Afghan Ambassador and give him a two hour lecture on the legal aspects of the Durand Line, based on the Foreign Office brief, but ably supplemented by Manzur Qadirs own legal knowledge and erudition. The Afghan Ambassador listened patiently and observed in the end that for them the issue was not legal, but a practical one. The same laconic approach was adopted by General Wali during discussions in the Foreign Office on the King Zahir Shah option. He asked, if anyone in our team knew the length of the Durand Line. We gave him estimates ranging from 1,000km to 2,000km (the actual length is 1,920km). However, General Wali said that we were all wrong and that the actual length was 60 meters; 30 meters at Torkham and 30 meters at Chaman. The truth of this observation struck me when I was appointed in Kabul and had to travel regularly on the road routes. Due to shortage of staff we could only issue about 200 visas daily, but at the Torkham border nearly 2,000 Afghans were crossing daily. I asked the FC how the others were crossing without any visa and was frankly shown a Rs100 note and told that for them this was the visa. It turned out that only those Afghans who needed to travel aboard from Pakistan were interested in obtaining the visa (issued free of cost) to prove their legal entry, while the others preferred the hassle free payment of Rs100 at the border (since then I understand the payment has now increased to Rs500, keeping in view inflation). At the same time, thousands of locals were crossing in both directions at will about 30 meters from the border check post. The FC estimated that number to be about 20,000 daily. Since then due to the increase in trade revival of the Afghan economy, and more peaceful conditions, the crossings are estimated to have increased to about 60.000 daily. The situation is similar at Chaman, while along the rest of the border no one even bothers to estimate the crossings or keep any records, since the tribes never accepted the Durand Line anyway, and the Mohmand, Afridi and Wazir tribes have not even allowed demarcation. We also decided to ignore the border during the jihad, while the Taliban were not much better. Maulvi Younis Khalis, leader of the Hizb-i-Islami, when asked about his views on the Durand Line, reportedly, said: What line? It is a line written on water. This reality implies that the official visas are covering only about one percent of the actual traffic in population between the two countries and that too covering only the elite of the Afghan population, who need to travel abroad. Keeping in view this reality, one of the first actions which need to be taken is to remove this minor irritant in bilateral relations and establish a visa free regime, especially now that Afghanistan is a member of ECO and SAARC. India has instituted this practice for Nepal where it faces problems similar to what we face on the Afghan border, and where it has decided to make a virtue out of a necessity. Of course, on our side the FC and police would have to be allowed to continue to harass and extort money from the Afghans crossing over, otherwise they would never agree to the visa exemption scheme. The Nepalis were always complaining about the harsh treatment they received from the Indian police and the Indian excuse was that their police was just as intimidating towards their local population as well. We have an identical situation on our Afghan border and an identical excuse, which unfortunately no one has been able to do anything about for the last 60 years and it seems to be one of those hurdles we just have to live with, while managing our bilateral relations with Afghanistan. An additional advantage of having a soft border is the facilitation of trade. One of the biggest pleasures of travelling by road in Europe nowadays is that the borders have become meaningless. One crosses the frontiers at 120 km per hour and it takes about 20 minutes before one realises that the country has changed and the road signs are in a different language. However, according to a World Bank survey of 2007, out of 135 countries surveyed for the efficiency of their logistics infrastructure for trade, Afghanistan ranked last, while Pakistan was roughly halfway 75. Obviously, therefore a great deal of work has to be done before we can even think of approaching European standards. This is an issue which has failed to rouse our moribund bureaucracy, even though there have been tectonic changes in the world, with the falling down of the real 'iron curtain and the opening up of Central Asia. In the Foreign Office with former President Farooq Leghari, Foreign Minister Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali and Interior Minister General Naseerullah Babar, we had tried an alternative route to Central Asia through the Khunjerab pass under the framework of the Quadrilateral Agreement with China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, the height of the pass at 16,000 feet is a major hurdle, as diesel trucks have to shed 30 percent of their load capacity to enable them to cross over and due to snow, the pass is anyway closed for six months in a year . The Afghan routes to Central Asia have the advantage of being more accessible and open all the year round, and are therefore the only practical and feasible communication links to Central Asia. This is an area which we need to concentrate on, in order to achieve the status of the 'Roundabout of History and 'Crossroad of Civilisations ' which the areas comprising Afghanistan and Pakistan have held over centuries, linking Central Asia and West Asia to South Asia. Instead of this vision of making borders irrelevant, which could transform our two countries, the dysfunctional and corrupt bureaucracies of all the countries in the region are still mired in discussion on visas, road permits, rules of origin and negative lists. It seems we would have to wait a couple of generations for the vision to be realised. The writer is a retired ambassador.

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