The Wilson Quarterly

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand left Kabul in the autumn of 1893, his fellow Britons showered him with hosannas. Durand, then serving as foreign secretary of Britain’s Indian colony, had succeeded in negotiating the first “scientific frontier” between what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan, a crucial victory in British efforts to contain Russian expansionism. Queen Victoria herself telegrammed congratulations.

Fears of Russian encroachment into Afghanistan had sparked two wars with the Afghans, in 1839–42 and 1878–80, and the British believed that drawing a well-defined frontier and befriending Afghanistan’s “Iron Amir,” Abdur Rehman Khan (with the help of plenty of cash), would make the country an effective buffer between Russia and British India. A deeper motive was also at work. The British were haunted by the bloody Indian Mutiny of 1857—Durand himself had lost his mother in the conflict—and were convinced that taking decisive steps against the Russians would disabuse the Indians of any notions of British weakness. Durand’s biographer wrote in 1926 that “generations yet unborn will benefit from the Durand Line that he negotiated.”

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. “If Durand had not produced his frontier,” writes journalist David Rose, “the conflicts that have plagued the region since the Soviet invasion of 1979 might never have occurred.”

Dubbed “the strongest man in the Empire” by London’s Spectator, the extravagantly mustachioed Durand was typical of imperial Britons in his slight regard for the people under his sway. In drawing a line through 1,200 miles of some of the world’s most rugged terrain, “it simply did not occur to Durand that the [native] Pashtuns would object,” Rose says. When Abdur Rehman complained during the 1893 negotiations about losing the Waziristan region, for example, Durand gave him half of it—noting breezily in his journal, “he will have a bit of Wazir country.”

The Pashtun ties of clan, tribe, and faith were far denser than the British understood. Barely more than three years after Durand’s triumphant departure from Kabul, Abdur Rehman convened a meeting of Pashtun mullahs who subsequently crossed back into British India with Afghan arms and launched the violent jihad of 1897, convulsing most of the northwest frontier. It was only the beginning.

In addition to igniting pro-“Pashtunistan” feeling, the Durand Line contributed to the radicalization of Pashtun Islam. With the jihad of 1897, Rose says, the teachings of Pashtun scholar-priests “decisively changed direction,” away from their traditional Sufi-inspired emphasis on “the individual’s contemplative relationship with God, and toward one emphasizing strict observance and obedience.” Increasingly, militant Islam “provided tribal leaders with their vocabulary and their ideological rallying point.”

The British compounded their mistake after the 1897 jihad by granting the rebellious tribes in the region between the Durand Line and the rest of British India semi-autonomous status. These areas promptly became jihadist breeding grounds and today, as largely ungovernable parts of Pakistan, serve as safe havens for Afghan insurgents and Pakistani Taliban. One of the Afghan Taliban’s deadliest elements, the Haqqani network, makes its home in the bit of Waziristan that Durand kept for Britain.

THE SOURCE: “The Man Who Drew the Fatal Durand Line” by David Rose, in Standpoint, March 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Kate Harding

Read Next

Energy From Algae?