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EFSAS Commentary

The Taliban skips the Doha United Nations conference even as the Durand Line dispute heats up again


Just how lame the United Nations (UN) has been rendered through the untenable domination of the world body by a few countries with clear vested interests is plain for all to see as one catastrophe after another, one war after another, breaks out across the globe and the toothless UN is left with little to do but issue statements that hold scant authority or influence. That an august institution that not long ago had held out hope to the billions that constitute the international community would today be reduced to this ineffectual state is a sorry and worrying situation. As India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar described it on 22 February, “When the UN was invented, it had approximately 50 members. We have four times the members. So, it’s a commonsense proposition that you can’t continue the same way when you have four times the members”. He continued, “If you look at the last five years, for all the big issues, in a way, we have not been able to find a multilateral solution. So, the lack of results demonstrates the case for reform”.

The Indian EAM pointed out that “If you are going to ask five countries saying would you mind changing the rules that you would have less power, guess what the answer is going to be. If they are wise, the answer would be something else. If they are short-sighted, the answer is what it is today”. Calling out China’s role in preventing UN reforms, Jaishankar underlined that “the West, as the dominant force earlier, is largely responsible for where we are today. The new players haven’t helped. If you take UN Security Council reform, the biggest opposer is not a Western country. So, let’s get the totality of the problem right. We have to battle bit by bit to create groups for change”.

The disarray that the UN is in at the current juncture found reflection in the fact that even the Taliban, which is otherwise very eager to gain international recognition, found it acceptable and prudent to abstain from attending a UN-sponsored conference in Doha on Afghanistan that was chaired by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The two-day conference that concluded on 19 February had brought together member States and international envoys to Afghanistan to discuss an array of issues facing the country. But the Taliban didn’t attend because it said its pre-conditions and demands had not been met. One of the major issues at the meeting was the appointment of a UN special envoy in Afghanistan, which the Taliban has opposed.

Also, many governments, international organizations and aid agencies have cut off or severely scaled back their funding for Afghanistan in response to the Taliban policies, causing a serious blow to the country’s struggling economy. Explaining that a roadmap needed to be created in which “the concerns of the international community” and the concerns of the “de facto authorities of Afghanistan” are taken into account, Guterres underlined that “One of our main objectives is to overcome this deadlock”. The UN Secretary General revealed that there had been discussion of a “contact group”, with a “limited number of States able to have a more coordinated approach in the engagement with the de facto authorities”. This could include permanent members of the UN Security Council, neighbouring countries and relevant donors but it would be “up to member States to decide how to create it”. Guterres continued by saying that “I believe it would be a way to have coherence in the way the international community is engaging with the de facto authorities of Afghanistan”.

Stressing that it was in the Taliban’s interests to be part of the consultations, Guterres stressed at the meeting that there needed to be “clear consultations” with the Taliban to have clarification of the special envoy’s role, and who it could be, to “make it attractive” from the Taliban’s point of view. Explaining the Taliban’s absence from the meeting, Guterres informed that “I received a letter (from the Taliban) with a set of conditions to be present in this meeting that were not acceptable. These conditions denied us the right to talk to other representatives of Afghan society and demanded a treatment that would, to a large extent, be similar to recognition”.

Lotfullah Najafizada, CEO of Amu TV, an international media outlet, told Al Jazeera that he thought the Taliban had made a strategic mistake by not attending the talks. He said, “I think it is very important also for the Taliban to understand where the world stands. At the moment the world has planned to go ahead without the Taliban, which is not something that they expected. I think it is very important for the international community to build consensus and deal with the Taliban with one voice”.

Within Afghanistan, recent statements by senior Taliban officials rejecting the contentious Durand Line that separates and divides Pashtun speaking regions across Afghanistan and Pakistan have led to serious consternation in Pakistani political and military circles. The Durand Line is the contested international land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that stretches for 2,600 km. It begins at its western end at the border with Iran, and at its eastern end at the border with China. It was established in 1893 as the border between British India and the Emirate of Afghanistan, marking their respective spheres of influence. It is named for Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the colonial government of India, who induced Abdur Rahman Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan, to agree to an international boundary. Twelve Afghan provinces are located along the Durand Line, as are three provinces of Pakistan.

Former United States (US) Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, attempted to put the Durand Line in perspective when he wrote in 2022 for The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that “It was perhaps inevitable that despite the Taliban’s historic reliance on Pakistan for support, there would be a break with Islamabad over the question of the Durand Line border between the two countries. The Taliban asserts a right to free movement of peoples across the colonial era frontier, consistent with the position of not recognizing the line as an international boundary it took in the 1990s. All Afghan governments since 1947 have taken similar positions on this dispute. The issue may be further complicated by the fact that — apart from the issue of recognition — Pakistan demarcates the Durand Line differently from Afghanistan, and thus portions of the Pakistani fence may lie within what Afghanistan (and most of the international community, including the United States) would consider Afghan territory”.

The Durand Line issue had been brought into focus by the Taliban regime soon after it had regained control over Kabul in August 2021. In several incidents in late December 2021 and early January 2022, Afghan Taliban soldiers intervened to block an ongoing Pakistani project to erect fencing along the Durand Line. Despite attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically, and the Taliban’s then dependence on Pakistan as a bridge to the international community, both sides remained at odds over the fence.

In this backdrop, and with Pakistan’s 2023 crackdown on an estimated 1.7 million Afghans in Pakistan, demanding that they return to Afghanistan, having left the refugees in uncertainty and fear, senior Taliban officials have yet again questioned the validity of the Durand Line. The Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, in fact, went to the extent of warning Pakistan of a 1971-like Partition that saw the birth of Bangladesh. Stressing that Pashtuns on both sides of the international border had never accepted the Durand Line, Stanikzai was quoted by the Afghan Tolo News as saying at a public meeting on 16 February that “We have never recognized Durand and will never recognise it. Today, half of Afghanistan is separated and is on the other side of the Durand Line. Durand is the line which was drawn by the English on the heart of Afghans. And today, our neighbouring country deports the refugees in a very cruel manner, and they are being told to return to their country”. The Balochistan Post reported that Sanikzai had warned that such atrocities could result in events similar to the 1971 separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Pakistan was quick to react to Stanikzai’s assertions. Islamabad’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, strongly dismissed the Taliban’s publicly articulated position on the Durand Line. He said that “For Pakistan, the matter of the Durand Line is conclusively settled”. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry had earlier called the Taliban’s non-recognition of the Durand Line “selfish and baseless”. Abdul Samad Yaqoob, a leader of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, took a similar line on India Today TV, when he opined that “If one talks about the Durand Line, there is an international law. One must respect the international law. There is an international border”

Dr. Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert in the South Asia program at USIP, brought out the fallacies in this Pakistani position when he wrote that “Pakistan appears to have had two major political goals with the fencing effort: to control cross-border movement of goods and people across what has long been a porous border, as well as to offer a demarcation fait accompli on a border which has been rejected by prior Afghan governments… The demarcation fait accompli objective is important. When done bilaterally, demarcation of borders involving one or more post-colonial states tends to be generally contentious and drawn out. And diplomatic negotiations over borders involving territorial claims and disputes tend to be especially difficult and take a very long time. But Pakistan was able to work around that by unilaterally pursuing the demarcation and marking it on the ground with a fence mostly unchallenged — a major diplomatic gain”.

Mir further argued that “Amid this backdrop, the Taliban’s repudiation of Pakistan’s position on the border and actual physical effort to dismantle the fence at multiple points is more than an invocation of a historical claim. It is a tangible challenge to a pillar of Pakistan’s recent security policy — more serious than the rhetorical challenges of the former Afghan government under presidents Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai. It also casts doubt on a long-standing Pakistani strategic thesis that the Taliban’s Islamist and relatively pro-Pakistan political project — which served as a basis for Pakistan’s support to the Taliban during the U.S. presence in Afghanistan — will keep a lid on their irredentist nationalist aspirations. Pakistani policy makers appear to be realizing that the Taliban will walk the talk of jihad and chew the gum of border nationalism at the same time”.

Repudiating Pakistan’s selective recognition of and respect to international law, Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF), contended that Pakistan has never cared about international borders on any side while exporting terrorism, or while providing shelter to most-wanted terrorists. The Taliban itself was a Pakistani creation. Sareen pointedly asked, “The kind of bloody-mindedness the Army showed on this issue of terrorism and the Taliban, they had this romance with the Taliban. So, they have created a situation that is now going to backfire on them. What international law were you following when you created organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad to be used against India? What international law are you following when you give refuge to criminals like Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim in your country? You have violated international law at every stage”. Commenting on Stanikzai’s warning of another 1971-like partition of Pakistan, Sareen said, “In some ways, it’s not a territorial challenge of the kind it was in 1970. But if your country starts falling from within, if it starts imploding, then what do you do about it?”

Meanwhile, describing the disturbing scenario facing the country, Pakistan-based current affairs analyst Arzoo Kazmi opined that “Pakistan is facing this crisis, and nobody is feeling ashamed of themselves, everybody is laughing. Even Afghanistan. Afghanistan is so weak. Afghanistan is making fun of us right now. But we are not feeling any kind of embarrassment. Wherever there is Tehrik, Tehrik-e-Insaf, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, Tehrik-e-Taliban – all these are made by our Deep State”.

The Durand Line is all but certain to evolve into a long-lasting problem for Pakistan, while an ineffective and outdated United Nations would render solutions to problems such as these, or indeed the Afghanistan-related issues that the conference in Doha sought to address, out of reach.