Preoccupied with its own border tensions with China, India has given little attention to the other border dispute brewing in the region, the one between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet a spate of border clashes between the two states to India’s west could have a far-reaching impact on the wider region, which could also compound Delhi’s clash with Beijing.
Afghanistan has historically refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Durand Line, contending that it is a relic of the region’s colonial past. The line, drawn by the British in the 19th century, was meant to delineate British India from Afghanistan and cuts through lands populated by Pashtun tribes. Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the Durand Line has served as the de-facto border between the two nations. In stark contrast to Afghanistan’s position, Pakistan considers the Durand Line a settled international boundary and has consistently refused to discuss its legitimacy.
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has loudly denounced a slew of new Pakistani border posts, which officials in Kabul claim are being built in their territory. On May 2, border fighting erupted in the rugged Goshta area of eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, following growing complaints over construction of the outposts. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Afghan officials said the incident began after an Afghan Border Police unit deployed on the Goshta border noticed Pakistani forces beginning additional work to fortify their outpost, despite recent agreements to suspend construction.
The ensuing clashes, among the worst in recent years, left one Afghan border guard dead and two Pakistani soldiers injured. In a measure of growing Afghan fury over Pakistan’s perceived violation of Afghan sovereignty, thousands of protesters took to the streets, chanting “Death to Pakistan”.
This response, however, has done little to end the violence. On May 12, at least two children were injured and four houses damaged after shelling by Pakistani forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, indicating that border tensions were far from over. The clashes have led to mounting public support for the Afghan military – an irony given that years of fighting with the Taliban have seldom led to similar levels of support.
For India, the Afghan-Pakistan border row could be a double-edged sword. New Delhi and Islamabad have long fought a turf war for influence over Afghanistan. Between 1996 and 2001, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban regime ensured that India remained on the fringe in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 after the US-led invasion, however, India soon emerged as one of Afghanistan’s biggest regional donors. In the last decade, India has pumped aid into Afghanistan to the tune of more than U.S. $2 billion, building important highways, constructing the Afghan parliament and training the Afghan military.
India’s high-profile Afghan engagement has been a constant source of worry for Pakistan, which has sought to maintain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. With foreign forces due to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban as its former backer is seen as being crucial to facilitating talks between Kabul and the Taliban. While that may well be a window of opportunity for Pakistan to regain a foothold in Afghanistan, the furious reaction among Afghanis in recent days may indicate deep-seated suspicions and misgivings about Islamabad’s intentions.
Moreover, given the zero-sum game that India and Pakistan often find themselves in vis-à-vis Afghanistan, New Delhi may see the row as a vindication of its own Afghan policy, which has been a blend of hard power – such as economic aid – and soft power elements like Bollywood’s reach and goodwill from student exchange programs for Afghans.
However, New Delhi’s stand on the row will be dictated by tensions with China over the disputed Sino-Indian border, where its position mirrors that of Pakistan on the Durand Line. Like in the case of the Durand Line, the McMahon Line dividing China and India is a vestige of the British colonial era and is not recognized by China.
Agreed by Britain and Tibet in 1914, the line became the de-facto China-India border after Beijing’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950s. Unlike Beijing, New Delhi considers the McMahon Line a settled international boundary. This dispute sparked the recent three-week standoff in Ladakh after the Chinese military set up an outpost, 19 kilometers inside Indian territory.
It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. In the case of the Afghan-Pakistani border row, it seems likely that India’s position will be dictated by its own territorial row with China, rather than any hope of winning a game of strategic one-upmanship over Pakistan.