BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: South Asia
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Analysis: Powerful cross-border bonds
Afghans crossing border at Chaman
Strong ethnic bonds make the border hard to police
Daniel Lak

Few borders in the world are more rugged than the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is not just the terrain - the people on either side are among the hardiest and fiercest warriors on the planet.

The border is named after Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat who arbitrarily drew his pencil along a map in 1893, dividing British Indian territory from fiercely independent Afghanistan to the north and west.

To this day, neither Afghanistan nor the Pashtun tribespeople on both sides of Durand's border recognise its existence.

It is said that the bonds of tribe and ethnicity amongst the Pashtuns are as important as their Islamic faith.

A look into history - ancient and modern - sheds considerable light on the anger in Pakistan's Pashtun areas against the prospect of American-led attacks on Afghanistan - whether to catch Osama Bin Laden or to dislodge the largely Pashtun Taleban movement.

Obscure origins

The origins of the 18 million or so Pashtuns living along the Durand Line are shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Pakistani policeman displays multi-barrelled rocket launcher seized on border
Much of the border is awash with weapons

Some say the tribesmen - tall, light-skinned and often with fierce hawk-like profiles - are descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Others believe they are descended from stranded soldiers of Alexander the Great, who spread Hellenic influences to the banks of the Indus River 2,300 years ago.

Modern scholars dispute both theories and say the Pashtuns are a complex mix of South and Central Asian peoples, with Turkic and Persian influences. But no one knows for sure.

Honour code

Different sub-tribes seem to have different origins, but they are united by language, Islam, and a code of behaviour that emphasises honour, dignity, relentlessly seeking vengeance when wronged, and warm, protective hospitality. No one who has ever stayed in a Pashtun household will dispute that last point.

Another tradition is to resolve intractable problems, once violence has produced only stalemate, through a jirga or gathering of elders and respected figures. This usually promotes compromise, payment of blood money or obeying collective decisions.

Hospitality and the notion of seeking compromise go some way to explaining the continuing refusal of the Taleban to give in to Washington's demands to "hand over" Osama Bin Laden.

The Taleban insist that their ideology is purely Islamic, but there is undoubtedly more than a trace of Pashtun tribal tradition.

Among Pakistan's many internal challenges, in the years since independence in 1947, has been a powerful Pashtun independence movement that seeks to unite the tribes divided by the Durand line.

Headache for Pakistan

While not supported by all Pashtuns, tribal nationalism has been a thorn in Pakistan's side, not least because of the autonomy of the so-called "tribal areas" along the border with Afghanistan.

The British agreed - after countless skirmishes with Pashtun irregulars in the 19th Century - that the tribesmen would be left alone to run their own affairs if they gave minimal allegiance to the Viceroy in Delhi. The situation continued after Pakistan came into being.

To this day, the tribal areas are seen by Islamabad as a source of guns, drugs and Islamic revivalism, where Pakistani law has no authority.

The arrival of the Taleban in Kabul in September of 1996 was a significant moment for almost all Pashtuns. A four-year hiatus in almost three centuries of continual rule in the capital by a Pashtun had ended.

Pashtun claim

Latter-day opposition to the Northern Alliance, under the ethnic Tajik leadership of Ahmed Shah Masood until his death in a suicide attack in mid-September, is largely rooted in the Pashtun people's historic claim on control of Afghanistan.

Northern Alliance fighters north of Kabul
Pakistan does not want the US to support the Northern Alliance

Non-Pashtun Pakistanis like Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar and former Army chief Mirza Aslam Beg, who urge Washington not to support the Northern Alliance, are also adherents to this view.

An important question in the coming days and months - especially if Taleban rule in Afghanistan is disrupted by events - is the identity of the Pashtun authority figure that can rally enough support to stabilise the situation.

Some say the former King Zahir Shah or one of his descendants would be the answer.

Others point out that few in Afghanistan's overwhelmingly young population have any notion of a monarchy that ended in 1973.

Only one thing is certain. Another period of intense instability has begun along the Durand Line.

See also:

29 Sep 01 | South Asia
Quetta opinions divided on holy day
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
The wild border town of Quetta
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more South Asia stories