The Man who Drew the Fatal Durand Line

The British official who fixed the frontier that now divides Afghanistan and Pakistan unwittingly unleashed a century of war

The Bala Hissar fort at Kabul, November 13, 1893. Beneath the brilliance of the cold autumn sky, Abdur Rehman Khan, Afghanistan’s “Iron Amir,” is holding a durbar (ceremonial gathering). Carried to a podium in an ornate sedan chair, he announces his farewell to Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of India, his guest these past seven weeks. It is, writes Durand in his journal later that night, “a first-rate speech, insisting on value of English alliance — insisting nothing could have been better”.

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand: He feared another Indian Mutiny 

The Amir wishes Durand “laughter and all happiness” and gives him “various messages which I was to deliver to the Queen and ‘his friend’ Lord Salisbury, and Gladstone if I saw him”. Noting the early snows on the mountains, Durand takes his leave. In a couple of days, he is halfway back to the British stronghold at Peshawar, floating down the Kabul River on a raft made of bullock skins.

For many years to come, the diplomatic mission he has just concluded, the drawing of the first “scientific frontier” between British India — now Pakistan — and Afghanistan, will be regarded as a triumph. All the way home, Durand boasts enthusiastically of his many congratulatory telegrams: from the Viceroy, the Secretary of State for India and Queen Victoria. In the words of his biographer, Sir Percival Sykes, whose book was published in 1926, two years after Durand’s death: “Durand served his country right well, and generations yet unborn will benefit from the Durand Line that he negotiated.” Durand, he added, “stands out in his generation as the great Boundary-Maker and consequently as the great Peace-Maker”.

That judgment now looks questionable. Because it messily divides the Pathan (or Pashtun) people between Afghanistan and Pakistan, splitting tribes, clans and families, the Durand Line is the ultimate reason for many of the tactical difficulties faced by the West in its current struggle against Islamist extremism. The line is not merely porous. In many areas, it does not really exist at all. Last year, a senior Pakistani intelligence officer gave me an illustrated briefing in Islamabad. He showed me satellite photos to demonstrate how the line splits villages and even buildings in two. Small wonder that for most of its 1,200-mile journey, across some of the most rugged terrain on earth, it is easily breached by guerrillas — such as, towards the end of 2001, Osama bin Laden and his leading al-Qaeda cohorts, who fled to Pakistan from the caves of Tora Bora. 

The British aid worker Linda Norgrove, who was killed in an attempt to rescue her from her kidnappers in September 2010, was taken very close to the frontier in the Afghan province of Kunar: her abductors would also have had a ready refuge in Pakistan. The past year has seen an escalation in the frequency of American drone strikes across the line against Taliban Pakistani targets. These have killed some important local commanders. But this has come at a price: the growing alienation of Pakistani opinion and, at times, its government, and the partial closure to Nato forces of their critical supply line, the Khyber Pass.

However, the line’s significance is arguably still greater than all that. If Durand had not produced his frontier, the conflicts that have plagued the region since the Soviet invasion of 1979 might never have occurred. 

In trying to investigate the line’s unintended consequences, I spent some time in the archives at the British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies, researching both its author and the circumstances in which he did his work. He was born near Bhopal in central India in 1850, and his background fitted him perfectly for a career as a high Imperial official. His father, Major-General Sir Henry Marion Durand, was the illegitimate son of a brother of the Duke of Northumberland, and, in the course of his own career, helped crush the 1857 Indian Mutiny with efficient brutality. When he felt it necessary, he did not shrink from burning villages that had harboured insurgents, nor from ordering prisoners to be shot in cold blood.

Thirteen years later, as governor of the Punjab, Sir Marion met a peculiar end less than 70 miles from the line his son would later draw. As he advanced on an elephant through a ceremonial arch to enter a local chieftain’s garden in Tank, on the border with tribal Waziristan, his head hit the stonework, and having been thrown from his howdah, Sir Marion expired a day later.

Photographs of Mortimer taken in his prime depict a big, cold-eyed man, his cheeks hidden behind an extravagant moustache: he looks almost Prussian. Contemporaries commented on his apparent rigidity, and when, at the time of his Afghan mission, the Spectator dubbed him “the strongest man in the Empire”, he professed himself delighted. Yet he also hid a surprising vulnerability. When the Mutiny broke out, Mortimer, though just seven, had been sent away to school in Switzerland. It was there that that he learnt that his pregnant mother, Annie, had died of a fever, having been forced to make a series of marches to escape the rebels who had captured the family’s home at Indore. 

Perhaps it was to compensate for this loss that when Durand read for the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in his early twenties, he began a passionate affair with an older widow, a Mrs Neville. He promised her he would bring her with him when he took up his first Indian Civil Service posting in 1873, but his family, fearful his career would be ruined, was scandalised. Finally, Durand caved in, announcing his surrender in a letter to his sister Madge, his closest confidante for more than 50 years: “There is one argument in your letter which seems to me unanswerable — that of letting Mrs Neville be subject to ‘Talk’… No one knowing her would think evil of her making her home with me, but I suppose you are right. The world is hatefully malicious.” 

From then on, Durand would refer to his jilted lover as “poor Mrs Neville”. He also penned an epic of self-loathing, a long poem called Love: “Why did she love him? A deathless love/For a coward who could never feel its worth./Ask of the terrible gods above,/Who mould and fashion the loves of earth.” Bizarrely, this doomed relationship suddenly resurfaced just as he started his negotiations in Afghanistan in 1893, when its damaging effect on his marriage suddenly became a major distraction from his diplomatic work. 

When Durand travelled to Kabul, he left his wife, Ella — a noted Anglo-Indian beauty with whom he had two children — at their home in Calcutta. The swift Indian mail service kept them in close communication, aided by a telegraph line that had been laid from Afghanistan to Peshawar, across the Khyber Pass. Durand had hoped to be reading loving letters of support. Instead, he found himself confronting a series of anguished questions from Ella, who had, it seems, previously known nothing of his former love: the likelihood is that, during his absence, she had found a cache of old letters from Mrs Neville. 

On October 13, 1893, as he settled into his Kabul quarters, he began his journal entry by discussing his diplomatic prospects. But he couldn’t help but mention what was really on his mind: “Ella unhappy about Mrs Neville — answered.” “No letter from Ella, which makes one’s day a blank,” he wrote next day. “I fear she is vexed about poor Mrs Neville.” With Durand unable to reassure his wife in person, her anxieties continued to dog him until he returned two months later. 

To modern eyes, Durand’s political views seem equally alien. Naturally, he did not begin to question the validity of Britain’s imperial mission. “Most of these races…have been accustomed for centuries to foreign rule,” he wrote a few months before his talks with the Amir. “On the whole, I think they are not dissatisfied with us as the supreme power. We hold the balance fairly, we oppress no one, and maintain peace with a strong hand; and under our rule all India has order and liberty such as it never had before.”

However, Durand also believed passionately in the innate racial superiority of the English — as opposed, it may be noted, to the British. His novel, Helen Trevelyan, or The Ruling Race, published just a few months before he went to Kabul, was his manifesto — his chance, as he put it in a letter to Sir William Lockhart, a general who led numerous campaigns against the Pathan tribes, to “say certain things about India and the race, and I knew that unless I wrote them in novel form I should have no readers”. 

The historian Bernard Porter has suggested that far from being “steeped” in imperial fervour, the British were generally “absent-minded Imperialists”, who, for much of the period of the Empire’s existence, paid it little attention. Durand would have agreed. His big complaint, expressed through the mouth of Colonel Russell, the hero of his novel, was that his countrymen back home did not appreciate the sacrifices made to secure the Empire. For generations, he wrote, while “little angry politicians” had fought their trivial battles in Westminster, “millions of Englishmen all over the world, regardless of petty squabbles and party cries, have been steadily bearing forward the English flag…Their graves are everywhere; the earth and sea are full of their dead.” And with the flag, Durand added, “go freedom and order and justice”.

Warfare, he believed, purified and strengthened the nation and its representatives. “There are few things on earth, if any, to come up to the joy of starting on a campaign when head and heart are young,” he wrote. “Behind lies civilisation and its trammels; before is freedom and excitement, and the hope of seeing great deeds, with the chance of distinction.” Of course, the casualties inflicted against Britain’s enemies in such engagements tended to be higher than those endured by the Empire. But “I don’t think I feel very strongly about men being killed,” says Russell at the climax of the book. “They must die, and it makes little difference whether they die a few years sooner or later. Nations have to go through with it, and I believe war is necessary to maintain a nation’s character…Englishmen are the best fighting race in the world, the only civilised race that really loves a fight. I look forward to the time when all the empty places of the earth will be filled with Englishmen, banded together for good against the world. I wish there were more room for the race to spread. There is no other to compare with it.” On other lips, at other times, ideas like these would have baleful consequences, albeit that the master race in question then would speak German, not English.

But when it came to the Afghan border, neither Durand nor those to whom he answered in Calcutta and London were motivated by a lust for more living space. Their true concern was more negative: fear. On the surface, this concerned the Russians. Drawing the Durand Line was one of the final acts in the Great Game, the long campaign to stop the Tsars’ southward expansion, a phenomenon that also explains Britain’s earlier entanglements in Afghanistan — the disastrous wars of 1839-42 and 1878-80. With a firmly delineated border, and Afghanistan a buffer state, policy-makers believed that India would finally be safe from the bear. 

However, the need to counter Russia spoke to deeper insecurities. The 1890s marked the very zenith of Britain’s global power, but many of its exponents were seized with foreboding about its coming eclipse — a mood expressed by Kipling in his 1898 elegy, Recessional: “Far-called, our navies melt away;/On dune and headland sinks the fire:/ Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” Among Anglo-Indians — especially one who had lost his mother in 1857 — such anxieties had a specific focus: a terror of a second Indian rebellion, still bloodier than the first.

Durand told Madge in his letters the overriding reason for why the proposed new frontier must finally quash any prospect of Russian influence in Afghanistan: if Britain were to allow it, this would be taken as a sign of weakness by the Empire’s subjects in India, and so “fire the mine” of British rule. Mutiny would be the inevitable consequence. “Remember the Mutiny, when your churches were full of black-robed sorrowing women,” he wrote in his novel, “and realise in time that you cannot with impunity allow India to get out of control.” 

Hence, the personal and strategic impulses that drove Durand on his mission to the Afghan Amir had virtually nothing to do with the people principally affected by it — the Pashtuns. His mission took place in an era of rampant nationalism in Europe. But when it came to drawing a frontier in Asia that happened to divide the Pashtun nation, it simply did not occur to Durand that the Pashtuns might object — a policy which, in hindsight, seems almost calculated to trigger violence. 

Take, for example, Durand’s treatment of Waziristan, for many decades since a cauldron of revolt. For reasons of topography — its ring of 12,000-foot peaks that towers above the Indus plain — the British wanted it for the Empire, and ignored the Amir’s protests that, historically, its people had been integral to Afghanistan. Durand was incapable of taking these objections at face value, and thought the Amir was being irritatingly peevish. “Long interview with Amir today. He was very pleasant at first — but got sad and sore over Waziristan,” he wrote in his journal on October 26, 1893. “However…I think he will give in.” 

A week later, the Amir was “on high horse — Does not want money but honour etc — net result that he will have a bit of Wazir country — which I suppose I must give him.” Thus, the emergence of Durand’s less than brilliant solution: about half of Waziristan, a region of close tribal cohesion, became part of British India, while the rest stayed in Afghanistan. But even as Abdur Rehman accepted Durand’s border, together with a stipend of 20 million rupees a year, he was already plotting resistance.

Early in 1897, the Amir convened a secret meeting of radical Pathan mullahs in Kabul. Those present crossed back into India, and, supplied by Afghan guns and ammunition, led the great jihad of 1897, a tumultuous rebellion that convulsed almost the entire northwest frontier and became the greatest challenge to British arms in India between the Mutiny and independence 90 years later. The young Winston Churchill, who sent dispatches to the Daily Telegraph about the revolt and its crushing by the aptly named General Sir Bindon Blood,  conveyed the sense of its magnitude. As he approached the front, he came upon a British supply caravan a mile and a half long, and asked the officer in charge how many days it might keep the British forces going. The answer: two days. 

However, the 1897 jihad was but the start of a Pashtun challenge to the frontier that has continued with few interruptions ever since. Meanwhile, in a further act with huge unintended consequences, the British attempted to minimise the harm the disgruntled tribes might do by granting them semi-autonomy in the Tribal Agencies, a buffer zone between the Durand Line and the “settled areas” of the Empire. Unfortunately, these no-go areas for the state became the perfect laboratory for successive waves of jihad. Until 1947, these storms broke against the British. Since 2001, the Tribal Agencies have provided the main safe havens both for the Afghan insurgency, and for Pakistan’s own Taliban, the source of mayhem.

Recent books aimed at a general readership have unproblematically adopted the terminology used by Empire-era Britons and modern neoconservatives alike, referring to the jihadist enemy as “fanatics” in ways that assume their fanaticism was some kind of given, an a priori state. In fact, as Sana Haroon shows in her ground-breaking study Frontier of Faith (Hurst, 2007), in earlier centuries the Islam practised by Pashtun tribes was predominantly mystical, Sufi and pacific. In the works of writers such as Rahman Baba (1653-1711), it spawned not bloodshed, but an intense, lyric poetry. 

How did this tradition mutate? It was a long and complex process, in which the import of Wahhabi theology via the great madrasah at Deoband played an important part. But underlying and making that possible was resistance to colonialism in general, and the Durand Line in particular. The shift to a more militant version of Islam provided tribal leaders with their vocabulary and their ideological rallying point. 

The evolution of Pashtun Islam, each successive manifestation becoming more extreme, has been a highly structured process. The teachings of Pashtun scholar-priests are handed down orally through a formal “pir-murdi” (teacher-disciple) lineage, and with the 1897 jihad they decisively changed direction: away from a faith that emphasised the individual’s contemplative relationship with God, and towards one emphasising strict observance and obedience. The continuities between Durand’s era and ours are striking. For example, the 1890s saw the establishment of Societies for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, ruthless means of enforcing conformity. They reappeared under the same title when the Taliban emerged under Mullah Mohammed Omar in the 1990s. 

The most important leader of the 1897 revolt was a cleric known as the Hadda Mullah. He had a contemporary biographer, Mia Abdul Baqi, who produced a manuscript copy of his life. It has never been published. But by the late 1980s, the manuscript was in the possession of none other than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — the most powerful of the many Pashtun commanders who fought against the Soviets with American aid, and went on during the following decade to become a close ally of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Still waging war against the Karzai government and its Western allies, Hekmatyar’s forces dominate Kunar, where Linda Norgrove was kidnapped. 

Among the people of the frontier there is a rich oral tradition, which remembers the Hadda Mullah and his comrades as mujahiddin — the term for holy warriors also used to describe those who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. “The jihads against the British were a special type of war, what we call a ghazar,” Nizar Mohammed, 76, told me in Mardan, near Peshawar. “That means, a war in which the prophet has a personal stake. That’s how our people saw it.” Just as Irish Republicans memorialised the struggle against the British in their rebel songs, Pashtun children still sing verses that commemorate the battles of 1897 and after. One of the most haunting celebrates a warrior called Beram Khan, and imagines the words of his wife: “O Beram Khan,/If your body comes back with countless bullets in your chest,/I will never mind./But I don’t want to hear that you left the battlefield fearing death./If you are martyred defending your country, /I will weave your shroud with the hair from my head.”

The fostering of jihadist militancy is not the end of the Durand Line’s consequences. It also went on to foster the “Pashtunistan” movement — a political campaign to reunite the Pashtuns on either side of the border. After Pakistani independence, the movement was endorsed by the Afghan government, which encouraged a mob to torch the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in 1955. Through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Afghanistan and Pakistan subsisted in mutual hostility, and in that bipolar Cold War world, Afghanistan was drawn little by little into the Soviet orbit. Thus, the Durand Line helped to create the conditions for the Soviet invasion, the beginning of the cycle of violence that persists to this day.

Pathans adhere to the code of “Pashtunwali”, the “way of the Pathan”. Chief among its aspects is the need for badal, revenge, the source of bloody tribal vendettas that can last generations. Badal wreaks its malign curse against foreigners, too. It is no coincidence that the very Waziristan villages that were bombed by the RAF in the 1930s in an attempt to curb jihadist revolt proved readiest to take in al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan in 2001, and later became intractable strongholds in a Waziristan Taliban “mini-state”. The Haqqani network is among the Afghan Taliban’s deadliest elements, but its headquarters lie in North Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. 

To adapt Marx’s dictum, on the northwest frontier history tends to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time not as farce but deeper tragedy. Nato’s prospects of achieving victory in the present conflict do not look encouraging, and its use of a similar mix of force and bribery is no more likely to bring lasting success than it did its predecessors, the empires of the British and the Soviets. Perhaps a better understanding of the region’s history might help.  As good a place to start as any is with a singular British bureaucrat, floating down the Kabul River on his bullock skins, glorying in his telegram from Queen Victoria in November 1893. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"