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Af-Pak 2014: Fine line between wealth and old wounds

Khalil Rahman Omaid and Attaullah Khan
For more than 65 years the two neighbours have failed to agree on a border. Beyond the deficits in trade and security, neither country has been able to successfully mine the vast mineral wealth that lies either…
12.11.2014  |  Berlin/Washington/Kabul/Peshawar

Billions of litres flow in the basin of the Kabul River across the invisible line, providing water to millions in Pashtun communities divided by the international boundary. At least a dozen globally strategic natural resources worth trillions to both economies have been identified and explored along the 2,600-kilometre Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A US official called the Durand Line “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Yet Afghanistan's refusal to acknowledge the century-old frontier boundary, coupled with Pakistan's unilateral approach to reinforce its own demarcation, means both countries cannot agree on a permanent border, let alone a river-basin commission, a joint border police patrol, a committee to explore shared mining efforts, a cooperative aerial surveillance programme or even which checkpoints to open to facilitate trade and cross-border movement.

Karzai refused to recognize border 20 times

Pakistan's border trenchA section of the 480-kilometre trench the Pakistani army has built to reinforce the border. (Photo: Wisal Yousafzai)

In his farewell speech, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was asked at least 20 times to recognize the so-called Durand Line during official meetings with Pakistani officials. “Each time I refused,” said Karzai. Karzai's immutable approach reflects popular Afghan public opinion on the topic. No Afghan leader since Pakistan became independent in 1947 has ever formally acknowledged the internationally recognized border. Even the Taliban, who Pakistan armed and funded, refused to acknowledge what consecutive Afghan governments have called a “boundary,” not a “border”.

Afghanistan's main objection to the line of demarcation agreed on by Sir Mortimer Durand, a British colonial official, and King Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893, is that the Afghan king was placed under undue pressure to forfeit territory that historically was part of Afghanistan, says Abdul Ghabor Liwall, head of the Afghanistan Regional Studies Center, a Kabul-based think tank, who challenges the modern Afghan nation's duty to inherit a semi-sovereign leader's decision.

“King Abdur Rahman Khan did not have the right to isolate such a huge part of Afghanistan, because the king was a protectorate of British Rule,” Liwall told Afghanistan Today. Members of the same Pashtun ethnic group were split either side of the line of demarcation which was modified in 1919. The agreement was "drafted on a single-page which contains seven short articles," says historian Habibullah Rafi, a member of the Afghan Academy of Sciences.

Pakistan however is not willing to negotiate a new border with its neighbour. “Pakistan in any condition will never be set for dialogue on the Durand Line because it’s not a matter to be discussed. It is a properly signed and accepted border and if Afghanistan has an issue, they can raise it in the United Nations,” says retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah.

Afghan position: colonial agreement

Afghan officials say the agreement was not meant to be permanent. Pakistan in recent months has reinforced its permanency, building a two-metre deep 480-kilometre trench parallel to the demarcated line “to deter those who crossover to engage in terrorism activities, smuggling of narcotics and transnational crimes,” according to Tasneem Aslam, spokeswoman for the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Earlier plans for an electric fence had been shelved in 2006. Pakistan wants stronger cross-border collaboration to tackle insurgents who travel unobstructed between provinces either side of the frontier. In June 2014 the Pakistan army launched its most recent offensive against anti-government militants hiding in Northern Waziristan, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom fled to the neighbouring Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktia. Such insecurity plagues communities either side of the border, with numerous young people joining insurgent forces and countless people falling victims to insurgent attacks.

A report titled The Durand Line in the 21st Century by Pakistan think tank Spearhead Research sums up the situation well. “While militants are able to make full use of the porous nature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, both countries and their state security forces – and the U.S. and NATO-ISAF forces – are unable to develop a mechanism whereby they can jointly monitor and patrol the border, and stem the flow of militants in either direction,” says the report, authored by military analyst Shemrez Nauman Afzal.

Joint patrol needed to secure border

Afghan forces guard the border in Nangarhar during a period of heightened tensions in May 2013. (Photo: Naqib Ahmad Atal)

“Many wonder why Afghanistan and Pakistan have not yet come up with a joint or common border security protocol – even though a Trilateral Commission is said to be operating between the US, Pakistani and Afghan militaries,” states the report. It goes on to suggest such a joint border patrol would require “the appropriate choice in battle frame weapons: night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, gunship helicopters, artillery support, fighter aircraft, rockets and heavy weapons, etc".

Retired Brigadier General Shah was an observer at the tri-party border commission, constituted of officials from the US, Afghan and Pakistani militaries. Despite the former Pakistani army official's views that the tri-party commission solves cross-border infiltrations by each other's armies with “mutual consensus,” recent events suggest otherwise. A Pakistani soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with Afghan border forces when Pakistan began to dig trenches inside what Afghanistan considers its territory in May 2014, one of dozens of exchanges of fire in the last decade.

Newly-inaugurated Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to resolve the Durand Line issue yet the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on Afghanistan's position vis-a-vis bilateral negotiations with its neighbour about the border. Similarly the Afghan Geodesy and Cartography Head Office in Kabul, the government agency responsible for mapping Afghanistan, did not respond to a request to provide details of Afghan maps of the Durand Line or tangible proposed modifications to the existing demarcation.

“The issue of the Durand Line is the main reason for conflict on both sides of the border, and the conflict will persist as along the issue of Durand Line is not resolved one way or another,” says Abdul Ghabor Liwall, head of the Afghanistan Regional Studies Center.

No water sharing agreement

A border agreement between the two countries, even if temporary and however unlikely, could set the framework for exploiting the common resources the two Central Asian nations share. The Kabul River basin for example, according to a report by the World Bank, supports over 7 million people in 14 Afghan provinces alone, before crossing into the Pakistani provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Sixteen billion cubic metres of water flow across the border every year, yet no basin treaty with regards to water sharing exists between the two countries.

Kabul is nevertheless exploring up to eight hydroelectric projects and dams on the Kabul River, which is fed by the Kunar River and the Logar River too, because “if these waters are utilized within our own borders it will not only solve our electricity problems, but it will also benefit our nation in many aspects,” says Shuja-udin Zyaie, deputy minister at the Afghan Ministry of Water and Energy. Pakistan meanwhile says it has recorded a persistent decline in flow of the Kabul River at Attock, possibly due to increased water usage in Afghanistan.

Experts say a transnational riparian agreement is needed to implement long term benefits for both parties. “The Kabul River shared between Pakistan and Afghanistan has no institutionalised framework of cooperation,” says Therese Sjömander Magnusson, director of the Swedish-based Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). “Institutionalising the cooperation, including, for example, a river basin agreement, establishing a joint river commission and a river basin institution over a water body shared between the two countries is key and will be catalytic to joint investments and development projects to benefit both water sharing countries.”

Magnusson says the benefits of an agreement would be multifold. “Four benefits that are identified by the World Bank are: increasing benefits to the river (water quality, biodiversity, etc.); increasing benefits from the river (improved water resources development including hydropower, irrigation, navigation, etc.); reducing costs (regional tension, political economy impacts); increasing the benefits beyond the river (integration of regional infrastructure, trade). These benefits are obviously the potential results of improved transboundary water management between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” SIWI's Magnusson told Afghanistan Today by email.

Water is only one of the many resources that is unexploited on the Durand Line because of insecurity. “The border is very rich in the context of minerals. On the Pakistan side because of Talibanization we can’t exploit it properly,” says retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, whose last post was as director of military intelligence in the mineral-rich border province of Baluchistan. “We started work on marble excavation but the writ of the government needs to be stronger in those areas. Coal and copper are also there in huge amounts,” says retired Brigadier Shah.

Minerals aplenty: "Saudi Arabia of lithium"

According to the website of the Government of Baluchistan, border districts with Afghanistan abound with mineral potential. One district, which shares a border with the Afghan province of Kandahar, “Chaghi, a mineral rich area, possesses nearly 30 million tonnes of iron ore.” The same source says marble, copper, sulphur, chromite and onyx deposits have also been identified in large quantities in border areas in Baluchistan. According to, an online minerals database, neighbouring Kandahar Province also has reserves of zinc, lead, chromite, iron ore and copper as well as gold. US military officials have said that Afghanistan could become the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium,' a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for portable computers and BlackBerry phones.

A 2007 report by the United States Geological Survey says Afghanistan's mineral wealth could match some of the largest known on earth. “The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world,” says the survey.

The two countries' inability to secure the border has prevented the private sector from making the necessary investment. Yet some projects show the potential. The Saindak Copper-Gold Mine in Chagai district in Baluchistan has grown exponentially since it was opened as a Sino-Pakistani bilateral project in 2003. Consignments have grown tenfold since then. The Saindak Mine project director, Abdul Manan, says the company is "working on another project in the Doshanki area on the Afghan border."

A spokesperson for the nearby Reko Diq mine - believed to be the world's 5th largest gold mine - a project run by Tethyan Copper Company (TCC), said mining at the site has been suspended due to a licensing dispute with the Pakistan government. "The Reko Diq case is under proceedings at an international tribunal with the Pakistani government," Zahoor Ahmad, a spokesman for Tethyan, told Afghanistan Today.

Eleven new checkpoints

Chaman Durand Line checkpointChaman, Baluchistan, the only official crossing point, along with Torkham, on the Durand Line. (Photo: Wisal Yousafzai)

While minerals sparkle unattended under the ground, border residents struggle to cross backwards and forwards all along the frontier. Pakistan hopes to increase the number of official crossing points to 11 in the next few years, according to Sohaib Mahmood, a spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Office, with the objective of increasing vigilance of cross-border terrorists and to increase trade between the two countries. Collaboration on projects such as CASA-1000, a cross.border transmission line that will hugely boost energy provision in both countries, show glimpses of promise. The approach to common energy concerns could be a template for collaboration in other sectors.

“Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been pursuing the development of electricity trade through the establishment of a Central Asia-South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASAREM) for which a MoU among four governments was signed on November 16, 2007 in Kabul, followed by an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2008 in Islamabad. The project is expected to be commissioned in 2017,” says Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam. Trade between the two countries is governed by another agreement, the Transit Trade Agreement (ATT). The official trade volume between the two countries is of 2 billion US dollars, yet some businessmen and economists say black market trade accounts for more than double that figure.

Time to settle

CASA1000CASA-1000 is a cross-border energy project. (Photo: Fareedoone Aryan)

Explicit and official bilateral negotiations about the line of divide between the two countries are yet to materialise. In the past, Afghanistan suggested it be given a channel to access the ocean and the port in Karachi in exchange for recognition of the line. Others have muted the idea of financial compensation from Pakistan to bring Afghanistan to the table. Others still point out that with or without an official agreement, local communities have developed their own systems.

“I think it is a superfluous issue,” says Professor Sarfraz Khan, director of the Area Study Centre for Russia, China and Central Asia at the University of Peshawar. “Every day when you stand at the Afghan border you will observe people crossing in flocks of thousands. Those who are coming from that side pay 50 rupees ($0.50 cent) to border guards and cross without a passport or visa. A big number of Afghans come to Peshawar to get medical services and education. Similarly our tribes men go there for work purposes and for trade without visas as they think it is their right. Terrorists also keep on moving across this border,” says Khan.

“No two countries in the region are more interconnected,” says Mahmood, spokesman for the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet Afghanistan still harbours deep resentments for what it perceives as the Pakistan military's support for the Taliban, while Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of being a staging place for cross-border US drone and Taliban terror attacks on Pakistani territory.

"Now is the right time to settle outstanding issues. The people are suffering, and no policies have benefited them," says T.V. Paul, a McGill University professor and author of the book:The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World. "But this is a time of war fatigue, and Pakistan should have the ability to support the new government in Kabul against the Taliban in the larger interests of the region." Whether and how they will remains an open question.


Additional reporting by Alex Macbeth, Farhad Peikar, Marketa Hulpachova and Moeen Mandokhail.