BUT for a 48 hour window between Tuesday and Thursday this week, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been sealed for almost three weeks now. It is one of the great tragedies of the modern world that shared histories, cultures, economic and social relations spanning hundreds of years can be so disfigured by arbitrarily drawn lines on a map. But it is a truism nonetheless, and one that demands much more interrogation than we are typically willing to undertake.

The fate of the ‘border’ zone between contemporary Pakistan and Afghanistan was sealed in 1893 when the so-called Durand Line was established to demarcate the respective jurisdictions of then British India and the nominally independent state of Afghanistan. It was an arrangement in which the emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, effectively recognised the suzerainty of the British Empire while retaining a degree of autonomy. No one then conceived of it as a dividing line that would remain in place long after the collapse of the British Raj.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that the Durand Line — like the border that exists to our east — was a product of imperial necessity. An ex-president of Afghanistan said recently that Afghans would never accept the Durand Line as a permanent border. This position — which is a long-standing one — irks many Pakistanis, not least of all the security establishment that has a monopoly over this country’s foreign policy. But why?

We cannot wipe each other off the map.

Is it not true that the people who live in Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan share the same heritage (assuming that our reading of history extends beyond the 70 years since this country was created)? In much the same way, Punjab was arbitrarily divided in 1947, but surely this does not mean that we can ignore the long history that Punjabis share across the Pak-India border?

Certainly the creation of borders that divi*ded up peoples who had not known nation-state labels was not purely down to the Bri*tish. The political organisations and per***sonalities that fought to bring down the Raj also fought amongst themselves over who would control what territory after the
British left. The most significant legacy of these political conflicts is the border that divides us today.

With the passing of two or three generations, we have come to take these borders as sacred, violations of which are equated to treason against the ‘nation’. The fact that real people are connected across both sides of the border is ignored in the name of the ideology of the state. Indeed, more often than not, defending the interests of the state is against the interests of the people who populate the state.

Let me offer what might seem a trivial example: a few days after the Torkham border was closed during a visit to Islamabad’s sabzi mandi I found hundreds of rehriwallahs sitting idly without work because the supply of fruit and vegetables from Afghanistan had ground to a screeching halt.

These (Pakistani) Pakhtuns have never represented a threat to the state, but their livelihoods are being destroyed because the state of Pakistan claims to be defending itself from the state of Afghanistan.

More generally, working-class Pakhtuns in many Pakistani cities have been subjected to systematic harassment and arbitrary arrests since the border closing, notwithstanding token statements by government functionaries that there is no official policy of racial profiling. It seems that Pakistani officialdom continues to believe, in vain, that instilling fear in a population will make it patriotic.

In any case, the idea of patriotism amongst peoples of border regions is hard to pin down. I suspect that most ordinary people on both sides of the Durand Line are simply trying to survive in the midst of never-ending intrigue and violence. They may feel antipathy towards the state — Afghan, Pakistani or any other — but their everyday strategy is to keep their head down and avoid being caught in the gun-fire.

No one doubts that our neighbouring states are motivated by narrow, strategic interests that are the stuff of realpolitik. After all, if the Pakistani state can use militant proxies other states can do the same. In such a cynical world, the only thing ordinary people can do is to hold the state to account, because it is to serve the people that the state exists.

In the final analysis, we the people have lived together in these lands — through peace and conflict — for much longer than today’s states have existed. It is thus that we must embrace rather than reject our shared geography. We Pakistanis must learn to live in peace with our neighbours in Afghanistan and India, and know that there are Afghans and Indians who want the same. We cannot wipe each other off the map, so it is time that we stopped trying to and instead focus our energies on ridding ourselves of the ideologies and establishments that thrive on enmity.