Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen

From the islands of the South China Sea to Korea's DMZ, the tribes of Arabia across Africa and throughout Europe, red lines have been setting agendas and changing history for centuries.

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Chapter 9: Afghanistan, Eternal Lines

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Chapter 9: Afghanistan, Eternal Lines

In Episode 9 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman explores Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the seemingly-eternal Durand Line, as well as the impact of the colonial Raj and the Taliban in shaping the region.

David Andelman: In 1884, the British rulers of India decided they no longer wanted the wild territories of the Hindu Kush and what lay beyond to the west and south. India then meant the entire subcontinent - what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some of Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush - the land the British were relinquishing - was vast. It stretched from the mountains on the north and onward to the south near the Kabul River.

I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.

Today, in episode 9, we’re examining Afghanistan and its too-often tortured frontiers.

There have been tribes in the forbidding hills of Afghanistan for 2,000 years or more. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in 440 BC of the Pactrians, a “wandering tribe” that sometimes joined the armies of Persia. By the late 1800s, India was under the Raj - the rule of the British Crown - and included this area of Afghanistan. The Pactrians had become the Pashtuns. They still dominate much of the mountains, caves, and valleys of Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

When the British assumed control over this region, there was resistance. Twice British troops battled the emir of Afghanistan. The first conflict began in 1878, when the English moved into the emir’s territory, defeating his army and forcing him to flee. The following July, a British envoy arrived in Kabul with a mission. In one horrific night, every one of them was massacred, sparking the second Afghan campaign. A year later, the British overran the emir’s army outside Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan, bringing the fighting to an end. The wars, diplomacy, and maneuvers taught the British a lesson. They persuaded the crown that the price for retaining control was far higher than it was willing to pay.

So in 1884, the governor of India named Henry Mortimer Durand a member of the Afghan Boundary Commission. This was a critical post in at least two different ways. First, Russia was trying to push its own frontiers down into Afghanistan. The Russians have long seen Afghanistan as a buffer from potentially hostile forces on the subcontinent. Ironically, Britain in the 1880s viewed the Afghan border the same way— as a line to keep out Afghanistan's wild mountain tribes and the Russians.

So, Henry Durand headed off into the tribal lands of the North-West Frontier Province. Beyond lay Afghanistan. In 1885, a Russian delegation also appeared at a crossing point—the Zulfikar Pass. The New York Times wrote of “a large number of Russian reinforcements that has arrived during the past fortnight.” British forces moved toward the border, while the Afghans resisted invasion from both of these parties.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. History has always repeated itself, especially in this part of the world. Durand and his commission succeeded in arranging a truce and a red line. Named after him, the Durand Line is today the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Russians agreed to respect it, since it allowed their forces to control several critical canals. But it was up to the emir of Afghanistan to agree and that took years.

Over the next eight years, Durand traveled frequently to the hostile lands along the frontier. He and his British colleagues saw them as populated by “absolute barbarians . . . avaricious, thievish and predatory.” In 1893, Durand planted himself permanently at the frontier, sitting day after day with the bearded emir. They spread maps out before them to carve out the line that would be their mutual border. The one last sticking point was Waziristan. Waziristan was and is a sprawling unsettled territory. In 1893, it sat on the fringes of the two empires—Afghanistan and the British raj. This was one stretch Britain wanted very much to retain, largely as a buffer. But the emir wanted it too. Durand could not understand the emir’s desire to keep a place that “had so little population and wealth.” Why? he asked. “Honor,” the emir responded. A simple one-word explanation. And Durand had a simple solution: tripling the emir’s annual subsidy from the British Empire. The emir did not speak or read English, but on November 12, 1893, the agreement was signed.

Afghanistan today refuses to recognize this line, describing it as a colonial mandate imposed by force of will. But Pakistan freely accepts it as part of the legacy inherited, along with its independence, when the British left the subcontinent. It remains one of the longest-standing red lines yet it is violent, unsettled, and admittedly quite porous.

This is a hard line that will likely never be breached. We must find a way to live with it as we have with others we have seen already in this series. For attempts to erase them may be as dangerous as allowing them simply to fulfill their original intentions.

There have been challenges to the Durand Line virtually from the day of its creation. Pakistan was created from the partition of India in 1947. They inherited the Durand Line and all the territories it guaranteed to the east and south. But the Pashtuns, who straddled this line, were given only two options. They could either join India, or join Pakistan. Neither the Pashtuns, nor the Afghan government in Kabul, ever really recognized the Durand Line as an international boundary. And in cultural, social, and tribal terms, it certainly was not. Rather, it remained an international no-man’s-land. Today, it is still tribal allegiances that define this line and what lies on both sides of it. The Pashtuns are the core of these problems.

In October 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack, American forces invaded Afghanistan. Their principal goal was to force the Taliban from power in Kabul and they were immediately successful. President Bush, in announcing the start of this invasion, set forth some clear red lines:

President George W. Bush: I gave Taliban leaders a set of clear and specific demands: close terrorist training camps, hand over leaders of the al-Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met. And now the Taliban will pay a price.

DA: Taliban means “student” in the Pashto language. The Pashtuns are 40 million people, of at least 40 tribes and 400 sub-tribes. Pashtun folklore suggests the entire nationality sprang from a single ancestor - Baba Khaled, Muhammad’s warrior. In their 3,000-year history, the Pashtuns have never been conquered by an invader. They defeated the armored power of the Soviet Union, which in 1979 launched a full-fledged invasion of Afghanistan.

The reason for the Soviet invasion did not come to light until years later. It was not the fear of potential terrorism. Instead, it was the same fear that motivated their invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Georgia and Ukraine in the post-Soviet period. They worried Afghanistan might shift its loyalties to the West. The last thing the Kremlin wanted was a NATO member directly on its southern flank. It wanted a safely neutral power.

What started out as a simple police action did not go well for the Soviets from the beginning. They were unaccustomed to fighting any guerrilla-style action, so the Afghan resistance was immune to the Soviet military’s massive armor and air power. The Taliban launched a full-on jihad. They began receiving Western military matériel from the CIA, especially shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles. The Soviet advantage of massive helicopter assaults melted away. Scores of helicopters and their crews went down in flames. Body bags began returning to Russia in waves. The Soviets were losing. It took ten years for this to hit home. But eventually it became impossible for even the Soviet propaganda machine to deny that reality. By 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement and the troops left Afghanistan. Within two years, Gorbachev was deposed and the Soviet Union dissolved. The ill-fated Afghanistan adventure played a major role in that.

Pakistan had also signed this agreement and it worked well for them, particularly after the Taliban assumed power in Kabul. That took seven tumultuous years and involved more unsettling tribal conflicts. A host of rival mujahideen groups vying for power surged back and forth across Afghanistan. Finally, in 1996, the Taliban rolled into Kabul, seizing the capital. Pakistan and its fearsome ISI intelligence service were back in control. The ISI’s intention has been to maintain the security of the Pakistani nation. As a part of that mission, they have assisted the Taliban at every turn, and thwarted the will of American and allied forces to install a pro-Western government in Kabul.

I’ll dispense with the sorry history of Western forces in Afghanistan—nearly 200,000 dead in Afghanistan since the 2001 American invasion, more than 2 million Afghans driven from their homes. The pace of this carnage has barely relented. The Afghan War became the United States’ longest conflict, eclipsing even Vietnam and World War II. And for what end? The various red lines have held. The Pashtun are on the verge of reclaiming their entire home territory, and then some.

So, what then? There has never been much sympathy for dismantling the Durand Line and all it represents. Beginning with Barack Obama’s presidency and accelerating under Donald Trump, there have been repeated efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban. But this has its challenges. Is there even any such single organization that can be addressed? There is the Quetta Shura, reflecting the town of Quetta in Pakistan where the Taliban leader Mullah Omar sought refuge after the Western invasion. The concept of a shura, Arabic for “consultation”, dates back to Muhammad. The Quran encourages all Muslims to consult anyone who'd be impacted by decisions taken on their behalf. The membership of the Quetta Shura includes leaders of a number of Taliban factions, particularly the deadly Haqqani Network that maintains close ties with Pakistan’s ISI and al-Qaeda.

This all raises the spectre of a return of the same anti-American terrorist organizations that launched 9/11, but are even more toxic today. Effectively, these Taliban have established an entire shadow government committed to reinstalling the same power structure that terrorized women and girls, destroyed historic monuments, and held the entire nation under a militant version of sharia justice.

When the Trump administration decided it wanted out of this region, it began a long series of negotiations with Taliban representatives. But from the start, there was never any real assurance that the Taliban they were talking to actually represented the mujahideen battling American forces in the field or setting off bombs in Kabul.

At the same time, there were other diplomatic initiatives that threatened efforts to end the war. Especially questionable was Trump’s own effort to cement a friendship with India’s right-wing leader, Narendra Modi. This effort climaxed in a whirlwind visit by Trump to India that all but ignored Pakistan. Pakistan and India have had a fraught relationship since the moment of their partition in 1947. Each has raised huge nuclear arsenals, aimed at each other. And while India has tried to cement a relationship with the pro-American government in Kabul, Pakistan cemented relationships with the Taliban and the Pashtuns, who it sees as the best possible antidote to India’s rising power. What possible motive could there be for the Taliban to conclude any lasting agreement with the U.S. that could prevent their return to power? In fact, the Taliban has one primary motive for all diplomatic discussions: getting American forces out of Afghanistan. This would allow them to reassert control over both sides of the Durand Line.

If this were to happen, the Durand Line would cease to function, for the first time in its century and a half of existence. The results would be catastrophic for those who live on both sides. With the Taliban in power, Afghanistan would revert to the medieval Islamic state it had become before 9/11 and the American invasion. Yet President Trump was determined to be the one who brought his troops home and ended the loss of American lives.

Let’s take a pause here for a little commercial message:

If you’re enjoying this podcast, you’ll love my book! Where there are even more wonderful yarns and heart-stopping ideas to keep you awake at night. As the Washington Post review pointed out, "A book with broad ambitions…. a thorough primer on conflict or potential conflict zones around the globe, from North Korea to Iran to the eastern provinces of Congo. Along the way, Andelman weaves into the narrative episodes from his remarkable journalistic career….A commendable work."

And if you send me a copy of your receipt, I’ll enter you in a drawing for a half-hour with me one-on-one on zoom. Email me at [email protected]

And now, we’re back….

Trump was hardly the first to have tried to leave Afghanistan. As early as 2007 during Bush’s presidency, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, offered to open discussions with the Taliban. Not surprisingly, the Taliban rejected the overture out of hand. They said, “Until American and NATO troops are out of Afghanistan, talks are not possible.”

Mullah Omar was still very much in charge of the Taliban. The Taliban saw themselves as having a very long time horizon and a reserve of human resources far broader than anything America or its allies might bring. Like the Vietcong, they could simply wait it out. Still, in 2018, 30,000 Taliban entered government-controlled towns. They engaged directly with government officials in an unprecedented display of good will. The top Taliban leadership panicked. By the second day, they were calling such actions by their rank and file “treasonous” and ordered them to stop. The Taliban leadership began a systematic purge of all commanders believed to have authorized this fraternization. Those commanders were relieved of their positions and replaced by more hardline Taliban.

The Taliban does not lack for resources. They maintain a vast annual income from activities like narcotics, illicit mining, taxation, extortion, and donations from abroad. They cultivate poppy production of a thousand square miles, exporting some $400 million of product a year. The Taliban has effectively been operating an entire nation in parallel with the Afghan government. The elections that put this government in power only encompass a fraction of the geography and people of Afghanistan. The empire the Taliban will establish after America has departed will be an even more toxic version of the one from two decades ago. They've had all this time to understand the errors they made and those will not be repeated. There will be no tolerance, no sensitivity. Certainly, no democracy.

Still, America has pressed ahead. Meetings in the last half of 2019 were planned to find some way forward. It finally all came together in Qatar. This Persian Gulf emirate has long served as the site of important mediation efforts. Early on, they were a neutral party for factions in Lebanon and Darfur, they rallied the Arab League from Libya to Syria, and even financed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood following the Arab Spring. Qatar provided a hospitable environment—comfortable homes underwritten by the Qataris, even as the Afghan delegation’s numbers grew from a handful to dozens.

The first talks began in 2010 and sputtered along for two years. They first focused on prisoner exchanges that seemed hopeless. The delegations including Mullah Omar’s insurgent group, traveled to Qatar via Pakistan. Still, there were other, even more toxic Taliban, who had never played a role in negotiations. By 2014, these Taliban negotiators in Qatar won the release of five of their number who’d been imprisoned for 13 years in Guantanamo Bay. They were swapped for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who’d been seized after wandering from his unit in Afghanistan five years earlier. The Taliban Five, as they became known, were flown to Qatar. Under the terms of the agreement, they were to be held there for one year.

Five years later, they were still in Qatar. Talks continued on and off. But Donald Trump was determined to go down in history as the person who ended America’s longest war. In 2018, he named Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador to Afghanistan under George W. Bush, as special envoy to Afghanistan and the peace process. Khalilzad is himself an ethnic Pashtun, or at least claims Pashtun origins. Talks began shortly after his appointment. Across the table were Taliban leaders and, quite pointedly, the Taliban Five.

In February 2020, a peace deal was signed in Qatar. The Taliban’s signatory was Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, described as the deputy leader of the Taliban. But what this meant has never been quite clear. Which Taliban did he represent? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing and called the moment “historic.”

Secretary Mike Pompeo: The United States and the Taliban have endured decades of hostility and mistrust. Previous talks have faltered. This effort only became real for the United States when the Taliban signaled interest in pursuing peace and ending their relationship with al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups. They also recognized that military victory was impossible. The Taliban demonstrated, even if only for a week, that when they have the will to be peaceful, they can be.

DA: The Taliban hoped it would lead to a “permanent solution” to the violence in Afghanistan. But that seemed an open question. A precondition for the signing was a seven-day period of violence reduction by all sides. American, Afghan, and Taliban forces all pledged no offensive operations. The calm appeared to hold - barely. The agreement also called for the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda. Intra-Afghan talks included representatives of the government in Kabul and were to begin in 10 days. Within four months, the United States also pledged a first withdrawal of 8,000 US troops. The hope was that this pact would return the region to the same status promised by the Durand Line a century and a half before. But its language suggests little of the lasting power that should be behind any successful red line. As President Trump said in his statement: “Ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future." A red line is only as strong as the will of the people on both sides to accept it.

The people living on both sides of the Durand Line played little role in its establishment. But for generations, they have learned to live with it. Much of the nearly 2,000-mile-long line follows natural boundaries, from rivers to mountain crests. It bisects ancestral Pashtun tribal holdings and communities. More than 40 million Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border would love to be united in a single nation. If they could take down the Durand Line, they’d create a nation of Pashtunistan, which would include 40 thousand square miles of territory largely inside Pakistan. That is unlikely ever to happen. But the tribes have managed to maintain their identity and accept each reality that’s been presented.

Whether such a unification of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line can be accomplished peacefully now is another question entirely. Within three weeks of the signing, the agreement was already unravelling. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Kabul on an urgent “diplomatic rescue mission.” It failed to produce any path forward. To complicate matters, a disputed election in Afghanistan left the nation with two feuding presidents, each vying for control of whatever territory the Taliban does not control. On his way out of the country, Pompeo slashed nearly a quarter of the annual American military and political aid. His final stop, in Qatar, proved equally disappointing. The Taliban there pledged to avoid attacks on US forces, but this did not last. In the three weeks after the agreement was signed, more than a hundred Afghan troops and civilians died in escalating violence.

“I went there to try and—I’m sorry,” Pompeo told the press as he flew out of his final meeting in Doha. Then he went on: “There’s a long history. There are lots of power centers in Afghanistan. These are the expectations that we have, that the Afghans themselves will lead this path forward. Their leaders need to do that, all of their various leaders.” What is especially telling is that neither Pompeo nor any senior American official ever made contact with high level officials in Pakistan. In the case of any red line, there must be buy-ins from all sides. There is no sense of any real buy-in from Pakistan, especially its ISI intelligence service. Nor is there any indication of buy-in from Taliban fighters out in the wilderness. Many of these fighters receive support from Pakistani elements devoted to preserving Taliban loyalty to their anti-Indian agenda. Moreover, there is no sense that Western negotiators will ever be able to actually sit down with those most committed to armed conflict. They remain committed to waiting as long as it takes to arrive at their vision of total victory. Such complications will transcend any agreement that might be signed in Kabul, Doha, or anywhere else.

The question of peace on two sides of a red line is the same dilemma that has confronted Palestinians and Jews two thousand miles to the west. The subject of our next episode is Palestine and another of the handful of red lines I call eternal.

Thanks for listening. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."

If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.

Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.

Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show. Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next time!

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