Borderline madness

Why do we continue to act as though Afghanistan and Pakistan are western-style nation states?

It was just the one short paragraph that did it. "Pakistan has no interest in a stable Afghanistan that might be friendly with India and demand back parts of Pakistan that used to be Afghan. The Afghan government does not recognise the Durand Line as the border and Afghanistan was the only country in the world not to recognise Pakistan at its creation in 1947."

That brief summary, in a report by the excellent Christina Lamb of the (now paywalled) Sunday Times, contains volumes about what has become an interminable conflict from which we have no idea how to extricate ourselves. For these are volumes that have been left covered in dust and, except by the odd lonely scholar, were last thumbed in imperial times, when soldiers, chancers and red-faced colonial administrators may have ventured east for the wrong reason -- to conquer -- but often learned a little more about the world in which we never cease to intervene and meddle than do today's politicians, with their tourist and gap-year-level appreciation of the complexities of Asia.

There is an international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, goes the reasoning. On one side lies a country that is notionally our ally in what we no longer call "the war on terror", while on the other is a state we are supposedly and confusedly trying to help. So why is our ally trying to "look both ways", as David Cameron put it?

Why do Pakistan's rulers not bring to heel "their" Taliban and "their" Pashtuns, we ask? The latter do know that they are Pakistani, is the assumption; after all, are they not on that side of the border?

None of this is so obvious, however, to the inhabitants of these areas, separated in 1893 by an agreement negotiated by the British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand, after whom the boundary line is named, but widely viewed as having been imposed on them by those it affected.

As far as they are concerned, their ancestral lands do not recognise a division that originated merely in the desire to provide the Raj with a buffer zone against warlike tribes and the reach of the Afghan amirs.

Faith in borders

In the west our borders are fixed, in fact and in our minds. The Iron Curtain may be a memory, but Americans are so vigilant about their country's limits that anyone with a Latino appearance in Arizona is now liable to be stopped and asked to prove that they are not an illegal immigrant from Mexico. The leading members of the protectionist, inward-looking EU declare, "Ils ne passeront pas." And the coastlines of the British isles have long been its castle ramparts. They announce where nation states begin and end.

Any questions about whether particular groups should be contained within these lines on the map, such as those posed by Spain's Basque "problem" or the United Kingdom's troubles in Northern Ireland, are treated as essentially internal affairs.

Never mind that the territorially defined nation state is a relatively recent invention. They are the units of our geopolitical identity. We expect international frameworks to be built around and on them, and we presume every other country to have the same faith in and attachment to this unit of definition as we do.

But this is blindness in the face of reality for at least two reasons. Many of the world's countries are only a few decades old. The area that is now Pakistan, for instance, may have been home to civilisations when Angles and Saxons were still labouring with wattle and daub, but it was never a "nation" until 1947. Saudi Arabia came into existence only in 1932, after the al-Saud had conquered their rivals in the Nejd and then ousted the Hashemite rulers of the Hejaz. Taiwan has been a separate state only since the Kuomintang were defeated by the Communists in China.

Moreover, the creation of rigid national boundaries often sundered long-established but more fluid arrangements, frequently stranding populations in countries of which they had little desire to be a part.

The province of Papua is in Indonesia because that country considers itself heir to all of the Dutch East Indies; but if its inhabitants had ever had a free choice in the matter, they would certainly have chosen either independence or unification with Papua New Guinea.

The Malay sultanates in the southernmost parts of Thailand and northern parts of Malaysia originally had a tributary arrangement with Bangkok, rather than being part of the Siamese state. Happily, most find themselves on the right side of today's border as a result of a treaty with the British in 1909. The roots of the insurgency in Thailand's south lie in the fact that one historic sultanate does not. As Clive J Christie put it in A Modern History of South-East Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism: "This division provides a classic example of an ad hoc colonial arrangement that has since hardened into a permanent international frontier."

A bad case of patriotism

Hardened is the word, and a tragic one for nations denied their own states by these newly permanent frontiers, as in the case of the Kurds, or most of their historic lands, as with the Armenians. It is also a tragedy for those marooned as persecuted minorities -- in Cambodia, for example, the Muslim Cham, remnants of the old kingdom of Champa, were particularly targeted by Pol Pot's genocidal regime.

But it should also be a word of warning for those policymakers who see borders between countries boldly drawn on maps and assume that they always delineate as sharp a distinction in nationality as the Channel does between the English and the French.

In the areas divided by the Durand Line, no such assumption should be made. There are many reasons why it may be right to say that Pakistan has been looking both ways with regard to the Taliban and even more radical groups operating on both sides of its north-west frontier. But given that a section of its population has doubts about whether it should be part of Pakistan and not, like the Taliban and most Pashtuns, part of Afghanistan -- or even a state independent of both countries -- it should come as no surprise that this should be one of them.

Would these people die for their country? You'd have to work out which country you were talking about for a start -- or if that was a question that even had any relevance to them at all.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation