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
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.