Durand’s Curse: Why Did The Iron Amir Submit Meekly To The Durand Line Agreement?

Cover of the book Durand’s Curse by Rajiv Dogra
  • “The Durand Line was a diktat to which the dictatorial Iron Amir submitted meekly!”

    But, why? This excerpt from Rajiv Dogra’s Durand’s Curse sheds light on the matter.

It is also worth recalling that once, not too far back in time, Mortimer Durand was himself against the division of Afghanistan. His logic was that the division would be an invitation to Russia to grab the northern part. He had then said, ‘…attempting the disintegration of Afghanistan would mean playing into Russian hands by making it easier for her to annex provinces situated to the north of the Hindu Kush.’ Yet, and against his own logic, Mortimer Durand had now divided Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, there are no Afghan records on the issue and even if there was a scrap of paper somewhere in the official or a private collection in Kabul, it would have been bombed out in one of the many wars that have been inflicted upon this unfortunate land.

To consider the issue from another angle, let us look at the Amir’s record. Did he give up territory? Or did he add to it? The fact is that after a long period of strife and instability, he was successful in bringing sound administration and a reasonable amount of stability to Afghanistan. He had not removed discord entirely, because there were still the rebellious Afridis and Mehsuds, but, by and large, Afghanistan was free from great convulsions.

Besides consolidating, the Amir had successfully added territory to Afghanistan. These were the parts which were under independent Sirdars earlier, but Abdur Rahman had subdued them one after the other absorbing Kandahar, Herat and all the smaller ones in his orbit. By the time Durand came in with his mission, Abdur Rahman had expanded Afghanistan by three times in size from the truncated state he had inherited. It is, therefore, difficult to believe that an Amir whose track record was one of expansion should, in a fit of generosity, have given away a large chunk of his land to a visiting Briton.

The only area that was given to the Amir was Kafiristan. And that too, as Durand would write later in a secret letter to the viceroy, was granted to the Amir because Kafiristan was ‘miserably poor’. It was severed from Chitral by the Shawal Mountains, and the area was not easy to supply during winters. Moreover, its remote location had made it a difficult place for the British to govern. But the Amir was happy to keep the area because as far as his wishes went, it would greatly please his subjects. The real reason, as the Amir told Durand, was to send in his army and convert the Hindus living there to Islam. This was the only concession made by Durand; otherwise, the entire Agreement was a losing proposition for the Amir.

The Agreement did not make sense for a very practical reason too. Abdur Rahman was a Pashtun. He derived his basic strength from the majority Pashtun population rather than from minorities like Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazaras; the last being Shias were not trusted by him for anything other than menial jobs. For such an Amir to cut off over 50 per cent of Pashtun lands, and to part with more than 50 per cent of the Pashtun population, did not seem logical at all. It defied reason then, and it continues to defy logic even now. Could it have been something personal; was it due to a medical condition that turned him temporarily into a compliant marionette for the British?


It will be unwise to rule out this possibility. The Amir had his local hakeem, but he relied more on a British doctor to cure him of serious ailments. Some of these were of a grave nature, requiring heavy doses of tranquilizers.

As a rule, British accounts tend to be copious especially where they have won a great diplomatic victory. They go into considerable detail describing every aspect of the negotiation, because they write with an eye on history and as a guide for their future generation of negotiators. This was the case with the three Afghan wars. Durand’s journey to Kabul and the negotiation over the northern part of the Afghan border with Russia have also been amply written about. The question that intrigues is this: how is it that we have a complete picture of the whys and why nots of the northern border part of the negotiations, but there is next to nothing about the far more important Durand Agreement? Why and how was the Amir brought about?

It is strange that even Percy Sykes, who wrote a rather authoritative biography of Mortimer Durand, simply skips over the crucial issue as to how the Amir turned around. He does not give us a clue as to when and by whom the Durand Line was drawn on the map. Further, the biography does not touch on the fact that if Durand was so adept at Persian why did the two sides not sign the text in Persian? After all, the Durand Agreement was the most important agreement that was ever signed by the two sides. And both the Government of India and the Amir had recently agreed that only the Persian text would be considered as binding. Yet just the English text of the Agreement was signed by the two sides.

After the signature of the document, the Amir held a great durbar where he spoke and lauded both the Agreement and Mortimer Durand to the assembled Sirdars. Interestingly, he made Durand speak in Persian to this assembly.

In fact, many in Afghanistan assert that the Amir did not sign the document. They suspect his signatures were forged on the document. That may be an emotional assertion rather than a statement of fact. But the doubt about it persists to this day, indicating the strength of resentment against an unfair agreement and a line drawn unfairly. In the latter case, even the signatures are missing.

If you look at the map and see that line, you cannot help but remark as to why the line was drawn on such a small-sized map. The line travels in a zigzag fashion across the map, which makes you wonder as to how this casual romp of a pen could become the dividing line of people’s destiny?

Such lines should be the result of careful work done by cartographers over several weeks. To give an example, Radcliffe Line between India and Pakistan is roughly of the same length as the Durand Line. But Cyril Radcliffe did not casually draw a line across a small map. He spent a full forty-nine days in India poring over documents and large-scale maps. He was assisted by a team of professionals, consulted a variety of people including politicians, bureaucrats, cartographers and many others. He had a team of trained draftsmen who had carefully and meticulously drawn the borders between India and Pakistan. Yet, he was criticized by both sides for spending only seven weeks in deciding the destinies of people. In fact, the level of rage against him was so high that he left India immediately upon completion of the border plan. And he vowed never to return again because he was afraid of being killed by one side or the other. W.H. Auden mentions it in his poem ‘Partition’ (1966) thus:

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.


In contrast, Durand, if he is the one who is suspected to have drawn that zigzag line across the map, got away with it all. It is true that like Radcliffe, Mortimer Durand too had spent seven weeks in Afghanistan, but most of that time was spent lying in wait for the right opportunity to bait the Amir. Once the Amir was brought around, the map-making was a casual affair. Durand’s was an instant line, drawn on a small copybook-type map and covered nearly 1,600 miles. Mortimer did not have the time to consult anyone, nor did he have the professional help of the kind that is necessary in such a major undertaking. And he considered neither the historical evidence nor consulted any representative of the affected regions. People who were to live on the two sides of this line were given no say in the matter. Nor was their approval sought. Durand did not spend time worrying over the future of those divided by his line.

Unfortunately for the people, the Durand Line was a diktat to which the dictatorial Iron Amir submitted meekly! There was not a squeak against the line by the Sirdars either. Wasn’t this strange, eerily strange? And unlike Radcliffe, Mortimer Durand did return to Afghanistan.

Excerpted from Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart by Rajiv Dogra, Rupa Publications India, 2017, with the permission of the publisher.

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