The fall of the Afghan city of Kunduz, astride the road from Kabul to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, signals a major milestone in the resurgence of the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. It raises several questions about the future of the country and the region, but perhaps the most valid one is this: what will happen in Afghanistan after the Americans lose interest and cut off their engagement with the country?

The Russians officially withdrew from Afghanistan when they signed a peace accord in Geneva on April 14, 1988, with the Afghan government, Pakistan and the United States. Till the final collapse of the USSR in December 1991, the Russians continued to pour in money and material amounting to almost $300 million a month. With these resources, President Mohammad Najibullah’s government kept fighting, beating back onslaughts on Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar. After Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day in 1991, Russian funding of Najibullah ceased almost immediately. On April 15, 1992, he was stopped at Kabul airport as he tried to flee the country.

The point is that as long money kept flowing in – and $300 million a month is an amazing burn rate even by today’s standards – Najibullah was able to retain control over the government in Kabul. Once the money dried up, the hold was lost.

How long will current President Ashraf Ghani keep going after the US withdraws its residual presence in the country really depends on how long the purse strings remain open? There are some things even America cannot afford these days. Besides, the Americans shift priorities with great alacrity. In the mid-1960s, Vietnam seemed to most Americans to be of vital national interest. A decade later, few thought it had been one. One can be fairly sure that in time Afghanistan too will recede into the farthest corner of the United States’ collective memory. There will be other battles and each generation will be suitably blooded in one.

As things stand, the Afghan Taliban effectively controls large swathes of territory in the traditional Pashtun homelands west of the Durand Line, the 2,250-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As far as one can see now, it seems inevitable that the Taliban will once again rule the Pashtun territories of Afghanistan with its capital in Kabul. But after that?

Caught between two empires

History, however much we may try to deny or distort it, has a way of repeating itself. One lesson from recent history is the assertion of nationality as a unifying theme. Religion, history shows, is not enough of a glue to hold diverse nations together. Pakistan should know. Religion did not prevent it from splitting once before. Communism, that great dogma of the modern era, too could not hold countries together. The USSR and Yugoslavia do not exist anymore. What does hold countries together are shared aspirations, a common perception of history, and the liberal freedoms of a modern democracy.

Shared histories, combined with current dynamics, may revive an old demand in the region: for the Pashtun nation.

In 1886, Russia occupied the Panjdeh Oasis near Herat. It was the time of The Great Game, the strategic conflict between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia. Britain immediately warned Russia that any further advance towards Herat would be considered as inimical to British Indian interests. As a consequence of the May 1879 Treaty of Gandamak after the Second Afghan War, Britain had taken control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This treaty also gave Britain control over traditional Pashtun territory west of the Indus, including Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.

After the Panjdeh incident, a joint Anglo-Russian boundary commission, without any Afghan participation, fixed the Afghan border with Turkestan, which was the whole of Russian Central Asia, now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, as a result of the rivalry between Britain and Russia, a new country, the Afghanistan we know today, was created to serve as the buffer between empires.

In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat, began work on delineating Afghanistan’s eastern border with India. In 1901, the British created the North-West Frontier Province, now Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, de-linking Pathan lands from Afghanistan and Punjab. They further divided NWFP into the settled districts, which were directly administered by the British, and five autonomous Tribal Agency areas, which were ruled by local chieftains but with British agents keeping an eye on them (like in the Indian princely states).

From the very beginning, the Durand Line was not an international border but a line of control. The Simon Commission Report of 1930 stated quite explicitly: “British India stopped at the boundary of the administered area.”

Despite this candid assertion, the British handed over the five autonomous Tribal Agencies in 1947 to Pakistan after sponsoring an acquiescing tribal loya jirga (grand assembly). The Afghan government immediately objected to this, saying that the five Tribal Agencies belonged to the same category as the 562 Indian princely states which were each given three options: join India, join Pakistan or remain independent. Pakistan continued the tradition of allowing the Tribal Agencies to administer themselves and did not send any administrators or police or military into the area. That is, until it dispatched its military, in conjunction with American forces, in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists.

The Pashtunistan issue

Centralised rule over the peoples in this area, first established by Ahmad Shah Abdali or Durrani, devolved upon Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) when it was created as a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. Abdur Rahman was Bismarckian in his methods and used the most ruthless methods to forge a new nation. Over his 20-year rule of almost continuous warfare, he managed to create an Afghan nation, albeit somewhat truncated, bound by one law and one rule. Helping him govern was an annual subsidy of Rs 1.2 million from the British, which was raised to Rs 1.8 million in 1893.

In May 1919, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, Amanullah, began what the Afghans called their “War of Independence”, now generally referred to as the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Afghan forces crossed the Durand Line into the NWFP, and tribesmen on both sides of the Durand Line rallied to the Afghan cause. But the Afghans ran into a new weapon – fighter aircraft. Planes dropped bombs on Kabul and Jalalabad and soon the Afghan appetite for war was somewhat squelched. The Treaty of Rawalpindi that followed gave the Afghans control over their foreign affairs but the NWFP and the Tribal Agencies remained in British India.

In the civil war that resulted from Amanullah’s attempt to hurriedly modernise Afghanistan, the British supported Gen. Nadir Khan who quickly seized Kabul and proclaimed himself the ruler in 1929. Nadir Khan did not live long, though. He was assassinated in 1933 by a former student of the Amania School, which was the hotbed of the nationalist movement in Afghanistan. The main objective of this movement was the recovery of the territory across the Durand Line. Zahir Shah took over next and ruled till 1973, when his cousin and brother-in-law, the former Prime Minister Sardar Daoud Khan, ousted him.

Daoud Khan was a nationalist as committed to the recovery of lost territory as he was to modernising Afghanistan. His arrival coincided with the advent of John Foster Dulles, who was no less committed to the single-minded pursuit of the “containment” of the Soviet Union, as Daoud was to the Pashtunistan issue.

In 1954, Pakistan joined the SEATO and CENTO (Baghdad Pact) military alliances, more to gain military and political support against India than out of any commitment to US policy of containment. Daoud too had sought military and economic assistance from the United States. But with Pakistan as its chosen ally, the US turned its back on Afghanistan. Daoud then turned to Russia for assistance.

The Cold War in this part of the world became a confrontation for the recovery of lost Afghan territories as a result of unequal treaties imposed by Britain. In September 1960 the irritations manifested into a crisis when Afghanistan and Pakistan went to war, and a year later the Afghan government snapped diplomatic ties with Pakistan and closed the border with it.

A divided people

The disastrous economic effects of the closed border cost Daoud his job in 1963. It was 10 years before Daoud came to power again by deposing Zahir Shah. Once again Daoud revived the Pashtunistan issue. The 1971 break-up of Pakistan created stirrings for separation in Baluchistan as well and a training camp for Baluchi fighters was set up in Kandahar. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto retaliated with bomb blasts in Kabul and Jalalabad. But Daoud fell out with Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev in 1977 and the Communists toppled him the following year.

In 1979 the new Afghan government formally repudiated the Durand Line. But the Cold War lines were already drawn, and modern history’s longest period of continuous war ensued. For 35 years since Afghanistan has been beset by a cruel and callous war, the like of which the modern age has not seen. Afghans are now seeking to determine their own future. But the Pashtuns still remain a divided people by an arbitrary Line of Control scratched across the heart of their nation.

It is now only a question of time before the demand for the reunification of all their people becomes a rallying call for the Pashtun nation. Even the internal dynamics within Afghanistan now demand it. There is much unfinished business here.