The Fraught Frontier: “Pakhtunistan” and the Search for Afghan and Pakistani Sovereignty, 1947–55

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:30 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Elisabeth Leake, Royal Holloway, University of London
Pakistan’s North-West Frontier has long been a contested territory. This talk focuses on debates about the integration of the North-West Frontier that unfolded in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1947-55, from schemes to transform it into an autonomous entity, to proposals to incorporate it into a regional federation. It argues that the ambiguity of the North-West Frontier and its tribes – in terms of social, cultural and ethnic loyalties as well as its integration into surrounding countries – made this contested space particularly crucial in the postcolonial nation-building projects of South and Central Asia. Conflicts over sovereignty and boundary creation led to political and military clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as state officials on either side of the Durand Line tried to sway local tribal opinion in favour of their respective governments and drew in outside powers, like the United States and Soviet Union, to support their claims. While negotiations between Afghan and Pakistani leaders often stalled, particularly in relation to Afghan demands for the establishment of an autonomous ‘Pakhtunistan’ state, other discussions developed in the years following South Asia’s partition, particularly considerations of an Afghan-Pakistan political federation. Debates about the needs and desires of local Pakhtuns, coupled with the tribes’ own focus on preserving their political and territorial autonomy, shaped ideas of nation-building and sovereignty at the juncture of South and Central Asia. As Pakistan faced threats to its rule in Kashmir and East Bengal, and as Afghanistan and Iran struggled to settle disputes in the Helmand Valley, the North-West Frontier became a crucial region for each country as they sought to confirm their place in the postcolonial world order.
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