Chitral’s relationship with Afghanistan has been a complex one. It is impossible to examine Chitrali history and culture without seeing influence from Badakhshan, Wakhan and Nuristan. Chitral is at least as connected to northeastern Afghanistan as it is to Gilgit-Baltistan, in many ways perhaps more so to the former. In this analysis we will not be discussing ancient history, but the relations between the post 1747 Durrani State of Afghanistan and Chitral State, particularly after the British Protectorate had been established and the British Raj started to handle Chitral’s external affairs. The Durand Line, in particular, is a heated issue but one aspect which is totally neglected by both Afghanistan and surprisingly, Pakistan, is the fact that two erstwhile regions of Chitral which had expressly been mentioned in the Durand Agreement as falling within the political sphere of the British Raj, have been annexed by Afghanistan in contravention to the treaty!
Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk, who preferred the title of Shah and was addressed as the Badshah of Qashkar by the Afghans and Pashtun tribes to the South, had signed a treaty of friendship with Jammu and Kashmir in order to maintain his independence from Afghanistan. After he saw his longtime rivals the Khan of Asmar and the Mir of Badakhshan fall to the Afghan juggernaut, he realized that British India, with its system of Princely States, where the traditional rulers could maintain their rule, was a far better option than being conquered and replaced by an Afghan official. After his overtures to Kashmir, the first British diplomatic mission to Chitral led by Col. Lockhart arrived in 1885 and thus began direct relations between Chitral and British India. These relations were handled by the Foreign Secretary rather than a provincial government, much like the status of other British dependencies at that time like Muscat, Qatar and Afghanistan itself. After Aman-ul-Mulk’s death, Chitral entered a period of turmoil where four of his sons succeeded each other in short order. It was during this time that the Durand Agreement was signed. Surprisingly, British India took Chitral’s territorial integrity seriously and did not cede the Upper Kunar Valley or the Bashgal Valley of Kafiristan (now Nuristan) to Afghanistan.
Clause (3) of the Durand Agreement states, “The British Government thus agrees to His Highness the Amir retaining Asmar and the valley above it, as far as Chanak. His Highness agrees, on the other hand, that he will at no time exercise interference in Swat, Bajaur, or Chitral, including the Arnawai or Bashgal Valley.”
Surprisingly, British India took Chitral’s territorial integrity seriously and did not cede the Upper Kunar Valley or the Bashgal Valley of Kafiristan (now Nuristan) to Afghanistan
Two very important points are made here. The first being that Afghanistan accepted that the Upper Kunar Valley (Arnawai) and Eastern Nuristan (Bashgal) are parts of Chitral and thus outside of Afghanistan, and that secondly, they would not interfere in these regions. The Afghans broke both of these promises within two years of signing the treaty by conquering and converting to Islam the ancient indigenous polytheistic people of Bashgal and by occupying two Chitrali forts in the Upper Kunar Valley, Narai and Birkot. The British turned a blind eye to these events as they occurred during the tumultuous year of 1895, when Chitral itself was about to break away from the British sphere of influence. Chitral subsequently became a princely state and thus lost any capacity to conduct foreign relations. Chitral was forced to cede further territory in Kunar when the village of Dokalam was handed over to Afghanistan. The people of the Bashgal Valley, though, continued to look to the Mehtar as their traditional leader and during the Third Anglo-Afghan War, Chitral tried to reassert its control over Bashgal and Upper Kunar when the Bashgal tribesmen welcomed the Chitral forces in Gawardesh and Kamdesh and pledged allegiance to the Mehtar. The Chitralis also recaptured Birkot in Kunar. The British, though, refused to recognize these actions and chose to reestablish the status quo antebellum. In other words, the British chose to disregard the treaty that they themselves drafted, but there is no reason why the successor state, Pakistan, must continue to do the same!
The Afghan government loves to bring up the Durand line time and again as a means of trying to exert influence over vast parts of Pakistan. It is appalling that the Pakistani foreign office never responds by saying that Pakistan has a claim to significant portions of two Afghan provinces, Kunar and Nuristan, according to the Durand Agreement. The reabsorption of these territories into Chitral would be beneficial for the people of these regions whose ties to Chitral are strong and would entail peace and development for an area that has long been under the shadow of war. This would not be a pipe dream or an example of irredentism but simply of abiding by international law.
Chitral’s border along the Durand Line is not confined to the West and South: a large stretch over a hundred kilometers long lies in the North along the Hindukush watershed separating Upper Chitral from Badakhshan and more importantly its Northeastern extension, Wakhan. This section of the border is not as fluid as that further to the South. It serves not only as the geographical barrier between South and Central Asia but also the cultural line between the Indo-Aryan and Iranic worlds. Chitral has never claimed Wakhan but it did serve as Chitral’s conduit to East Turkestan and the rich markets of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan. Bajauri and Mohmand Pashtun and Peshawari Hindu merchants used this route right up until the 1930s when Afghanistan closed the border to trade coming from Chitral. This led to Hunza, which had a direct border with China, taking over the Western arm of the trans-Karakoram trade.
Even when relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been at very tense points, Chitralis have always been welcomed in Afghanistan and treated very kindly by the Afghan authorities
Currently, the Chinese are building a road connecting Xinjiang with Afghanistan via the Wakhjir Pass. Perhaps Pakistan, with Chinese backing, could ask Afghanistan to assure unhindered access to this route through the Afghan territory between the Boroghil and Wakhjir passes for goods and people passing between Pakistan and China? It would serve as an alternate route for/Western extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The people of Chitral have always been respected by the people of Afghanistan. Even when relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been at very tense points, Chitralis have always been welcomed in Afghanistan and treated very kindly by the Afghan authorities. Chitral bears no ill will towards the Afghan people but the Afghan side for its part must accept Chitral’s historical rights to trade via Afghan territory. If not, Chitral now benefits from being a part of Pakistan and it is up to the Government of Pakistan to stake Chitral’s territorial claims to large areas of traditionally Chitrali land under Afghan rule as per the Durand Agreement and to ensure that the aforementioned trade routes through the Wakhan be reopened.
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk