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McGarr’s Review of Leake, Elisabeth, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65

6 February 2018

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Elisabeth Leake. The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-57156-3.

Reviewed by Paul M. McGarr (University of Nottingham)

Published on H-Diplo (January, 2018)

Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

The rugged and contested South Asian borderlands that straddle Afghanistan and Pakistan have long attracted the interest of powerful international actors. Of limited economic significance in global terms, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’s strategic importance as a conduit between the East and the West, has made it an enduring locus of great-power rivalry. Successive Afghan governments have maintained the position that the country has no established eastern boundary. The British imposition of the Durand Line at the end of the nineteenth century, which sought to demarcate where Afghanistan ended and British India (or present-day Pakistan) began, has repeatedly been rejected by politicians in Kabul as a presumptuous and illegal colonial land-grab. Over a century after Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (1901) popularized the notion of a South Asian “Great Game,” in which the leading imperial powers of the day jostled for control in the region, the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier remains a principal concern of contemporary global policymakers.

In Elizabeth Leake’s important and authoritative book, significant new light is cast upon the process under which British imperial governance and, more latterly, the onset of the Cold War, saw the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan transformed by the interventions of external actors. A prominent theme that underpins much of Leake’s nuanced and carefully crafted analysis centers on the extent to which foreign engagement with the region has invariably redounded to the disadvantage of local populations, destabilizing and disrupting fluid political, economic, and cultural networks that transcend hard cartographic boundaries. Moreover, as Leake observes, the problematic legacies of international involvement in an area of the world that has experienced more than its fair share of sociopolitical trauma is, perhaps, more pertinent than ever, given the ongoing preoccupation evidenced by the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan, in Central Asian affairs.

At its core, Leake’s work grapples with critical questions surrounding the use and abuse of imperial and postimperial power inside the developing world. More precisely, The Defiant Border systematically unpacks the manner in which superpowers, both past and present, have actively compromised the exercise of local sovereignty and state autonomy. Certainly, the internationalization of the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands that predated, and has since superseded, the emergence of Pakistan, in August 1947, delivered mixed results at best. During its seventy-year history, Pakistan has been able to draw upon prodigious amounts of external developmental assistance and military aid. The citizens who inhabit its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which abut Afghanistan, have, however, paid a heavy price for foreign largesse. Notably, the prosecution of two long and enervating conflicts in the borderlands, fought a generation apart, the first rooted in Cold War rivalries, and a second framed as a “War on Terror,” have bequeathed to its people a litany of death, deprivation, sectarian strife, and political tumult.

A considerable strength within Leake’s pathbreaking study is the manner in which it connects the effects of British imperial agency in the border area to a much more recent focus on the region’s significance in international security terms. All too often, works addressing political and diplomatic history of the South Asian subcontinent cleave to artificial chronologies that privilege events before or after 1947. Leake artfully avoids this false dichotomy and demonstrates that, although the demise of the British Raj marked a retreat from formal imperialism, the advent of the Cold War ushered into the region a second, informal wave of external economic and political control. Indeed, in the Cold War period and beyond, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have found themselves drawn into international ideological, religious and national security disputes involving, at various points, American, Soviet, Indian, Iranian, and Middle Eastern interests.

The vivid account offered up by Leake of international external agency in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands story is balanced by a detailed and forensic rendering of India’s regional role. Having invested substantial amounts of time mining Indian archives, Leake details British concerns that, absent strong and cohesive postcolonial leadership, the region would be exposed to Soviet penetration, placing the oil fields of the Persian Gulf in Moscow’s sights. London’s focus on ensuring that the Indian subcontinent continued to play a prominent role in defending Western global interests was of less concern to leading Indian nationalists, such as the future Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Advocating investment in infrastructure, health, and educational programs as a solution to the borderlands problems, and as a means of integrating it into an undivided India, Nehru’s vision of modernity fell flat amongst a Pakhtun population ill-disposed to siren calls emanating from “outsiders.”

Lingering suspicions of unwarranted and unwelcome Indian interference in the border region became embedded in political psyche of Pakistan, and have continued to rear their head whenever and wherever Islamabad’s designs are frustrated in Afghanistan. Revealingly, having painstakingly combed through Indian historical records, Leake discovered scant evidence that India set out to systematically undermine Pakistan by supporting Pakhtunistan, or a separate state for the region’s Pakhtun majority. Or, at least not in the immediate postindependence period. Rather, it is Afghans who emerge from Leake’s account as the primary force driving Pakhtunistan and, as such, pivotal in encouraging the United States and the Soviet Union to take sides in an essentially regional squabble. After 1954, Washington’s formal Cold War alliance with Pakistan, and Moscow’s corresponding decision to court India’s favor, ensured that debates surrounding Pakhtunistan retained a broader international dimension. Despite commendable efforts undertaken on Leake’s part, the considerable bureaucratic obstacles that continue to confront researchers attempting to access state documents in Pakistan inevitably mean that the role played by Islamabad in the borderlands history, and that of local Pakhtun actors, remains largely elided. Still, by making enterprising use of British, American, and Indian official records, Leake successfully enriches and deepens our understanding of the Afghan-Pakistan border’s wider international significance, past and present.

In sum, Leake’s Defiant Border sets out a new, comprehensive, and compelling intellectual roadmap with which to navigate the complex historical terrain that has shaped the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands over the course of the last century. Much as the British did in the first half of the twentieth century, the ruling political and military class in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aided and abetted by international actors, has veered between a policy of punitive sanctions and economic inducements in the border region. This schizophrenic reliance on carrot and stick, or recurring pattern of violence and development, has not proved notably successful in bringing peace, prosperity, and stability to one of the world’s most troubled regions. Indeed, Leake’s work offers a salutatory warning. As a renewed cycle of foreign intervention in the borderlands gathers pace, and American and Chinese economic and security interests in the region multiply and come into conflict, lessons drawn from the past provide ample cause to worry for the future of South Asia’s troubled borderlands.


The above review from H-Net is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use