ALONG thousands of miles of central Asian borderlands, armed men face each other angrily across frontiers drawn in the days of the British raj. Those who drew them were primarily concerned with strategic considerations, especially the defense of the Indian subcontinent, and they also tried to take into account racial, economic, social, and political factors, and natural divisions, such as the Himalayan watershed.

Two of the disputes have been settled to the apparent satisfaction of the countries concerned. Burma and Nepal have both agreed to border settlements with Communist China, and Pakistan and China have also begun negotiations. The India-China border disputes in Ladakh and the North-East Frontier Agency, the Indian and Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, and the Pakistani and Afghan hassle over the nonexistent state of Pushtunistan remain. The first is deteriorating steadily. The second seems insoluble. And the third has provided the Soviet Union with the matchless opportunity to create a show window for competitive coexistence.

The Durand Line is the cause of the AfghanPakistani rift. Drawn after Britain’s second war with the Afghans in 1893, its strength, so far as Britain was concerned, was that it left the Khyber Pass, the conqueror’s gateway to India, in British hands. This is a strength also appreciated by Pakistan, which in 1947 acquired the North-West Frontier Agency by plebiscite. The weakness was that by slicing through tribal territories, the boundary split the fierce and courageous Pathan, or Pushtu, people. Today about four million Pushtus live on the Pakistan side of the border, and about five million, of a total population of approximately thirteen million, in Afghanistan.

Wanted: a window to the west

Afghanistan, which says its representatives agreed to the Durand Line only under duress, argues that the 1947 plebiscite was improper, since it restricted the Pushtus’ choice to India and Pakistan. It wants to dissolve the frontier and to create a new state embracing all the Pushtus, who are spread to a depth of more than a hundred miles along three parts of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Full Afghan aspirations for Pushtunistan are even more ambitious. While they do not specifically include any Afghan territory, they embrace all of West Pakistan as far south as the Indus River and west to the borders of Iran and the Arabian Sea. Since Pushtunistan is really another word for Greater Afghanistan, its achievement would give the landlocked Afghans a much-wanted window to the west. As it is now, Afghanistan is denied access to Pakistan’s road and rail communications and port facilities.

About the size of Texas, and split in two by the peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains, Afghanistan is surrounded by Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan. Deserts bar the way to Iran. Mountains limit contact with China. But the boundary line with the Soviet Union is more than seven hundred miles long. Part of it is demarcated clearly by the Oxus River, but elsewhere only stone frontier pillars mark the place where the tall, light-skinned Tadjiks cease to be Russians and become Afghans.

The physical barriers separating Afghanistan from Pakistan are formidable. In happier circumstances, however, the two Muslim countries, sharing common developmental problems and fear of Communist intrusion into their religious societies, might have been friends as well as neighbors. But to this day, the Afghan elite believes that Britain’s policy was to keep Afghanistan weak and backward, and that Pakistan inherited this policy along with the tribal territories of India’s North-West Frontier.

It is not open to argument that Afghanistan, only a decade ago, was both weak and backward. Without railways or navigable waterways, with fewer than 4000 miles of motorable roads and an even smaller number of civilian buses, trucks, and cars to run on them, it was a land of donkey pads and camel trains. A million and a half karakuls, the curly-haired skins of newborn lambs, accounted for most of its $35 million export income.

Seventy percent of its population of between ten and twelve million lived in primitive mud-brick villages, built with high walls and watchtowers and loopholes for the defenders’ mostly homemade rifles. The rest were largely nomads, some of whom migrated into Pakistan each winter and moved back into the high pasturelands in Afghanistan only when the spring sun had melted the heavy snows. Fewer than a half million lived in the unsewered, unpaved, primitive towns, of which Kabul, the capital, with 200,000 people, was the largest and most advanced.

The country’s handful of doctors was quite inadequate to cope with rampant tuberculosis, malaria, and other endemic diseases. Fewer than a million people knew how to read or write, and everywhere the Muslim religion held dogmatic sway. It enveloped all women but the nomads in the shapeless borqa, which covered them from the crown of the head to the ankles, with only a latticed window for the eyes. It dictated social customs and modes of life. It was inflexible, conservative, harsh, and sometimes fanatic. Death was the penalty for adultery. Apostates from the Muslim religion could properly be killed.

Today the changes taking place in Afghanistan are sweeping, impressive, and sometimes, in their coldwar context, alarming. The bootless Afghan soldier who once earned Pakistani contempt for his slovenly appearance and homemade gun at the Khyber Pass now drives a Soviet T54 tank or cuts vapor swaths in a MIG-19 above the Hindu Kush. Women have discarded the borqa. Oil is gushing from new wells in the northeast. Glass, briquette, fruitprocessing, textile, and fertilizer plants are in production. Fine new highways, already built or under construction, are linking the main towns and burrowing through the mountains.

This is not to suggest that Afghanistan has taken one bound from medievalism into the twentieth century. Living standards are still primitive. Inflation has also brought corruption, especially among poorly paid government servants.