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Mining the Durand Line

December 31, 2006

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ON December 21, the Washington Post carried an editorial entitled “Al Qaeda’s Sanctuary — Pakistan’s tribal areas look a lot like Afghanistan in 2001 — and the Bush administration is tolerating it.” It was an angry summation.

It opened up with the ‘deal’ done three months ago between the government of Pakistan and the Taliban remnants and supporters in North Waziristan and commented, rightly and sensibly, “that the extremists would not respect the accord, and attacks on US forces in Afghanistan would increase rather than decline, obviously seemed likely at the time.”

President George W Bush was reprimanded for being “ever indulgent of Pakistan’s autocratic ruler” and for accepting his assurances, empty assurances. During the three past months cross-border attacks and the killing of US soldiers have significantly increased. The reasoning : “Al Qaeda is reliably reported to be operating training camps in North Waziristan....”. And the ending sentences :

“The United States has provided Gen. Musharraf strategic cover and billions in military and economic aid since 2001. In return it should have the right to demand that he abandon his separate peace. Action must be taken against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan before spring..... By tolerating the general’s empty promises and excuses, the Bush administration is putting its mission in Afghanistan and homeland security into unacceptable jeopardy.”

Then, we have Pakistan’s reaction when chided to ‘do more’, typical of this unthinking, muddled government that speaks with forked tongues. Dateline Islamabad, December 26 : “Pakistan to mine border with Afghanistan.” Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan, one of the many tools of our gung-ho government, called a special press conference to announce that the Pakistan army has “been tasked with working out modalities for selectively fencing and mining the Pak-Afghan border.”

Mining? In this day and age when the entire thinking enlightened and moderate world is united in undertaking the banning of one of the most deadly legacies of the 20th century — land mines. Since 1975, over one million people have been killed or maimed by land mines — cheap to produce (reportedly Rs.500 per mine), effective and easily deployed — which has led to a worldwide effort to ban further mining and to clear away existing mines. There are 1,200 NGOs in 60 countries working for a global ban.

In 1977, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, otherwise known as the Ottawa Convention, was signed by 122 countries, Afghanistan being one of them. It became binding under international law in March 1999 and is still open to ratification by signatories and for accession by those that did not originally sign — Pakistan for one, obviously, as it is a major exporter of land mines. So far, 155 countries have put their signatures to this treaty.

Apart from being a most anti-humanitarian act, mining the Durand Line is highly impractical and is certainly not the solution to the problem. Does Pakistan wish to further sully its international reputation by using up its stockpiles of land mines, selling them to middlemen who will supply the army and thus make a hefty amount in profits, resulting

in the death and maiming of uncountable innocent people?

It is a monumentally impossible task to prevent border crossings by the Taliban and Al Qaeda troops and supporters by either fencing or land-mining the 2,430 kilometre long Durand Line, traversing mountain peaks of 15,000 feet and hundreds of square kilometres of desert, which has forever been a bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan since the Durand Line Agreement was signed in 1839, dreamt up by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the British Indian government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is rightly incensed, and when Afghanistan says that the border is not where the problem lies, it is saying it as it is. The entire world apparently knows that there are Taliban and Al Qaeda training grounds in Waziristan which churn out holy warriors to wage their holy war against American and Nato troops in Afghanistan. The world is also aware of the fact that the Taliban have a safe haven in Quetta, a headquarters of sorts. It is only our government which denies that such things exist. Why?

Is it part and parcel of the entire scheme? Is the support rendered to the terrorist elements dug in on the border areas some sort of cover for the domestic political balancing act President Pervez Musharraf is forced to perform to keep himself in place? Come down firmly, close down the training camps, root out the Taliban from Quetta — or at least try, rather than adopting an apathetic attitude and coming up with schemes that can do no good to anyone, only harm physically and reputation-wise.

Should Pakistan not be attempting to lessen the acrimony between Pakistan and Afghanistan not exacerbating it by hare-brained mining schemes? Our relationship since Pakistan’s birth has been one of rivalry, suspicion, resentment and downright hostility. In 1947, at a UN General Assembly meeting, Afghanistan cast a vote against Pakistan’s admission to the UN, and in 1949, it unilaterally declared the Durand Line Agreement to be invalid — which, of course under international law had no effect. There has been only one brief shining love affair between the two countries, when Pakistan’s ‘children’, the Taliban, were in power from 1996 to 2001, the year they were bombed and dispersed by the Americans in their war on terror.

Apart from further irritating the Pak-Afghan situation, the decision (whether it will be implemented or not is another question as we are forever saying we will do what we have no intention of doing) has already brought protests from the UN, from international humanitarian groups, and for quite different reasons, protests from the tribal leaders of the NWFP and the right-wing religious political parties. On the humanitarian front, to add land mines to an area already choc-a-bloc with mines, is madness. Thousands have already been victims, and innocent victims, of land-mine explosions — reportedly 95 per cent of those killed or maimed are innocent as they rarely get those at whom they are targeted.

As pointed out in an editorial in our national press, “Land mines are a dirty business.” The general and his men need to pause and think before they mine, before they commit yet another ‘crime against humanity’. The thinking amongst us, as usual, remain helpless.