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Border closure

March 07, 2017

IT is undeniably a humanitarian crisis and an indication of a profound security challenge. The decision, therefore, to allow a temporary and partial reopening of two border crossings with Afghanistan for two days is only a small step in the right direction. Clearly, the problem of anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries along the Afghan side of the border is an urgent problem that needs sustained attention by both the Pakistani and Afghan states. Pakistan cannot simply allow itself to be attacked from across a porous border and Afghanistan cannot allow the perception that it, at the very least, turns a blind eye to the problem emanating from its soil. Yet, a border closure is a punitive measure that does not do much to address the problem. Militants, as evidenced by the death of five soldiers in an attack in Mohmand Agency yesterday, find alternative ways to penetrate Pakistan when they cannot blend in with legal border crossers. Indeed, the near impossibility of sealing the border with Afghanistan as it exists means the burden will fall on ordinary Afghans, and Pakistanis too. As Afghan officials and media reports have indicated, trade with Afghanistan is declining overall and the recent closure has hurt seasonal Pakistani exports to Afghanistan.

Underlying the effective border closure is an important, unanswered question: what are the objectives and for how long can the closure be maintained? Set aside the bizarre disconnect between a government that is flogging its regional connectivity and trade agenda and a security establishment that is closing borders. Even from a narrow security perspective, the calculation must always be that an action should produce the desired results. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to urgently address the militant sanctuary issue and in the longer term needs cooperation from Afghanistan on border management. But does a border closure make Afghan cooperation more or less likely? Worse, doesn’t it, in fact, complicate the task of interdicting and keeping out Afghan-based militants seeking to re-enter Pakistan? While business as usual is no longer an option, any approach must be rooted in a sensible strategy. Militancy may be defeated eventually, but the war must be fought in a humane, people-centric manner. A border closure amounts to punishing ordinary, law-abiding, peaceful citizens with no sense that the pressure will yield to cooperation by Kabul. Indeed, it may be deepening mutual suspicions and mistrust, making Pak-Afghan ties that much harder to navigate.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2017