PAKISTAN’S renewed push to fence its terrorism-plagued border with Afghanistan, which does not recognise it as a formal frontier, tends to rake up an old controversy. The nostrum could end up heightening bilateral tensions at a time when the neighbours are required to demonstrate robust commitment to cooperation on hot-button issues.
Border areas in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies, being high-threat zones, will be accorded priority under the plan which also involves regular technical surveillance. On the surface, the move will require the Pakistan Army to set aside dollops of funds and deploy many guards along the wild frontier.
The kind of border security mechanism Chief of Army Staff Gen Bajwa envisages with Afghanistan, which views any new installation on the British-era Durand Line as anathema, is yet to be sketched out. Given Kabul’s implacable aversion, the barrier is unlikely to boost security in the Pakhtun-inhabited areas straddling the border, largely porous and unmanned.
After a series of high-casualty attacks blamed on Afghanistan-based militants, Pakistan slammed shut all border crossings with the landlocked country. It was after more than a month that they were reopened to let travellers with valid visas and thousands of stranded trucks resume their journeys.
The fencing project is going to be a Herculean task.
The border cuts through the Pakhtun-dominated tribal belt in the northwest and further south through Balochistan, demarcating Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan from the north-eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan. But residents on both sides have too many bonds and commonalities to be separated easily.
The frontier may be seen as one of the most volatile borders in the world. However, the humanitarian dimension should not be eclipsed by security considerations alone. Creating a new hurdle for the long-suffering tribespeople could be counterproductive in the prevailing circumstances.
From 2007 onwards, security forces from the two countries have clashed frequently at different points on the border that Pakistan inherited from the British Raj. On Feb 19, 2017, the Pakistan Army allegedly rained down a barrage of rockets and missiles into the Goshta and Lalpura districts of eastern Nangarhar province and Sarkano town in Kunar province, rendering more than 2,000 families homeless. Conservative estimates indicate that over 90 border guards, mostly from Afghanistan, have been killed and scores wounded in a series of exchanges of fire over the past 16 years. Apart from material losses and those of life, the skirmishes also forced the displacement of thousands of civilians on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.
Stemming from contentious projects, the raids have taken a heavy toll on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. They have also sparked angry anti-Pakistan protests in Kabul, Jalalabad, Asadabad, Khost and elsewhere across the border.
Both countries should learn a lesson from the painful consequences of similar restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinians. The measures President Donald Trump is contemplating on the US-Mexico border represent another case in point.
Kabul-Islamabad ties hit new lows in 2005 and 2007 in the wake of testy exchanges between president Hamid Karzai and then military ruler Pervez Musharraf on fencing the 2,450-km border. Relations deteriorated again in 2009 over the same issue. Like Karzai, all Afghans, who scorn the border-fencing notion as a bait-and-switch strategy, refuse to kowtow to Pakistani dictates over the long-running Durand Line spat. They want the Pakistani establishment to eschew what they allege is its overt and covert meddling in their country. Instead, the Afghans seek an open diplomatic relationship, saying that border-fencing — which runs counter to cordial and cooperative ties — cannot be a cure-all.
Since 2001, Pakistan has made several abortive attempts to mark out the Durand Line. But each time, such moves have fallen by the wayside and animosity has markedly deepened between the neighbours. Pious statements apart, both Kabul and Islamabad have long been unable to paper over their differences.
Plans to fence the border may or may not block the movement of militants or terrorists, but they will unquestionably open up a yawning gap between the communities straddling it. Thus, the politically explosive idea, if translated into action, will lead to unwelcome consequences in the sociocultural milieu in addition to undermining trade and people-to-people contacts.
For Gen Bajwa, the fencing project is going to be a Herculean task — one that Mr Musharraf could not implement despite enjoying oodles of financial assistance and political support from the Bush administration. The ex-military ruler, his considerable clout with resourceful allies in the ‘war on terror’ notwithstanding, could not execute the plan that is widely perceived as a sociocultural wall.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2017