Heavy exchange of fire takes place between Afghan, Pakistani forces. — AFP/File

Trouble in the west: What went wrong at the Chaman border

Following delegation level-talks, Afghan and Pakistani forces have agreed to resolve issues through engagement and avoid violence. But will the peace hold?
Published December 22, 2022

Delegations from Pakistan and Afghanistan met on Tuesday to chalk out a strategy to avoid skirmishes between border security forces at the Chaman-Spin Boldak border, which has seen several clashes in recent weeks.

During the exchange, officials from both sides agreed to resolve issues through “engagement and committed to refrain from use of force”, according to participants of the meeting who spoke to Dawn.com.

But why has the Chaman border been in the news over the last few days and what are the contentious issues here?

Clashes at the border

Over the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of activity and skirmishes between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s security forces along the country’s western border. The developments came as a surprise to many, as it is usually the eastern border that is perceived to be problematic.

So dire had the situation become that in a rare move, Pakistani forces on Dec 16 sent reinforcements along with heavy weapons to the border with Afghanistan to give a “befitting response” to the Taliban forces, a security source in Balochistan told Dawn.com.

The decision to send the heavy reinforcements came in the wake of deadly skirmishes at the Chaman border, where at least two clashes have been reported this month alone.

The latest attack was reported on Dec 15, 2022, when Afghan Taliban forces fired mortar shells across the Chaman border into Pakistan, killing one Pakistani civilian and injuring at least 16 other citizens. This incident followed a similar cross-border attack from the Afghan side on Dec 11 which claimed the lives of six Pakistani civilians and left 17 others injured, according to the Pakistani military.

Earlier on Nov 14, an armed man standing with the Taliban border troops opened fire on Pakistani security personnel at Friendship Gate, resulting in the martyrdom of one soldier and leaving two others wounded, the military had stated. Pakistani officials believe that the assailant was from the Taliban, but the latter have denied this. The attacker has not yet been arrested.

Despite the gravity of the events, Pakistan and the Taliban government have not offered official word as to what led to the two recent clashes.

When Dawn.com reached out to an official of the Pakistan military’s media wing, he replied, “Getting back”. There was no comment till the filing of this report. Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment. The Afghan defence ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarizmi also declined to comment when Dawn.com approached him on Dec 17.

Nevertheless, what is clear from the recent clashes is that dealing with the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government will be a major challenge for Pakistan, particularly in view of the mistrust among the Taliban leaders about Pakistan — something I have personally witnessed during my six visits to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August last year.

But what triggered the unrest along the western border? Why are the Afghan Taliban targeting Pakistan’s security forces as well as civilians this side of the border?

The fence

The border fence is one of the major sources of contention for both sides. According to a Pakistani security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the recent heavy floods in Balochistan had damaged the fence in several spots. When Pakistani forces attempted to do the necessary repairs, the Afghan Taliban forces opened fire at them.

“Pakistan has also adopted a similar policy to stop the Afghan side from doing any construction near the border and had conveyed the same to them in a meeting around two months ago. We stopped them from carrying out the construction of a police post,” he said, giving an example.

Pakistan started constructing the fence along the 2,611-kilometre border with Afghanistan in March 2017, in a bid to prevent cross-border militant attacks and also curb the cross-border smuggling of narcotics and other goods.

Over the years, the military has built forts and hundreds of posts and also installed surveillance cameras to check any movement along the border, which still remains quite porous.

The issue is that Afghanistan does not recognise the border with Pakistan — the Durand Line — while Pakistan says it is a recognised international border and a closed chapter, ruling out any negotiations on its status.

The government of former President Ashraf Ghani had publicly opposed the fencing of the border but could not resist the plan as the US-led Nato forces were also in favour of Pakistan’s efforts. Some also believe the Ghani administration had given tacit approval to the plan, in contrast to their public stance.

What is unfortunate, said the Pakistani official, is that “the Afghan side fired artillery shells and mortars on civilian areas in Chaman city. Several mortars did not explode, otherwise there would have been many more civilian casualties. Our retaliation was targeted and caused severe damage to the other side.”

For his part, Afghan government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Dawn.com on Monday that the Taliban leaders have formed a committee to ensure that such incidents of violence do not take place in the future.

“This is not the approach of the Islamic Emirate to create any problem or mistrust with Pakistan. We want solution to the issues along the borders or gates and do not want create any problem,” said Mujahid.

“Pakistan should also not create sensitivities. We have taken measures to control the situation after the recent incidents. Formation of the committee shows our seriousness to stop any such incident in future,” he added.

Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan

The outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is also one of the factors behind the tensions at the border. The TTP men were also present with the Afghan Taliban when they started work on building the police post, the official said. “The TTP is exploiting the situation,” he added.

Although the focus of the TTP is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the group also carries out attacks in Balochistan.

After announcing an end to a months-long ceasefire on Nov 28, the TTP has intensified its attacks in Pakistani territory. The militant group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing, targeting a police patrol vehicle near Quetta on Nov 30 that killed four individuals, including a police officer. The vehicle was parked near a Balochistan Constabulary truck in Quetta’s Baleli area.

Authorities believe the TTP was also behind the late night attack on a police station in Lakki Marwat, which claimed the lives of four police personnel and left as many injured.

Pakistan’s frustration at the TTP’s spike in activities is growing and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s remarks at the United Nations on Dec 16 were a reflection of the same.

Addressing the UN event, Bilawal said Pakistan will not tolerate cross-border terrorism by the TTP, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and other militant groups, adding that Islamabad reserved the right to take direct action against them. Pakistani officials say these groups operate from the Afghan side of the border.

For their part, the Afghan Taliban have always denied the presence of the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups and insisted that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against any country.

Anti-Pakistan Taliban

The Pakistani security official said that there is a perception among the Pakistani authorities that the Afghan Taliban deployed along the border have a hostile and aggressive approach towards Pakistan.

The Taliban from the southern parts of Afghanistan are known for their anti-Pakistan stance, as I have observed during my interactions with the Taliban leaders.

Several of these Taliban leaders from the southern areas were put behind bars in Balochistan in security operations when they lived in Quetta and other parts of the country.

When asked about the Pakistani officials’ concerns in this regard, Mujahid said that his government did not want “irrelevant people” to exploit the situation.

“I also categorically reject the notion of deployment of anti-Pakistani elements along the borders,” said Mujahid.

Post-Taliban takeover

The recent border incidents between Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be seen in isolation and are in fact reflective of the widening gulf between Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly after the Afghan Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

The problems started with sporadic incidents along the border and further inflamed by irresponsible statements and videos posted by some supporters of the Afghan Taliban on social media containing derogatory and aggressive remarks about Pakistan. They have, however, recently escalated into actual acts of what the Pakistani military termed “uncalled for aggression” by Afghan security forces, which are now comprised of the Afghan Taliban.

Here, Pakistan faces a serious dilemma. The Afghan interim government, particularly their field commanders, fail to show any remorse over these continuing acts of aggression by Afghanistan as they blame Pakistan for initiating the fire.

If Pakistan eschews these incidents like the ones in the past, the domestic pressure on the government is likely to increase with the demand for a befitting response. A military retaliation, on the other hand, could be embarrassing as it would be seen as a complete failure of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

A better approach undoubtedly would be to engage with Afghanistan through political and institutional channels and have a frank discussion to seek a resolution of the concerns on both sides.

This is not an impossible task. Unfortunately for the past several months, while some countries in the region continue to engage with the Afghan interim government, others like Pakistan are finding it difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with Afghan authorities. The delegation-level talks held earlier this week, however, could be the breakthrough needed.

These difficulties have been further exacerbated in the wake of the withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan, when many regional countries started facing security constraints, restricting the normal functioning of their embassies and diplomats.

These constraints came to a head in September 2022, following an attack on the Russian Embassy in Kabul that led to the killing of two Russian diplomats. On Dec 2, Pakistan’s Chargé d’Affaires (CdA) to Afghanistan Ubaidur Rehman Nizamani was targeted in an attack at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. While Nizamani remained unhurt, a security guard, Sepoy Israr Mohammad, was “critically injured”.

Recently, the militant group Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack at a hotel in which Chinese expatriate workers normally stay in Kabul.

These incidents have further increased mistrust between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban, while also reducing the space for engagement of the three key regional countries — Pakistan, China and Russia.

While both sides have promised, for now, to maintain the sanctity of the fence and amicably resolve other contentious issues that may arise, it remains to be seen how long the peace lasts.

Header image: A soldier stands guard at the fence near the Chaman border. — AFP/ File