Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Fence
A fresh milestone in Pakistan’s efforts to curb terrorism on its soil is going to be achieved soon. In February this year, it emerged that almost 90 percent fencing work on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which passes through rugged mountains, densely-forested valleys and narrow rock passages, has been completed, and the remaining work would be completed within four months. Pakistan started erecting the fence to stop the movement of Pakistani Taliban, remnants of al-Qaeda, and other foreign militants who prior to the fence’s construction could easily launch cross-border attacks on both sides as it was easier for them to return to Afghanistan after launching attacks inside Pakistan. In this backdrop, this is, indeed, a great news as the porous border has enabled terrorists to move freely between the two countries.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shares 1,229-kilometre border, Balochistan a 1,268 kilometre-border and Gilgit-Baltistan a 114 kilometre-border with Afghanistan. There are two proper crossings at Torkham and Chaman, besides hundreds of frequented and unfrequented routes. The porous nature of the border enabled terrorists to move freely between countries. After 9/11, when the US invaded Afghanistan, most of the militants crossed over to FATA and initiated terrorist activities all across Pakistan.
The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been a cause of bitter relations between the two South Asian neighbours. For the last two decades, areas surrounding the Durand Line have been used by armed groups, such as the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to conduct attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad, on the other hand, has raised similar concerns about TTP’s presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has complained that its enemies are based in, and supported for cross-border attacks from, Afghanistan. After the fall of Taliban in Kabul, the US-led war on terror caused a huge spike in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Citing that these attacks were launched by Afghanistan-based terrorists, General Pervez Musharraf, in 2001, decided to fence the western border to check and stop unauthorised border crossings.
Gen. Musharraf decided to fence the Pakistan’s brooder with Afghanistan to stop illegal border crossings. Practical work in the regard began in 2007 but was halted soon afterwards on account of border clashes and internal security situation. The work resumed in March 2017, after a spate of deadly attacks in Pakistan by Afghanistan-based militant groups. Despite a slow-performing economy, disruption caused by various factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic and a volatile security environment, the work on the border continued mostly uninterrupted in the last four years.
Costing an estimated $532 million, the border fence is 11 feet high on Pakistani side and 13 feet high on the Afghan side. The 6-foot space between the two fences has been taken by barbed wire. Around a thousand check posts have been built alongside. These shall be manned by soldiers and have modern systems, comprising closed circuit cameras and drone cameras for round-the-clock surveillance of the border. According to current DG ISPR, Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, the remaining work will be completed by end of the year 2021. He further added that 482 out of 1068 planned forts have also been constructed along the border. Pakistan has also completed a 1100-kilometer-long trench, which is 3 metres in depth and 3-4 metres in width, along the western borders in Balochistan. Cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated crossing points after the completion of the project, which is expected to cost more than $500m in total.
This fence brings advantages to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
1. The fence will make cross-border movement/operations of militants impossible or extremely difficult (attacks by the TTP militants from Afghanistan came down from 352 in 2014 to 82 in 2019 and 11 in 2020). The ISPR has attributed a massive decrease in the number of terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan to the border security project.
2. The fence will also control cross-border smuggling, especially of drugs as 93 percent of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan and 40 percent of Afghan poppy products pass through Pakistan. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan is the source of 80 to 90 percent of the world’s opium supply. About 45 percent of Afghan opium, which is used in the production of heroin, is trafficked through Pakistan to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
3. It will also control illegal entry into Pakistan. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan absorbed over five million Afghan refugees. Today, there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees besides the 0.9 million Afghan Citizen Card-holders who were documented in 2017.
4. It will also address the belief that Pakistan has not done enough to secure the borders.
5. It will also address the Afghan government’s concerns and also the so-called accusation that the Afghan Taliban use Pakistani soil for attacks inside Afghanistan itself.
6. It would not divide families as proper crossing points have been planned.
7. If the Afghan refugees leave Pakistan, the border is fenced and the movement on the Pak-Afghan border is controlled, there will be no opportunity for Afghanistan to accuse Pakistan of sending militants and thus make it a scapegoat for its failures – thus, better bilateral relations.
Stopping Indian Shenanigans
The Indian influence in Afghanistan expanded after the fall of the Taliban and they started using Afghan soil to sponsor terrorist activities inside Pakistan. India is fuelling insurgency in Balochistan and other terrorist activities across Pakistan are actively supported by its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
With the start of CPEC, India has stepped up its terrorist activities through its proxies—BLA, BLF BRA, TTP, Daesh and JuH, as well as through its consulates that are training, arming and funding terrorists against Pakistan. The arrest of Kulbhushan Jhadev from Balochistan proves Indian involvement in the region and in the killing of Shia Hazara, according to the confessions obtained by authorities. Former US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, went on record to say, “India has, over the years, been financing terrorism in Pakistan from across the border”. He further said, “It is using Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan”.
The APS Peshawar massacre mastermind was in contact with an Indian consulate during the attack. Similarly, the suicide attack against a Baloch leader, Siraj Raisani, in Mastung, was being controlled from Spin Boldak. Furthermore, the attacker of Bacha Khan University in Charsadda entered Peshawar from Torkham. The Pakistan government strengthened its border control system since the 2016 APS Peshawar attack and a proper system has now been put in place at Torkham. Travellers without a visa are no longer allowed to cross the border in either direction. A similar system is going to be practiced at the Chaman crossing in the near future.
Although the fencing has improved security situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan has opposed the project. Afghanistan disputes the border drawn by British colonial officials, with the agreement of then-Afghan leader Amir Abdul Rehman, in 1893. It argues that the border is a “colonial imposition” that divides the ancestral homelands of Pashtun tribes between two countries, and claims sovereignty over the Pashtun territories on the Pakistani side of the border that comprise the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Kabul also argues that the agreement between British officials and Rehman had a 100-year time limit, which expired in 1993.
Pakistan, on the other hand, considers the border it inherited from the British after its independence as legal and final. Pakistan holds that the border is official and its decision to fence it is in accordance with the international law and crucial for addressing its security concerns.
Interestingly, this is the only Afghan border acknowledged by several Afghan governments including those led by Amir Abdur Rehman. It was accepted by subsequent Afghan rulers in the Anglo-Afghan Border agreement of 1905, the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919 and another agreement in 1921.
Afghanistan shares borders with the former USSR states that were determined by the British and the USSR without any participation or approval of the Afghan government. Afghanistan-Iran border was also demarcated by the British and Iran without any involvement of the Afghan leadership. Despite this, Afghanistan has never objected to these frontiers. However, Afghans say that the Durand Line, demarcated by the British, had ceased to be relevant with the demise of British India.
Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and some Central Asian Republics as well as the one with Pakistan were all demarcated by the British, the latter though with Afghanistan’s approval while the former without its permission, but it has accepted the former and rejected the latter.
Challenges for Pakistan
The fencing of the border, however, has also presented Pakistan with new challenges. The fence adversely affected the daily lives of families who have relatives on both sides of the border. Similarly, it harmed subsistence farmers whose lands straddle the border. The situation has already compelled several farmers to sell their lands at throwaway prices. Traders who made a living by exporting food items and other goods from Pakistan into Afghanistan and vice versa have also been affected as they now need to acquire visas to cross the border and pay customs fees for the produce they bring over.
Pakistan is already working to mitigate the negative impact the border barrier had on the lives of civilians living in the area. It has reached an agreement with Afghanistan to establish joint trade markets along the border and discussions are ongoing about exactly where these markets should be established and what items should be traded within them. It is also planning to financially compensate the farmers who have lands on both sides of the border. For the families living across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Islamabad will issue long-term passes.
Options for Afghanistan
Instead of blaming Pakistan, Kabul should increase the number of check-points to ensure border surveillance on the Afghanistan side. It should also strengthen its intelligence system so that if any infiltrators escape capture at the border, they cannot freely move around in the country. It is unfair for Afghanistan to blame Pakistan for its failure and incompetence. Afghanistan, instead, should secure/fence its side of the border, establish an effective border surveillance system, dismantle sanctuaries of anti-Pakistan elements from its soil and play a positive role for peace in the region.
The fencing of the Pak-Afghan border is a necessary step towards curbing militancy in the border areas and bringing stability to the former FATA. But, on its own, it will not solve the region’s myriad problems. The border barrier will undoubtedly provide a tactical respite for Pakistan and reduce the number of cross-border attacks. But until sustainable peace is achieved in Afghanistan, and the grievances of the Pashtun tribes living near the border are resolved, no barrier will successfully bring peace, stability and long-term security to the region.
The writer is an Advocate High Court.