Pak-Afghan relations

January 23, 2022

An integrated border management mechanism has worked across the globe

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When the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, some experts were of the view that the situation along Pakistan’s western border was likely to improve. The new rulers of Afghanistan had expressed their resolve to not allow the Afghan soil to be used against any other country. They had said they wanted friendly relations with all the neighbouring countries. Everyone was shocked therefore when a video surfaced in which a group of Taliban men are seen uprooting the fence along the Pakistan border.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600 kilometre-border, also called the Durand Line. The demarcation agreement was signed in 1893 between the then Afghan ruler, King Abdul Rahman Khan and Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary for British India. Today the Durand Line constitutes part of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although the border was demarcated on paper, physically it remained porous, allowing free movement of people and goods. Given that this demarcation was carried out in the colonial era, the legality of the border has been disputed.

In view of the precarious situation in Afghanistan and the infiltration by militants, Pakistan started fencing the Durand Line in 2017. According to official records, 90 percent of the work has been completed. Part of the fence lies in a very inhospitable terrain. The project has cost about $500 million. Pakistan’s official stance on the fencing is that it will curb illegal crossings, drug trafficking and infiltration of militants into Pakistan.

When Pakistan initiated the fencing in 2017, President Ashraf Ghani’s regime voiced its reservations calling it a “unilateral move to fence the de facto border, which divides families, tribes and communities and has not been officially recognised”. Differences over the status of the border have resulted in several fatal clashes between the two countries’ troops.

Construction teams installing the fence have on a number of occasions endured cross-border attacks by terrorists and Afghan military forces. In a recent press conference, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, underscored the need “to regulate security, border crossing and trade.” The purpose of this effort, he said, is not to divide the people, but to protect them”.

Nevertheless, fencing the border was one of the main issues that soured relations between Pakistan and the Ashraf Ghani government. Pakistan was also unhappy about Ghani’s move to allow Indian consulates close to its border.

The Rs 5 billion humanitarian assistance package announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan for Afghan people could help melt the ice.

Soon after the Taliban takeover of Kabul a video surfaced on social media where a group of Afghan Taliban forces were seen uprooting the fence along the border and chanting slogans against the fence. Enayatullah Khwarzmi, the Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman, had earlier said that Pakistan had no right to fence the border. He had said that the move was “inappropriate and against the law”.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had also spelled out a similar statement during an interview to Paktiawal. He had said that the Durand Line issue remained unresolved. He had argued that the construction of the fence amounted to dividing a nation. These statements rang alarm bells in the echelons of the country’s security establishment.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi then said that there were some complications in the Pak-Afghan border region, which some miscreants tried to exaggerate and exploit. He downplayed the issue, saying the two countries had brotherly relations and whatever minor issues there were, would be resolved amicably though diplomatic channels.

Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar was more open in his stance when he said that the fencing will continue. He also said the issue will soon be discussed with the Taliban government.

Legality of the Durand Line has been disputed by successive Afghan governments. Pakistan, however, considers it the legal international border and has insisted on the right to fence it. The issue needs to be resolved on a permanent basis. Else, it will remain a hurdle in establishing good relations.

Recent developments clearly underscore the need for the two countries to seek a permanent solution. Whatever solution the two countries agree upon must also enlist support from the local tribes.

An integrated border management mechanism has worked across the globe. Since the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has not been recognised by the world community so far, a permanent settlement of the dispute is not in sight. However, a working formula whereby the Taliban can take ownership of the fencing will be helpful.

The Rs 5 billion humanitarian assistance package announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan for the Afghan people could help melt the ice.


The writer is an M Phil scholar based in Islamabad. He can be reached at amjadsdpi.org



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