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March 25, 2017

Border management


March 25, 2017

The socially connected, culturally linked and economically interdependent states of Pakistan and Afghanistan share a common border of 2,450 kilometres. Being a porous and unsupervised border, it has become a source of tension between the two brotherly nations.

After the recent spate of terrorism, Pakistan closed the main crossing points of the Pak-Afghan border. This left thousands of people stranded on both sides of the border and also brought trade activities to a halt. Recently, the government of Pakistan opened the border, which is a welcome development. However, for a more permanent solution to the issue, an effective border management regime is needed.

Being a landlocked country, Afghanistan needs Pakistan’s land and market for its trade with the outside world. In addition, Pakistan hosts millions of Afghan refugees and thousands of them cross the border on a daily basis. Similarly, Pakistan, being an energy-starved country, needs Afghanistan’s market and land for its exports. It also needs access to the oil and gas resources of Central Asia. Crucial energy projects like Casa and Tapi, passing through Afghanistan, are in the pipeline. Hence, any action by either side which results in the closure of Torkham, Angorada or Chaman would be suicidal and mutually destructive for both nations. To avoid such a scenario, rationality needs to prevail and ground realities need to be accepted.

The Durand Line is not the only border that divides people of the same ethnicity, culture and language. Almost every international border has caused similar bifurcations. Amu Darya divides the Tajiks between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and the Oder-Neisse Line divides the Poles between Poland and Germany. Similarly, the people of Punjab and Balochistan have been divided by Pakistan’s borders with India and Iran. So the division of Pakhtuns and Afghans by the Durand Line is not so unusual.

The concept of multi-nation states seems like a global reality. It would be highly impractical to draw boundaries on the basis of ethnicity and language. According to Ethnologue, an extensive catalogue of the world languages, there are 6,909 distinct languages in the world out of which 230 are spoken in Europe and 2,197 in Asia. Similarly, Scientific American (1998) shows that there are 5,000 ethnic groups in the world. Hence, the 21st century world cannot afford statehood based purely on ethnicity or language.

Language, race, history, poetry and traditions are important in shaping cultural ties, but socio-economic and political interests are the decisive factors that define the political choices of the people. Our largest ethnic group – the Punjabis – may have strong cultural ties with their counterparts across the border, but 70 years of political history has made the group ‘Pakistani’. Similarly, the 120 years of political history of the Pakhtuns, east of the Durand Line, have tied the group’s socio-economic interests to the state of Pakistan.

Not a single Pakhtun, including Asfandyar Wali and Mehmood Khan Achakzai, is willing to leave Pakistan and shift to Jalalabad. All influential Pakhtuns buy property, establish business and develop their fortune in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad instead of Kabul or Kandahar.

However, this is only one side of the coin. On the other side, being a part of political rhetoric and literature, the Durand Line has become an issue of life and death in Afghanistan. It has been made a litmus test of patriotism and thus no Afghan leader can dare to accept it as a permanent border. Due to domestic pressure, the mujahideen, the Taliban and Karzai have refused to accept it as well. However, none of the three parties made the border a ‘hot issue’.

Unlike in the past, the situation after 9/11 has changed drastically. Non-state actors play havoc with the peace and stability of both the countries while crossing the border with impunity. Instead of finding a durable solution to the menace of insurgency, the two countries are involved in a protracted blame game. Kabul blames Islamabad for the Taliban insurgency and infiltration, while Islamabad is apprehensive about the use of the Afghan soil by the TTP and by Baloch insurgents. The growing trust deficit is the main hurdle in the way of effective border management.

Though both countries agreed to a solution at the Chequers Summit on border management, the Nawaz government has failed to follow it through in letter and spirit. Islamabad also lost a golden opportunity to resolve the issue when it had cordial relations in the first year of President Ashraf Ghani’s government. In spite of my persistent pleas to make ‘border management’ a part of the National Action Plan, the issue was completely ignored.

In short, the mutual interests of both countries are at stake. The unchecked and unsupervised movement of people across the border poses a direct threat to peace and stability on both sides. There is a need for an effective border management mechanism through mutual consultation.

Instead of emphasising the closure of the border, Pakistan should focus on a three-pronged strategy: Islamabad should issue computerised cards to Afghan refugees, issue CNICs to the divided tribes on the border and implement a proper visa regime for non-refugee Afghans.

Afghan refugees and tribes should cross the border with these special cards while those Afghans who are non-refugees should travel with their passports – with valid visas. This is the only solution that will solve the problem and bring the two countries together.

The writer works for Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

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