Wednesday September 22, 2021

Border solidarity

July 28, 2021

In light of the current acrimony between Islamabad and Kabul, the Pakistan Army’s recent move to provide shelter to 46 soldiers and officers of the Afghan National Army and Border Police – the second time this month after a similar incident in Chaman – is a welcome development. According to the ISPR, Afghan security forces stationed across Arundu, Chitral requested assistance after having lost their posts due to the ‘evolving security situation’. Following the necessary formalities on both sides, they were provided refuge and safe passage, before being returned in a ‘dignified manner as per established military norms’. The episode also reflects the volatile security situation in the neighbouring country and serves as a worrisome harbinger of things to come. Following the US decision to withdraw forces earlier this year, the Taliban have been expanding their reach, especially in the rural and bordering districts while the Afghan government continues to hold sway in most urban centres. While the Pentagon and the Afghan government dispute the Taliban claim of controlling over 85 percent of Afghan territory, it cannot be discounted that the walls are closing in around the Afghan government. And, as fighting escalates, and especially with the US military mission winding up by the end of next month possibly along with its mighty air support, incidents such as the recent one may increase. With supply lines cut off or non-existent and little to no hope of aerial assistance, Afghan border forces will be on their own against the advancing Taliban.

As violence escalates, Afghan civilians have been killed or injured at record levels in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations, with casualties expected to rise. Any further deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan presents enormous security and humanitarian challenges for Pakistan in terms of potential spillover effects. A security vacuum along our border will also provide an opportunity to the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – which sought refuge there after having been routed out from Pakistan – to reorganise and launch attacks here. A recent UN report claimed the TTP has close to 6,000 fighters on the Afghan side of the border, traditionally in the eastern districts of Nangarhar province. Moreover, the presence of Al-Qaeda, Daesh, and other splinter terrorist groups has been noted in the report, all of which presents a looming threat not only for Pakistan and Afghanistan but the wider region as well. It is in both countries’ interests, as well as the world’s, to ensure such groups are not able to establish a strong foothold. On the humanitarian side, we must refrain from presenting potential war-fleeing refugees from a neighbouring state as a ‘menace’ and instead ensure they are adequately catered to with the assistance of international aid agencies and returned to a peaceful homeland. All along the border, tribes are divided by the Durand Line with Afghans regularly seeking treatment in Pakistani hospitals, and thousands on both sides engaging in trade on a daily basis.

It is vital that both states resolve the present impasse in relations and help peace prevail. As stated by Islamabad many times, neither is it supporting the Taliban offensive nor is it in Pakistan’s interest for the Afghan government to collapse. The most pressing challenge now is for our civilian and military leadership to help Kabul believe this. The Afghan leadership, too, needs to reorient its thinking in light of the changing ground realities and both sides need to reign in open hostility at the official level. Hopefully, Pakistan’s recent assistance to fleeing Afghan troops will be seen as a confidence-building gesture, as well as a possible first step to a rekindling of bilateral ties. The events unfolding in Afghanistan have the potential of shaping the geopolitical landscape of the entire region. It will take patience and diplomatic finesse to solve this Rubik’s cube.