Fencing the Pak-Afghan border

Afghanistan should secure its side of the border and play a positive role for peace in the region

Perturbed by Afghanistan’s persistent allegations of interference, desirous of removing any possibility of such interference in future and committed to stopping unauthorised persons, goods and activities on its border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is busy fencing the border.

Fencing of such a long and difficult border was never going to be an easy task. The difficult terrain, vagaries of weather, attacks by terrorists and persistent opposition from Afghanistan made it even more difficult. But after great hardship and martyrdom of many soldiers, Pakistan has finally completed most of the work.

Work on the 2,611-kilometre border is nearing completion. So far 85 percent of the fencing has been completed. The rest of the work is likely to be completed by middle of the year.

The project was originally conceived under Gen Pervez Musharraf to check unauthorised border crossings. Practical work began in 2007 but was halted soon afterwards on account of border clashes and internal security situation. In 2018, the incumbent army chief decided to resume the work. 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 along side. 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.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shares a 1,229-kilometre norder, Balochistan a 1,268 kilometre-border and Gilgit-Baltistan a 114 kilometre-border with Afghanistan. The border has remained one of the most porous, destabilised and contentious in the region and a great source of a blame-game between the two neighbours.

Afghanistan has alleged that Afghan Taliban use Pakistani soil for attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has complained that its enemies are based in, and supported for cross-border attacks from Afghanistan.

There are several benefits to this project. 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), eliminate or reduce illegal trade as well as drug trafficking and help regulate movement of people and goods.

The border fencing has assumed greater significance in view of the expected withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan and possible escalation of intra-Afghan violence in its wake.

In spite of these clear advantages, Afghanistan has surprisingly opposed the fence, declaring it illegal and unacceptable. It says that it divides families and properties.

Pakistan has lost around 70,000 lives and its economy has suffered a loss of over $100 billion after it joined the US-led war on terror. For a long time anti-Pakistan organizations, including the TTP and the BLA, have been carrying out attacks in Pakistan with Afghan/Indian support. Pakistan’s writ is now established over almost the entire areas adjacent to the Pak-Afghan border.

Clandestine infiltration into Afghanistan is no longer possible from here. Pakistan realizes that peace in Afghanistan will lead to peace in Pakistan. It is doing its best to help bring peace there. Pakistan has also offered a joint topographic survey to allay Afghanistan’s doubts and grievances but Afghanistan has remained indifferent.

Afghanistan has also continued accusing Pakistan of not controlling infiltration and attacks by the militants from its side.

Given the situation, the only viable option left with Pakistan was to fence the border from its side so as to stop any possibility of illegal cross-border movement. Pakistan rightly thinks that once the fence is there and cross-border movement is regularised and consistently monitored, it will no longer be possible for Afghanistan to accuse it of infiltration or not doing enough to control cross-border militancy.

Afghanistan has refused to embrace fencing of the border and visa restrictions. It is also unwilling to construct border check posts on its side.

One can say that Afghanistan is aware that if the Afghan refugees leave Pakistan, the border is fenced and the movement on the Pak-Afghan border is controlled, then there will be no opportunity to accuse Pakistan of sending militants and thus make it as a scapegoat for its failures.

Afghanistan has also refused to recognise its border with Pakistan and called it an “artificial border which was drawn and imposed by the British in 1893”. It says the agreement was for 100 years and expired in 1993.

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. Afghan- 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 and ratification while the former without its permission, but it has accepted the former and rejected the latter.

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 writer is an academic and columnist. He can be reached at tahirkatlang039@gmail.com

Fencing the Pak-Afghan border