NEW DELHI: Ever since the creation of Pakistan after India’s Partition in 1947, the country has coveted the lands of its two immediate neighbors — India and Afghanistan. It has remained relentless in usurping border lands even if that meant sending armed tribesmen across the border, launching a war or infiltrating its regular army mixed with trained terrorists to fight across borders.
While the India-Pakistan border remains hot, and in news, due to infiltration of terrorists and artillery shelling by the Pakistani Army, the situation is equally bad on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where the Pakistani Army has been building a fence against the wishes of the Afghan government.
Almost on a daily basis, citizens and soldiers of both countries die due to firing and shelling on the Af-Pak border. These armed attacks can be between the soldiers of the two countries or between militants on one side and soldiers on the other side.
The nearly 2,600 km border demarcating the areas between the two countries is called the Durand Line — drawn by the British in 1893. Though Pakistan has accepted the Durand Line, the Afghan governments — whether run by the Taliban or democratically-elected — have never accepted the border despite its existence of over a hundred years.
Pakistan has been working feverishly to complete the fencing by the end of 2020. The military is erecting two parallel three-meter high iron fences with barbed wire. The project also involves construction of walls in some places with border posts. Eventually Pakistan plans to construct the fence along the Iran border as well. The reasons for Pakistan constructing the border is better border management, controlling the free movement of terror groups and being able to prevent drugs and arms smuggling from Afghanistan through a massively porous border.
In August this year, nearly 15 Afghans were killed and 80 people injured in a border clash at Spin Boldak district of Kandahar on the eve of Eid-al-Adha. In another similar incident on the Pakistani side on July 30, three people were killed and over 20 injured after clashes erupted on the Friendship Gate border crossing in Chaman, Balochistan province.
Both countries blame each other for starting the firing. Over the last few months, firing and shelling incidents have taken place in Kunar, Nangarhar and Kandahar, even though clashes of various kinds, and between different, groups and soldiers have always been happening.
The Afghan government has held that the border fencing by Pakistan is illegal. It says the Pakistani military fencing project has divided families and also properties on either side of the two countries. At many places, the border is disputed as it cuts through people’s houses and other common properties of the village or a town. Afghanistan also rejects the border fencing as it says the Durand Line cuts off the Pashtuns in different regions.
Siegfried O. Wolf Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), a Brussels-based think tank in a recent research report, ‘Playing the Hard Power Card. Pakistan’s fencing of its Afghan border,’ says: “The border fencing project also affects the interests of the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Durand Line. The impacts of such fencing on the daily lives and livelihoods of these groups will strengthen current feelings of marginalisation. Pakistan’s border control and management efforts will likely feed a fresh cycle of frustration, leading to more violence in the frontier region instead of achieving the proclaimed goal of more security and stability for the borderland.”
Even at the time of India’s partition, the Pashtuns were not swayed by religious lines the way a number of Muslim leaders were. Their leader, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — also known as Frontier Gandhi — was clearly on the side of India and had opposed the creation of Pakistan. Many Pashtuns, at that time, asked the British to provide them their own land called Pashtunistan, or to allow them to merge with Afghanistan. The colonial power which was keen to establish Pakistan did not agree to either of these demands from the Pashtuns. Nearly seven decades later, the border fencing by Pakistan has opened up those wounds as this ethnic tribe feels that the fence is going to completely cut them off from friends, family and their region.
With Washington adamant on withdrawing from Afghanistan by December 2020, most observers fear break-out of violence between numerous ethnic groups and different terror organisations for their share of power. The man on the street too is apprehensive. Well, so is Islamabad. The current Pakistani government led by former cricketer Imran Khan fears a major refugee influx from Afghanistan due to the fighting it foresees. And it feels the border fence is one way of keeping the refugees out besides solidifying the border.
A determined Pakistan has erected the fence on nearly 85 per cent of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 70 per cent of Balochistan. It seems to be on track to meeting its year 2020-end deadline of completing the fencing.
However, Afghanistan feels cheated. On August 11, 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Islamabad is conducting “illegal fencing” along the Durand Line and shot off a protest to the Pakistan embassy in Kabul as well as to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. Kabul has stated often over the years that Pakistan wants to take over some important areas of Afghanistan. Often Afghan forces have pulled down or destroyed the fences which it says have been built on its territory.
The border fence becomes yet another prickly issue between the neighbours besides Pakistan’s interference in Afghan affairs and shelter to terror groups that undermine Afghan sovereignty and stability. In the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the fence adds one more dynamic to an explosive situation.