The tribesmen outside the Pakistani embassy in Kabul huddle into their woollen shawls and wait. A few years ago, grumble Abdul Haq Barakzai and his friends, a trip to Pakistan for medical treatment was as straightforward as slipping a border guard a few hundred rupees. As well as the main crossing at Torkham, a rich choice of tracks led across the mountainous frontier. No paperwork was needed to cross. Now he must stand in line with a bundle of doctors’ notes to obtain a visa.
The 2600km boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan was marked out in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand as the limit of British India (see map). The arbitrary frontier has long been ignored by tribesmen, traders and guerrillas on either side. Ihsanullah Shinwari, a businessman in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, describes how he and his friends used to nip across to eat fried fish in the Afghan city of Jalalabad: “It wasn’t like going to a different country.”
This porousness has loomed large in world affairs. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, America funnelled weapons over the border to rebels. When America invaded Afghanistan, in turn, in 2001, the Taliban flitted back and forth from havens in Pakistan. And for decades a large share of the world’s supply of heroin was spirited across to Pakistan.
All that began to change in 2016, when a thin metal line of chain-link fencing and razor wire, punctuated by forts, slowly unspooled along the border through the Hindu Kush mountains and the deserts of Balochistan. Dozens of unofficial crossing points have been closed and cross-border travel is being channelled to 16 formal posts. Despite winding through some of the most rugged and inhospitable landscapes on Earth, the fence will be complete in weeks, says Pakistan’s government.
America, among others, has for years advocated building a fence, in the hope of stemming the insurgency in Afghanistan. But in the end Pakistan moved ahead because of terrorists mounting attacks on its side of the border before seeking refuge in Afghanistan, not the other way round. Pakistani soldiers are bullish about the effect so far. They credit the fence with reducing attacks by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a home-grown militant group.
Western observers are more doubtful, saying a fence alone cannot bring security, particularly in such terrain. “A fence is useless if you can’t observe it. You and I could walk up with a pair of wire-cutters and go through, and then it’s not a fence,” carps a Western military official. The scale and profitability of smuggling across the border mean that smugglers will not meekly shut up shop. Sceptics also point out that the Afghan Taliban have been able to cross the frontier easily not because there used to be no fence, but because Pakistan’s armed forces let them.
Afghanistan’s government, meanwhile, does not accept the Durand line and claims parts of north-west Pakistan, so it is unhappy with the fence. But Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, says the fence will improve relations and even boost trade in the long run. The movement of fighters both ways has caused recriminations on both sides, he says: “This element of mistrust must be removed. The only way to do it from our view is ultimately to fence the border.”
In practice, the biggest repercussions of the fence may be for the Pushtun tribes that straddle the frontier. They now need passports and visas to visit relatives. Yusuf says Pakistan is handing out visas readily. Long-term multiple-entry permits will be common, he says: the border will be more like one in Europe than anything designed by US President Donald Trump.
Barakzai and his fellow applicants say they have yet to see any sign of that. They complain of long waits and sticky-fingered officials. As crossing becomes more laborious, some dispersed families are choosing to consolidate on one side or another. “It’s just getting harder and harder,” Barakzai moans.
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