Behind the Afghan border attack on Pakistan

The border attack by the Afghan forces on Pakistani territory in Chaman in Balochistan province that killed at least 12 Pakistani civilians and security forces personnel, yet again brings into the limelight two important issues. One of these issues is the effective border management between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the second is the question of demographic balance between Pakhtun and Baloch in the Balochistan province of Pakistan.a The second issue needs to be analyzed first. The cross border attack by the Afghan security forces killing Pakistani civilians and security forces personnel, providing protection to officials collecting census data in Pakistani villages in Chaman on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, was very craftily conceived.

Targeting the officials conducting census was aimed to intimidate the officials in order to prevent them from getting exact data. It is important to note that in Balochistan many Afghan nationals, living as refugees, have got themselves registered as Pakistani nationals and have also got Pakistani citizenship documents. This they have done with the collusion of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), which has influence in the Pakhtun areas of Balochistan. The PkMAP has tried to tilt the balance of population in favour of Pakhtuns and, therefore, it has been helping Afghanistan’s Pakhtuns living as refugees in Balochistan, to get Pakistan national identity cards. PkMAP and its leadership spearheaded by member of the National Assembly, Mahmud Khan Achakzai, is well-known for pro-Afghan and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. The attack on Pakistani civilian and security forces personnel seem to have been made to manipulate the census figures, which Achakzai and his party have always wanted. By doing so, the Afghan establishment wants to fan the flames of conflict between Pakistani Baloch and Pakhtuns.

The Baloch have been complaining of parties like the PkMAP of helping Afghan Pakhtuns to prove the ethnic group has a majority in the province, in order to secure various benefits. Moreover, through the attack the Afghan forces have also tried to bring centre-stage, the “disputed” nature of the border. Although Kabul has always claimed to champion the rights or Pakhtuns in Pakistan, but the recent cross border attacks by the former on Pakistani civilians in Chaman has proved yet again that the Afghan security-intelligence establishment does not have any love for Pakhtuns because almost all the Pakistani civilians and security forces personnel who were killed in the attack were Pakthuns. This simply means that Kabul considers its interests more important than the lives of Pakhtuns and could go to any extent to realize them even by soaking its hands in the blood of the Pakhtun.

Therefore, Pakistani Pakhtuns themselves must realize that Afghanistan does not have any love for them and, therefore, must reject all these parties and leaders, who are pro-Afghanistan. Here it is also very important to note that the cross border attack by Afghan forces on Pakistani officials and civilians were made only a day after hated warlord, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, entered Kabul as a state guest after signing a peace accord with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan security-intelligence establishment, which has never been on the same page with President Ashraf Ghani regarding talks with the Taliban and Pakistan, seem to have conceived the border attack on Pakistan to give it a message. What message the Afghan security establishment wants to convey to Pakistan is that from the reconciliation between Hekmatyar and the Afghan government, Pakistan should not expect the creation of any soft corner or room for itself in Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar has always been considered by regimes in Kabul as a Pakistani ally. There is some substance in this, but Hekmatyar’s reconciliation with Ashraf Ghani’s government seems to be more his personal decision than anything to do with Pakistan. Insofar as management of the Durand Line is concerned, it has its roots in the core and longstanding issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul has never recognized the Durand Line as the official border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and it has always considered Pakistan’s Pakhtun areas as part of Afghanistan. Therefore, Kabul has also considered the Durand Line as an “imaginary” line dividing Pakhtuns, whose traditional homeland is Afghanistan. Pakhtuns are the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan whereas it is the second largest ethno-linguistic group of Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Durand Line, is almost 2,640 kilometres long and most of it runs through rugged terrain. It has always been very difficult to manage such a long border located in a very inhospitable areas. Therefore, Pakistan had always thought it would be next to impossible to manage the border. This was despite the fact that Kabul has had irredentist claims to large tracts of Pakistani territory.

Pakistan did not bother to have solid management of the Durand Line before the mid-1980s, when there had never been in place any “Strategic Depth” policy regarding Afghanistan. The strategic depth policy conceived by military ruler General Ziaul Haq (1979-88) wanted to have open access for Pakistani military forces in an eventuality of war with its eastern arch-rival India. So that Pakistan forces could enter Afghan territory and then launch a counteroffensive against Delhi from Afghanistan. In other words an open border or no-border policy of Pakistan with Afghanistan, although very myopic, was understandable in the context of a strategic depth policy. Now, when Pakistan has self-admittedly shunned the policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan, there was critical need to revisit the strategy of open, or no, border with Kabul. Fortunately, Pakistan strategists and decisionmakers rightly understood the situation and they came up with an elaborate policy of border management.

Under this policy, Islamabad started fencing its long border with Afghanistan in mid-March, 2017, to effectively control the inflow of terrorists and militants from Afghanistan and outflow of armed militants from Pakistan. The work to fence the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is being undertaken by the paramilitary, the Frontier Corps (FC) and, noticeably, its personnel were targeted in the recent attack. The fence is being erected on 1,300 kilometers, part of the 2,430 kilometers long border with Afghanistan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Although fencing in the hilly and mountainous terrain is quite an uphill task, but the Frontier Corps is using different means to fence the critical points. For this the Corps needs to be given full credit. In order to better manage the border apart from fencing, aerial surveillance and special radar systems are also being placed to check and hunt down suspected terrorists trying to infiltrate into Pakistan.

Here it may be mentioned that Pakistan has already completed digging a 1,100 kilometers- long trench on the Durand Line at Chaman-Kandahar, part of the border in Balochistan. The 11 foot-deep and 14 foot-wide trench completed in 2013, on the entire stretch of the border has been instrumental in effective border management. This can be gauged from the fact that since the completion of the trench there have been very few terrorist attacks in Balochistan that could be linked to Afghanistan-based terrorists of Pakistani or Afghan origin. However, in FATA and KP province, where the border has remained porous, the number of attacks from Afghanistan-based terrorists and militants, including those from Pakistani militant-terrorist groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, have increased manifold. Sensing the scope of terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Kabul security-intelligence establishment, which is to the core anti-Pakistan and has been using terrorists to wage a proxy war inside Pakistan, has resorted to naked cross border firing and rocket attacks. This is an act of frustration in a sense, but such dastardly acts of violence must strengthen the resolve of Pakistani strategists to leave no stone unturned in managing the border.