NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 09

Border fencing: A major milestone

Pakistan is going to achieve a great milestone as the country’s security forces are quite close to completing the fencing of its entire length of border with Afghanistan. When started three years ago, the fencing of the 2,600km-long border seemed an impossible task. If it is completed, which is right on track, it would be really a good fortune for Pakistan because the porous border with Afghanistan has been a source of multidimensional insecurities for Pakistan. The insecurities include a physical threat to territory and citizens of Pakistan to economic insecurity in the shape of a huge volume of cross-border smuggling.

According to the military public relations department, it would take two more months to complete the fencing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The military spokesman said that the border fencing was expected to benefit the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan while restricting the movement of terrorists. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) told the US state media channel Voice of America that barriers had already been installed along about 83 % of the western Pakistani frontier. It is important to note that in 2017, the Pakistan Army had begun the fencing and 2020 was set as its deadline. He further added that the fencing had been started to block militant infiltration, smuggling, and other illegal crossings on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The total length of the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, known as the Durand Line, is 2640 kilometres but not all of its entire length was planned to be fenced. There are hundreds of kilometres of the border area which cannot be fenced as the terrain is located at a very high altitude and is extremely rugged and, therefore, its fencing does not serve any purpose as it cannot be crossed by humans. So, of the stipulated length of the border fencing, most of the target has been achieved and it is a great achievement of Pakistan in terms of its national security and foreign policy. If border fencing, or for that matter, border management with Afghanistan can be described as one of the single most important achievements of Pakistan in terms of its security policy, then it would not be an exaggeration.

It is important to mention that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border straddles along two provinces of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. While fencing was planned on most of the border area in KP province, a long and deep trench was to be dug along the border in Balochistan. Most work on the trench is also said to be completed. Of the entire length of the Durand Line, 1,229 kilometres of the area is in KP. Of that, the fencing of 829 kilometres had to be carried out and till this time it has been set up on 695.5 kilometres which comes to around 84 percent. The fencing has been done right in the north from Bajaur district to South Waziristan district of KP. Along with the fencing, 443 border forts were also to be constructed, of which 360 have been successfully completed and the rest would be constructed by the end of the current year.

Insofar as the 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 Pashtun areas as part of Afghanistan. Therefore, Kabul has also considered the Durand Line as an “imaginary” line dividing Pashtuns, whose traditional homeland is Afghanistan. Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan whereas it is second largest ethno-linguistic group of Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been difficult to manage as it is located in a very inhospitable terrain. Therefore, Pakistan had always thought it would be almost impossible to manage the border. It had been despite the fact that Kabul has irredentist claims on large tracts of Pakistani territory. Even Pakistan did not bother to have solid management of the Durand Line before the mid-1980s, when there had never been any “Strategic Depth” policy of Pakistan regarding Afghanistan in place. The Strategic Depth policy conceived by military ruler General Ziaul Haq (1979-88) wanted to have open access to the Pakistani military forces in an eventuality of war with its eastern archrival India, so that the 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 the Strategic Depth policy but it did not have any justification whatsoever before the mid-1980s.

After Pakistan self-admittedly shunned the policy of “Strategic Depth” in Afghanistan, there was a critical need to revisit the strategy of open or no border with Kabul. Fortunately, Pakistan strategists and decision-makers rightly understood the situation and they came up with an elaborate policy of border management. Under the policy of border management, Islamabad started fencing its long border with Afghanistan in the middle of March, 2017 to effectively control the inflow of terrorists and militants from Afghanistan and outflow of militants from Pakistan.

The decision to fence whether taken in the past or presently on the Pak-Afghan border is the irreducible minimum to protect Pakistan and its citizens from terrorist attacks, ricochet the vitriolic criticism from Afghanistan, NATO, the US and Western countries of not doing enough to stop cross-border infiltration of Taliban insurgents from its soil into Afghanistan. The Afghan government, in the past, had rejected the fencing and mining of the Pakistan-Afghan border. There is also strict opposition from important political groups and stakeholders on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, including the Pashtun ethno-linguistic nationalist parties, like Awami National Party (ANP) and PkMAP as well as Jamaat-e-Islami and tribal organization like Tanzeem-e-Ittehad-e-Qabail.

The completion of the border fencing with Afghanistan is coming at a time when a significant development has taken place in Afghanistan. Recently, the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan Taliban have agreed to hold dialogue to end the 20-year-long conflict in Afghanistan. It is an important development in Afghanistan and it must be hoped that peace would return to Afghanistan in which Pakistan has played an important role. However, before peace returns to Afghanistan it would be great that Pakistan completely manages its border with Afghanistan. It is due to the fact that the core of the problems between Islamabad and Kabul has been the non-recognition of the internationally recognized border, the Durand Line, by Afghanistan.