NationalVolume 12 Issue # 17

Border fencing the last resort

While the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remained closed for more than a month, 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 known as the Durand Line is being undertaken by the paramilitary, Frontier Corps (FC). The fence is being erected on the 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, through which the border passes, 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 the Chaman-Kandahar part of the border in Balochistan province. 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 province that could be linked to Afghanistan-based terrorists of Pakistani or Afghan origin. However, in FATA and the 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.

Noticeably, the decision to fence the 1,300 kilometers-long part of the Durand Line in FATA and KP was taken by the Pakistan Army in the last Corps Commanders Conference held on March 9, 2017. The decision to fence the border should have come from the political government, rather the parliament, because it is a matter of national security and the direction and policy in this regard should have come from there. However, the political leadership, as usual, failed to come up with a policy despite the fact that there have been spikes in terrorist attacks in the country, mostly linked to Afghanistan. This illustrates the hard reality of our national life, that when the decision-makers fail, who ought to come up with effective policies, then a policy vacuum is created which results in extremely negative effects. Ultimately, this vacuum, which cannot be allowed to exist, is plugged by institutions which are not primarily mandated, nor expected, to do so.

The effective management of border control is directly linked to national security and, therefore, it is the foremost responsibility of the political government to focus on this aspect of governance. Because the whole process of development and peace-building is dependent on national security. But the problem with the present political dispensation is that it has different, rather divergent, priorities to what national security requires. There is no denying the fact that there is a wide gap between the political government and the military high-command regarding the foreign and defence policies of the country. This is an important cause of large-scale terrorist attacks and the failure of national institutions to counter them.

Coming back to the border management between Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the latest decision by Islamabad, the government will construct four more checkpoints in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurrum and Mohmand districts of FATA in addition to Torkham checkpost in Khyber to help facilitate legal entrants. The decision by Islamabad to further boost efforts to manage its border with Afghanistan came following a new wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, mostly originating from Afghanistan. The new wave of attacks has claimed the lives of more than 100 innocent people, including women and children in February. In order to counter the threat, the Pakistan Army launched a country-wide operation, Raddul Fasaad, in which more than 100 terrorists have been killed, while hundreds of suspects have been rounded up through unabated intelligence-based operations (IBOs) so far.

Additionally, the government also sealed the Pak-Afghan border to check the flow of suspected terrorists, besides targeting militants of Jamat-ul-Ahrar near the Afghanistan border and killed dozens of terrorists. Jamat-ul-Ahrar had claimed responsibility for most of the attacks. Pakistan also shared with Afghanistan a list of 76 terrorists and sought action against them. These had fled the country during the military operations and are using Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan. However, there has not been a positive response from Kabul. Pakistan has been desirous to fence its border with Afghanistan but physical, financial and political constraints prevented it from doing so. It was as early as 2007, that the then military ruler General Pervez Musharraf vowed to fence the Durand Line. He even offered to mine the border where effective fencing could not be carried out. At that time, Pakistan seemed serious in carrying out fencing but it could not be initiated. Even after passage of nearly a decade, effective fencing of the Durand Line could not be practically taken up. There has been a lack of political will on the part of successive governments to look deeper into the causes of security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The decision to erect a 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; a response to the 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 outrightly rejected fencing and mining of the Pakistan-Afghan border. There is also strong opposition from important political groups and stakeholders on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, including the Pakhtun ethno-linguistic nationalist parties like the Awami National Party (ANP) and PkMAP as well as Jamaat-e-Islami and tribal organizations like the Tanzeem-e-Ittehad-e-Qabail.

As far as the fencing of the whole of the 2,430 kilometre Durand Line is concerned, it is near impossible to fence the whole of it, but a good part of it can be fenced. In Pakistan’s border management plan, fencing has become extremely important. Because, as mentioned earlier, an 1,100 kilometres long trench has been dug  while satellite and physical air surveillance as well as several hundred pickets have also been put in place. Against this backdrop, selective fencing very much serves its purpose. So Islamabad should leave no stone unturned to secure its border with Afghanistan, whether through extensive or selective fencing. Because it is not just a matter of cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants, but this is also very important for our overall national security, sovereignty and national integration.

Whether the Pakistan or Afghanistan governments publicly admit to it or not, the problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not limited to militant and terrorist infiltration. Cross- border terrorism and militancy may be an immediate cause of strained relationship between the two countries, but the roots of mistrust lie in history. The fact of the matter is, that behind the Pakistani decision to fence the border and Afghanistan’s opposition to it, lies the disputed nature of the Durand Line. Pakistan’s official stance on the issue is that it is an established border, while the Afghan stand has been that it has never recognized the border. Even the Taliban regime in Afghanistan refused to renounce its stance over the Durand Line issue when asked by the Pakistani government, notwithstanding the advanced degree of the Taliban’s dependence on the latter. In this situation, only a fool would advise Pakistan to keep its border unprotected and open to cross-border movement.