Against expectations of Pakistani decision-makers but not scholars studying Pakistan-Afghanistan relations dynamics, the Taliban, like their predecessors, have started disputing the finality and sanctity of the border between the two sides. The Taliban chief spokesman and field commanders refused to recognize the 2640-kilometer-long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and thus termed Islamabad’s efforts to fence it “illegal.”
The Taliban opposition to the fencing of the Durand Line by Pakistan just not only remained limited to words but in more than one instance Taliban commanders recently forcibly stopped Pakistani workers busy fencing the border. In this connection, videos show Taliban fighters forcing Pakistani labourers to stop working on the fence while taking away bundles of barbed wire that was being used for fencing the border and hurling threats at Pakistani security personnel. In the videos, Pakistani soldiers showed extreme caution and did not react as Taliban fighters took away bundles of barbed wire. Otherwise, the situation could have turned out to be explosive.
Although Pakistani strategists may not have expected that the Taliban, generally considered as the “stooges” of Islamabad, would behave in such a negative way towards border fencing by Pakistan yet remaining true to their salt, the Afghan Taliban restarted taking a totally anti-Pakistan stance, like all past Afghan rulers. It is important to note that even during their last stint in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban did not recognize the Durand Line as a permanent border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Importantly, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj. General Babar Ayaz, during a press conference on January 5, clarified in no uncertain terms that the fencing would go on without any break and the task would be completed soon as 93 percent work had already been completed. He asserted that in such a huge task of fencing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border the blood of Pakistani martyrs was there and, therefore, no one could stop it from going ahead. This is a very clear message to the Taliban regime, which was really necessary.
The row between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the fencing of the Durand Line came to light through videos on social media in which Taliban commanders and fighters could be seen forcibly stopping Pakistani workers from carrying out fencing and even taking down some part of the fence. The incidents could have been dismissed as propaganda and efforts to drive a wedge between Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban regime by India or anti-Taliban Afghan groups. However, when the Taliban acting information minister and spokesman also termed the fencing “illegal,” it was clear that it was the Taliban’s official policy. Taliban spokesman and Afghanistan’s acting information minister Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement saying that there was no need for border fencing by Pakistan as the issue of the Durand Line had not yet been resolved. “The issue of the Durand Line is still unresolved, while the construction of fencing itself creates rifts between a nation spread across both sides of the border. It amounts to dividing a nation,” Mujahid said in a recent interview with a local YouTube channel in Kabul. “As the issue is still unresolved, there was no need for fencing at all,” he told the Paktiawal Official channel. Moreover, Mujahid said the people living on both sides of the border had connections with each other and the fencing was disconnecting them. He asserted, “The Durand Line has divided one nation along both sides. We do not want it at all. We want a rational and logical solution to the problem.”
After Mujahid’s video was shared on Twitter, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarzmi was seen saying that Pakistan had no right to fence the border and create a divide, adding that such a move was “inappropriate and against the law”.
It is important to analyze the statements of Afghan officials regarding the border issue. Firstly, the Durand Line is a permanent border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is internationally recognized and no state, apart from Afghanistan which is a party, has ever raised any objection to the legality of the border. In fact, the United States, Russia and China, on several occasions in unequivocal terms, have clarified that they consider the Durand Line a permanent border between the two countries. Historically, even Afghan regimes, whether of Amir Abdul Rahman, during whose period in 1893 the Durand Line was carved up between Afghanistan and British India, a predecessor state of Pakistan and India; Shah Shuja or King Habibullah Khan, Afghanistan recognized the Durand Line as a permanent border. However, when Pakistan came into existence, taking a volte-face, the then Afghan ruler, King Zahir Shah’s representative in the United Nations, refused to recognize Pakistan as the latter was in possession of swathes of Afghan territory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. As the objection to Pakistan’s membership of the UN was of no legal value, the new state got membership. Nevertheless, Afghan rulers since then have been living in a make-believe or self-deception that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is of no legal value. On some occasions after the creation of Pakistan, Afghanistan tried to forcibly capture Pakistan’s territory but was forced back by Pakistan’s security forces. Nevertheless, Afghanistan has been aiding and abetting Pakistani Pashtun separatists. This has been a key issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Islamabad, in order to scotch it, has assumed a more intrusive foreign policy in Afghanistan. Then Taliban minister Mujahid’s argument that “one nation” referring to Pashtuns living at either side of the border, therefore, fencing is illegal and illogical has no inherent legal or moral value. Then what would be the stance of the Taliban regime, dominated by Pashtuns, on the Afghanistan border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan dividing these ethnic groups? Across the world, international borders divide ethnic groups and communities, like in Europe, especially Germans in Austria and Germany, but this does not mean that borders are illegal or illogical.
To the misfortune of Afghanistan and the region, the Afghan Taliban have increasingly returned to their trademark modus operandi of doing everything by force, whether silencing the opposition at home or dealing with its neighbours, like the incidents on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border suggest. This state of affairs would make the world more cautious of the Taliban and all efforts of the Taliban during the last two decades of insurgency against international and Afghan forces trying to convince the world that it is a political force seem to have gone down the drain. The Taliban behavior towards Pakistan is also a great lesson for our strategists not to believe the regime and deal with it as the world is doing on the basis of national interest. The only great lesson which Pakistani strategists have learnt about Afghanistan is that it cannot be a backyard of Pakistan and any such wish would backfire. Consequently, fencing was started and it has been the single most rational and important step in protecting Pakistan from the ill-effects of issues and problems in Afghanistan. Therefore, there shall be no compromise on fencing the border.