Pakistan is about to reach a new milestone in its fight against terrorism. The fence barrier it is building on the Durand Line, the 2,640km land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that passes through rugged mountains, densely forested valleys and narrow rock passages, is nearing completion.
Islamabad started fencing its porous border with Afghanistan in March 2017, after facing a spate of deadly attacks from Afghanistan-based Pakistani militant groups in the previous year. Despite a slow-performing economy, disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a volatile security environment, the work on the border continued mostly uninterrupted in the last four years. So far, 85 percent of the border has been fenced, and the remaining work is expected to be completed by April 2021.
The border barrier consists of two sets of chain-link fences, separated by a 2-metre (6-foot) space filled with concertina wire coils. The double-fence, which is 3.6 metres high (11 feet) on the Pakistani side and 4 metres high (13 feet) on the Afghan side, is fitted with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors. Moreover, nearly 1,000 forts are also being constructed along the border to increase security. Cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated crossing points after the completion of the project, which is expected to cost more than $500m in total.
For the last two decades, the regions surrounding the Durand Line have been used by armed groups, such as the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to conduct attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad, on the other hand, has raised similar concerns about TTP’s presence in Afghanistan.
Indeed, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have repeatedly found prominent criminals they are seeking to capture and eliminate in each other’s backyards in recent years. In 2016, for example, Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar was killed by a US drone attack in Pakistan’s Balochistan region. Two years later, in 2018, TTP leader Mullah Fazhlullah was killed by another US drone attack in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Pakistan says its border barrier will extensively increase security in restive border areas and put to rest the tensions it experienced with its neighbour over cross-border militant attacks. Critics of the project, however, argue that while the fence will likely deter Afghanistan-based anti-Pakistan militants from conducting cross-border attacks, the Afghan Taliban will continue to cross the border at will, with a wink and a nod from Pakistan.
Pakistan is also hoping that the border barrier will prevent any future turmoil in Afghanistan from spilling into its territory. Indeed, if Afghanistan once again descends into chaos in the coming years, the wall will help curtail the refugee influx from Afghanistan into Pakistan. In 1989, when Russia withdrew from Afghanistan, the ensuing civil war resulted in the migration of millions of Afghan refugees into Pakistan.
Further, the fence will help curb the cross-border smuggling of narcotics and weapons that helps sustain terror groups in the region. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan is the source of 80 to 90 percent of the world’s opium supply. About 45 percent of Afghan opium, which is used in the production of heroin, is trafficked through Pakistan to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Pakistan’s reasons for embarking on this massive fencing project, however, are not only increasing border security and preventing smuggling. The fence will also help Pakistan politically by cementing the Durand Line as the permanent border between the sovereign territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan disputes the border drawn by British colonial officials, with the agreement of then-Afghan leader Amir Abdul Rehman, in 1893. It argues that the border is a “colonial imposition” that divides the ancestral homelands of Pashtun tribes between two countries, and claims sovereignty over the Pashtun territories on the Pakistani side of the border that comprise the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of North West Frontier Province. Kabul also argues that the agreement between British officials and Rehman had a 100-year time limit, which expired in 1993.
Pakistan, on the other hand, considers the border it inherited from the British after its independence as legal and final. And it hopes that its ambitious border barrier project will put the dispute over the Durand Line to rest for good. Even before its completion, the border barrier provided Pakistan with visible benefits.
Since 2007, Pakistan has carried out numerous kinetic operations, including Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul- Fasaad, to root out terror groups from the former FATA. However, the de-facto open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan undermined the security gains made through these operations. It allowed militants to avoid capture by escaping into Afghanistan. These militants, after recovering and regrouping within Afghanistan, later launched new attacks on Pakistan. But since Pakistan’s fencing project began, these same militants started to find it a lot harder to move between the two countries and evade the Pakistani government’s efforts to prevent their attacks. The number of cross-border terror attacks from Afghanistan has fallen from 82 in 2019 to just 11 in 2020.
The fencing of the border, however, has also presented Pakistan with new challenges. The fence adversely affected the daily lives of families who have relatives on both sides of the border. Similarly, it harmed subsistence farmers whose lands straddle the border. The situation has already compelled several farmers to sell their lands at throwaway prices. Traders who made a living by exporting food items and other goods from Pakistan into Afghanistan and vice versa have also been affected as they now need to acquire visas to cross the border and pay customs fees for the produce they bring over.
Pakistan is already working to mitigate the negative impact the border barrier had on the lives of civilians living in the area. It has reached an agreement with Afghanistan to establish joint trade markets along the border and discussions are ongoing about exactly where these markets should be established and what items should be traded within them. It is also planning to financially compensate the farmers who have lands on both sides of the border. For the families living across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Islamabad will issue long-term passes.
The fencing of the Pak-Afghan border is a necessary step towards curbing militancy in the border areas and bringing stability to the former FATA. But on its own, it will not solve the region’s myriad problems. The border barrier will undoubtedly provide a tactical respite for Pakistan and reduce the number of cross-border attacks. But until sustainable peace is achieved in Afghanistan, and the grievances of the Pashtun tribes living near the border are resolved, no barrier will successfully bring peace, stability and long term security to the region.