InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 15

The significance of Pak-Afghan border fencing

While the situation in Afghanistan has taken a new turn and peace is still elusive in the country after an accord signed between the United States and the Afghan Taliban on February 29, Pakistan has successfully fenced most parts of its international border with Afghanistan.

According to reports, Pakistan has completed the planned fencing of 84 percent of its border with Afghanistan. Although the total length of the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, known as the Durnad Line, is 2640 kilometres, yet 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 the border fencing or for that matter border management with Afghanistan can be described as one of the single most important achievement of Pakistan in terms of its security policy, then it would not be exaggeration rather more apt to describe it so.

It is important to mention that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border straddle along two provinces of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan. While the fencing was planned in most of the border area in KP, a long and deep trench was to be dug along the border in Balochistan. Most work on the trench is also said to be complete. Of the entire length of the Durand Line, 1229 kilometres is situated 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 set up right in the north from the Bajaur district to in the South till the South Waziristan district of KP. Along with the fencing, 443 border forts were also to be constructed, of which 250 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. Pasthuns 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 very difficult to manage as it is located in a very inhospitable terrain. Therefore, Pakistan had always thought it would be next to impossible to manage the border. It had been despite the fact that Kabul has had irredentist claims on large tracts of Pakistani territory. Even Pakistan did not bother to have solid management of the Durand Line before mid-1980s, when there had never been any “Strategic Depth” policy of Pakistan in place regarding Afghanistan. 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 arch-rival 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 mid-1980s.

Now when Pakistan has 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, Pakistani 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 the outflow of armed militants from Pakistan.

The decision to fence the border, 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 the cross-border infiltration of Taliban insurgents from its soil into Afghanistan. The Afghan government in the past had outrightly rejected the fencing and mining of the Pakistan-Afghan border. There is also stiff opposition from important political groups and stakeholders on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, including the Pashtun ethno-linguistic nationalist parties, like the Awami National Party (ANP) and PkMAP, as well as Jamaat-e-Islami and tribesmen organizations, like Tanzeem-e-Ittehad-e-Qabail.

As far as the fencing of the 2640 kilometres Durand Line is concerned, it is near to impossible to fence the whole of it but a good part of it can be fenced. In Pakistan’s border management plan, the fencing had become extremely important. An 1100 kilometre-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, even selective fencing serves its purpose. Islamabad should make an all-out effort to secure its border with Afghanistan, whether through extensive or selective fencing. Because it is not just the matter of cross-border infiltration of terrorists and militants, but this is also very important for Pakistan’s overall national security, sovereignty and national integration and equally important, economic development. It has been due to the porous border with Afghanistan that smugglers of food items have been taking advantage to move out essential commodities from Pakistan to Afghanistan, creating extreme shortage of the items in the local markets and skyrocketing their prices. On the other hand, luxury items have been coming into Pakistan, basically imported for Afghanistan, giving serious blows to the local industry.

Whether Pakistan or Afghanistan governments publicly admit it or not, but the problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not limited to militants and terrorists infiltration. Cross-border terrorism and militancy may be an immediate cause of strained relationship between the two countries but the roots of the mistrust lies in history. The fact of the matter is that behind the Pakistani decision to fence the border and Afghanistan’s opposition to it is the disputed nature of the Durand Line. Pakistan’s official stance on the issue has been that it is an established border while Afghanistan’s stand has been that it has never recognized the border, therefore, it has the legal right of reclaiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Even the Taliban regime in Afghanistan refused to renounce its stance on the Durand Line issue when asked by the Pakistani government in the past. In this historical context, the importance of the fencing and overall border management of the Durand Line by Pakistan could very well be understood.