Pak-Afghan International Border and Regional Security

Written By: Zamir Akram

Moreover, and this is the crucial point, if the U.S. and the Afghan government are really serious about their accusations, they need to cooperate with Pakistan to ensure that the Pak-Afghan border is sealed and no movement takes places by anyone in either direction. The fact that Kabul continues to refuse such cooperation exposes its malafide intentions. Indeed, its refusal to cooperate indicates that it wants to keep the border porous and unchecked so that TTP and Da’esh terrorists can be infiltrated into Pakistan. In this the Indians also have an obvious vested interest.

The Afghan government’s refusal to cooperate with Pakistan to monitor and control the Pakistan-Afghanistan border coupled with its sponsorship of anti-Pakistan terrorist groups of the TTP which are also colluding with elements of ISIS/Daesh in Afghanistan, pose a severe security threat to not only Pakistan but also to other regional states including China, Iran and Russia, apart from Afghanistan itself. But the multiple powerbrokers in Kabul, with clear instigation and support from New Delhi, instead of recognizing their own long term national interest in cooperating with Pakistan, are more intent upon using the porous border to try and destabilize Pakistan. This leaves Pakistan with the only option to forcibly and unilaterally seal the Pak-Afghan border and tightly regulate any movement across it. This is not only in Pakistan’s interest but also in the interest of regional security.


From Pakistan’s security perspective there are both external and internal compulsions for securing its border with Afghanistan. The worst case security scenario for Pakistan is to face simultaneous confrontation on both its western and eastern borders with Afghanistan and India. On the eastern front, Pakistani troops have been engaged for decades in protecting the country’s border with India while being in direct confrontation with Indian troops on the volatile Line of Control (LoC) and Working Boundary with Indian Occupied Kashmir. Given the ongoing popular uprising in occupied Kashmir against Indian occupation, this disputed territory continues to pose a security threat for Pakistan. At the same time, the situation on the western border with Afghanistan has been deliberately destabilized with unprovoked attacks on Pakistani border posts by Afghan troops, the most recent being the firing on a Pakistani census team near the Chaman border in Balochistan. Even worse is the sanctuary given by Afghanistan to TTP terrorist groups close to the border who are encouraged and enabled to cross over this border to carryout terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

pakafghanintborder.jpgWhat makes this situation worse is the active collusion between the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies that finance, arm and support TTP terrorists based in Afghanistan as well as Baloch insurgents and separatists. In fact, such Indo-Afghan collusion is part of the strategic Indian objective to use pliant Afghan factions and their territory to destabilize Pakistan. Indeed, this has been the Indo-Afghan geo-political objective since the independence of Pakistan when immediately thereafter Afghanistan was the only country that objected to Pakistan’s UN membership and started the Pushtunistan bogey in a vain effort to undermine Pakistan’s territorial integrity. Since then Afghan leaders, even those better disposed towards Pakistan like the Taliban, have also refused to accept the internationally recognized sanctity and legality of the border with Pakistan. In the contemporary environment, such Afghan obduracy over the status of the border has become a self-defeating and an untenable proposition for them since they joined the Indians in accusing Pakistan of promoting “cross-border terrorism” but at the same time do not “recognize” the border.


At the internal level, the threat to Pakistan’s security stems from terrorism in Pakistan spawned by terrorists belonging to the TTP and Daesh with sanctuary and support from within Afghanistan. Pakistan government’s initial efforts to find a political solution through dialogue with the TTP groups failed to reduce terrorist incidents and only encouraged them to intensify their attacks against civilian and military targets especially in FATA. It was only after the brutal attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, that the futile dialogue option was abandoned and military operations started against TTP terrorists through Zarb-e-Azb and continues now through Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. However, while TTP sanctuaries in FATA and the border areas have been cleansed by these military operations, the remnants of the TTP have crossed over the border into adjoining areas of Afghanistan such as Nangarhar and Paktia from where they are being openly supported and armed by the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies, thereby enabling them to continue launching terrorist attacks within Pakistan across the unregulated border. The presence of nearly 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan also provides these terrorists the cover and space to infiltrate and conduct terrorist activities. At the same time, both Kabul and New Delhi are arming and financing separatist groups, especially insurgent Baloch organizations, to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism within Pakistan. A prime target for them is to derail the infrastructure projects in Pakistan related to the operationalization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As a result, Pakistan has been forced to raise a Special Security Division, military force to protect the CPEC projects and the personnel involved, especially Chinese nationals.

 

Moreover, under international law and the Durand Line agreement, Pakistan remains well within its rights to control, restrict and deny the so-called “easement rights” for tribes living on both sides of the border, which are not part of the original agreement but evolved over time as a practice to facilitate interaction and movement of the tribes without travel documents or visas. However, since these easement rights are now being violated and abused by local tribes as well as others to engage in terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking, weapons' transfers and unchecked movement of refugees, Pakistan is legally justified to control and even curtail such movement.

The border agreement and international law also do not prevent Pakistan from taking any measures, such as fencing, visas' requirements and border checks to regulate movement in either direction across the border.

The roots of these external and internal security challenges for Pakistan that also today affect the entire region are complex and multi-dimensional. At the heart of this conundrum is, of course, the hegemonic Indian obsession to dominate the whole of South Asia. This has consistently propelled New Delhi to instigate tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a part of its overall pursuit of regional domination, a strategy in which Kabul, for the most part, has been a willing partner. With the current Indo-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, such collaboration has now been institutionalized.


But this underlying security threat for Pakistan has been complicated over the last three decades due to factors largely beyond Pakistan’s control. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 confronted Pakistan with twin problems – the presence of the Red Army on its borders at a time when the Soviet Union and India were close military allies; and the influx of more than 3 million Afghan refugees, many of whom are still in Pakistan. With help from Pakistan, the U.S. and other countries, the Afghan Mujahideen successfully compelled the Soviets to withdraw after almost 10 years of fighting. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. and its partners abandoned Afghanistan thereafter, which quickly degenerated into a decade long civil war among different Afghan factions and war lords. This period also witnessed the growth of religious extremism and the growth of terrorist groups involving fighters from various parts of the world including Arab countries in particular. To protect its interests against involvement of regional players such as India and Iran, Pakistan gravitated towards the emerging Afghan power bloc, the Taliban, as the best option to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the lawless and unstable Afghan situation with growth of extremism, terrorism, drugs and weapons, permeated into Pakistan via its porous border with Afghanistan and through the vehicle of the unchecked movement of refugees, drug lords, smugglers and criminals. Not just the Pak-Afghan border areas but even Pakistan’s major cities were infected with this malaise.

 

Ensuring effective border controls will be crucial for the successes of Pakistan’s military operations to contain and defeat terrorism by the TTP and its Daesh collaboration based in Afghanistan. It would also be critical for the safe operations of the CPEC by neutralizing the terrorist activities of Baloch terrorists from their Afghan safe havens. Apart from Pakistan, effective border controls will also be essential for the interests of regional countries, especially China, Iran and Russia, which are also threatened by Afghan based TTP and Daesh terrorists.

The failure of the Taliban to restore peace in their country and to gain international acceptability was confounded by their toleration of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda which eventually, after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., brought about their downfall and the American presence in Afghanistan, in pursuit of their “War on Terror”. Despite initial American gains to dislodge the Taliban and “drain the Afghan swamp,” military operations over the next 15 years have been only partially successful. While Al-Qaeda has been mainly disabled, it has not been destroyed. Instead, the U.S. and its NATO partners have become embroiled in an endless stalemate with the Taliban, which has provided space for the Al-Qaeda and now increasingly Da’esh to make inroads into Afghanistan.


While there are multiple reasons for this American failure in Afghanistan, the important outcome for Pakistan has been the lack of effective coordination between the U.S. and Pakistan from the very beginning of U.S. operations, which allowed hundreds of Al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban to cross the Afghan border into Pakistan and go underground in the tribal areas and even in the cities, using the lure of money and (misguided) ideology to gain local support as well as recruits. As a partner in this counter-terrorism campaign led by the U.S., Pakistan conducted several military operations and intelligence based raids to ferret out these terrorists but the much vaunted “hammer and anvil” tactics between Pakistan and American forces did not really take effect as there was hardly any U.S., NATO or Afghan presence on the other side of the border to catch or kill terrorists fleeing Pakistani operations. For instance, there were over 1000 Pakistani military posts all along the border but only 118 U.S./Afghan posts on the other side. The oft promised and much needed equipment from the Americans for Pakistani forces, such as helicopters and night vision equipment, was also in very short supply, inhibiting Pakistan’s capabilities.


At the same time, American/NATO tactics within Afghanistan, with indiscriminate use of force, especially air-power and drones, caused huge collateral damage. To make matters worse, there was greater emphasis on use of force rather than efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds. The result has been the ability of the Taliban to not only regroup but also to find willing fighters for their cause. These factors continue to prolong the stalemate in Afghanistan with the Taliban being able to extend their sphere of control, especially since the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops and the incapacity of the Afghan army to take charge.


In this deteriorating environment, the U.S. and its Afghan allies have made common cause by blaming Pakistan and using it as a scapegoat for their failure. These allegations are contrary to ground realities because the Taliban operations are deep within Afghan territory, as far north of Pakistan as Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, which the Taliban simply cannot launch from Pakistan. In fact they now control more than 45% of Afghan territory and do not need to operate from Pakistan. Moreover, and this is the crucial point, if the U.S. and the Afghan government are really serious about their accusations, they need to cooperate with Pakistan to ensure that Pak-Afghan border is sealed and no movement takes places by anyone in either direction. The fact that Kabul continues to refuse such cooperation exposes its malafide intentions. Indeed, its refusal to cooperate indicates that it wants to keep the border porous and unchecked so that TTP and Daesh terrorists can be infiltrated into Pakistan. In this the Indians also have an obvious vested interest. What the U.S. seeks to gain is, however, most intriguing.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s intentions and actions amply demonstrate that Islamabad is genuine in its efforts to ensure foolproof border management with Afghanistan which also underscores its bonafides regarding cross-border terrorism allegations. The positions of both sides in this regard, therefore, deserve closer scrutiny.


Pakistan inherited the 2611 km border with Afghanistan from the British Indian government at the time of independence in 1947. This border, demarcated by a British official, Sir Mortimer Durand and hence also called the Durand Line, was agreed to by Afghanistan’s Amir Abdul Rehman in 1893. It was subsequently reaffirmed by the British and the Afghans in the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1921. Since then the Durand Line has been accepted internationally as the border, which, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties has been inherited by the succeeding State of Pakistan from the British. It was only in 1949, that the Afghans unilaterally declared that they considered the Durand Line border as an “imaginary line” and refused to accept it as the international border. However, under international law and under the UN Charter such Afghan claims have no basis in law or fact.


Moreover, under international law and the Durand Line agreement, Pakistan remains well within its rights to control, restrict and deny the so-called “easement rights” for tribes living on both sides of the border, which are not part of the original agreement but evolved over time as a practice to facilitate interaction and movement of the tribes without travel documents or visas. However, since these easement rights are now being violated and abused by local tribes as well as others to engage in terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking, weapons' transfers and unchecked movement of refugees, Pakistan is legally justified to control and even curtail such movement.


The border agreement and international law also do not prevent Pakistan from taking any measures, such as fencing, visas' requirements and border checks to regulate movement in either direction across the border.


Despite the negative stance taken by successive Afghan governments regarding the border, including promotion of the so-called Pashtunistan issue and sanctuary given to dissident Baloch and Pushtoon groups, as well as the inflow of Afghan refugees into Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the problem of border management did not arise for the most part until Kabul started accusing Pakistan of supporting Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. As a result, in 2006, Pakistan decided to fence parts of the border and installed a biometric system at the Chaman border crossing in 2007 as a pilot project. However, the Afghans reacted violently with mobs attacking Pakistani posts. In 2013, clashes erupted between Pakistan and Afghan troops when Pakistan tried to repair a gate at the Gursal military post. It is also important to note that after the Afghan forces assumed greater control of the border areas following draw-down of U.S./NATO troops from the area, there has been a sharp rise in cross-border shelling and attacks on Pakistani positions. Afghan forces also resorted to firing to prevent installation of a fence by Pakistan despite being 30 metres inside Pakistan territory at Torkham which led to closure of the border for 5 days.


After the APS attack which was clearly planned and executed by TTP groups based in Afghanistan, there was a renewed determination to ensure an end to terrorist infiltration from that country. The National Action Plan adopted in 2015 called for more effective border controls which began to be implemented with the installation of a gate at the Torkham border alongwith requirement for passports and visas for all Afghans entering Pakistan. Again the Afghans resorted to unprovoked firing which led to the death of a Pakistani army officer. Similar incidents of violence by Afghan soldiers and organized mobs also took place on the Chaman border during this period.


This trend has continued despite numerous flag meetings between officials of the two sides and tripartite meetings between Pakistani, U.S. and Afghan military officials as well as efforts made by the Advisor for Foreign Affairs and the Army Chief directly with the Afghan leadership. The U.S. military Commander in Afghanistan has also been involved in this process. But all these efforts by Pakistan have not met with any lasting success.


In its latest attempt in border management, Pakistan has resorted to unilateral steps in view of Afghan refusal to cooperate, with installation of vigilant border controls at the 2 major entry points at Torkham and Chaman as well at Arandu in Chitral, at Ghulam Khan in North Wazirstan, Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, Nawa Pass in Mohmand, Gursal in Bajaur, and Kharlachi in Kurram. Apart from passport and visa controls there is also going to be selective fencing of certain border areas.


Ensuring effective border controls will be crucial for the successes of Pakistan’s military operations to contain and defeat terrorism by the TTP and its Daesh collaboration based in Afghanistan. It would also be critical for the safe operations of the CPEC by neutralizing the terrorist activities of Baloch terrorists from their Afghan safe havens.


Apart from Pakistan, effective border controls will also be essential for the interests of regional countries, especially China, Iran and Russia, which are also threatened by Afghan based TTP and Daesh terrorists. However, a big question remains over the intentions and role of the U.S. If Washington is really interested in defeating terrorism, particularly the emerging threat posed by the TTP-Daesh combined, it should actively cooperate with Pakistan and other regional powers to neutralize these groups. So far it has not done so and does not seem inclined in that direction. Instead the U.S. continues to harp on the allegations of Pakistani support to the Afghan Taliban, a charge with which they are now also accusing Russia and Iran. Meanwhile no real effort is being made by the U.S. to reverse the Indo-Afghan backing for terrorists operating against Pakistan and which also threaten other regional countries. This policy is doomed to fail even if the U.S. increases its troop levels in Afghanistan since the stalemate with the Taliban will continue and a few thousand more American troops will not be able to accomplish what the U.S. and NATO forces have failed to achieve despite fighting at full strength for 16 years. The only solution for the U.S. lies in cooperating with Pakistan to end Afghan-Indian support for TTP-Daesh terrorism against Pakistan and to support an intra Afghan dialogue to end the military stalemate in that country and leading to a political solution.


From Pakistan’s security perspective, there is a need to toughen its policy of dealing with Afghan based terrorists and if the Afghans and the Americans remain obdurate, the fight may have to be taken into Afghan territory to destroy terrorist bases in keeping with the international law principle of hot pursuit. Pakistan would also need to upgrade its border controls with greater resort to fencing vulnerable parts of the border and even using land mines where considered necessary. As long as these steps are taken within Pakistani territory, Pakistan would be acting well within the parameters of international law and the border agreement with Afghanistan. At the same time together measures would need to be taken to ensure the permanent return of Afghan refugees to their country.

 

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

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