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Stopping Illegal X-border Movement: A Must for Peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Durand Line is an international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that was drawn under an agreement which was signed by The Foreign Secretary of the British Colonial Government of India, Sir Mortimer Durand and Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rehman in return for the financial support. The agreement included few provisions decided between the British and Afghan governments of the time. According to Article-II of this agreement, the Afghan government agreed not to interfere in the areas those then formed part of the Indian territory (now Pakistan), and also lost control on a number of small territories historically administered by Amirs. Similarly, the British government also agreed to accept Afghan hegemony over the areas falling within Afghanistan.

The Durand Line divided the Pashtun tribes living in the area and gave the British, control of regions that later became Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), now Kyhber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), and Balochistan. When Afghanistan became fully independent in 1919, it accepted the Line as its border with British India. But Kabul disowned its own decision and started objecting to the Line's legitimacy when Pakistan came into existence in 1947. Afghanistan objection was based on unification of tribes living on both sides of the border. Afghan leaders also argued from time to time that the various agreements between British India and Afghanistan, including the Durand Line, lost validity when the British left South Asia. However, Pakistan has always maintained the legitimate stance that Durand Line constitutes its recognized international border with Afghanistan.

Because Pashtuns had been the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan since the mid-eighteenth century, Afghan Amirs often took pride in portraying themselves as the historic leaders of all Pashtuns despite the fact that they did not rule over them. Indeed, the terms 'Afghan' and 'Pashtun' tended to be used interchangeably during the nineteenth century. These both terms are geographical in nature as the people on Afghan side of the border like to call themselves 'Afghans', whereas people on the Pakistani side of the border call themselves ‘Pashtuns’. The Durand Line runs through a rough, rocky and waterless mountainous region populated by farmers living in scattered villages who grow subsistence crops for livelihood. People cross the border at their will and do not treat and consider it as a boundary. This is not surprising at all since the Durand Line is poorly demarcated in most places, and not demarcated at the rest.

The deployment of international troops in Afghanistan led by the U.S. in 2001 brought new challenges for Pakistan to deal with. With American troops based in Afghanistan's side of border, the question of where the border was and Pakistan's responsibilities for maintaining peace, law and order in its own territories acquired international attention. The extremists and terrorists were hiding on both sides of the borders and were entering Pakistan through this porous border.

The Durand Line has been more problematic because of the nature of the frontier between Afghanistan and the British Raj at the time it was drawn. Unlike Afghanistan's international boundaries with Russia in the north or Iran in the west, which were officially recognized as such by all parties at the time, she is not ready to accept her own earlier accepted stance on Durand Line. There is a clear difference between a boundary and a frontier. An international boundary marks a clear separation (natural or artificial) between two neighbouring states. A frontier is the portion of a territory that faces the border of another country, including both the boundary line itself and the land adjacent to it.

Some elements from the locals on both sides of the border are pleased to see the unresolved border issue because it makes it easier for them to reject state authority of all types. Such ungoverned territories have played a pivotal role in attracting foreign ‘Islamist’ radicals who need a safe haven where they can base themselves beyond the reach of state authorities in order to carry out their nefarious agendas. As far as the international community is concerned, it has accepted the existing border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as international border. It sees the ongoing dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a fruitless and aimless struggle which is acting as an impediment in bringing stability to the region.

For the people who live along it, the Durand Line has never constituted an international border. They usually act as if it does not exist, crossing freely from one side to another. There are villages located in Pakistan that have their farmland in Afghanistan and vice versa. Pakistan maintains more than 100,000 regular troops on its borders with Afghanistan, with about 800 posts. Every day, at least 15,000 Pakistanis and Afghans on both sides cross two international border points – Torkham and Chaman, most of them carrying simple ID cards issued to the communities living on either side of the border. Taliban militants, particularly members of these communities also slip across the Durand Line using the same ID cards, disguising themselves as tribesmen, wanting to see friends and family or pursuing business.

To control the cross border movement of terrorists and to keep a check on illegal movement, Pakistan proposed to fence the border in 2006 which was vehemently opposed by Afghanistan’s President Karzai. He said that the fence would create distances among, what he called, brotherly people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But to keep a check on terrorists and extremists, fencing of this border is very vital. Pakistan takes responsibility for its territory and extends the socio-economic reforms for economic development and education in the FATA region. This is quite difficult because the security situation is currently poor due to cross-border movement from Afghan side, which makes the launching of large development projects very difficult.

Pakistan's economy has already suffered badly from 13 years' long war against terrorism, and the situation is worse for Pakistan in particular due to losses of billions of dollars from goods smuggling through this border. The drug trade is also very common in the FATA region. An agreement to fence the border and to establish a proper mechanism for the checks and balances on both sides can be an effective step to control this problem. It would be in the interests of both countries to co-operate and to expel foreign elements from their territories who have threatened the security of both countries.

It would be impossible to effectively monitor a largely unmarked frontier that stretches 2,560 Km from snow-covered mountains in the north to remote deserts on the border with Iran in the south. Pakistan should fence it to stop illegal cross border movement and could use the landmines only in areas where it is impossible to lay wires in order to restrict the movement of militants into its territory. Fencing of the border will also facilitate to considerably reduce the infiltration of militants. The plan to fence the border with Afghanistan was twice considered in the past, 2007 and 2009, but this proposal faced a severe opposition from Afghan government.

Pakistan is not a signatory to the Anti-landmines Geneva Convention and other international agreements that restrict building of fences along international borders and thus does not require permission from its neighbours for the construction of fence along the border. As a sovereign nation, Pakistan has every right to take effective and concrete measures for its own defence, especially under present circumstances when cross border infiltration by the militants has become the norm of the day. There is no writ of the Afghan government along its most border villages which has made this region even more precarious and beyond government's reach. Pakistan should use every means to stop local and foreign militants using its soil for terrorist acts.

The Afghans' opposition to the fencing is also rooted in history; and this is not any new phenomenon for Islamabad. Pashtuns are the majority ethnic community in Afghanistan and also inhabit vast stretches on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line as well. It is interesting to mention that Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai time and again has been accusing Pakistan for destabilising his government by providing Taliban militants with sanctuary and funding in the semi-autonomous border region but he spurned the fencing proposal. When it comes to take some effective measures to control the cross border infiltration of militants, he has even shown his desire to finish the borders and check-posts, rather than adding to the hurdles in the way of free movement of Pashtuns living across the border…a suggestion which has raised serious concern and questions over Afghan government's credibility and seriousness to root out militancy and terrorism as a coalition partner in war against terrorism. India has also fenced its entire border with Pakistan so there should not be any international concern if Pakistan proposes the same with Afghanistan. The southern border of the U.S. is shared with Mexico and spans almost 2,000 miles. To address the smuggling issues and cross border movement, fencing of the border was done and barriers were placed.

Afghanistan is a land locked country surrounded by mountains which needs Pakistan for trading with the outside world. Similarly a stable and peaceful Afghanistan can play a vital role in giving Pakistan access to the Central Asian Republics (CARs). It is in the interest of both, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to reduce the current tensions, fence the border and legalize the trade. A successful solution can only be acceptable if the tribal people who actually live in the border areas show their willingness to any such mutual agreement in weeding out terrorism and growing militancy in the region.


The writer is a PhD Scholar at National Defence University, Islamabad. [email protected]

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