Border fencing at the western border has not only reduced the illegal movement of goods and people, but also significantly reduced terrorist movement across the border. Border fencing is vital to ensure the hard-earned peace and stability, as well as honor the sacrifices of the citizens and security forces of Pakistan.
In what has been a difficult time globally, it is easy to lose sight of achievements and positive developments amongst the overwhelming sense of gloom and doom permeating the society internationally. The impacts of the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, climate change chaos including the massive floods in Pakistan, the ongoing crises in Afghanistan, political upheaval, and mass migration, have all had a negative impact on the global economies, energy prices, food security and living standards across many countries including Pakistan.
Pakistan’s location in a fractious neighbourhood that has for centuries been marked by regional upheaval, power struggles, conflicts, border disputes and instability, creates unique security and economic challenges. This, combined with the global crises of the 21st century, has made peaceful progress in nation-building challenging. However, the country has made substantial gains in security and the fencing and management of its western border. This could not have happened without the massive contributions of Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps (FC). Securing the borders is integral to security for nations. Without border security, stability and socioeconomic development will always be at risk.
The western border with Afghanistan has long been problematic for Pakistan. After 9/11, the U.S.-NATO led invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the war on terror, Pakistan entered a dangerous era. The then porous border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), became a no-go zone. Militants settled along both sides of the border to hide in these remote areas amongst the tribal communities, taking advantage of family linkages which stretch across the border, and also by intimidation and extreme violence against any local resistance. Terrorist attacks on markets, hotels, military facilities, schools, and businesses elsewhere became frequent occurrences. Thousands of lives, estimated to be more than 80,000, were lost from all walks of life. The period between 2008 and 2013 was particularly deadly.
Cities like Peshawar, once a ‘must visit’ for tourists, faded from travel itineraries. Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and other major cities were struck by terrorist attacks. Foreign governments issued travel warnings for their citizens advising them to reconsider their need to travel to Pakistan, for cities like Peshawar gained a red level ‘do not travel’ warning. The national, provincial, and local economies suffered enormously as the cost and losses from conflict escalated. Government officials have estimated that the economic cost since 2001 has been over $150 billion. This is more than twice the combined cost of all natural disasters in Pakistan from 2001 until 2022. Critical decisions had to be made and fortunately, they have been effective.
The situation has improved significantly in the recent years as life became peaceful with a major reduction in the terrorist attacks. This has been due to the military operations launched against the terrorists by the Pakistan Army and FC, and the sacrifices of so many to defeat terrorism and bring peace and stability. Kinetic operations, Rah-e-Haq, Black Thunderstorm, Sherdil, Koh-e-Safaid, Al-Mizan, Zalzala, Rah-e-Nijat, Raah-e-Raast, and Zarb-e-Azb were all critical in stabilising the western border regions and Swat district.
Another critical decision amongst many to ensure peace and stability has been the fencing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The construction of the 2,640 kilometre border fence commenced in 2017. It required impressive logistics, engineering solutions, and human endurance. The border fence passes through some of the toughest terrain imaginable, over high mountains, through rocky gorges, and plains. The fence is constructed of two lines of 4 metre high chain-linked wire, topped and divided by concertina rolls of razor wire, and in places, constructed with a more solid high wall. Sensors and cameras are in place along the fence to trigger alerts on any attempted incursion. Over 1,000 forts have been established along the entire length of Pakistan’s side of the border. There are no roads or tracks to many of the smaller forts. All food and water supplies, equipment, weapons and ammunition must be carried up, regardless of weather conditions or the forbidding terrain. There are a number of small legal crossing points with the main crossings at Torkham and Chaman that allow people and trucks to move through, subject to proper documentation.
Pakistan’s level of vigilance along the border fence is not matched on the Afghanistan side where there are only around 300 posts compared to over 1,200 on Pakistan’s side leaving the space open to militants to get too close to the fence. In the past year, there have been attempts in some places along Afghanistan’s side of the fence to tear it down, and an increased cross-border firing on Pakistan’s troops from Afghanistan. All such attacks have been strongly responded to by Pakistan’s troops and in parallel, diplomatic reprimands.
But it is the human barrier on the Pakistan side that makes the ultimate difference in securing the border and managing of the crossing points. The FC controls the western border, supported by XI Corps of the Pakistan Army, protecting the entire length of the fence in all terrains, in all weathers–in snow, freezing cold, rain, and blazing heat. The FC, a paramilitary force under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, which includes officers and troops seconded from the Pakistan Army, has a long and proud history dating back to 1878 and organised formally by Lord Curzon in 1907 to bring together the various militia and scout units to maintain law and order in the western border areas. Divided into FC Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (North and South) and FC Balochistan (North and South), FC conducts border patrols, counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations, capacity-building of local law enforcement, and oversees anti-smuggling operations.
There is no doubt of the effectiveness of the border fence in reducing the illegal crossing into Pakistan of militant groups, smuggling of narcotics, currency, goods, and unfettered migration and movement of terrorists. Border crossings have brought greater control for both sides through management of cross-border trade and movement of people. While terrorist attacks have vastly reduced in the recent years, many challenges remain with a more recent uptick in serious incidents in the newly-merged tribal districts and along the border, causing concern. The withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) has triggered a new era of uncertainty as the IEA struggle to be internationally recognized as a legitimate government. Their economy ground to a halt. People were not able to access their savings, many jobs disappeared, healthcare became precarious, and many education institutions closed. Thousands of foreigners and Afghans who worked for foreign forces were airlifted. New bilateral mechanisms had to be negotiated for everything and massive humanitarian aid had to be provided by donor countries to ensure the new government could provide food and other assistance to the population. Life had become precarious for many. The border crossings into Pakistan were inundated with desperate people trying to flee. Immigration and cross-border trade arrangements became confusing and erratic.
In 2022, there have been significant improvements in managing border crossings like Torkham which links Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. This is not only the busiest crossing for trade, but also one of the most famous and strategic in regional history. For more than 2,000 years, expeditions and invading armies have crossed here and on through Landi Kotal, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and beyond Peshawar to the extended subcontinent. Alexander the Great in 326 BC, Genghis Khan in 1221, the forces of British East India Company in the 19th century, and many other famous names in history have passed through this spectacular region.
It is at Torkham that the importance and improvements of cross-border management come clearly into full view. The mechanisms for movement of trucks carrying approved goods from both sides have been resolved and the process has become more orderly. Lines of up to 1,000 trucks, some carrying much-needed foreign aid are crossing daily. Trucks from Afghanistan are carrying coal and vegetables needed to address any shortages in Pakistan. The benefits are mutual to both economies. Currently, it takes up to 24 hours to cross but when the impressive new terminals, currently under construction by the National Logistics Cell open in early 2023, processing will become much faster, taking only three or four hours at most.
Funding for the new border terminal is via a loan to the Government of Pakistan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Regional Improving Border Services Project (CAREC-RIBS) to improve Torkham, Chaman, and Wagah border management. According to the ADB, the primary objective of the CAREC-RIBS Project is ‘to encourage economic growth and reduce poverty by addressing the inadequacies that are restricting trade and hampering full capitalization of the transit trade potential of Pakistan. The aim is to reduce time for cargo clearance, providing expeditious clearance, and encouraging increased trade flows, without compromising essential security checks.
Security checks of humans and cargoes are vital. In recent times, great work by the FC and other agencies have led to seizures of narcotics (29 tons in just the past year), arms and ammunition, currency and gold, and various prohibited goods. The new terminal and management systems will strengthen control even further. A surprisingly large number of people legally cross the border each way every day for trade, medical treatment (including at a hospital constructed at Torkham), education, and family visits. An improved visa and documentation process, and upgradation and full implementation of the biometric verification system is critical to regulate the flow of migrants between the two countries and allow law enforcement officials to identify wanted terrorists trying to slip through at the crossings, and keep track of movements and stays of visa holders within Pakistan in line with normal immigration requirements for all foreign visitors.
Communities along the road from Torkham to Peshawar are benefitting greatly from stability and increasing trade. Khyber District, once a hotbed of militancy, is today much peaceful. Businesses along the route are providing services to passing trucks, markets are busy, local services have improved, and education is thriving. Significantly, a very large number of girls are seen going to school at the insistence of their parents that they too receive a proper education. Education statistics are higher in this region than other districts. FC has built new schools staffed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Department teachers. Peshawar too, is benefiting and is regaining its popularity as a place for tourists to enjoy the unique culture, food, crafts, and historic sites like the magnificent Bala Hisar–the Headquarters of the FC (North)–with its recently renovated museum showing the fascinating history of the Fort and those who have played a part in the history of the region. Other ‘must visits’ include the Peshawar Museum with its outstanding collection of Gandhara artefacts, food street, walking tours in the bazaars and older parts of the city and wandering around the shops making beautiful artisan crafts in copper and brass. This adds greatly to the economy in numerous ways including investment, tourism, and international perceptions about Pakistan as a safe and beautiful country to visit.
The hard-earned dividends of peace and security, governance/rule of law, economic recovery and social services, cannot be lost, nor taken for granted. Following the military operations, the focus changed to rebuilding and strengthening the local communities in the tribal areas (now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) through socioeconomic development. Working closely with government, XI Corps and the FC have empowered communities through the provision of facilities and opportunities that were not previously available in the tribal belt due to insecurity. Hundreds of schools for boys and girls have been restored or newly constructed, new cadet colleges opened, good roads and other vital infrastructure built, health facilities, vocational training centres established, water supplies including solar powered pumping stations have been installed, and women’s centres and children’s homes are operational. These are just some of the dividends of peace, but this has come at a price and cannot be allowed to fail.
A firm approach is imperative to resolve issues as they arise and ensure terrorism doesn’t spill back over into Pakistan and destroy the hard-won gains. Recent shelling attacks on civilians by Afghan forces at the Chaman border crossing in Balochistan led to the closure of the crossing. However, civilian and military authorities from both countries with support from local tribal leaders conducted negotiations and agreed on further consultations to mutually resolve lingering border and fencing issues. Border trade is vital to both countries, but closing the border in such instances is necessary to put a stop to such attacks on Pakistani civilians and security forces.
Pakistan is not alone in its concerns about terrorism out of Afghanistan. Recently, the looming threat attracted renewed international attention when, in his annual ‘end of year’ global affairs press conference in Geneva on December 19, 2022, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, commented on the current situation in Afghanistan and their inability to reign in terrorist groups threatening Pakistan. The UN Secretary-General said, “There is another clear ask from the international community, which is for Afghanistan to stop all forms of activity of terrorist organizations from Afghanistan that represent a threat to neighbouring countries, including Pakistan”. He went on to say, “And so, we are actively engaged in our discussions with the IEA de facto authorities in relation to this, and we consider that it is absolutely essential for the Taliban not to allow any form of terrorist activity that might have an impact in relation to Pakistan, as in relation to any other country of the region.”
The UN Secretary-General’s strong comments highlight the growing international concern about the terrorism situation in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the relationship with Afghanistan is likely to remain rocky for some time as the new Taliban government struggles to establish control over splinter groups to whom they may previously have had linkages. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), responsible for attacks on military personnel and civilians in Pakistan, continues to find safe havens in Afghanistan. The resurgence of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan also poses a threat not only to Afghanistan where the hallmarks of IS-K have been apparent on recent attacks in Kabul, but also to Pakistan. Any attack on Pakistan will be swiftly dealt with, but finding solutions to long-term peace in the border areas also requires constant diplomacy and dialogue with stakeholders on both sides of the border.
Everything possible must continue to be done to ensure that terrorism continues to be completely stamped out and the courage and sacrifice of so many over the years is honored. The construction of the border fence has already played a significant role as a barrier in protecting the western border to build on the massive gains made through military operations and stabilization. It will continue to do so long into the future.
Protecting the borders is paramount to securing peace, stability, and prosperity for a strong nation.
The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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