Fencing the Durand Line

The recent clash has smuggling profits behind it

Relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan are back to Square One. On 22 December 2021, the Afghan Taliban disrupted the process of erecting a security fence along the Durand Line called the Pak-Afghan border, which is around 2,600 km long, and was established in 1893. The agitators uprooted a part of the fence along the border in Nangarhar, Eastern Afghanistan. Subsequently, Afghan Defence Ministry’s spokesman Enayatullah Khwarzmi issued a video message saying that Pakistan had no right to fend the border and create a divide and that any such act was inappropriate and against the law.

Though Pakistan has also liked to roil the political water in Afghanistan, it has dodged entering into a conflict with the Afghan Taliban. Disrupting the process of fencing was a crime, as the Afghan Taliban not only pulled up the fence but also seized spools of barbed wire, besides issuing a caveat to Pakistani soldiers not to reinstall the hedge. From 2007 onward, Pakistan has already finished 90 percent of the fencing work along the porous border. On January 3, at a press conference held in Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Pakistan’s government had taken up the matter with the Afghan Taliban diplomatically.

Nevertheless, those who struggle for any concept carrying the word “greater” and those who oppose the concept may try to understand that the reality of globalization– despite all its perils – is meant for integration and assimilation, and not for making autochthonous claims for irredentism and revanchism. Learn to respect peace. 

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Apparently, it is the firm resolve of the Afghan Taliban not to accept the Durand Line as the international border. In an interview to the Paktiawal Official Channel, Afghanistan’s acting information Minister Zabiullah Mujahid also said that the issue of the Durand Line was still unresolved leaving no reason for fencing and that the construction of the fence divided a nation straddling the border.

Even the government of Ashraf Ghani remained averse to Pakistan on the issue of fencing the border. Three main reasons compelled Pakistan to opt for fencing the border.

First, Pakistan was alleged to have been supporting certain Pashtun Sunni groups in Afghanistan to destabilize the sitting government in Kabul, as Pakistan remained apprehensive of the intent of any Afghan government towards Pakistan. Second, the influx of members of the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), especially in the guise of Afghan refugees, was unchecked, as Pakistan had launched military operations in its tribal areas to apprehend the terrorists who later on had fled to Afghanistan. Third, Pakistan had no record of and control over border crossings, so any event like 9/11 could harm the interests of Pakistan by declaring Pakistan in cohort with the Afghan Taliban.

Against the background of 9/11,Pakistan’s decision to recognize the government of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul cost Pakistan a lot. This time, after the Afghan Taliban took over the control over Kabul on 15 August 2021, Pakistan has been under immense international pressure not to recognize them as the legitimate rulers of Kabul.

The problem Pakistan is enmeshed in is how to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, other than their ambitions. Both hail from a common Pashtun ancestry. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, there is also a budding peaceful Pashtun movement asking for the rights and protection of the Pashtuns, who face the challenge of being considered bordering on terrorism. The movement calls for the protection of the Pashtuns, especially the youth, from the State’s atrocities ranging from making some missing persons to extrajudicial killings.

The Pashtun annoyance is not unexpected. They have borne the brunt of wars since 1989. The fence must have exacerbated their displeasure. Though Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi wants a negotiated settlement of the fencing issue with Kabul, it is a big challenge to restore the process of fencing in the face of the opposition posed by the Afghan Taliban. This would be despite the fact that Pakistan has sided with Afghanistan to secure finances to run the country. One of the examples could be Pakistan’s holding an extraordinary session of the Council of Foreign Ministers representing member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference on 19 December in Islamabad. The annoyance of the Afghan Taliban can also be gauged from the fact that they are reluctant to recognize the services of Pakistan which offered a shelter on its land to around three million Afghan refugees.

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Any attempt to remove the fence is also pregnant with a financial aspect. The Pak-Afghan border has been porous, suitable for cross-border movement of goods without paying duties. Goods cross the border illegally jeopardizing both informal and formal trade. The possibility for smuggling is a source of earning money for traders and businessmen. Smuggling across the Pak-Afghan border is now an industry in itself. Patriotism or legalism cannot surmount the financial interests of the smugglers, called traders, who are now well-entrenched not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. These are smugglers of all kinds of products and belong to all kinds of ethnicities. With the fencing of the border, their interests have been hurt. These people are said to be involved in instigating the locals and by arranging for their proxies to resort to vandalism and routing out the fence in the name of Pashtun ethnic nationalism. Apparently, the disgruntled Afghans are trying to remove the fence, but the real culprits are profit seeking businessmen (or smugglers).

There is no denying the fact that the issue of Pashtunistan struggles to survive amongst those who refuse to accept the reality of the international border and amongst those who still think in terms of realizing a greater Afghanistan. Years ago Pakistan sought a solution in making Afghanistan part of its strategic depth policy. That is, if Afghanistan cannot be disassociated, it should be associated to the benefit of Pakistan to dilute the Durand Line. This policy could not work.

Nevertheless, those who struggle for any concept carrying the word “greater” and those who oppose the concept may try to understand that the reality of globalization– despite all its perils – is meant for integration and assimilation, and not for making autochthonous claims for irredentism and revanchism. Learn to respect peace.

Dr Qaisar Rashid
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]

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