Pakistan and Afghanistan renew border row

Islamabad has recently introduced a new system to regulate the porous Pak-Afghan border. The issue has reopened old wounds between the two countries.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Afghan civilians pictured sleeping alongside a road. Thousands of Afghans attempt to enter Pakistan daily, some for medical treatment.

Updated Jun 15, 2016

Pakistan and Afghanistan are engulfed in a new dispute over the latest Pakistan border management mechanism intended to check cross-border infiltration by militants.

The new move to beef up security along the 2,450 kilometre long Pak-Afghan border known as the "Durand Line" has reawakened an old dispute between the two neighbouring states. 

Islamabad has tightened security on the Torkham border and introduced a new security mechanism effective from June 1 aimed at restricting the movement of militants. However, tensions escalated after Afghan authorities in response imposed a nine-day closure of Angoor Ada Post, which had been handed over to the Afghan Defence Ministry by Pakistani authorities.

On May 10 the border was closed for four days after Afghan forces blocked Pakistan’s efforts to erect border fencing. The latest decision is set to become permanent, as officials vow to extend the fencing to the rest of the seven border crossings

The development has had an adverse impact on the lives of ordinary tribesmen and Afghans, whose families and businesses have been divided by this border line. The Torkham crossing is the main route used by thousands of families living on both sides of the border to cross from one country into the other.

Unaware of regulations, hundreds of Pashtun families want to be able to move freely across the border.

Officials and various independent estimates suggest that around 20,000 tribal people cross the border daily without proper documentation. The majority don't agree with any visa regime and many have never visited passport offices. They want to keep the centuries old tradition of free movement in the area intact. 

The new border regulations will restrict the free movement of around 40 million divided Pashtun families, who live on both sides of the border. These families will now be required to produce a Pakistani visa if they want to enter Pakistan. Afghan refugees can also be deprived of a Proof of Registration Card (PoR) once they leave Pakistani territory. 

Irfan Shahzad of the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamadab said that managing borders should involve an approach which facilities rather than hinders the passage of civilians. "We hope that the authorities have exactly that in mind," he added. 

At the moment only Pakistani officials are checking travel documents of those who enter Pakistan and there is no such mechanism on the Afghan side. Pakistan has set up walk-through gates and scanning machines to check travellers and their luggage, but their passports and visas are checked manually by border guards. The new mechanism has also affected bilateral trade. Most Pakistani drivers with domestic merchandise don’t possess passports, Muhammad Malik, a government official deployed at Torkham crossing said.

Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson, Nafees Zakaria, in a recent weekly briefing defended the newly introduced arrangements. "[They are] vital for checking infiltrations across the long and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border," Zakaria emphasised.

A briefing available at the website of Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that effective border management is part of the country’s counter-terrorism efforts and is in the interest of all.

Sartaj Aziz, chief advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Foreign Affairs.

Kabul is unhappy with Pakistan's decision to tighten border restrictions and has expressed concern. Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Dr Omar Zakhilwal, was quoted by local media as saying, "We do not see the wisdom of such restrictions at a time when we need to build bridges to improve our relations, not create further irritants or grievances."

The disagreement led to bloodshed on Sunday, June 13, when Afghan forces fired on Pakistani border guards who were erecting a gate at the Torkham crossing. Several Pakistani troops and civilians were injured in the incident. One Afghan border policeman was killed when Pakistani security personnel returned fire.

Newly built parliamentary complex in Kabul.

Durand Line

The Durand Line – which marks the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan – was drawn on November 12, 1893, as the result of an agreement between British Indian diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand and Afghanistan's King Abur Rehman Khan. Both parties agreed to accept the line as an international border. 

The British Indian government extended financial benefits to Kabul and offered arms to Afghan Rehman Khan in return for the deal.

The porous Durand Line runs along the Pakistani regions of Balochistan, the Northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Afghan side of the border extends from Nuristan Province in the northeast to Nimroz Province in the southwest.

A view of the Pak-Afghan border area.

Many Afghans believe that the 1893 agreement was not in their interest, mainly because it involved the surrender of land to British rulers. The demarcation also effectively divided the Pashtun population in half. 

The issue flares up whenever Pakistan suggests fencing or mining the border to stop the movement of cross-border insurgents. Afghan President Karzai once called the Durand Line "a line of hatred which raised a wall between the two brothers."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Experts say ties between the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns are so deep that any border control mechanism would have a very limited chance of success. 

Analysts believe the decision to close the border is more political in nature than strategic.

Irfan Shahzad is of the view that militants hardly use regular border crossings. "For them, the long porous border has many entry and exit points, which they find more feasible," he noted.  

Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, endorsed Shahzad's opinion. Mohmand, who is an expert specialising in Pakistan's tribal areas and comes from an area near Afghanistan, has said the border mechanism is unworkable because the border passes through long rugged mountainous terrain which is too difficult to navigate. "There are about 235 entry/exit spots along the border."

Afghan citizens attempt to enter Pakistan through the Torkham border crossing.

Following 9/11, a huge network of security posts on the border was established to keep watch over the activities of militants, a security official said. With NATO scaling down its presence these centres have become defunct. Pakistan has 535 such border posts on the Durand Line, while Afghanistan has just 145. 

Zahid Hussain, a writer and journalist, wrote in a research paper that it is mostly "the longstanding border dispute... which has been the major cause of tension between the two nations."

Afghanistan has never truly recognised the Durand Line as an international border and instead eyes Pakistan’s Pashtun areas, he writes, with people on both sides of the Durand Line considering it to be a "soft border."

Around 400 villages stretch along both sides of the Durand Line and their residents used to travel across the line freely, says Fawad Ali Khan, a Peshawar based journalist. Pakistani officials are using the term border but for Afghans it is just a line, he explains.

Mir Ahmad Joenda, deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Educational Unit and a former member of parliament, has proposed holding a referendum on the Durand Line dispute.  

Mir Ahmad Joenda.

He said that initially the border issue created tension between two countries but has gradually become a problem specifically for Pashtuns.

Author: Azam Khan