Fence along Pak-Afghan international border -The Express Tribune

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My earlier piece title ‘Afghanistan and the Durand Line’ was published on January 6, 2022. Its thrust remained on ‘Durand Line’ heretofore referred as the International Border (IB), and the ‘Fence’. The cited piece highlighted historic background, postulating that the IB is settled for mentioned reasons.

First, the Pak-Afghan border is a recognised 2,670 km border for the last 128 years or so, when it was drawn by the joint Indo-Afghan demarcation commission under Sir Mortimer Henry Durand (1850-1924) from 1893 and onwards.

Second, the British Indian government had acquired areas claimed then by Amir Abdur Rehman (r 1880-1901) through mutual negotiations, using the good offices of an English engineer, Thomas Salter Pyne, a confidante of the Amir. Sir Mortimer Durand had recommended Mr Pyne for an award for facilitating the negotiations in favour of the British India, as Pyne — formally ranking third at Afghan Durbar after Army Chief (Ghulam Haidar) and the Amir himself — was actually second to Amir.

Third, no coercion was used as the treaty was mutually agreed when the Amir signed it on 12 November 1893. It was ratified the very next day in a public Durbar, attended by some 400 Afghan nobles/notables. Kafiristan (now Nuristan) and Wakhan were thrust upon Afghanistan for a subsidy of Rs1.8 million, so that at no point, the British Indian borders touched that of the Czarist Russia, completing the ‘buffer’.

Fourth, the frontier has been treated as an operative international border by some 50 nations, led by the US during Afghan occupation (2001-2021).

So, it is a done deal; however, since the physical line divides some 17 tribes along the IB, local adjustments under a joint Pak-IEA Commission were suggested to correct anomalies, if any. Pakistan stands to gain from such exercise, if it is reflective of the Afghan popular will in contested areas. Pakistan needs to educate the detractors.

That brings us to fence, that needs a relook. In one’s likely ‘ahead-of-times’ reckoning, ‘the fence has lost its relevance’ for the following very cogent reasons.

One, the fence was/is never popular amongst the border tribes on either side, because it restricts freedom of movement across the IB under ‘Easement Rights (rahdari)’, granted to tribes by successive governments on both sides. The divided tribes were appeased in accepting the Durand Line on the promise of such rights, where they could visit across with no/minimal formal paperwork. These rights were extended to the geographic area inhabited by the divided tribes/sub-tribes on either side.

Two, the Pak-Afghan geo-strategic environment, under which the fence was erected, has drastically changed with the return of IEA to power. The original purpose was to stem the flow of terrorists from the Afghan side, and to prevent unsolicited movement from the Pakistani side…as a robust response to the US/NATO mantra of ‘Do More’. The Afghan swamp is now drying up, and the fence, over the 95% completed stretch of IB, has served its purpose well.

Three, ‘regulation’ of the movement between both sides can be achieved otherwise like before, as crossing points between both countries are known and traditionally formalised. As far as bad actors (smugglers, etc) are concerned, they would find means to continue like they do across more fortified borders all over the world. The US-Mexico Border being a case in point. As a side argument, total curtailment of smugglings is not in the interest of both countries. Those in the know would attest to this. Border markets — as widely suggested — are a good alternative to formalise unsolicited bilateral trade.

Four, Pakistan’s fragile economy cannot afford another continuing expense over protracted period of time, for maintaining, repairing and replacing the fence, besides the deployment expense of military and paramilitary manpower. As in military terms, an obstacle not covered by manpower, surveillance and/or firepower is no obstacle.

Fifth, although both sides consider transgressions on IB localised affairs unworthy of undue attention, recurrence may mar relations and distract bilateral focus.

Let localised incidents because of the fence not cloud Pak-Afghan bilateral relations now and in future, denying the much sought-after cannon-fodder to the naysayer of Afghan peace and stability. Sadly, this cabal — on both sides of the IB and beyond — continues to scheme to impose a failure on the IEA. Let smaller and petty issues not blur our focus on the larger issues. Therefore, without falling in love with plans and projects; exhibiting flexibility and being environment-savvy, it is time to ‘revisit’ this project that has served its purpose well, instead of leaving a hemorrhaging legacy.

The changed environment is a boon for both countries economically, commercially, geo-strategically and demographically. Both governments need to capitalise on the changed environment, which under any matrices is more favorable to Pakistan than the naysayers realise or want to realise.

As a practical way forward on the fence, let it remain as it is, without further expansion and/ or spending more money on it. Movement be regulated as far as possible, as has been done so far. Easement/tribal rights should be respected and facilitated by providing ‘passages’ in the fence where locals demand, knowing that sometimes these demands would not be very innocent, due to the smugglers’ interests, etc.

Bilateral trade should be regulated through border markets, and the unholy nexus of predatory border officials on our side of the IB be dismantled without fear or favour. Speedy clearance of merchandise, for example, is one ‘urgent’ need without hiding behind the façade of repeated checking, often malafide. We need to remember that Pakistan has survived in spite of the misused Afghan Transit Trade and smuggling.

Troops relocation commensurate with the improved security situation be undertaken, without getting unduly incensed by odd incidents of terrorism, that are likely to continue. For TTP, pressure on the IEA be maintained to fully dry the swamp; and IBOs (intelligence-based operations) across the country to continue unabated.

The focus of recently released NSP is correctly placed on the geo-economics and a citizen-centric approach through regional collaboration, peace and trade. Afghanistan, like CPEC, can be a game changer for the region. Let’s not squander this historic opportunity over petty issues, remaining beware of the naysayers, foreign stooges and Janus-faced officials on both sides, even within the IEA.

Too many, too frequently, too quickly want Pakistan’s Afghan enterprise to fail.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2022.