PESHAWAR – Pakistan’s unilateral demarcation of the border with Afghanistan is being viewed by experts as a “diplomatic gain,” but as with every past Afghan government, the Pakistan military’s fait accompli has not gone down well with the new Afghan rulers, the Taliban.
In late December last year, Taliban forces uprooted barbed-wire fences erected by Pakistan security forces in the eastern Nangarhar province along the so-called Durand Line. Then in early January, Afghan forces blocked the construction of a fence and military post by the Pakistani army in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province.
Media reports quoting eyewitnesses claimed the Pakistani army had been erecting fences 15 kilometers inside Afghan territory. The Taliban uprooted the fences and destroyed a Pakistani military post in Chahar Burjak district of Nimroz province.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have so far played down the border incidents. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a press conference in Islamabad that Pakistan had taken up the issue with the Afghan government at the diplomatic level and hoped it would be resolved diplomatically.
But an analysis published last week by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent and nonpartisan congressional think tank, claimed that relations between Islamabad and Kabul had hit rock bottom on the border fencing as well as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP), or Pakistan Taliban, militant group’s rising attacks inside Pakistan.
The USIP observed that both sides are at odds, with interventions by Taliban border forces to block the fencing along the shared border, despite attempts to solve the issue diplomatically.
The USIP’s Asfandyar Mir, Andrew Watkins and Ambassador Richard Olson took part in the discussion, which also covered Kabul’s cold shoulder response to Islamabad’s persistent demand to come down hard on TTP operatives.
A month-long truce between Pakistan authorities and the TTP brokered by the Afghan Taliban in November ended last month with renewed attacks on military targets in Pakistan’s South Waziristan and the volatile Balochistan province.
Some media reports claimed Pakistan security agencies had resumed secret talks with TTP leaders in Afghanistan, but Asia Times has yet to independently verify the claim.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert in the Asia Center at USIP, told Asia Times that the border issue and the Taliban’s support for the TTP would continue to sour bilateral relations.
“We saw a similar dynamic in the 90s. Pakistan soured on its favorite Gulbadin Hikmatyar and the Mujahedeen. Nevertheless, I do not expect a major break in ties anytime soon,” Mir said.
“I sense that Pakistan will pay a cost for the Taliban’s behavior, however undesirable, so long as it keeps India out. We already see some deflection on the issue by Pakistani government officials, which suggests that even while there is a concern, there is a degree of enduring commitment to the Taliban on the Pakistani side,” he added.
The USIP report says the objectives of the Pakistan military establishment to rush the border fortification despite suffering a “fiscal constraint” were partially met.
Pakistan’s fencing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, at an estimated cost of US$532 million, has been a focal point of Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s security policy and has been one of the military’s costliest projects in material terms, the report says.
Explaining the goals of the fencing, Mir commented in the report that Pakistan seems to have two major political goals with the fencing of the country’s western frontier.
First, Pakistan’s military wants to put in place a checking system on the movement of goods and people across what has long been a porous border, and second, it wants to offer a demarcation fait accompli, which has been rejected and contested by previous Afghan governments for decades.
“Demarcation (fencing) is chiefly aimed to circumvent the difficult, contentious and drawn-out process of diplomatic negotiations on the border dispute,” Mir told Asia Times. He said it was too early to predict if this “diplomatic gain” would be long-lasting.
“I think the gain is lasting in the sense that Pakistan has probably moved some material assets – like fences, fortifications and outposts etc – to mark the border, which it hadn’t done previously.
“Therefore, if the Taliban push against them, there will be friction and perhaps escalation. However, it is not a political fix per se. If the other side keeps challenging it then the border is not final.
“So on balance, there is a diplomatic benefit from the Pakistani perspective, but it is hardly the silver bullet to the Durand Line problem,” he added.
Ambassador Olson believes that the regional implications of the border conflict are potentially large, as Islamabad was already ascribing the TTP’s renewed strength to Indian machinations.
For the Afghan Taliban, he said, border skirmishes to reclaim “the lost Pashtun lands” were hurting the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul.
Olson said that despite the Taliban’s historic reliance on Pakistan for support, there would be a break with Islamabad over the question of the Durand Line border between the two countries.
The fencing of 2,640 kilometers, or 1,640 miles, of the porous border with Afghanistan started in March 2017. Despite economic constraints, the Covid-19 pandemic and a volatile security environment, work on the border has continued mostly uninterrupted over the last four years.
So far, 90% of the border has been fenced, and the remaining work is expected to be completed by April.
The border barrier consists of two sets of chain-link fences, separated by a 2-meter space filled with concertina wire coils. The double-fence, which is 3.6 meters high on the Pakistani side and 4 meters high on the Afghan side, is fitted with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors.
Moreover, nearly 1,000 forts are also being constructed along the border to increase security. Cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated crossing points after the project is finished.
The Taliban asserts a right to free movement of peoples across the colonial-era frontier, consistent with the position of not recognizing the line as an international boundary it took in the 1990s.
All Afghan governments since 1947 have taken similar positions on the dispute. The issue is further complicated by the fact that – apart from the issue of recognition – Pakistan demarcates the Durand Line differently from Afghanistan and thus portions of the Pakistani fence may lie within what Afghanistan – and most of the international community including the United States – would consider Afghan territory.
Watkins, a scholar and specialist who monitors human and narcotics trafficking out of Afghanistan, said Taliban actions on the border with Pakistan should be assessed in tandem with other recent Taliban skirmishes along the borders with Turkmenistan and Iran and a handful of tense situations with Tajikistan as well.
Although both the Taliban and neighboring countries’ officials have downplayed these incidents, none of which are rooted in the controversy surrounding the Durand Line, the Taliban appears to be on a steep learning curve when it comes to border security.
Watkins said the Afghan Taliban may perceive some political gain from border tensions with Pakistan to help it pose a strong nationalist stance – even more so than with other neighboring countries given the widespread Afghan perception of the Taliban’s close relationship with Islamabad, or, put more bluntly, accusations that they serve as Pakistan’s proxy.
Follow FM Shakil on Twitter at @faq1955.