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OP-ED: Blurred Lines

Published in Global Affairs

The border, known as the Durand Line that runs between Pakistan and Afghanistan is 2450 Km long and was drawn by the British, accepted by Afghanistan and inherited by Pakistan. The agreement came into effect during the Great Game in 1893 and had held during the third Anglo Afghan War. The subsequent partition did not void the contract as far as Pakistan was concerned. By 1949 however, Afghanistan had decided to view the boundary as an imaginary line. And therein lies the rub. Because 21st century security challenges are unlike any other and engaging in political brinkmanship at such a time only weakens both parties.

Notwithstanding Kabul’s refusal to acknowledge the divide, the border status has been internationally recognized. Over the years this ‘imaginary line’ has been used for everything from illegal trafficking and trade to delivering aid packages for Mujahedin, export/import of radical ideas and hosting a mostly one sided refugee exchange program. According to one estimate, Pakistan was saddled with 5 million Afghans at one time. The open door policy that served the Af-Pak cause during the Cold War is no longer valid. Post 2001, the porous nature of the border quickly became a problem and as sanctuaries emerged on both sides of the divide, Pakistani cities turned into battlegrounds while Afghan based safe havens became a hazard for allied forces.

The Torkham check-post lies between Peshawar (Pakistan) and Jalalabad (Afghanistan) and the unchecked spread of refugees and their role as cover for terrorists has underscored the need for implementing stricter border management protocols. And it is about time more stringent border controls are activated. Meanwhile additional checkpoints are being installed and work on fencing is currently underway. Repartition of refugees is also in the cards. Under the new rules, visiting Afghans will need to get their paperwork in order. And the free pass waved by tribal communities will be revoked.

Kabul remains unhappy with this turn of events. They have expressed their displeasure in a myriad of ways – none of them subtle. A check-post constructed at Angoor Ada (a small hamlet situated on the Durand Line) handed over by Pakistan supposedly as a goodwill gesture, and promptly closed by Afghanistan was their way of pushing back. The deployment of tanks along with armored personnel carriers in the wake of mounting tensions due to disputes over the construction of the Torkham gate in May 2016 was another. The resulting standoff left many on both sides stranded. And finally, the June attack by Afghan forces that resulted in heavy casualties, and left a Pakistani soldier dead. The firing was unprovoked according to Pakistan.

There is a historical context to this display of belligerence. There was the initial snub by Afghanistan when it vetoed Pakistan’s entry into the UN. Saving them from Soviet tyranny, and giving Afghans a second home may have won Pakistan some points. Any gratitude they may have felt probably ended with the Taliban takeover. The fresh cycle of hostility could have several triggers. Kabul has been a little preoccupied with making new alliances and soon Afghanistan will no longer be hampered by its landlocked status. Economic incentives offered by Indian sponsored, Iranian based Chabahar Port that could alter its dependency on Pakistani trade routes is set to be a game changer.

In a recent talk show a panel of analysts proposed that it is time Pakistan quantified its decades’ long contributions that have sustained Afghanistan’s teetering economy in terms they will understand. Put a dollar figure on it they suggest. And though it sounds cold, it is a language they believe the Afghan nation will respond to. Because, the stakes have never been this high; and petty arguments over something as trivial as check-posts leaves their people vulnerable to a common foe (ISIS).

Also, when it comes to territorial matters, Afghans do not have a legal leg to stand on. This refusal to recognize borders of another country coupled with the shared heritage and challenging terrain poses a dilemma for gatekeepers. For the Pashtuns living on both sides, these lines are mere formality. The possibility of having their lives upended by a piece of barbed wire will not be an easy sell. But this unfettered access has come with a price.

It is not the idea of drug runners or job stealing Afghans that keep ordinary Pakistanis awake at night. They fear what lies on the other side especially after the unthinkable happened on December 16, 2014 with the APS massacre of school children and later with the Bacha Khan University attack. In both cases the terrorists are believed to have used these lax controls to go back and forth. The open border often means that ‘Most Wanted’ men like TTP’s (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) Fazlullah can flee to Afghanistan where they direct attacks on Pakistan from the comfort of their Afghan homes and vice versa.

The same analysts believe this sudden urgency in securing borders comes on the heels of potential successes in the battlefield. Having cleared the area, Operation Zarb - e - Azb now aims to cement its hold on its territory. They also argue that as long as the refugee crisis stays unresolved, fencing initiatives will remain ineffective since it will be difficult to limit the cross border movement.

Resolving the migrant crisis will, therefore, be a crucial component in any security plan. Getting Kabul on board with the fencing program will be another. Since it serves both their interests, one would imagine that they would be amenable to keeping the local terror contained. Such walls could be their best bet. Manning them will ensure that neither country can assign blame to the other and can finally turn its attention on plugging the religious fissures within. Stopping the free flow of terrorists is only the first step. Once the access is cut off, the homegrown terror networks will have to be confronted - again. Here they will have their work cut out for them. The disenfranchised segments of society at the receiving end of drone attacks need to be reintegrated in society. Also, governing these lawless frontiers will require a framework both can agree to.

In an ideal world, this could be the beginning of a beautiful round of friendship and cooperation. In restive regions such as these, the best one can hope for is a semblance of civility for the sake of survival. The fate of these nations is now tied to one ‘imaginary line’. And the sooner they come to an understanding, the quicker they can address the nation building part of the equation where education, employment and energy needs are to be tackled on war footing for the military gains to take root.

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