Fencing Borders The Pak-Afghan Paradigm

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S. Mushfiq Murshed

The 2,400 km-long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is treacherously porous. Conflict has ragged in Afghanistan for the pat 36 years starting from the Soviet occupation of the country in 1979. Peace did not return after the Soviet withdrawal under the Geneva Accords of 14 April 1988, and, as a consequence, the heroic war of liberation degenerated into a civil war in which brutal warlords fought each other for power.

This triggered the emergence of the Taliban in August 1994, and, within two years they were in control of Kabul and two-thirds of the country. Through this turmoil, Afghanistan became a breeding ground for terrorist outfits and, in particular, Al-Qaeda. The most dramatic fallout was the 9/11 attacks that transformed the geopolitics of the post-cold war era.

This prompted the UN-Backed US-led invasion of Afghanistan that commenced on 7 October 2001. Pakistan has never been immune to the vicious turbulence in Afghanistan The porous border between the two countries resulted in the inflow of more that 3 million refugees, and, after the ouster of the Taliban regime by the coalition forces, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates along with the Afghan Taliban relocated to the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan which became a theatre of conflict since 2001. As a result, along with the socio-economic upheaval and destruction that war brings, the two countries have lost an estimated 173,000 lives in addition to the 183,000 wounded over the past 15 years.1

Despite these gut-wrenching statistics, and the realization that unrest in one will eventually spill over to the other, Afghanistan and Pakistan have not been able to cooperate in their effort to bring peace to their respective countries and, resultantly, to the entire region.

Both countries blame the other for providing sanctuaries and encouraging/supporting militants in cross-border attacks. The summer advances of the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance, and the horrendous terror attacks in Pakistan have been blamed on the porous Durand Line, yet, a border-management mechanism, perhaps even including fencing, is not in place.

Securing the border and ensuring that the rule of law prevails on both sides of the border, therefore, remains the only solution to the menace of terrorism that has afflicted this region with bloodshed and mayhem. Militant attacks on either side of the border will only cause further instability, making the task of securing the border increasingly difficult.

Afghanistan’s perspective

15 years ago the Afghan Taliban regime collapsed in the early days of the conflict. No one, during the initial successes of the US-led war against terror in Afghanistan could have possibly imagined that their forces would still be engaged after 15 years and that the accumulated cost to the American tax payer for this war, the longest in US history, would be approximately USD 800 billion.

The Taliban have, however, once again, reasserted themselves where their influence is ascendant in massive swaths of Afghan territory. Some fear that if the 9,800 US -led coalition forces were to leave, then Afghanistan would return to the post 1992 scenario when the Soviet installed Najibullah regime collapsed and warlords with powerful militia occupied chunks of the country, thereby, triggering the emergence and ascendance of the Taliban. Only this time there will be others – like ISIS recruiting from hordes of disgruntled militants in the region – who will exploit the turmoil to their advantage. As it is, their presence has been felt in both east Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Under the circumstances, the only option for a durable settlement is through an Afghan-led peace process based on negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban, however, need to be pressured to return to the negotiating table – an option they may not be so willing to accept after the killing of their supreme leader in a drone attack and their military success in Afghanistan.

It is widely believed that the Taliban are unlikely to be neutralized so long as they have access to sanctuaries or safe havens across the border. These enable them to replenish and recoup their combat loses. Logically, an effective border management mechanism and the possible fencing of the Durand Line would be to Afghanistan’s advantage. It would not only drastically curb cross-border Taliban attacks but also degrade their supply lines. The fallout of these measures is likely to make the Taliban more amenable to a negotiated settlement of their differences with the Afghan government.

Despite these obvious advantages the government in Kabul has viciously opposed such measures. Recent attempts by Pakistan to establish even check posts has triggered cross-border shelling from Afghanistan compelling Pakistan to repond. As a consequence, tensions soared at the border crossings of Torkham and Chamman.

Afghanistan considers the fencing of the border as legitimizing the Durand Line. Their contention on the border and territorial claim on Pakistan is “as devoid of morality as it is of logic” and “neither history nor law” can in any way validate this claim.

The eminent Indian scholar and lawyer, A.G. Noorani, writes: “What exposes its moral bankruptcy is the fact that Afghanistan was willing to let matters be if only the British had continued to rule India. It was India’s independence and, with it, the establishment of two new states in the subcontinent, Pakistan and India, which moved it to register its claim but only in the vaguest terms”

Furthermore, Afghanistan signed “at Kabul, on 22 November 1921, a Treaty with Britain which effectively affirmed the Durand Line Border Agreement it had signed at Kabul on 12 November 1893 because it was in turn affirmed by the Treaty of Peace signed in Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919. The Treaty of 1921 reaffirmed the Rawalpindi Treaty.”2

Wasting time on imagined territorial disputes, with no logical or legal substance to vindicate such claims, will only be counter-productive in the effort to stabilize the region. An estimated 100,000 people from Pakistan temporarily fled across the border to Afghanistan when the military initiated the on-going operation, Zarb-e-Azb, in North Waziristan in 2014. Simultaneously, the Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups found safe havens in Afghanistan from where they have launched deadly attacks in Pakistan. Prior to this, Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants had fled Afghanistan in 2001 and resumed their operations from Pakistan, primarily from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Baluchistan. No military operation in either country can reach its potential under such circumstances. The objective can only be achieved through close cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The on-going conflict has cost Afghanistan heavily in terms of the loss of lives in the last 15 years. According to estimates, approximately 111,000 people have been killed and over 116,000 injured.3 The breakdown is as follows:

Summary of Deaths and Injuries in Afghanistan4

Estimate of Afghans Killed and Injured Directly in War, 2001-2016

Killed Wounded*
Afghan Civilians 2001-2015 29,818 37,412
Afghan Civilians Jan-June 2016 1,601 3,565
Afghan Military and Police 30,470 17,000
Taliban and Other Militants 42,100 19,000
US Forces (through 26 July 2016) 2,371 20,179
US Allies (through 26 July 2016) 1,136 3,800**
Contractors Reported by US DOL 1,650 15,348
Unreported Contractor Estimate 1,890 unknown
NGO Humanitarian Workers 382 299
Journalists 24 unknown
Total 111,442 116,603
  • Incomplete

** Only including UK, Canadian, French and German wounded, through 2014

These gruesome statistics keep increasing as the Taliban insurgency becomes more assertive. In addition, the Afghan economy, which showcased a growth rate of GDP ranging from 9.2% to 14% from 2003 to 2013, suddenly collapsed to 3.6% in 2013/2014, which coincided with the reduction of foreign troops stationed in the country and the resurfacing of a more assertive Taliban.

A recent study concluded: “The life expectancy for Afghans, at 53 for men and 55 for women, is the fourth-lowest in the world, according to new data from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. Its maternal mortality is the second-highest and has worsened over the past 15 years. Over 1.2m Afghans have quit their homes to flee the fighting. Terrorist attacks are more common than ever—and increasingly aimed at civil institutions.”5

Under the circumstances, Afghanistan should recognize the legality of the Durand Line, and, in concert with Pakistan, establish a border monitoring mechanism that could also include fencing of segments of the border. A secure boundary will not only enable the government to take on the numerous non-state actors operating in Afghanistan but will also, eventually, allow them to concentrate on the well being of their people by dealing with the overwhelming socio-economic issues that plague the country.

Pakistan’s Perspective

The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was fond of saying, “Pakistan and Afghanistan are like conjoined twins.” This is undeniable. The two countries bleed from incessant terrorist outrages that have had deleterious political, economic and social consequences. As noted earlier, when the US-led coalition forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants crossed the border and headquartered themselves in Pakistan. Since then conflict, particularly in Pakistan’s tribal regions, has raged. The government had to confront home grown militant organizations – some of those coalesced to morph into the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – that have challenged the writ of the state. The economic impact, though substantial, is dwarfed by the tragic statistics of fatalities since 2001:

Summary of Deaths and Injuries in Pakistan6

Estimated Total Direct Death and Injury in Pakistan, 2001-June 2016

Killed Wounded
Pakistani Civilians 22,100 40,792
Pakistani Security Forces 8,214 14,583
Taliban and Other Militants 31,000 11,415
Contractors Reported by US DOL 42 134
Unreported Contractor Estimate 48 unknown
NGO Humanitarian Workers 92 87
Journalists 53 unknown
TOTAL 61,549 67,011

The sixth military operation by the Pakistan army in this war was launched in 2014 and was code-named Zarb-e-Azb. The objective was to administer a crippling blow to the TTP and other militants in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, amongst the estimated 100,000 that temporarily fled across the border into Afghanistan many were the terrorists, particularly the TTP, that the military was targeting. They established bases across the border, primarily in the provinces of Kunar, Khost and Nuristan.7 Some suggest that the vacillation and delaying tactics of the civilian leadership to approve this operation provided the militants time to relocate. Ever since, the people of Pakistan have repeatedly suffered atrocities perpetrated by TTP. However, the government’s delays, though detrimental to the operations effectiveness, remain marginal in comparison to the main factor that has contributed to the longevity of terrorist presence in this region: the “porous and soft” Pak-Afghan border.

In a briefing to reporters in May 2016, corps commander Peshawar Lt Gen Hidayatur Rehman claimed: “Security forces have presence in 99.2 per cent areas of Fata. Only 0.8pc area adjacent to the Afghan border in Khyber and North Waziristan agencies remains to be cleared of terrorists because of tactical reasons,” An article in Dawn reported: “He (Lt Gen Hidayatur Rehman) said that the army had cleared 100,927 square kilometres area in Fata but 814sq km area in Rajgal (Khyber) and Lawara Mandi (North Waziristan) had been left untouched due to tactical reasons and keeping in view the sanctity of the border with Afghanistan.

“He argued that deployment of troops in the two areas did not give any tactical benefit to the army because terrorists could move across the border and fire at security forces from the Afghan side.

“He said that Afghan army had no presence in the areas and security forces could not take action against terrorists inside Afghanistan because of the sanctity of border. These are contested areas as they are controlled neither by the Pakistan army nor by the Afghan army. Militants will not be able to operate from the areas if security forces of the two countries fulfill their responsibilities…”8

In the meanwhile, The Army Public school Peshawar terrorist carnage on 16 December 2014, the Bacha Khan University attack on 20 January 2016 and the Quetta Police Academy atrocity on 24 October 2016 are, but a few, examples of the strategic advantage that the terrorist groups have due to the absence of an effective border management mechanism between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The partial fencing of the border is one such option.

Huge expenditure has been incurred to secure Pakistan from terrorist outfits in FATA. As long as the militants maintain a presence in Afghanistan, the potential of a reversal of the hard fought gains by Pakistan’s armed forces will remain. These militants are already inflicting cross-border terrorist attacks in Pakistan and are waiting for an opportunity to reestablish their presence in the country.

Since the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb, approximately “93,000 families, upto 750,000 people, have been displaced inside Pakistan.” It is estimated that an amount of Rs. 32 billion is needed to pay for the grants owed by the government to the effected families as compensation for their destroyed or damaged houses. In addition, Rs. 30 billion is required to facilitate permanent repair of infrastructure.9

On a national level the country, with its burgeoning population and an inadequate job market, needs to reallocate its limited resources in sectors other than defence.

“The median age of the population is only 23 years. This means that some 100 million people out of a total of 200 million in the country are below that age… About 70 per cent of the population of large cities is made up of the young, those below the age of 23. Their share in the population of the megacities is even larger — perhaps about 75 per cent.”10 It is imperative for Pakistan to cater to this youth bulge through smart utilization of resources that not only provides solid education but also generates job opportunities to absorb new entrants into the job market. It just cannot afford to maintain the trend of the 2016-2017 budget in which: “defense spending rose from Rs 781 billon in the previous year to Rs 860.2 billion (11 percent), while education rose from Rs 74 billion to Rs 82 billion and health from Rs 11 billion to Rs 12.1 billion.”11

A recurrence of Pakistan’s recent history will be disastrous. The desperately needed change can only come about when there is durable peace and stability in the country. A major impediment towards achieving this goal remains the porous Pak-Afghan border.

It seems that the realization of this fact has finally been acknowledged by the leadership. The KPK Apex Committee meeting consisting of top civil and military officials “stressed the need for improving border management at all crossing points with Afghanistan, particularly at Torkham in the Khyber Agency.” (The News, 03 April 2016). Prior to this, excavation of 1,100 km trench had commenced along the Pak-Afghan border in Balochistan in 2013. It was completed this year with the intention of continuing this effort to include the remaining section of the Durand Line. The Afghan reaction resulted in a military stand off at the border between the two countries.

Securing the border is essential for both countries

Afghanistan must realize that its claim to Pakistan territory has no legal standing and that the Durand Line is a reality that it must accept. Securing the border remains the only way that it can disrupt the militant supply chain, reverse the recent Taliban successes and, thereby, eventually pressurize them to negotiate.

Pakistan has to consolidate the hard fought gains that its military operations have achieved. It has to make sure that there are no reversals initiated from across the border. In addition, it has to realize that any cross border intervention generated by non-state actors stationed in Pakistan will only play into the hands of the lobby that considers Pakistan unfit to be a member of the comity of nations and seeks to isolate it from the rest of the world. As it is, anti-Pakistan lobbyists directly associate any advancement made by the Taliban in Afghanistan as an outcome of the “duplicity” of the country’s policies and the harboring of militant sanctuaries within its borders. Something needs to be done to negate negative international perceptions about Pakistan. That one action required is the securing and proper management of the Durand Line.

The realization that coordination and cooperation is required between the two nations with regard to the security of the border will be the first step towards peace and stability in the region. The common denominator that may provide the necessary impetus for collaboration is that both countries will benefit when the Taliban decide to join other stakeholders at the negotiating table.



  1. http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/War%20in%20 Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20UPDATE_FINAL_corrected%20date.pdf
  2. A.G. Noorani, “The Durand Line Revised,” Criterion Quarterly, Vol 10 No. (Jan/March2016).
  3. http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/War%20in%20 Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20UPDATE_FINAL_corrected%20date.pdf
  4. ibid
  5. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/10/daily-chart-3?zid=308&ah=e21d923f9b263c5548d5615da3d30f4d
  6. http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/War%20in%20 Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20UPDATE_FINAL_corrected%20date.pdf
  7. http://pakpips.com/downloads/pdf/289.pdf
  8. Zulfiqar Ali, “Sleeper cells being eliminated in KP: Army,” Dawn, 31 May 2016
  9. Ibid.
  10. Shahid Javed Burki, Aspirations of the Pakistani youth, The Express Tribune, 8 November 2015.
  11. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR393-Countering-Militancy-and-Terrorism-in-Pakistan-The-Civil-Military-Nexus.pdf