Pak-Afghan standoff at Torkham: Perils of border security

By Sadia Kazmi

The recent border situation between Afghanistan and Pakistan at Torkham border crossing quickly escalated into a crisis when reportedly both the sides brought their armored vehicles along the border against each other. The regular border traffic and movement across the Duran line, in the area of Torkham presented quite an alarming picture of Pak-Afghan relations. The border remained sealed for 4 consecutive days.  Staying short of an active engagement between the two, the tense standoff was not only nerve wrecking but thought provoking as well.

First and foremost the very issue of fencing of the border that gave rise to this 4 day situation is to be taken into account. It also makes one raise a very valid question as to why the efforts by Pakistan in securing the border would cause a riot and uproar in Afghanistan. A step that should have been appreciated and should have seen as a measure against illegal border crossing, mainly to discourage the movement of alleged terrorists, was clearly not welcomed by Afghanistan.  Hardly a mile long area that was being barbed wire and fenced at different places by Pakistani border forces,  was somehow seen as some kind of violation by Afghan government. It is ironic that while Pakistan is constantly being blamed and accused by Afghanistan for letting terrorist elements into the Afghan territory, and not doing enough to stop that, but when the Pakistani security forces took some concrete yet preliminary steps to address the situation, the move was highly discouraged by the Afghan government.

Afghanistan clearly needs to understand that security problems and threats are a mutual and shared concern of both the states.  Pakistan is equally under a great stress economically and with regards to its national security and sovereignty at the hands of illegal Afghan refugees, who keep crossing over into Pakistan through Afghanistan, largely unchecked.  Not just that but the fact that a large number of Afghan refugees residing inside Pakistan are still unregistered is what proving to be a constant source of threat to Pakistan’s internal and external security.  Also Afghanistan needs to realize that the responsibility of securing the border against any illegal activity, movement and individual, does not just fall on Pakistan, rather the onus equally lies on the Afghan government too. It is non-sensical to keep voicing displeasure and dissatisfaction over the “supposed” weak measure along the Durand line. Unless and until the burden is shared by both with same commitment and honesty, the situation will likely to remain unchanged.

The porous nature of Pak-Afghan border is single most and major reason that makes it highly difficult to devise any effective mechanism for border security. The cultural, lingual and religious affiliation of the people living on both sides of border area makes these people sympathetic and hospitable towards each other. These are the locals who do not necessarily recognize the presence of a border between the two and have always been moving freely across the line unhindered and unchecked. These locals who may not even have any maleficent motives are generally found to be disgruntled by these haphazard demarcations, hence do not appreciate the measures that would hamper their free movement. Closely linked to this particular is another reality that the whole length of border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not very clearly demarcated, which again poses problems of identifying as to which part falls in the jurisdiction of which state. Nonetheless, Pakistan securing and fencing its own side of border should technically not trouble Afghanistan. Because this is a fact that the unhindered and unchecked movement across this border by terrorist, regular smuggling and abductions have played havoc with Pakistan’s security. No should deserve to be subjected to this treatment especially when it is hosting the other’s biggest economic burden in form of refugees. Still Pakistan is accused, even though the most terrorist activities carried out on Pakistani soil have reported and found to be planned in Afghanistan.

The standoff also pointed to another alarming situation that how trigger ready Afghanistan is and how so skeptical their government is regarding any of the measures Pakistan takes. The deep seeded mistrust, the continuously deteriorating health of bilateral relations is further pushing the ties into a downward spiral, which got another shock with the killing of Mullah Mansour inside Pakistan, as is being claimed in the reports.  Nonetheless both sides, especially Afghanistan needs to realize that the border problem and the closely associated terrorism will not be solved individually, rather dedicated and concerted efforts are required, with more and more transparency on both sides.

Pakistan can definitely not be left alone, as it is part and parcel of this whole situation and the most victimized stakeholder as well. The visit by US president Mr. Richard Olson confirms that Pakistan’s centrality for the peace in Afghanistan cannot be ignored. Only putting the blame on Pakistan and trying to isolate it, wouldn’t help either side. Afghanistan needs to work towards mitigating Indian presence on its terrorist, under the influence of which, it has been sending individuals into Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities. Pakistan also needs to realize that geography has brought Pakistan and Afghanistan as neighbors to each other, and they can’t do anything to change that.  Keeping a prudent approach is the only key and way out. Pakistan doesn’t want another “India” on its west, which Afghanistan has almost already become because of the continued Indian presence on its soil.  So the improvement of diplomatic relations should always be given a priority.

The border security is going to remain a problem and merits strict measure by both the states against any illegal infiltration. Just like strict measures vis a vis Indian border, the same could tried to apply in case of Afghanistan and Pakistan border too, with right security check and proper regulatory measures.  Also the confidence of the people and their trust is needed to be won. Cultural, religious similarities and lingual affinities can still be cashed on in our favor. Now that Mullah Mansur is killed, one may expect more lash back, and even lesser chances for negotiations and more frequent terrorist movement across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Timely and stricter border security measures are surely what is needed more than ever before, when even the schools and universities and students in Pakistan, being a soft target are regularly being targeted.  Sometimes sudden extreme measures are the only solution but still the option for talks should never be closed. No side could afford an active war.

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Sadia Kazmi

Sadia Kazmi works as a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad. She is a PhD candidate at the National Defense University

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