By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On May 7, 2021, one soldier was injured when militants from across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border opened fire, targeting a military check post in the Bajaur District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
On May 5, 2021, four Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers were killed while six were injured, when terrorists attacked them in the Manzakai sector, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in the Zhob District of Balochistan.
TTP claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) disclosed, “The attack took place] today during fencing activity in Manzakai sector, district Zhob, Balochistan, along [the] Pak-Afghan border. Terrorists from across Afghanistan ambushed FC troops moving for fencing. 4 FC soldiers embraced shahadat while 6 got injured.”
Referring to the attack in the Zhob border area, the Balochistan Home Minister Mir Ziaullah Langove asserted, on May 5, 2021, that work on the Pakistan-Afghan border fence would be completed at all costs.
The first militant attack, targeting fencing work from across the border reportedly took place on September 15, 2013. Major General, Sanaullah Khan and Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef, were killed, along with another soldier, Irfan Sattar, in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast on the Pakistan-Afghan Border in the Upper Dir District of KP. The then TTP ‘spokesman’ Shahidullah Shahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since September 15, 2013, there have been at least 118 such attacks by militants from across the border, in which at least 231 Pakistani Security Force (SF) personnel and 74 civilians have been killed, while another 311 sustained injuries (data till May 16, 2021). 84 terrorists were also killed in retaliatory action by SFs. Four incidents (including the two mentioned above) resulting in five deaths (all SF personnel) and seven injuries (all SF personnel) have already been reported in 2021. Seven such incidents resulting in 11 deaths (10 SF personnel and one militant) were reported in 2020. There were seven attacks in 2019 (22 fatalities: 20 SF personnel and two militants).
Though the fencing work along the Border began in 2005, it gained momentum in mid-2013, and restricted the free movement of terrorists across the border, which is why the terrorists started attacking the fencing work.
It is pertinent to recall here that, in September 2005, Pakistan first announced that it had plans to build a 2,611-kilometre fence (1,230 kilometres in KP and 1,381 kilometres in Balochistan) along its border with Afghanistan, purportedly to check armed militants and drug smugglers moving between the two countries. But Afghanistan raised objections on the grounds that this was an attempt to make the disputed border permanent. After Afghanistan’s objections, Pakistani authorities temporarily put the plan on hold. Over a year later, on December 26, 2006, Pakistan again declared its plans for mining and fencing the border, but was again opposed by the Afghanistan Government. The then Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated, on December 28, 2006, that the moves would only hurt the people living in the region and would not stem cross-border terrorism.
The attempt to build the fence recorded the first border fencing-related skirmish in April 2007 in the then South Waziristan Agency. Pakistani SFs operating in South Waziristan made a three-tier security deployment on April 11, 2007, to stop cross-border infiltration by terrorists into Afghanistan. Pakistan fenced 12-kilometers of its border stretch with Afghanistan, but Afghan troops tore down the fence on April 19, leading to a gun-battle, though there were no casualties. Another attempt was made in May 2007 when Pakistan erected the first section of a fence in the Lowara Mandi area of then North Waziristan on May 10, 2007, which led to cross border firing between Pakistani and Afghan forces, in which at least seven Afghan soldiers were killed. According to SATP, since May 11, 2007, there have been at least five such incidents, in which 41 persons, including 25 SF personnel and 16 civilians, have been killed (data till May 14, 2021).
The border fencing programme, meanwhile, was halted during 2007-2013, due to intense pressure from terrorists active in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.
Later, Pakistan started excavation work on a several-hundred-kilometres-long trench along the Balochistan border in April 2013. The work has progressed rapidly since then.
Providing details on December 4, 2020, ISPR disclosed that the fence had already been installed along about 83 per cent of the border and hundreds of new border outposts and forts had been constructed. Two three-meter-high mesh fences, a couple of meters apart, have been filled and topped with coils of razor wire, running through rugged terrain and snow-covered, treacherous mountains at elevations as high as 4,000 meters. Further, on February 19, 2021, Federal Minister of Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad announced that the fencing on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan would be completed by June 2021, and that 90 per cent of the fencing had already been completed.
On December 4, 2020, ISPR also claimed that the fencing resulted in a “massive decrease” in the number of terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan, adding that Pakistani troops involved in building the fence had come under militant attacks from the Afghan side and, in some cases, clashes with Afghan SFs as well.
While cross-border terrorism has been the purported objective of the construction, the Pakistan Army has also been trying to legalise its century-old claims over the Durand Line by erecting the fencing unilaterally.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, has rightly objected to this action, as the fencing has been done with the purpose of unilaterally consolidating the border. The Pakistani lie is exposed more by the fact that this border has long been used by Pakistan to send terrorists trained on its soil into Afghanistan to fight foreign and Afghan national troops.
In the meantime, Afghanistan continues to raise objections at several platforms against this unilateral fencing. On August 11, 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Islamabad was conducting “illegal” fencing along the Durand Line and lodged a protest through the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul. The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs protest came after the statement by the Deputy Governor of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, Gul Mohammad Bedar, who asserted that Pakistan had started constructing the fencing in a ‘shifty way’. He also stated that Pakistan wanted to take over some important areas of Afghanistan.
Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Pakistan, argued that the fence will “adversely affect the bilateral relationship” and cause further “popular alienation” among Pashtuns on both sides of the border. He added,
Putting barriers that cut through communities straddling the Durand Line and aiming to divide a people that have the deepest social, political, and economic ties will not work, and no Afghan government will accept it.
With the announcement of the withdrawal date of American Forces from Afghanistan and all likelihood of increasing insecurity in the country, the Af-Pak border is bound to see more violence in days to come.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management