By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
An Army Major and a sepoy were killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Mohmand District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan, on September 20, 2019. Major Adeel Shahid and Sepoy Faraz Hussain “fell victim to an IED planted by terrorists from across the border”, the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) tweeted. The squad was supervising fencing work in an area “which carried [a] critical infiltration route”, the ISPR added.
On September 14, 2019, three soldiers were killed and one sustained injures when militants opened fire from across the Pak-Afghan border on Pakistan Army troops who were busy in border fencing in the Dir District of KP.
On September 13, 2019, one soldier was killed when terrorists opened fired on a routine patrolling party of Security Forces near the Abba Khel area of Spinwam tehsil (revenue unit) in the North Waziristan District of KP. In the exchange of fire, two militants were also killed.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since September 15, 2013, when the first cross border attack was orchestrated by terrorists, there have been at least 108 such attacks in Pakistan from across the border, in which at least 293 Pakistani SF personnel and 74 civilians have been killed, while another 286 sustained injuries (data till September 22, 2019). Seven of these incidents, resulting in 22 deaths (20 SF personnel and two terrorists), have already been reported in 2019. In the worst incident of the year (in terms of fatalities) on July 27, 2019, six Army personnel were killed when terrorists from across the Afghanistan border opened fire on a border patrolling party near the Gurbaz area of North Waziristan District in KP. There were nine such attacks in 2018 (34 fatalities: 21 terrorists and 13 SF personnel); and 17 attacks in 2017 (56 fatalities: 38 terrirusts and 18 SF personnel).
The first militant attack from across the border reportedly took place on September 15, 2013. Major General Sanaullah Khan and Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef were killed, along with a soldier, Irfan Sattar, in an IED explosion near Pak-Afghan Border in the Upper Dir District of KP. The then Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ‘spokesman’ Shahidullah Shahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
In September 2005, Pakistan had announced, for the first time, its 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 terrorists and drug smugglers moving between the two countries. However, since its first announcement in September 2005, Pakistan’s work for mining and fencing the border was stopped and renewed on at least three occasions, till April 2013, under Afghan pressure. Border fencing gained momentum after April 2013 and became a target of the terrorists.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan, expectedly and immediately after the Pakistani announcement in September 2005, raised objections on the grounds that this was an attempt to make the disputed border permanent. Pakistan temporarily shelved the plan. However, Pakistani plans for mining and fencing the border were renewed on December 26, 2006, and again opposed by the Afghan Government. The second attempt saw a border skirmish in April 2007 in the then South Waziristan Agency. Thereafter, Pakistani SFs operating in South Waziristan made a three-tier security deployment on April 11, 2007, to stop cross-border infiltration by terrorists from and into Afghanistan. Pakistan fenced 12-kilometers of its border stretch with Afghanistan to ‘choke off’ cross-border infiltration, but Afghan troops tore down the fence on April 19, leading to a gun-battle, though there were no casualties. A third attempt was made in May 2007, when Pakistan erected the first section of a fence in the Lowara Mandi area of North Waziristan on May 10, 2007, which led to cross border firing between Pakistan and Afghan forces in which at least seven Afghan soldiers were killed. Despite Afghanistan’s opposition, Pakistan started excavation work on a several-hundred-kilometre-long trench along the Balochistan border in April 2013.
On several occasions thereafter, Afghanistan has opposed Pakistani plans to fence the border. Most recently, Kabul’s Ambassador to Islamabad, Omar Zakhilwal, reiterated these objections while speaking to the media on October 10, 2018,
We do oppose the barbed wire. That is against the closeness of the population on both sides and the interdependency that exists [between them].
The conflict over the legitimacy of the Durand Line – the border imposed by Britain between the North Western limits of its Indian Empire – what is now Pakistan – and Afghanistan, is more than a century old.
Significantly, on February 22, 2019, Afghanistan complained to the United Nations (UN) about violations of its territory by Pakistan’s military, including shelling, violation of airspace by military aircraft and construction of military posts and barriers on its soil. Afghan concerns about such violations had been conveyed to the UN on several earlier occasions, including through a report on recorded incidents during 2012-17. This document stated that Pakistani forces fired nearly 29,000 artillery shells into Afghanistan during this period, killing 82 people and injuring 187. The February 22, 2019, complaint further mentioned that, since January 2018, Pakistani troops had been involved in 161 violations and had fired more than 6,000 mortar and artillery shells into Afghan territory.
On August 26, 2019, in a letter written by Adela Raz, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) accused Pakistan’s military of violating its territory and of firing 200 rockets into the Sheltan District between August 19 and August 20. The letter states that this is only the latest in a string of such aggressions that had been highlighted by Kabul in the past as well, and added,
These violations were in the form of shelling of Districts in eastern parts of Afghanistan, construction of military posts and barriers on Afghan territory; and violation of Afghan air-space by Pakistani military aircraft. The (latest) attacks have resulted in the destruction of residential property and displacement of the local population, which has suffered greatly as a result of the latest violations.
Rejecting Afghanistan allegation of shelling along the border, the Pakistan Foreign Office on August 28, 2019, asserted that Pakistani troops only responded in self-defence when attacked by terrorists based on Afghan soil and asked Kabul to fulfil its commitment on elimination of terrorist hideouts along the Pak-Afghan border. A Foreign Ministry statement observed, “As a matter of policy, Pakistan does not fire across the Pak-Afghan border. Cross-border attacks by terrorists on army/FC posts are responded to in self-defence only.”
Between the ongoing accusations and counter accusations, Pakistan has succeeded in making some progress in border fencing. Providing details, Director General of ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor disclosed, on January 27, 2019, that work on about 900 kilometres of fencing along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border had been completed. He added that work on another roughly 1,200 kilometres, the most sensitive portion of the 2,611 kilometres long border with Afghanistan, had commenced in 2018, and was expected to be completed by the end of 2020. There is no information regarding the fencing status along the remaining 500 kilometres of the border at present.
Despite significant progress in fencing, border skirmishes, both between Pakistani and Afghan Forces, as well as between Pakistani forces and terrorists who operate across the border, continue unabated. Significantly, Pakistan actively encourages porosity of the border for its state sponsored terrorists – prominently including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network – operating into Afghanistan, while it seeks to interdict the movement of domestic Pakistani formations such as the TTP as well as the Islamic State/Daesh across the border. This selective porosity is unlikely to succeed, and as long as Pakistan continues to give safe haven and protection to favoured terrorist formations to operate against Afghanistan, it is unlikely that others will not cross over to do harm to Pakistan as well. Under the circumstances, there seems to be no foreseeable end to the volatility along the border.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management