By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On May 18, 2019, Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa disclosed that Pakistan was strengthening the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border through fencing, construction of new forts and posts and increasing the strength of the Frontier Corps (FC) to effectively manage the troubled north-western boundary. He made this statement while addressing troops on forward posts along the Border at Dawatoi in the North Waziristan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Significantly, three Pakistani soldiers were killed and seven injured on May 1, 2019, when a group of 60 to 70 terrorists from bases in Afghanistan attacked Pakistan Army troops undertaking fencing efforts in the Dawatoi area.
On May 6, 2019, one Pakistani soldier was killed and three seriously injured in a militant attack on SFs patrolling the Pak-Afghan border in the Kher Qamar area of Data Khel tehsil (revenue unit) in the North Waziristan District of KP.
On October 2, 2018, terrorists from across the Afghan border opened fire at a check-post in the North Waziristan District. The Pakistani army retaliated, killing seven terrorists. Military sources stated that, due to the extensive fencing along the border, terrorists cannot physically attack and now resort to ‘fire raids’ — concerted targeting of Pakistani assets from a distance.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since 2007, there have been at least 103 militant attacks from across the border, in which 277 Pakistani SF personnel and 74 civilians were killed while another 285 sustained injuries. Two of these incidents (above) have already been reported in 2019. The whole of 2018 recorded 10 such attacks in which 19 SF personnel and 15 militants were killed. 2017 recorded 16 cross-border attacks, in which 15 SF personnel and 11 civilians were killed.
Further, the Afghan SFs fired from across the border on at least six occasions, since 2007, resulting in the death of 32 Pakistani SF personnel and 16 civilians.
Pakistani SFs have also been continuously shelling across the border. On February 22, 2019, Afghanistan complained to the United Nations (UN) about violations of its territory by Pakistan’s military, including shelling of Afghan territory, violation of its airspace by military aircraft and construction of military posts and barriers on its soil. The complaint was made in a letter sent by Afghanistan’s deputy permanent representative at the UN, Nazifullah Salarzai, to the UN Security Council President Anatolio Ndong Mba. The Afghan letter said, concerns about the violations had been conveyed to the UN several times, including through a report on recorded incidents during 2012-17. This document stated Pakistani forces fired nearly 29,000 artillery shells into Afghanistan during this period, killing 82 people and injuring 187. The letter further mentioned that, since January 2018, Pakistani troops had been involved in 161 violations and fired more than 6,000 mortar and artillery shells into Afghan territory.
The first border fencing-related skirmish was reported in the then South Waziristan Agency of the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in April 2007. Pakistani SFs operating in South Waziristan made a three-tier security deployment on April 11, 2007, to stop cross-border infiltration by militants 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.
The conflict over the legitimacy of the Durand Line – the border imposed by Imperial Britain – between Pakistan and Afghanistan is more than a century old. However, it came to attention in September 2005, when Pakistan announced for the first time that it had plans to build a 2,611-kilometres 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. Afghanistan, expectedly and immediately, raised objections on the grounds that this was an attempt to make the disputed border permanent. 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].|
Not surprisingly,since its first announcement in 2005, Pakistan’s work for mining and fencing the border has been stopped and renewed on at least three occasions. Nevertheless, Pakistan has succeeded in making some progress. Providing details, 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.
The construction of 150 of the 443 planned forts under the project, some on mountaintops as high as 12,000 feet, had also been completed. Another 750 forts, with an inter-fort distance of 1.5 to 3 kilometres, are under construction or at a planning stage. Meanwhile, according to a February 10, 2018, report, at least 1,100 border posts had also been established.
Major General Ghafoor claimed that the project, which would cost about PKR 70 billion, including the cost of technical and surveillance equipment to keep strict vigil on the illicit movement from across the border, is expected to help check the movement of terrorists. Islamabad has, for long, blamed terrorists and militant coming in from Afghanistan for creating trouble inside Pakistan. After the April 17, 2019, Ormara attack in which 14 bus passengers were forcibly offloaded from a bus and shot dead, Pakistan asked both Iran and Afghanistan on April 20, to take ‘visible action’ against terrorist groups operating from their soil and also to dismantle logistics and training camps of such elements located across the border.
On the other hand, Kabul has, for long, held Pakistan responsible for violence inside Afghanistan. On February 1, 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani once again accused Pakistan of sheltering Taliban insurgents and blamed Islamabad for a recent wave of urban terrorist attacks. In a televised address, President Ashraf Ghani described Pakistan as the “centre of Taliban terrorism” and demanded that Pakistani officials take swift, concrete steps to drive insurgents from their country. “The Afghan nation is waiting for clear action” from Pakistan, he said.
In a more direct reference, subsequent to emergence of reports stating that militants who participated in Ghazni attack retreated to Pakistan and were receiving medical treatment there, President Ghani stated, on August 27, 2018,
|General Bajwa [Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa], you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections [in Pakistan] are over you will pay attention to it. I need answers now… From where they came and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?|
While Pakistan is building fences and fortifying the border on the pretext of stopping cross border infiltration, Afghanistan is opposing the action claiming it as a malicious move to legalise the contentious border. The AfPak border remains volatile, and little is expected to change.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management