The Torkham Incident: Why Afghanistan and Pakistan Exchanged Fire

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The Torkham Incident: Why Afghanistan and Pakistan Exchanged Fire

The tensions that led to an explosion of hostilities across the Afghan-Pakistan border have been long simmering.

The Torkham Incident: Why Afghanistan and Pakistan Exchanged Fire
Credit: Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson (U.S. Armed Forces)

The week-long conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Torkham brought to the fore deep-rooted issues that continue to plague relations between the two South Asian neighbors. The events that led to the impasse at Torkham, the most frequented crossing point between the two countries, are straightforward enough.

Since the December 2014 terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School, Pakistani authorities, who claim that the militants entered Pakistan through Torkham, have sought to further regulate the movement of people and goods through the border.

On April 1, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed on regulation that would require Afghan citizens to present valid and authorized travel documents prior to entering Pakistan via Torkham.

On April 2, an apex committee which included Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif, called for the enforcement of the border crossing mechanism “in true letter and spirit,” at all crossing points, especially Torkham. On April 8, Pakistan issued notification asking all Afghan nationals residing in Torkham to vacate the area.

Over 300 Afghan families were evicted from the border town the following week. Tensions mounted as Pakistani authorities demolished houses of Afghan nationals in Torkham. By April 18, over 300 such houses had been razed to the ground.

Then on May 11, in the face of Afghanistan’s continued objections to Pakistan’s construction of a barbed wire fence at Torkham, Pakistan closed the border. On May 13, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan met with Gen. Raheel Sharif, following which the army chief ordered the reopening of the Torkham crossing. The conflict was deemed to have been resolved.

However, the U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban chief Mullah Mansour in Pakistani territory on May 23 appeared to upset the apple cart. When uncomfortable questions were raised over what Mullah Mansour was doing in Pakistan and why he had been traveling with an allegedly fake Pakistani identity card, heated debates ensued over the management of Afghan refugees and the ease with which Afghans could obtain fake Pakistani identity cards.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s construction of a gate at Torkham appeared to have angered the Afghan government. Both sides blamed each other for initiating the fighting, which began on June 12. During the brief conflict, Pakistan and Afghanistan traded small arms and mortar fire across the border. As tensions escalated, both countries rushed reinforcements to the border and deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers.

By the time a ceasefire was agreed to by Pakistan and Afghanistan on June 15, four soldiers (including one Afghan border police officer and a Pakistan army major) had been killed and at least 40 others injured.

There are many ways to understand the conflict at Torkham. Viewed from the perspective of Pakistan’s desire to bring an end to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led insurgency and address concerns over the large number of undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Islamabad’s desire to secure its borders and regulate the flow of people and goods from Afghanistan is entirely legitimate.

However, the reality of the challenge Pakistan faces is that much of the 1,500-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is unregulated. The two countries have a handful of checkpoints, of which Torkham and Chaman to the south are the largest, but vast swathes of unmanned territory allow refugees, smugglers and militants alike to cross over into Pakistan without detection. Strengthening security at Torkham, therefore, while commendable, will not likely alleviate Pakistan’s immediate challenges along the border.

The conflict can also be viewed in the broader context of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and the refusal of successive Afghan governments of various political and ideological persuasions to accept the Durand Line as the international border between the two countries. The Durand Line owes its origins to the desire of the administrators of British India to protect the crown jewel of the Empire from what was viewed as expanding Soviet presence in the region.

While a treaty was signed by the British and Afghanistan’s Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893 (and subsequently reconfirmed by Great Britain and Afghanistan’s rulers in 1905, 1919 and 1921), no Afghan government since the partition of British India in 1947 (into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan) has accepted the Durand Line as the international border.

Even the Taliban government of the 1990s, which Pakistan propped up and recognized, resolutely refused to accept the Durand Line or drop Afghanistan’s claims to Pashtun territory east of the line. Although the United States and the U.K., among others, consider the Durand Line the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the issue is a particularly sensitive one in Afghanistan as the demarcation runs through Pashtun lands and divides its many tribal societies.

Under the circumstances, Afghanistan continues to view any attempts by Pakistan to erect barriers as attempting to legitimize the Durand Line and thereby weaken Kabul’s claims to territory east of it. The clash at Torkham, then, is symptomatic of a larger territorial issue for which a durable political solution does not appear close at hand.

Yet another way to view the standoff is to place it in the context of the fraying U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The United States viewed Pakistan as central to facilitating negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban, a role that Pakistan was not able to live up to.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group process is now in tatters. Mullah Mansour, who was favored by Pakistan’s ISI, refused to participate in peace negotiations with Kabul and orchestrated a series of deadly attacks in Afghanistan that angered Kabul and frustrated the United States. In D.C., Pakistan’s reputation as an unreliable partner led Congress to block attempts by the Obama administration to finance the transfer to eight F-16s to that country.

Pakistan’s decision to announce the deportation of over 1.5 million Afghan refugees could possibly be Islamabad’s attempts to remind both Washington and Kabul that it still has cards left to play in the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

As a land-locked and impoverished country, Afghanistan is heavily dependent upon Pakistan both as an export market and as a transit point to other destinations. Indeed, Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and serves as a vital transit point for trade to and from Afghanistan. For Washington and its allies, the road through the Khyber Pass via Torkham served as the main supply line into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has often used this leverage as a tool for negotiation and coercion. Indeed, Pakistan has closed Torkham on multiple occasions in the past when issues have flared up between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has also similarly closed Torkham to U.S. and NATO troops, most notably after a clash between NATO and Pakistani troops in Salala that resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The United States today seeks to forge ahead with or without Pakistani assistance, even as it reformulates how it operates in Afghanistan. Far from winding down operations as the Obama administration initially intended, last week’s announcement provides for a more active role to U.S. forces supporting the Afghan military in combat against the Taliban.

For Kabul, the Torkham encounter coupled with Pakistan’s ability to exercise control over the flow of goods to and from Afghanistan should underscore the importance of breaking its cycle of dependence on Pakistan and explore other trade routes. To that end, the importance of the recent signing of the tripartite Afghanistan-Iran-India agreement for the development Chabahar Port, which provides Afghanistan access to the Indian Ocean and allows it to trade with other countries by entirely bypassing Pakistan, cannot be understated.