Features | Security | South Asia

Will Pakistan’s Wall Work?

Pakistan is building a wall along its border with Afghanistan. Will it actually make the country safer?

Muhammad Akbar Notezai
Will Pakistan’s Wall Work?

A Pakistani soldier stands guard at a newly erected fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Angore Adda, Pakistan (Oct. 18, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Mohammad Yousaf

Bramcha (sometimes spelled Bramacha) is a tiny town in Pakistan’s far western Balochistan province, situated in a corner of the province’s Chaghi district on the border with Afghanistan. There used to be an extension of the same town on the Afghan side of the border, too. After the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan side of the town was wiped from the map due to bombing campaigns – the town not only housed the Afghan Taliban but also drug traffickers. Some called Afghan Bramcha the epicenter of drug trafficking, and it’s not hard to see why. Even today, Bramcha is situated in one of the remotest and most lawless corners of the world.

Over the years, Pakistani authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the security situation on its borders with both Afghanistan and Iran. The border with Afghanistan, in particular, has been loosely governed and porous from day one. This is why Pakistani authorities have now commenced fencing its border with Afghanistan, in a bid to stop militants and drug traffickers from pouring into Pakistan.

This development is opposed by not only Afghan authorities but also by the Afghan Taliban. In recent months, when Pakistani security forces were stationed in Bramcha to fence off the border with Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban blocked the effort in some areas.

Part of Afghanistan’s objection comes from the fact that Kabul has never recognized its international border with Pakistan, whether under Taliban rule or today’s government. Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., told The Diplomat that there is a “territorial factor” to Afghanistan’s stance: “Kabul rejects the border wall because its very existence is seen by Afghanistan as a de facto legitimization of the Durand Line, which Afghanistan has never accepted.”

The dispute dates back to the late 19th century, when Pakistan used to be part of an undivided India. The British created the so-called Durand Line dividing British India from Afghanistan. To this day, Afghanistan still has territorial claims over areas of what is now Pakistan.

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“The Durand Line was a classic example of … splitting the Pashto in two, so the British could consolidate their position in northern India in the late 19th century. This was of course complicated by Partition,” recalls Peter Frankopan, a professor of history at Oxford University.

“From an Afghan perspective, it is hardly surprising that borders imposed by others, cooked up in meeting rooms thousands of miles away, are contentious in general – a sign of previous imperialism that had little regard for the interests, needs or desires of local populations,” he noted.

“As usual when it comes to Afghanistan and the Taliban, though, while it is entirely reasonable to listen to the complaints about the past and the indignities it caused, finding practical solutions is rather more tricky,” Frankopan adds. “When it comes to the issue of what can, could, or should be done about the Durand Line, I suspect there are more questions than answers.”

Officially, Pakistan has blamed Afghanistan for an upsurge of terrorism inside the country. After terrorist attacks in Pakistan, security officials have usually been quick enough to say that the terrorists entered into Pakistan from the Afghan side of the border.

Some security analysts tend to argue Washington is in favor of Pakistan building a wall along the border with Afghanistan. Certainly, the United States has not opposed it. Kugelman says that Washington hasn’t articulated a specific public position on the wall.

“From a pure counterterrorism and stability perspective,” he adds, Washington “has little reason to oppose the wall if we assume that the wall will reduce cross-border terrorism — and especially terrorist attacks launched by Pakistan-based militants into Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are based.”

According to Kugelman, Kabul certainly has an interest in cooperating with Islamabad to promote better border security, but it won’t support unilateral measures like the wall.

According to official security circles, the top leadership of groups sponsoring terrorism is based in Afghanistan. This is why Pakistani authorities have been building a wall along the border with Afghanistan for over a year, in both the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

Kugelman agrees that “Pakistan does have a strong counterterrorism rationale for building the wall, given that most of the terrorist attacks that happen in Pakistan these days are staged by militants belonging to groups — such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and ISIS [the Islamic State] — that are based in Afghanistan.”

“The problem is that there are quite a few ‘ifs’ here – the main one being if a wall indeed deter cross-border terrorism,” adds Kugelman. And he notes that the wall will never be entirely finished: “Given how unforgiving much of the border terrain is, there is no way the entire border will be fenced.”

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Meanwhile, the new wall divides tribes that have together lived for centuries on both sides of the Durand Line. It is a positive sign that the security forces are making doors so that people on both sides of can mingle with each other as they would before, but there is no escaping the fact that the wall will restrict their movements to some extent.

Over the years, there have been a number of security incidents along the border. Afghan authorities have fired at Pakistani forces on their side of border, but Pakistani authorities have vowed to complete the fence at any cost.

Pakistan’s motives are part based on history, part on hedging for the future. When Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989, Afghanistan’s civil war also brought havoc to Pakistan. At the time, the border was open, and there were hardly any barriers. Today, security analysts are of the opinion that history is about to repeat, as the United States is close to losing the Afghan war. Pakistan is also nervous that Indian influence has increased in Afghanistan. Islamabad came up with the idea of fencing its border with Afghanistan to address those concerns.

However, many in Pakistan argue that because the border with Afghanistan is long, mountainous, and remote, a fence can hardly make a difference. It can stop neither terrorists nor drug traffickers. Pakistani authorities have thus discussed adding 60,000 troops to patrol the Afghan border in order to secure it. Today fencing along the 1,456 mile border has almost been completed, with work still underway in some areas.

Pakistan has usually been blamed by Afghanistan for letting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network move across the border freely, as well as using Pakistani soil as a safe haven after conducting attacks on foreign troops and Afghan authorities. The new wall, as some analysts put it, is also meant to show the United States that Pakistan is now serious about deterring cross-border terrorism.

Yet the wall may do more harm than good in the end, due to the negative impact it is having on the bilateral relationship.

“The unfortunate thing is that at a moment when Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation has never been more important, given recent momentum toward launching a peace process with the Taliban, Pakistan with this wall is making a move that could squander a fair amount of bilateral goodwill,” says Kugelman.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Dawn newspaper.