Pakistan Reader# 272, 13 January 2022
Recent developments across the Durand Line
On 1 January, a video was shared widely on Twitter in which the Taliban soldiers were seen destroying the fencing on the Durand line and taking away the barbed wire. In another video, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarzmi questioned Pakistan’s right to fence the border and create a divide among the Pashtuns living on either side of the border. On 3 January, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi conceded that there are “some complications” and those issues will be solved diplomatically. The very next day of this media statement by FM Qureshi, the Taliban foreign ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi tweeted that the destroying the fence was done by some miscreants and the ‘problem’ would be solved on the shared understanding, good neighbourliness through diplomatic means. This was reaffirmed by the DG ISPR of Pakistan Army on 5 January, he said that even though there are some local, operational and strategic dynamics the fencing will continue resolutely. Why was there need for public statements if the issue was minor and created unnecessarily by miscreants? There needs to be a clearer understanding of the issue to understand the recent incident which has been periodical since the fencing started.
Pakistan's position, assertions and fears
In modern times, the Durand Line and the region have been the theatre of many major clandestine operations by the USA and its allies including Pakistan. The line has enabled the ISI of Pakistan army to have an entrenched network of sources (two-thirds of the Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the frontier) and use the tribals as trained militias for their foreign policy objectives. But post 9/11, the war on terror has created enmity between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the social unrest and destruction of local economic networks due to regional militancy. The Durand Line has been recognised by US and UK in the last decade at the dislike of the Taliban. The fencing started in the year 2017 on the perception of preventing any Afghan misadventure in supporting Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and contravention of India’s interest in Afghanistan with Pakistan.
Pakistan has many reasons to fence the border, first is the battle-hardened militias who do the NATO soldiers to fight against and their energies can be channelized into anti-Pakistan activities be it a Baloch struggle or rejuvenated struggle for a unified Pakhtunistan reaching all the way to western banks of Indus River. The Afghani desire for access to the sea is a long-term desire of landlocked Afghanistan.
Second, the eventual regional integration with larger central Asian landmass entails regulating the trade and curbing the illegal smuggling of goods and drugs as the frontier lies at the heart of Golden Crescent. The controlled and regulated movement would likely bring more taxes and control over economic networks of trade across the frontier.
Third, the general unrest in Afghanistan even in recent times has the chance of a humanitarian crisis and it would result in an exodus of refugees to Pakistan which is already reeling under the pressure of delivering effective governance and welfare measures to its own population.
Fourth, the Pakistani policy on Afghanistan is constrained by the traditional interest of the ISI, it eliminates any scope of civilian political policy measures of goodwill and the Afghans mistrust towards the Pakistan army remains hostile and sceptical.
Taliban and Durand Line
The Pakistani side of the Durand Line has been a sanctuary for the Taliban. During the years of war on terror, the region harboured safe havens for the Taliban to regroup and recruit new members. It is in the same region which has seen frequent clashes of Pakistani armed forces with Afghan Border Forces since the fencing started. Recently, Mawllawi Sanaullah Sangin commander of border forces for the eastern zone said, “We will not allow the fencing anytime, in any form. Whatever they did before, they did, but we will not allow it anymore. There will be no fencing anymore.”
Other than this Taliban commanders have frequently crossed Durand Line and visited Pakistani metropolitan cities for medical treatment and medicines. There was one video of Mullah Baradar Akhund, the current deputy prime minister, where he visited the wounded Taliban fighters and reportedly said that all the Taliban leaders are in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad in his public interview with Geo News is said to have counted the addresses of Taliban leaders in Pakistan. Taliban may have avoided the question of the legitimacy of Durand Line as the representative government was doing that job in the past, now that they are running the government, they have given calculated official statements but remain hostile to the fencing at local levels. This dubious behaviour is to be carefully observed by Pakistan to preempt any new attempts of the destruction of the fence by Taliban commanders and continue finishing the fencing.
What does the above mean?
First, the tough terrain, isolated valleys and the climate have made the Pashtuns sturdy and resilient in their lifestyle, so much so that they are not affine to civilization and uniform law. Therefore, the tribal division of Pashtuns along the Durand Line will be a bitter pill of post-modern partition for the Pashtun families and tribes who used to frequent across the line. The different legal territorial jurisdictions will set-in long-term changes in the lifestyle of Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the border. Second, the Afghans claim that the treaty on the Durand line was signed with the British crown and not with British India and hence Pakistan does not have a legal claim to the frontier. There might be more localized skirmishes along the Durand Line as the Taliban slowly formalizes its control over armed forces in Afghanistan. Taliban may want to continue negotiating the dispute to gain an extra edge in concessions owing to the Afghanistan transit role in connecting Pakistan to central Asia.
Bijan Omrani, "THE DURAND LINE: HISTORY AND PROBLEMS OF THE AFGHAN-PAKISTAN BORDER," Asian Affairs, 17 June 2009
“US reaffirms international status of Durand Line,” Dawn, 24 October 2012
Tahir Khan, “Pak-Afghan border fencing issue will be addressed through 'diplomatic channels': Taliban,” Dawn, 4 January 2022
Syed Irfan Ashraf, “Pakhtuns and violence of border fencing,” Dawn, 29 October 2021
Manan Aslam, Hammad Ahmad Bhatti, “The future of Pak-Afghan trade,” Dawn, 25 October 2021
“Interview with Taliban’s Zabihullah Mujahid: Full Transcript,” Tolo News, 12 July 2021