‘It’s not just a line’

Progress on Pakistan-Afghanistan border management after US intervenes

‘It’s not just a line’
With US support, Pakistan and Afghanistan are quietly making headway towards the resolution of their differences on border management, which has been one of the major sources of unease in their relationship alongside the mutual mistrust.

The meeting of the Pakistan-Afghan Technical Group on Border Management and Security and the planned inauguration of the border gate at Torkham crossing point on the border on August 1 are clear indicators of the progress the two countries have been able to make over the past few weeks.

The upcoming inauguration of the Torkham gate and related facilities, which faced several delays since construction work began in mid-2014 (because of Afghan reservations over border regulation and the skirmishes last month that left four soldiers dead on both sides) is in itself no mean achievement. And Afghans not objecting to it makes it a greater achievement.

Meanwhile, a Joint Technical Group – which, on the Pakistani side, is led by Director General Military Operations (DGMO) and includes representatives of relevant ministries and departments – was formed in the aftermath of Torkham clashes. It is part of the high level consultative mechanism set up through an agreement on the sidelines of last month’s SCO summit in Tashkent for addressing border and security issues. The consultative mechanism consists of foreign ministers and national security advisers, and the Technical Group assists by undertaking the ground work.

Pakistani authorities now say that they would move ahead with border management measures at the remaining six of the seven recognized crossing points. There are about 200 other less frequently used routes, which would be manned by Frontier Corps troops for preventing unauthorized crossings.

Defense Secretary Lt Gen (r) Alam Khattak told the Senate Defense Committee that the two governments now agree in principle on the importance of border management.

Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, meanwhile, notes that the Afghans object to the phrase ‘border management’, because of political issues back home (where Durand Line is not accepted as an international border) but are no more opposed to steps for regulating the traffic between the two countries.

This progress – no matter how it is defined – was, according to diplomats, possible only because of US intervention. The US has been backing border management, which Pakistanis insist is critical for preventing terrorists from crossing the border and carrying out attacks on both sides.

Recent statements by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders repeating their usual anti-Pakistan rhetoric show that there is otherwise no change in Kabul’s attitude towards Islamabad.

“Nevertheless, progress on border management is a major step that has laid the basis for improved cooperation in the near future,” another diplomat noted.

Gen Khattak, while explaining the US support for border management, said that it happened after Congress approved $100 million for border stabilization. After the Congressional approval, Pakistan approached American authorities with the contention that the border has to be identified first, which in Gen Khattak’s words is not just “a line, but a space” that varies in width along the 2,600 kms long border.

“We told them that unless that border is stabilized there can be no stability,” the defense secretary said.

The Americans are now considering another package of some $8 billion for stabilizing the border, which would be implemented over the next 5-8 years. But, more importantly, it has created US stakes in the resolution of the Pakistan-Afghan border dispute.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad

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