Fences and neighbours

The Torkham flare-up was not a sudden unexpected occurrence  

Fences and neighbours
The latest Torkham flare-up, in which at least four precious lives were lost in the week long stand-off sparked by a Pakistani move to fence the area and build a gate, has once again brought to limelight the longstanding dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan – Kabul’s refusal to accept the international border – which often gets ignored because of other bigger issues in the relationship. The engagement at the diplomatic and military levels initiated for defusing the row has progressed well so far in that it has succeeded in halting the hostilities, cross-border traffic has been resumed, and formal negotiations for settling the matter have begun.

The first round of negotiations was held when Afghan deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai leading a six-member delegation visited Islamabad for talks on the issue. The important outcome of the meetings in Islamabad was an understanding on having an institutional mechanism for coordination on border issues. The idea was to be further discussed during a meeting between Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and his Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani in Tashkent on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) summit on June 23 and 24.

These may be positive steps, but may not be enough given the enormity of the issue. A meaningful progress on the matter can only take place when Afghanistan gives up its inflexible position and recognizes the Durand Line as an international border. On then can Afghanistan cooperate with Pakistan on the management of the 2,200-kilometer-long porous border, which Islamabad says is critical for ending terrorism. Otherwise, the whole engagement may be nothing more than diplomatic window dressing.
Kabul does not recognize the Durand Line as an international border

One must not forget that Afghanistan has been sitting on a proposal for a border coordination mechanism since 2012 because it does not recognize the international border and its government lacks the political will and capital to resolve the matter. The two countries, despite having such a long border with terrorist sanctuaries on both sides of it, have therefore been without any border coordination mechanism since International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan’s (ISAF) mission ended in December 2014. Until then, the Americans and NATO had a tripartite commission to deal with border issues.

The frequency of cross-border clashes between Pakistani and Afghan security forces have increased in the absence of an arrangement for replacing the tripartite mechanism. Last year, 132 incidents of border clashes were reported in which 18 Pakistani soldiers lost their lives. Torkham was, therefore, just another reminder of the unaddressed problem.

Torkham, moreover, did not happen all of a sudden. There was a build up to that. Pakistan Army had been repeatedly saying since the start of the year that after the completion of the operations in FATA, it would move to tighten border control by setting up eight properly equipped crossing points and manning the rest of the border with newly raised wings of Frontier Corps to prevent any unauthorized crossing. The objective was to consolidate the gains made in the fight against militancy. Just ahead of the start of the work on Torkham crossing in May, a meeting of the apex committee on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA had categorically stated that border management would be improved at all crossing points, specially at Torkham. Afghan refugees were removed from Torkham town ahead of the beginning of fencing. Pakistan later closed the border on May 11 because of Afghan opposition to the move, but it was reopened after Afghan envoy Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal visited the GHQ, where according to military sources he had given a tacit approval to the fencing and gate project. Work on the fencing then continued until the Afghans reacted to the construction of the gate on June 12. Therefore, the Afghan claim that they were not informed about the planned construction at the crossing point – something mandatory as per a bilateral agreement – does not hold valid.

That the Afghan position on Torkham fencing and gate construction did not have any solid basis was also evident from the fact that when Afghan deputy foreign minister Hekmat Karzai visited Islamabad, he protested about “building of installations and check posts” at Angor Ada, Ghulam Khan, and Khoja Kheder Mountain, but remained silent on Torkham despite being the more current issue.

While it is a matter of speculation as to what then prompted the escalation, the context may be helpful in understanding the possible motives. The incident, it should be recalled, happened amidst a downturn in Pakistan-US ties, weeks after death of Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack and the unraveling of the four nation mechanism for Afghan reconciliation, and just a day after Orlando killings by a shooter of Afghan origin.

One reason for Pakistan to be hopeful that it can succeed with its planned border management initiative is that this time, somehow, it has the blessings of the US Congress, which approved a $100 million border stabilization fund late last year. Among other things, the sum has to be used for building and maintaining border outposts and improving border security coordination. Therefore, according to one senior defense official, the US is now involved with the initiative even if it publicly keeps away from it.

The writer is a freelance journalist
based in Islamabad
Email: mamoonarubab@gmail.com