Pak-Afghan border issue - sitting on the fence? (Pakistan/Afghanistan)

The growing friction between Pakistan and Afghanistan involves multiple facets. As the relations between the two neighbors go from bad to worse, the border issue is one that requires immediate consideration.


There are two dimensions involved - first, there is the dispute over the legitimacy of the Durand Line as international border between the two countries; second, and more frustrating, is the question of the porosity of the border. Cross-border activity is at an all-time high and has led to prolonged debate between the leadership of the two countries. Afghanistan is convinced Pakistan is not doing enough to address the issue.

President Hamid Karzai has raised this concern time and again while Pakistan has tried to prove its contention that these allegations are baseless. It is of the opinion that Kabul is weak and unable to control growing insurgency and in the process is blaming Pakistan. While the intentions of either side remain unverifiable, it is the rationale behind these arguments that merit examination. Pakistan's proposal to fence the border with Afghanistan and plant land mines in an effort to curb insurgency has led to widespread debate and mud-slinging on both sides.

As such, border fencing is a most impractical solution to this problem. It will necessitate supervision mechanisms that Pakistan does not have in place and additional troops for patrolling that Pakistan cannot afford. The length of the border is another tricky issue - 1500 miles of disputed international boundary simply cannot be addressed through fencing.

In respect of mining, reactions have ranged from skepticism as to its efficacy, to widespread concern over the implications of it on ground. The region has a history of human rights violation that mining will only add to - innocent civilian lives are at stake and the international community is not wholly convinced this is a risk worth taking.

Pakistan has thrown up its hands at the lack of options and this has resulted in a stalemate. Afghanistan must also move away from taking resort to rhetoric. Rather, it must focus on concrete engagement on the issue. Outside intervention might provide the necessary stimulus and headway has been made through the Tripartite Commission, which consists of the NATO and the US in addition to the two aggrieved parties. The initiative taken through local tribal councils or jirgas is also a step in the right direction.

Whatever the issues that plague the border, they will be unable to escape the backdrop of the more historical and much more complex disagreement over the Durand Line. Afghanistan lays claim to much of the North West Frontier Province on the grounds that it is a Pashtun-dominated area. Pakistan is, however, most unlikely to give up this territory that forms more than 20 per cent of its total area.
Thus, the Pashtunistan question has plagued relations between the two countries for decades now. In light of the secessionist movements elsewhere in the country, it is only natural that Pakistan will do all it can to protect its territorial sovereignty. At the same time, no solution can be reached without Islamabad contributing to the settlement. In face of a resurgent Taliban, growing militancy, warlordism and narcotics right across its border, Pakistan is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Its regional priorities are in direct opposition to its aspiration to play a bigger role in the Global War on Terror - as a key ally of the US, it must support the US-backed democratic Northern Alliance government in Kabul. President Karzai's government, however, has voiced suspicion of Pakistan's motives. Although on the global front, the two nations must project themselves as being on one side, regionally, their interests are conflicting. This is politically sensitive terrain. Third party arbitration is now almost imperative, unless Pak-Afghan relations recover on their own accord. However, any amity will only be temporary.

Through the resolution of the border issue, the two countries could very well pave the way for stronger and deeper mutual engagement. Areas of conflict could become areas of cooperation. While their stands on issues might be diametrically opposite at the moment, the majority of their concerns also provide scope for a coming together. Both nations are in a state of transition and so are their governments - Karzai could do well with a boost to his credibility and the same goes for Musharraf, who will soon face an election.
Both have to deal with a slew of domestic issues. Compounding domestic problems through worsening foreign relations might not be the best idea. Surely, this realization does not escape the two leaders or their governments but to translate it into action requires a level of maturity that has so far been amiss.

The writer is Research Officer, IPCS

Von: 21.03.2007 by Swapna Kona,

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