South Asia

Pakistan-Afghanistan Ties Come Under Strain After Taliban Opposes Border Fencing

The issue of fencing Durand Line has once brought to the fore the Taliban's demand for Pashtunistan, much to the chagrin of Pakistan.

Listen to this article:

Chandigarh: Ostensible bilateral goodwill between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Taliban administration appears to be faltering over the issue of fencing their common frontier, raising once again the latter’s enduring demand for Pashtunistan or a Pashtun homeland.

Pashtunistan, as claimed largely by Pashtun Taliban, covers vast swathes of Pakistani territory, south of Kabul, including Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province or NWFP) inhabited by their ethnic clansmen, thereby taking their long-standing homeland claims to the municipal limits of Islamabad. The Pashtun homeland also notionally includes Pakistan’s seven federally administered tribal areas and six smaller pockets known as Frontier Regions, adjoining Afghanistan, which are also inhabited largely by Pashtuns.

According to recent news reports from Islamabad, Pakistan’s national security advisor Moeed Yusuf is scheduled to visit Kabul later this month to ease tensions ensuing from the issue of fencing a portion of the 2,760-km-long border in order to firm up the boundary between the Islamic neighbours, also known as the Durand Line. This move has been steadfastly opposed by generations of Pashtuns. The issue has once again come to the fore, much to the chagrin of Pakistan at a time when it is undergoing great internal political, social and financial turbulence.

Yusuf’s prospective Kabul visit, slated around January 16, follows Taliban commander Mawillawi Sanaullah Sangin’s warning to Islamabad against advancing its Afghan border fencing.

“We (the Taliban) will not allow the fencing anytime, in any form,” Sangin categorically told Afghanistan’s Tolo News last week. “Whatever they did before, they did, but we will not allow it anymore,” he combatively added in what appears to develop into a major wrangle between Kabul and Islamabad. It also imperils the ostensible mutual amity that Pakistan had projected after the Taliban assumed power last August, following the US military’s ignominious withdrawal.

Sangin was reacting to Pakistani foreign minister Mehmood Sah Qureshi’s earlier allegation that “certain miscreants” had “unnecessarily” raised the border fencing question and his insouciant declaration that this matter would be resolved through diplomatic talks. Qureshi was referring to two clashes last month between the Afghan and Pakistani forces along the fencing underway by the side of Afghanistan’s southwestern Nimroz province and its eastern Nangarhar province.

Also read: Pakistan’s Support to the Taliban is One of the Greatest Feats of Covert Intelligence

Pakistan has completed fencing some 90% of the Durand Line under a $500 million project launched in early 2017, by erecting two sets of chain-link barricades fitted with surveillance cameras and infra-red detectors to check infiltration. Work on the fencing has continued uninterrupted over nearly five years – even during the pandemic – in anticipation of the Taliban’s advent in Kabul and the almost certain resurrection of its demand for Pashtunistan.

Islamabad, it seems, had reasoned that the fencing, buttressed by a string of some 1,000 forts, manned by armed garrisons, would physically reinforce, and more importantly, demarcate the Durand Line, curbing all calls for Pashtunitan.

But in virulently opposing all further work on fencing the border within four months of seizing power, the Taliban have all but shown their tenacity in pursuing their objective for Pashtunistan. This, in turn, has presented Islamabad with the ‘nightmarish’ territorial dilemma of yet another homeland movement – other than in Baluchistan.

For, other than the Afghan Taliban this is also backed by a large section of its domestic Pashtun’s who constitute over 15% of Pakistan’s population of over 23 crore and essentially direct its illegal armaments and narcotics trade.

Long-drawn Pashtunistan movement

The lingering Pashtunistan movement has long disregarded the Durand Line. Pashtun’s claim that it was drawn arbitrarily in 1893 by a colonial civil servant, and named after him, and was little more than a ‘line in the sand’, casually agreed to by Afghanistan’s then Amir Abdur Rehman. At that time, however, it satisfied colonial aims of defining the British’s limits in the 19th century’s ‘Great Game’, with the aim of preventing Czarist Russia from challenging their regional suzerainty by seizing Kabul.

Consequently, the British astutely made the autonomous and largely Pashtun tribal areas and frontier regions their ‘buffer zone’ between Afghanistan and their ‘settled territories’ in the erstwhile NWFP and the adjoining Punjab Province.

The Pashtun’s, however, never accepted the Durand Line and Afghanistan’s successive rulers and governments supported a nationalistic reunification of the Pashtuns in Pakistan after its creation in 1947. During the freedom movement, the charismatic Pathan leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’, sought an independent Pashtunistan, but was denied by the British, triggering a chain of events that resulted in the Babrra massacre by the Pakistani security forces in August 1948.  Pakistan’s prime minister Huseyn Suhrawardy referred to this bloodbath some years later as “surpassing” the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the British in Amritsar in 1919.

Thereafter, firefights erupted frequently between Afghanistan-backed NWFP tribesmen and the Pakistani military, further embittering relations between Kabul and Pakistan. These, in turn, threatened the outbreak of hostilities between the neighbours in 1955, the year that Kabul formally announced its formal backing for Pashtunistan, a position it has not since rescinded. In fact, in the intervening years, but with a resort to little historical fact, Kabul maintained that the Durand Line had a 100-year deadline that had expired in 1993.

During the 1980s, however, Pakistan’s astute military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq somewhat defused the Pashtunistan issue by inducting Pathans into the political mainstream, the military and the civil service and giving them a stake in his country’s power structure which they had lacked earlier. The Pashtun nationalist spirit, however, survived these placatory initiatives, but lost its centre-Left orientation that underpinned Ghaffar Khan’s ‘Red Shirts’ movement.

Instead, it mutated into an Islamist ideology through assorted Taliban-like groups like the Jamiat Ulema i-Islam or JUI that presently hold away over Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of Pakistan. Ironically, the first batch of Taliban, for instance, were mostly young Pashtuns trained in JUI madrassas headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman around 1994. Later these had morphed domestically into multiple groups that had emerged collectively as the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP.

However, in the intervening years, the Soviet-backed Afghan government too overtly supported Pashtunistan, and correspondingly a pusillanimous Islamabad, plagued by short-lived elected governments of prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, adopted the path of least resistance by conceding that the Durand Line was little more than a “delineated zone of responsibility”, and not a conclusive border.

But soon after, Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf realising the strategic criticality of securing the Durand Line and defusing separatist sentiments for a Pashtun homeland, called for fencing the border. He met stiff resistance from Pashtun political parties domestically and in Afghanistan, forcing him to back off. Nevertheless, as a default option, he adopted a policy to ‘sponsor’ Afghan Islamists, temporarily ‘subordinating’ Pashtun ethnic nationalism to Islamic religious sentiment.

This only postponed, but not halted, the irksome homeland demand which also imperils security in the already restive Baluchistan Province, where the Baluchi’s have become a minority following the uninterrupted influx of Afghans that began after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

In conclusion, the brewing fracas over fencing the Afghan border will, in all likelihood, see the continued deployment of Pakistani troops along its western frontier. This, in turn, will also provide Pakistan little cause to applaud the Taliban’s ascendency in Kabul, for as Winston Churchill presciently declared in the 19th century: “Pashtun tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud.”

“Nothing,” states Churchill astutely, “is ever forgotten and few debts are left unpaid”.