Border fencing | By Asad Ali

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Border fencing

PAKISTAN is located at a strategic point of the world. Its strategic location has been making pivotal for global as well as regional peace.

But at the same time, Pakistan is having difficult neighbours both at eastern and western fronts.

Pakistani defence forces and government both are working tirelessly to maintain peace and stability not only in the country but also at borders as well.

Pakistan law and enforcement agencies are sacrificing their lives to bring peace and maintaining law and order situation.

They are also coordinating with external states as well for regional economic, political and strategic integration for the entire region.

Likewise, Pakistan’s eastern and western frontiers are making it difficult for Islamabad to continue with its efforts for peace.

Still, Pakistan is committed to economically stabile region. Despite having limited economic resources, Islamabad has decided to complete border fencing with Afghan border which is one of the largest borders in the world.

Unfortunately, some anti-peace elements inside Afghanistan are working proactively to sabotage peace initiatives.

It is pertinent to mention here that these steps have been taken by Pakistan Army under the leadership of outgoing COAS General Bajwa, who has pitched for political settlement in Afghanistan during his interactions world military leaders.

The massive military-led construction effort started in 2017 to block illegal militant movement and smuggling.

Pakistani officials say more than 90% of the work has been completed. The fencing project occasionally triggered fatal clashes between Pakistani troops and Afghan security forces of the former western-backed government in Kabul that the Taliban ousted last August.

Pakistan’s fencing of its border with Afghanistan has been a central project of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Bajwa’s security policy for western frontier.

Given Pakistan’s fiscal constraints, it has been very costly for Pakistan in material terms. There are reports that Pakistan has spent nearly $532 million on the project.

Pakistan appears to have had two major political goals with the fencing effort: to control cross-border movement of goods and people across what has long been a porous border, as well as to offer a demarcation fait accompli on a border which has been rejected by prior Afghan governments.

While the movement of illicit goods hasn’t slowed down, the movement of civilians and migrants appears to have become largely restricted to declared border crossings.

It is Afghan side who has been creating hurdles in completing this one of the toughest human tasks.

They don’t want completion of this landmark project which has in fact caused serious hurdles in tackling terrorism and extremism, emanating from Afghan side.

Amid this backdrop, Afghan rulers’ (under repudiation of Pakistan’s position on the border and actual physical effort to dismantle the fence at multiple points is more than an invocation of a historical claim.

It is a tangible challenge to a pillar of Pakistan’s recent security policy — more serious than rhetorical challenges of former Afghan government under Presidents Ghani and Karzai.

It also casts doubt on a long-standing Pakistani strategic thesis that Taliban’s Islamist and relatively pro-Pakistan political project – which served as a basis for Pakistan’s support to Taliban during US presence in Afghanistan – will keep a lid on their irredentist nationalist aspirations.

Pakistani policy makers appear to be realizing that Afghan rulers (Taliban) will walk the talk of jihad and chew the gum of border nationalism at the same time.

Will this compel a rethink in Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban? Not immediately. But if Taliban ramp up their challenge against the border, Pakistan reserves the right retaliate and to influence Taliban’s internal politics more aggressively in order to accomplish its peaceful objectives for region.

In terms of human displacement, this has amounted to hundreds of thousands of Afghans crossing the border into Pakistan in the latter half of 2021, making an indirect trip to Iran and often then onward to Turkey and intended European destinations — with hundreds of thousands more anticipated to cross in 2022.

In a sharp break from historical precedent, which saw Pakistan host millions of Afghan refugees over the last four decades, relatively few of those Afghans fleeing have attempted to settle in Pakistan.

Aside from the few remaining openings in Pakistan’s border fence, Islamabad has maintained strict limitations on civilian traffic back and forth across the border since August, intended to forestall any mass human displacement into the towns and cities of its border region.

While major disruptions to supply chains remain, by September the two largest border crossings had reestablished at least some two-way commercial traffic – and the Taliban have since touted selective statistics suggesting that some exports have even increased to Pakistan since their takeover.

—The Islamabad-based writer is expert in Indian political affairs.