As the Pakistan Army digs trenches along the Durand Line in a stated effort to curb smuggling and terrorism, Pashtun populations on both sides of the border worry about the cultural and economic effects the project
For Malik Kaftar Khan Shinwari, an ethnic Pashtun from Nangarhar province, the kinship networks that bind communities living near the Durand line represent a political identity far older than the modern 480-kilometer border.
Shinwari, a tribal elder, names several surnames prominent on both sides: The Shinwaris, the Momands, the Yousufzais have populated the region for hundreds of years, he says. “The Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line cannot be separated."
Workers hired by Pakistan's Frontier Constabulary (FC) are hollowing a 2.4 by 3-metre trench in the ground, stretching 480-kilometres along the Durand Line near Quetta, in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Reviving a decades-old border dispute, the project threatens to escalate hostilities between Afghanistan and Pakistan even as insurgents regain their foothold in the region.
“We want to secure our boundaries because Afghan forces and militants were attacking us," said FC officer Naib Subaidor Ramzan. He recollects the FC recently lost one man in a skirmish with Afghan border police.
“Pakistan has started digging trenches four kilometers away from the Zero Point,” said Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi. The clashes erupted after the FC began digging trenches two kilometers from Zero Point, the actual line of the border, not far from the Maruf district on the other side of the frontier in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Gunshots were exchanged between border police, killing one person.
The FC also laid foundations for trenches close to Zabul province, as close as 600 metres from Zero Point. “We would not directly attack because the trenches are being dug on the other side of the Zero Point, but we have dispatched a delegation to the area. Once they return then the government will decide the course of action,” Seddiqi said.
Officials in Islamabad maintain the trenches, which will cost a projected 280 million Pakistani rupees to build, are necessary anti-terrorism measures legally located on Pakistani territory. "The trenches are inside the territory of Pakistan and are not meant to hinder movement of citizens between the two countries. The trenches are meant to deter those who crossover to engage in terrorism activities, smuggling of narcotics and transnational crimes. This is in the interest of both countries," Tasneem Aslam, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry, told AT.
Established in an agreement 111 years ago by Sir Mortimer Durand, an official of British India, and Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, the Durand Line refers to a 2,640 kilometres-long stretch of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and is drafted on a single-page agreement which contains seven short articles.
Although the colonial boundary divides the ethnic Pashtuns who live in the area, most local residents cross the line without visas, and do not consider the Durand Line an official border. After the British Empire left India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Pakistan has regarded the Durand Line as an official border with Afghanistan, though successive Afghan governments have refused to recognize it. Before leaving the presidential palace, former President Hamid Karzai boasted that in his 13 years in office he visited Pakistan 20 times in an official capacity. Each time, his Pakistani counterparts asked him to recognize the Durand Line, but he never accepted.
Pakistani officials say the trenches are meant to stop smugglers and terrorists from indiscriminately crossing the border as they have in the past. The Pakistan government has asked Kabul for assistance in the project, but lasting sensitivities over the status of the Durand Line have raised Afghan suspicions of the trenches. Under previous Pakistani administrations, General Pervez Musharraf hatched plans to stretch barbed wire along the disputed border, but faced strong opposition from the Afghan government.
The trenches are a way for Islamabad to force Kabul to clarify its stance on the Durand Line, says Arif Pashtun, a senator and head of the International Relations of Afghanistan’s Mesherano Jirga. “Digging trenches along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was on the table under Musharraf and faced huge opposition at the time. Today too, the Afghan government and tribes on both sides of the Durand Line oppose this plan.”
Pashtun populations on both sides of the border view the move as an act against ethnic unity. In Afghanistan, any announcement to dig trenches or reinforce the border in any way provokes anti-Pakistan demonstrations across the provinces. In Shinwari's view, the correct Afghan-Pakistani border predates the Durand line. He and many other Afghans believe the Afghan border should be moved several hundreds of kilometers south to Attock district in Pakistan's Punjab province, encroaching on Pakistan’s tribal areas and the Pashtun-dominated province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In Badaney, a region near Quetta, 60-year-old dried fruits seller Haji Satar worries the trenches are intended to separate tight-knit Pashtun communities from both sides of the border. “My wife is from Afghanistan, and I married my daughter off to an Afghan family. How can we separate from Afghanistan when our wedding and funeral ceremonies are the same?”
General Atiqullah Amarkhail, an Afghanistan-based military analyst, says Pakistan’s actions are violation of international laws and suggests Kabul file a complaint against Pakistan at the United Nations. “Pakistan is doing this to exert pressure on Afghanistan to recognize the Durand Line officially," he says. "The new government in Afghanistan should prioritize this issue in its foreign policy and show serious opposition to it.”
In Afghanistan, accepting the Durand Line as the official border remains a political hot potato, as no leader wants to bear historical responsibility for an agreement that sanctions the division of the Pashtun heartland. But the spiralling security situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the downsizing of NATO troops in the region call for increased cooperation between the two rival states. In this context, forcing Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line may be a strategic move on Pakistan's part.
In the past, the Pakistan army has waged proxy wars in the region by supporting terrorism networks active in Afghanistan, contributing to the current mistrust and creating an insurgency situation it can no longer control. The trenches may indicate a legitimate effort to crack down on terrorism and black-market trade.
"Now is the right time to settle outstanding issues. The people are suffering, and no policies have benefited them," says T.V. Paul, a McGill University professor and author of the book: The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World.
"From the [army's] narrow perspective, it's all about strategic power, balance of competition in the region," he added. "But this is a time of war fatigue, and they should have the ability to support the new government in Kabul against the Taliban in the larger interests of the region."
Border town troubles
Whatever its security benefits, the trench project is wreaking havoc on local economies that rely on informal trade with Afghanistan, the second-largest importer of Pakistani goods. Pakistan's official trade volume with Afghanistan is currently estimated at $2 billion. By cutting off transportation routes to some 1,200 trading outposts scattered along the Durand Line, the trenches are likely to paralyze cross-border business transactions, says Frontier Custom Agency president Zia-ul-Haq Sarhadi. Concerned about smuggling and terrorism in its Sistan-Baluchistan province, Iran has also been digging trenches along its border with Pakistan, leaving Pakistani Balochistan cut off from trade with two neighboring countries. Consequently, the trade volume between Iran and Afghanistan has increased by over $3 billion, said Sarhadi, adding that border towns like Chaman, Quetta and Torkham will bear the brunt of the economic impact.
Haji Abdul Hakam Shinwari, a businessman from the Pakistani border outpost of Torkham, said most traders from his area were active in Afghanistan. Trade between the two countries is governed by the Transit Trade agreement (ATT) which controls legal import materials in order to prevent terrorism and drug smuggling. Despite this legislation, most cross-border trade remained unmonitored because the ATT was difficult to enforce, Hakam Shinwari says. He points out that the unofficial trade volume between Afghanistan and Pakistan currently stands at $5 billion.
Unlike customs regulations and movable armies, the trenches represent a physical obstacle local traders will have difficulty bypassing. Like other Pashtun clans, the Shinwaris who live on both sides of the Durand line face isolation from their cultures and traditional sources of livelihood.
“Our trade is one, our culture and tradition is one and our marriages transcend borders," said Hakam Shinwari, echoing the laments of his namesake in Nangarhar. "How we can separate ourselves from Afghanistan?"