The month of March produced a rash of frictions between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barbs escalated into open allegations of subterfuge, undermining of the peace process and support of the Taliban
Up to 400 trucks cross the border daily through the Khyber Pass at Torkham. (Photo: Naqib Ahmad Atal). Main photo: Afghan border guards man a frontier watchpost in Kunar Province: By Nick Allen)
Whether referred to as the Durand Line or the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the definition and enforcement of this frontier continues to create immense tensions between the neighbours and in the broader international arena.
Drawn up in 1893 by British diplomat Mortimer Durand and Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan to demarcate spheres of influence, the almost 2,500-kilometre line bisects the Pashtun heartlands, separating what is essentially one people comprised of many tribes and factions.
Critics of the agreement, coming mainly from the Afghan side, argue that it was intended to only apply for 100 years, while others counter that there are no clear provisions for its expiry. Britain has always maintained that it was a permanent arrangement (although Durand himself did not), and in 2012, then US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, again stirred up the debate by saying the US government recognized the Durand Line as the international boundary. All Afghan sides, including the government, vehemently criticized the envoy’s comment, while the Pakistani reaction was muted.
On the Pakistani side, in the lands now inhabited by millions of historically Afghan Pashtuns, the current border is generally accepted, except by Pashtun nationalist political groups that play this card when needed.
At a grass-roots level, meanwhile, people simply want to get on with their lives, as far as the current conditions of armed conflict allow.
“People on both sides are the same in their culture and customs, all of them Pashtun,” said Haji Nisar, the general secretary of the local transport association at the Torkham border crossing. “The two governments should keep good relations as this is the way forward for the people of both countries.”
Apart from the main corridors at Torkham and Chaman, the border is open to pedestrians and traffic in several places. Here, Pakistani guards secure the frontier at the Nawa Pass between Kunar Province and the Bajaur Agency in FATA. (Photo: Allen)
Apart from the main border crossing points for vehicles and pedestrians at Chaman and Torkham, several lesser routes cut across the frontier, often at spectacular heights. These are periodically opened and shut to traffic, depending on the season and political climate. But in many places people just walk across the line using mountain trails, with no checks whatsoever.
A paradox of the region’s modern history is that efforts by Pakistan to consolidate the frontier as it now stands are deemed provocative and expansionist on the Afghan side. (These claims were recently reiterated after Pakistani troops began reinforcing positions along the frontier in Nangarhar Province.)
Yet the porous nature of the border undermines Afghan statehood by playing into the hands of insurgent and other groups that smuggle weapons, narcotics, lumber, copper, gemstones, marble, vehicles, and electronic and consumer goods. One man's confusion creates another's opportunities.
Then there are major disruptions to the local population caused by repeated closure of the frontier by Pakistan during disputes with Kabul and the international forces, such as the seven-month closure to NATO traffic from December 2011 over a US air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The crossing point at Torkham was most recently closed by the sides in January after incidents where security forces harassed and tortured nationals moving in both directions.
But the sudden closure of crossing points and state efforts to beef up the frontier with stricter document requirements cause deep resentment among the local population. In 2007, a mob destroyed biometric equipment installed by Pakistan at the southern Chaman crossing point, since it complicated daily travel and was seen as discriminatory towards inhabitants of the immediate area.
Recent efforts to reintroduce this technology continue to sow confusion, while the movement of traffic and goods is still only patchily monitored by authorities, much to the dismay of international organizations.
This is one aspect addressed by our new series of Afghanistan-Pakistan cross-border stories. These twelve pieces are the result of Afghanistan Today's December workshop held in Islamabad for a mixed group of Afghan and Pakistani journalists. Our reporters later visited Chaman, Torkham, and other spots on the frontier. They talked to people who live their lives across this line, traders, students, refugees, child labourers, and also insurgents who move between battle zones and their bases.
Changes loom, lines remain
Thousands of pedestrians pass between the countries on a daily basis, posing protracted issues of documentation. (Photo: Atal)
Pakistan is now gearing up for historic elections marking its first ever constitutional transition from one civilian government to the next. Most parties that are running actively seek good relations with Afghanistan as a guarantor of regional stability. But regardless of which forces dominate the polls, the border will remain a crucial and erratic factor of regional geopolitics.
It is both a strategic asset for its bilateral trading and security implications and an open wound that cannot heal due to cross-border insurgent attacks, US drone strikes, and mutual shellings and recriminations by Afghan and Pakistani authorities.
Yet amid this turmoil, the dynamics of human life continue here, characterized in ways unique to the existence of the line of demarcation. This includes the movement of bodies between the countries for burial, often with a blind eye turned by the authorities, as recounted in our upcoming story, "The final journey”. And also the daily stream of hundreds of children who have to go to another country to attend school. Or in the case of hundreds more who are much less fortunate, spend their childhood in gruelling work conditions at the frontier, as featured in our opening special report, "Soft hands, heavy work".