First there was a lot of shouting and gesticulating. That was followed by some shots, and then mortar fire, and then artillery, all this together with insults galore from both sides. That’s how a recent Pakistan-Afghan border fight looked like. At one level, it was relatively a small incident compared to the firing that erupts on the Line of Control.
On the other, it was very serious indeed, considering that the Taliban just re-opened a can of worms called the Durand Line. For Islamabad, its probably back to the drawing board, and think of Taliban 2.0. or a fresh Islamic State persona.
Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Inflamed
It all began when the Taliban intelligence chief of Nangarhar province was heard shouting wildly at a Pakistani border post, reportedly threatening the Pakistanis with war, if they violated the boundary. That was greeted with cheers from his compatriots.
Clearly, in Nangarhar, nobody likes the Pakistanis much. That was followed by reports of artillery firing, and the visit of a senior Taliban official to the area, who more diplomatically said the Taliban were committed to ‘good neighbourliness’ but would not hesitate to defend itself.
By the new year, things had got more serious. A video showed the Taliban very efficiently destroying fencing put up by the Pakistan side.
It was only after a spokesman of the Afghan ministry of Defence, went public stating that no fencing would be allowed, that Islamabad broke its silence with Maj Gen Iftikhar, DG ISPR (Inter-services Public Relations) declaring ‘fencing would continue as planned’ and that too many martyrs blood had been lost in the effort, to stop.
The irony was that the statement was made at a press conference for yet another of the innumerable ‘Kashmir days’ that Islamabad has seen fit to keep almost every other month. That’s pathetic at some level, since it not Kashmir that is bleeding, but Pakistan.
The Durand Line
There’s a second and supreme irony. The whole mess that is Pakistan’s 40-year Afghan policy has been aimed at getting Kabul to recognise the Durand Line. That’s also the reason why Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began his covert war against Kabul, long before the US backed the mujahideen.
The history of this ‘border’ dates back to another example of British mischief, when in 1893, a ‘border’ was demarcated by Sir Mortimer Durand, Secretary of the British government in India and the Emir of Kabul, in a bid to prevent perceived Tsarist expansion. What it did on the ground, was to divide the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic tribe in the world into two, leaving one hapless half in what was eventually to become Pakistan, which was dominated by Punjabis. The 40 million or more Pashtuns logically should have a country of their own, which is what they have been demanding intermittently, over the last several decades. Now with the Taliban at the centre, they are still asking for it. Clearly, a Pashtun is a Pashtun first, and then a Taliban. This is Pakistan’s nightmare returning to haunt it.
Is Pakistan Fencing for Profit?
Meanwhile, Pakistan has been busily fencing the ‘border’ with Afghanistan since 2017, and from 2019 with Iran–even as India fenced its own border – thus becoming perhaps the only country in the world to be fenced in on all sides.
The fence is a complicated affair, with double concertina wires, sensors, surveillance cameras, and a thousand plus forts to ensure that Frontier Corps personnel are well placed to control the border.
Cross border movement will only be allowed through some 16 border posts. Some 60 new wings of the Frontier Corps, already at 60,000 plus personnel. Expensive work, except that it was all being paid for by the US, which in 2008 was providing more than USD97 million for equipping the corps. All very nice for everyone, including the Frontier Corps who are notorious for being involved in smuggling of everything from narcotics to human movement.
The lid was blown off this lucrative business when 6 army officers including a Lieutenant General were dismissed without benefits. This particular scandal came out when a sports car belonging to the son of IG Frontier Corps Maj Gen Ejaz Shahid crashed killing two army engineers. As it turned out, the swanky car had been imported without customs duty. That is what this fencing amounts to. It allows the FC to make a quick buck, instead of disallowing smugglers – of those with relatives on this side – to move quietly over the mountain passes.
Afghanistan's Stand on the Border with Pakistan
Curiously, a supposed Afghan government website of his ministry, has this to say precisely if ungrammatically “Durand line has been imposed on Afghan Nation, and is the line that has never been accepted by Afghan government and its Nation. The mentioned line lies down from Nawshakh area of Wakhan district of Badakhshan province up to Malik Sya Mountain of ChaharBurjak district of Nimroz province.”
Even more surprisingly, the website says “Afghanistan shares its 102 km joint border with Jemo ( Jammu) and Kashmir that starts from Wakhjir edge and ends at Nawshakh of Wakhan district”. If this is, in fact, the site of the Taliban government, then it puts an entirely different construct on the whole affair.
Pro-Pakistan Haqqanis Calling the Shots in Afghanistan?
With Pakistan’s proteges like Sirajuddin Haqqani—and his brothers in war like Anas, Najibullah and Khalil ur Rehman—controlling major ministries in Afghanistan, it's not all plain sailing. The power struggle between the Haqqanis and the Doha group continues. The latter is headed by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who in September, left Kabul in a fury, after a fistfight between his and Haqqani supporter broke out in what was literally a power struggle. This group also includes Noorullah Noori, who heads the Border and Tribal Affairs Ministry.
It is worth remembering that Baradar himself was a prisoner of the ISI for years, until he was let loose on US orders. There was little that the Taliban leaders could do about ISI diktats and high-handedness, as long as they were based in Pakistan.
Now at least a section of the Taliban, who want to run their country rather than be dictated to by Rawalpindi, is coming to the fore. The Haqqanis and their Zadran tribe, however, are rooted in the Pakistani tribal belt with their wealth from smuggling thanks to Pakistani patronage.
Sirajuddin is also their lynchpin in dealing with hostile groups like the Tehrik e Taliban, or the Al Qaeda. He has little to gain from alienating Islamabad, who also trains and supplies his elite Badri unit among others. So by any reading of the tarot cards, trouble lies ahead as powerful figures like Intel head Abdul Haq Wasiq strike back at Afghan nationalists, even as the ISI works to root out and sideline trouble makers.
Aid to Afghanistan May be Diverted for Other Purposes
Meanwhile, some USD8 billion in aid is coming from the United Nations, while other aid is already arriving. As feared, the aid is not being distributed fairly, given that the head of the Ministry of Refugees is a Haqqani man, as are his spokespersons and other officials.
In all fairness, corruption is part and parcel of any Afghan government, but in this one the aid is likely to move only to groups who favour Pakistan. That’s dangerous and detrimental to Afghan plans for its future.
Lastly, Pashtun anger is not something to be scoffed at. As more border pillars come tumbling down, that anger may spill onto Pakistani soil. It is, however, no accident that it is the former DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who now heads the Peshawar Corps that is in charge of this border. Certainly, Hameed can't complain of an unexciting life. It just might get more exciting than even he bargained for.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)