Officials in Pakistan say a unilateral construction effort has erected a robust fence along “more than 70%” of the country’s roughly 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and the coronavirus pandemic has not hampered the work.
Pakistan has reported a relatively low number of cases of COVID-19, with more than 21,500 infections and nearly 500 deaths.
The army-led, roughly $500 million project to secure the largely porous and historically open frontier was launched in 2017, and officials expect it to be finished by the end of this year or by summer 2021.
The fence has been installed along more than 85% of the border in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and almost 70% percent in southwestern Baluchistan province, according to the information shared with VOA by the military’s media wing, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
The pair of three-meter-high mesh fences, a couple of meters apart, are filled and topped with coils of razor wire, running through rugged terrain and snow-capped mountains as high as 12,000 feet. Additionally, hundreds of new outposts and forts, equipped with modern surveillance gadgetry, also are being built.
Chief military spokesman Major-General Babar Iftikhar told a local news channel Monday night the coronavirus-related lockdown has not affected the border security project.
“The fencing activity has not stopped. The stretch of Pak-Afghan border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is near completion and the work is speedily underway on the stretch in Baluchistan,” Iftikhar told Pakistani ARY news channel in an interview broadcast.
Officials maintain the fence would go a long way in addressing concerns of Pakistan and Afghanistan stemming from illegal crossings and militant infiltration.
Afghan officials are opposed to Pakistan’s border security measures because Kabul disputes the 1893 British colonial era demarcation, what Afghans still refer to as the Durand Line. Islamabad rejects the objections and maintains Pakistan inherited the international frontier after gaining independence from Britain in 1947.
The United States also has hailed Pakistan’s border security measures and U.S. officials told lawmakers during recent Congressional hearings that Washington "sees the Durand Line as the internationally recognized boundary.”
The border fencing in a traditionally lawless border region followed years of sustained counter-militancy operations, killing thousands of militants and pushing many others into volatile border provinces of Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military says it has effectively “dismantled" terrorist infrastructures in the area, leading to improved security and a sharp reduction in militant attacks in the country.
One of the border districts, North Waziristan, however, has experienced a spike in attacks on Pakistani security forces in recent months, fueling concerns militants are trying stage a comeback in their former stronghold.
The ISPR dismissed those concerns and explained the violence stemmed from ongoing “intelligence-based” security operations to clear remaining “terrorist hideouts” and “sleeper cells” in the district.
The media wing insisted capacity issues apparently have prevented Afghanistan from adequately manning the border, particularly in its eastern and southeastern provinces, which encouraged fugitive militants and those linked to Islamic State to establish bases there and plot cross-border attacks against Pakistan.
Islamabad maintains its security and ensuing diplomatic efforts helped Washington in negotiating and signing the landmark agreement with the Taliban February 29 toward ending nearly 19 years of war in Afghanistan.
In return for a withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from the country, the deal seeks Taliban counterterrorism assurances and engagement in negotiations with other Afghan groups to end decades of hostilities in the country.
The proposed intra-Afghan peace dialogue has been delayed, though, because of a slow-moving prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Afghan government and stepped up insurgent attacks.
The Pakistani foreign ministry Sunday described the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a “significant step forward” and a “historic opportunity” toward opening intra-Afghan peace negotiations. It called for a reduction in violence by all parties to the conflict, saying it is “pivotal” in advancing peace in Afghanistan.
“For its part, Pakistan will continue to support a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan, at peace with itself and its neighbors,” according to the statement.
Pakistani officials take credit for arranging and facilitating the U.S.-led Afghan peace process. Taliban leaders and their families have lived among several million Afghan refugees that are still hosted by Pakistan.
Islamabad also had recognized the Taliban government in Kabul in the mid-1990s, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, before the Islamist group was ousted from power by a 2001 U.S.-led military invasion of Afghanistan for sheltering al-Qaida leaders.