Pakistan says it finds it necessary to build a fence along its long porous border with Afghanistan, in part because of a lack of cooperation from authorities in Kabul. The border region has long been a source of instability, with militant groups, terrorists and smugglers using the remote, mountainous terrain as cover.
Pakistan says it is now moving forward unilaterally to improve security in the region, and increase the monitoring of millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.
Afghanistan opposes the border fencing plans because it disputes the demarcation of the border, which was set by the former British rulers of the Indian subcontinent. Afghan leaders also accuse Pakistan’s military and its ISI spy agency of helping Taliban insurgents and their dreaded Haqqani network ally sustain the insurgency in Afghanistan. The allegations have long strained bilateral relations and Islamabad’s border fencing project has fueled tensions.
Speaking at an international conference in Islamabad this week, army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said that the military has deployed over 200,000 troops along the border and established nearly 1,000 posts while Afghans have maintained just over 200 outposts.
This has left a large portion of the nearly 2,600-kilometer border unguarded, making it impossible to control illegal cross-border movement, he complained.
“So, under compulsion we had no option but to go for unilateral border management. So, what we have done is that we have started to construct new border posts and new forts along the border. On the average, every 1.5 kilometer will have either a border post or the fort where our troops will be there,” the general explained.
Islamabad dismisses traditional Afghan objections to the international frontier between the two countries. Officials also deny Pakistan is supporting Afghan insurgents, saying the charges are an attempt by the Kabul government to divert attention from their internal political and security challenges.
Ghafoor said “As long as Afghanistan looks towards Pakistan through the lens of anti-Pakistan forces, the region will never be stable. The day Afghanistan looks towards Pakistan from the lens of their own national interest, it will be stable."
Pakistan also accuses rival India of using growing influence within Afghan security institutions to destabilize Kabul’s ties with Islamabad, accusations Afghan and Indian officials deny.
Ghafoor said that presence of 2.7-million Afghan refugees in the country, an estimated 44 percent of them undocumented, is another prime driver of blame game between the two countries and a security challenge for Pakistan.
For long the displaced population, particularly unregistered Afghans, have lived in Pakistan with no checks on their movement, encouraging militants to exploit the situation, he said. But a recently concluded national census has now enabled authorities to identify every Afghan citizen living in the country, disclosed the general.
“We desire an early, smooth, honorable and socio-economically gainful and possibly irreversible repatriation of all Afghan refugees,” Ghafoor reiterated.
Increased monitoring of the refugee population coupled with border restrictions and raise in financial assistance by UNHCR for voluntary repatriation in 2016 prompted more than 750,000 Afghans to return to their homeland amid allegations of forced evictions and harassment by Pakistani authorities, according to officials in Kabul.
But the Afghan government faced challenges in handling the returnees and reintegrating them in the society, along with increased insecurity in most parts of Afghanistan. A reduction in financial assistance for the voluntary repatriation has led to a significant decline in the number of returning families this year. As of early July fewer than 40,000 refugees have returned to Afghanistan, according to UNHCR.
“The development investments in the high-return communities and areas in Afghanistan have not been commensurate to the demands and the needs,” said Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR chief in Pakistan, while addressing the conference.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Islamabad, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, says that despite its limitations, Kabul is doing all it can to absorb returnees and dismisses assertions the refugees are a source of terrorism in the host country.
“In this year [repatriation] is a slow process, particularly because the pool of refugees has certainly shrunk but at the same time of course the security situation is worse than it was a year ago,” Zakhilwal told the conference organized by National University of Science and Technology (NUST).
“But about those who have returned I am very glad to say that you will find very few refugees who regret their decision to have returned to their country,” Zakhilwal asserted. The Afghan envoy also disagreed with official Pakistani assertions that the refugee population is a cause of insecurity for the host country.