Pakistan’s unilateral decision to build a wall along the de facto border with Afghanistan is proving popular at home while fanning emotions on the other side that were enflamed by Islamabad’s decision to close border crossings.
In both cases, the stated reason was to halt terror attacks in Pakistan that it has blamed on terrorists operating from havens in Afghanistan, although it remains unclear how effective that restricting travel along the porous border can be.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, announced last Saturday that work has begun, with the first priority on border areas in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies because they are considered “high threat zones.”
Trench half done
Comparisons were immediately drawn with President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration and keep out drug traffickers and other criminals. Sections of the 2,500-kilometer Pakistan-Afghan border wind their way around and over mountainous terrain that will be hard to close off.
Pakistan finished a trench along about half the length last year that did nothing to prevent a recent string of terrorist bombings that ended a relatively quiet period brought about by an ongoing military operation.
Afghanistan also accuses Pakistan of allowing terrorists to operate from the tribal areas. Both Washington and Kabul believe the Haqqani network, al-Qaida and the Taliban Shura either carry out or plan terrorist attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan’s soil.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Daulat Waziri told a news conference Tuesday that Pakistan can be a good friend of Afghanistan “if Pakistan ends support to terrorists.”
Both sides deny allowing terrorists to use their territory for cross-border attacks.
Islamabad closed all border crossings with landlocked Afghanistan a month ago but reopened the crossings earlier this week to allow legal travelers and thousands of stranded Afghanistan-bound shipping containers to resume their journeys.
Brig. Mahmood Shah, the former security chief for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, said the repeated attacks made fencing inevitable and that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has committed $115 million to the project.
“Proper securing of borders with mutual consultation will put an end to allegations of cross-border incursions of militants that has vitiated the relations between the brotherly neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan,” former Pakistani President Asiz Zardari added in a statement.
Pakistani defense analyst Maria Sultan said the fence also will help tamp down drug trafficking.
“Better border management is also in the interest of Afghanistan and Kabul should cooperate,” Sultan said.
Popular in Islamabad
Sentiment on the streets of Islamabad backed the decision, too.
“I think, on the Pak Afghan border, security measures need to be taken” said Khalid Mahmood. “Because from there, the wrong kind of people — terrorists — come into our country. I think it’s a very good thing. It should already be in place. I think we are already late. No country allows anyone to enter in his or her country without a visa.”
Added Muhammed Ali: “Many people cross the border from there (Afghanistan), spread terror and go back. Many of our Pak Army men and innocent people are killed in these incidents. This is unacceptable.”
But not in Kabul
Feelings ran just the opposite in Afghanistan, which never has accepted the so-called Durand Line drawn by Britain at the turn of the 20th century as an official border.
“Neither the Afghan government nor the people living on both sides of the imaginary Durand Line can allow Pakistan’s unilateral actions,” said Javed Ahmed Wafa, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s ministry for tribal affairs and border regions.
Last June, at least four people were killed when Pakistan and Afghanistan exchanged artillery fire over Pakistan building a formal border control mechanism at Torkham, the main border crossing between the two countries.
“This will affect lots of people on both sides of the Durand Line,” Syed Ishaq Gillani, the head of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan and a member of the Afghan Parliament, told VOA’s Urdu service. “It will create division among families. Pakistan should have not done this in haste. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan should have resolved this issue through dialogue.”
“It will also affect tribesmen (on both sides). The Durand Line passes through villages,” where families live straddling the border.
Amin Akbar Haswani, saw it both ways.
“If we invest in security, it’s a long-term investment.… It will have better impact on business,” Haswani said. “But this fencing should not have an impact on people-to-people contacts and bilateral businesses.”