South Asia | Good fences make Pakistan and Afghanistan bad neighbors

Good fences make Pakistan and Afghanistan bad neighbors

Salman Rafi April 20, 2017 11:25 AM (UTC+8)
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“Friendship Gate” reads the sign at the main border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a misnomer. Any remaining friendship between the governments in Islamabad and Kabul began to dissipate when Pakistan closed the border last month.

Although Pakistan later re-opened the border on what it called humanitarian grounds, the fraught relationship seems set to continue deteriorating.

The main cause of the deterioration is the recent decision by Pakistan to fence the border, which is over 2,000-km long, as a measure to counter terrorism. The Pakistani government intends to spend 12 billion rupees (about US$115 million) on building 423 small forts strung out along the border, each 6km from the next and all equipped with cameras and other sensors, and on fencing the gaps between them.

Pakistani policy on countering terrorism is based on two givens: that there is no military solution to the problem in the long run: and that solving it requires cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the countries that suffer most from the problem. But the plan to build the border fence is an indication of the differences Islamabad and Kabul over how to counter terrorism.

Afghanistan is implacably opposed to any fence. The plan to build it may signify Pakistani resolve to prevent terrorists crossing the border at will. But acting alone against terrorists is unlikely to benefit Pakistan.

For one thing, the plan to build the border fence contradicts Pakistani policy in two respects. First, it is a military measure for the long term, because the fence will have to be guarded. Second, it is a unilateral measure, which is unlikely to increase cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials say the main reason for building the fence was the failure of Kabul to act against militants based in Afghanistan. A spokesman for the Afghan government said any action on the border taken by Pakistan with the agreement of Afghanistan would be “ineffective, impractical and impossible.”

Instead of countering terrorism, the fence would be likely to spur rivalry between Kabul and Islamabad, allowing terrorists, whichever side of the border they are on, to play one government off against the other, and so cancel out any benefit to Pakistan of having the fence. It is unlikely that the fence would make the areas on the Afghan side inhabited by Pakhtuns any less disorderly, so those areas would probably remain havens for terrorists.

The main effect of the fence would be to divide inhabitants of the border region that share certain characteristics, rather than to quell terrorism. People on one side of the border are often the same as those on the other side – ethnically, linguistically, socially, culturally and in their religious beliefs.

Relationships between the peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan at the basic level would be the first casualties of this military solution.

Building a fence dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan would also have discordant echoes in other areas of foreign policy. If the fence is completed, how then could Islamabad object to a wall to divide Pakistan from India, which the government in New Delhi means to build?

The prospect for Pakistan is that it would be fenced in on two of its four sides. A ring of physical barriers would reinforce the underlying conviction, common to all parties, that Pakistan and Afghanistan are enemies and ever will be, and that India and Pakistan are enemies and ever will be. The barriers would be barriers to peace.

Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmanrafisheikh@hotmail.com
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