ISLAMABAD - As the Karzai government seeks greater role by Pakistan in the Afghan political reconciliation and Islamabad proactively supports this peace process, the PML-N government should now also ensure that Kabul agrees on a joint border mechanism to secure its western border. It is not only critical for Pakistan but is in the interest of both the countries.
Uncontrolled borders have been at the heart of many critical problems that both the states have faced – terrorism, smuggling and sanctuaries for militants – in the two countries. All of these issues became critical after the 1979 Soviet intervention that was followed by Pakistan-US led and internationally funded covert war against the Soviets.
The international community that has been prodding Pakistan since long to cooperate with Afghanistan, particularly in the reconciliation process, also needs to play its due role in ensuring that Islamabad’s legitimate concerns regarding the volatile border are addressed in the same spirit.
Pakistan shares a 2,500km porous border with Afghanistan which warrants immediate practical steps for effective management to stabilise it. Stricter controls are required to check the two-way cross border militancy and the likely prospect of a free-for-all fight for control in the aftermath of the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has long argued that the issue of border management is of key importance to Pakistan’s security. The impact of insecure borders also extends to regional peace and security. A joint-border mechanism that would check illegal crossings, especially movement of militants, ought to be a high priority.
Notably, of the estimated 56,000 border crossings daily, over 90 percent are from the Afghan side to Pakistan.
For several years Pakistan has been advocating an effective border management command to secure it against cross-border movement of insurgents, militants and other destabilising forces, but Afghanistan has not been willing to talk about it. The system of biometric cards, also proposed by Pakistan, had been rejected by the Afghans.
Realistically speaking, it is not possible to physically block the border with Afghanistan and is not seen as a solution.
In December 2006, Pakistan made a dramatic announcement that it had decided to go ahead and partially mine and fence its border with Afghanistan. The then Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan had declared at a press conference that the decision was prompted by an extraordinary situation that Pakistan faced, requiring extraordinary measures. The decision was motivated by the need to control the two-way cross border militant activity.
However, as expected, it met with stiff opposition from Afghanistan and the international community. Within two weeks, the then President Musharraf agreed to revisit the plan after spate of criticism on its mining plan from the international institutions like the UN, some governments and human rights organisations. There were critics of the mining move even within Pakistan.
It was essentially a tactical move to put an end to the incessant ‘do more’ clamour of the international brigade back then. Also, it seemed to work as it immediately deflected international community’s mounting pressure on Pakistan.
Although Pakistan government retracted its decision subsequently, the move was a wake-up call for the international community and had a significant impact. It sent an important signal to the international community that Pakistan had had enough of its complaining and meant business now. That if it does not play its due role and come up with viable alternatives, Pakistan will unilaterally take drastic action to secure its side of the border.
Pakistan put the international community on notice as to its sincerity and seriousness in helping stabilise Afghanistan and securing the shared border.
Hence Pakistan’s announcement to selectively mine and fence its border succeeded in shaking up the international community to do more. Within a fortnight of the announcement the Canadian foreign minister visited Pakistan with the offer of better alternatives and technological assistance to help strengthen border controls. It was decided that a Canadian group of experts, having vast experience in managing the North American border, would make a presentation on some viable alternatives. The move had compelled some key Nato states to put their heads together seriously and come up with better viable alternatives.
Pakistan should draw on that as it explores more doable options. Perhaps it is time for Islamabad to send another similar loud and clear message to all the stakeholders in Afghanistan. That they must show more sensitivity to Pakistan’s national security as it expects from Pakistan which is already playing a very key and positive role in the intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation.
Given the scheduled withdrawal of the bulk of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, border management remains a core issue for Pakistan that faces influx of up to three million more Afghan refugees. Pakistan is already hosting 3 million refugees and cannot afford the additional burden of as many more refugees in the aftermath of 2014. The fate of the Afghanistan-US Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow up to 15,000 US troops to stay beyond 2014 also hangs in balance with President Karzai’s refusal to sign it before the Afghan elections next year. And if the intra-Afghan reconciliation is not pulled off in the run-up to the withdrawal of 2014 Nato forces and BSA fails to materialize, it is bound to have a negative bearing on Pakistan.
Apparently, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had specifically raised the issue of border management in his meetings with the top Afghan leadership during his visit to Kabul last month. During his hour-long one-on-one meeting with President Karzai this issue figured prominently and the latter agreed to cooperate in this regard. A proposal made by Pakistan to set up a border commission to strengthen border monitoring and controls is currently under consideration. Its emphasis is on border management command and on capacity building of law-enforcement agencies for effective monitoring. Institutionalising border management by ensuring documented travel and legal entries are considered key to solving this issue.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share the common objective of enhancing border controls, primarily to curb militant activity, which require collaboration for effective management. Kabul should no long drag its feet on this key issue and be open to Islamabad’s specific proposals when they discuss this issue at the interior-secretaries level later this month.
The way forward on the challenging border issue is constructive engagement at all levels – bilateral, regional and multilateral – to explore measures to curb all illegal activity and to ensure no sanctuaries of militants and terrorists are allowed on either side. “The cost of managing a border is less, not managing it is more,” is how a senior diplomat put it so aptly.
Institutionalising a border management command is in the interest of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan given complaints both sides have had about militant crossings. Both stand to gain from it as a more stable border would yield political, security and economic dividends.