September Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Pakistan is under tremendous pressure from two of its neighbours, a sometimes hostile, always suspicious India in the east, and not a very friendly Afghanistan in the west, as border skirmishes and allegations of infiltration and incursions in these countries make headlines around the world and lend credence to charges of Islamabad’s expansionist designs.

With India, a people to people policy is being pursued. Both the Pakistan and Indian governments, through exchanges of delegations of politicians and parliamentarians, have shown some willingness to bridge the widening gap — albeit without yet giving any official status to this process. However, this is not the case with Afghanistan. Islamabad is eager to keep its western border tension-free because of the still-tense situation on its eastern one, and continuing charges by India that Pakistan is fighting a proxy war in Kashmir in the guise of a freedom struggle. Since Kabul is in the hands of pro-India Afghan factions at the moment, the situation demands an even more cautious approach by Islamabad: it cannot afford to have similar charges thrown at it by Afghanistan.

Simmering tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan erupted into hostility following Islamabad’s timely move to secure its borders by sending its troops to the tribal belt for the first time to draw a demarcation line in areas which had never been brought under the direct control of the government since 1947. The need to draw a demarcation line along the 2450 kilometre-long and porous border between the two countries, known as the Durand Line, was long felt, but conditions had never allowed Islamabad to give it a concrete shape. The US-backed hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements as part of the war on terrorism, enabled Pakistan to extend its writ to the border areas, which had assumed the status of ‘no-go’ areas. There are currently 65,000 Pakistani troops in the tribal belt of the country. But it was not a walkover for Pakistan in certain places, as the action brought to the fore old enmities, claims and counterclaims between the two countries, prompting Afghanistan to blame Pakistan for incursions into its territory. At one stage, the Afghan authorities claimed that Pakistan had occupied some 45-kilometers of Afghan territory in Mohmand Agency alone. However, the tri-partite commission comprising officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States assigned the task of probing the allegations and determining whether any violation of the Durand Line had taken place, could not muster any concrete evidence to support this charge. Nonetheless, the border dispute has continued to dog relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan also has cause for anxiety on another score. The trigger-happy nature of the US forces combing the border areas between the two countries for members of the suspected Al-Qaeda terrorist network has not made the operation popular among the local population.

The Pak-US coalition came under heavy criticism when a Pakistani military picket was hit by gunship fire from US Air Force personnel at Lwara Mandai area in North Waziristan Agency, on the border with Afghanistan’s troubled Paktika province, on August 11. Two Pakistani soldiers — sepoy Muhammad Yamin and sepoy Khayal Badshah from the 69 Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan army — were killed in the incident and three others, including Lance Naik Amjad Hussain of the Shawal Scouts, a paramilitary force, were injured. Tension escalated in Mohmand as well as North and South Waziristan agencies over this issue and sent ripples through the government, with President Pervez Musharraf expressing his dismay publicly. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the US ambassador in Islamabad, Nancy Powell, have since regretted the incident, terming it “unfortunate” and promising an enquiry. A Pakistan official from the border area disclosed that the picket manned by the Pakistani troops had been mistakenly targeted by US forces. He believes the Americans were chasing suspected terrorists who had fled from the scene after targeting a US military camp in the neighbouring Paktika province and mistook the army jawans for them.

The difference of opinion on the establishment of security check posts and demarcation of the border in the so-called no-go areas also took the life of a Pakistani militiaman in the Anargai area, and of a tribal woman in an adjacent village of the Mohmand Agency some time ago. The casualties owed to firing started by the Afghan militia, were controlled by local commanders. While the incident engendered anger, it was the ‘friendly fire’ from the Americans that really ignited passions. “We are at a loss to understand how an American force equipped with the latest technology and information devices, so frequently hit the wrong targets,” observes a Pakistani official.

Ever since the US-led coalition war against terror began in Afghanistan, the American troops and their allies have killed scores of civilians, mainly in Afghanistan, but also some on the Pakistan side of the border because of erroneous information provided to them by their informers.

Meanwhile, three eastern Afghan provinces — Paktia, Paktika and Khost — have become particularly unsafe for the US and its Afghan allies. The Taliban and their supporters have regrouped in these areas and have been launching coordinated attacks against the US and Afghan military bases.

The Taliban have been held responsible for the recent attacks on the police stations in Afghanistan’s Paktika and Logar provinces, which left more than 30 people dead and dozens others injured. The Afghan government has been unable to prevent the increasing attacks against its loyalists, and in turn, has been blaming Pakistan for the attacks, and accusing Islamabad of not doing enough to stop cross-border infiltration. Pakistan has repeatedly denied the allegation.

While the Pak-Afghan border situation is an ongoing source of consternation for the government, General Pervez Musharraf must be commended for his historical achievement vis-a -is breaking the myth of impregnability of the tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, and in the process, securing the Frontier.

Many believe that this would not have been possible for Islamabad without the American presence on the other side of the border and the simultaneous operations on both sides of the Durand Line by Pakistan and US forces, to capture suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements.

Although tribesmen in a pocket of Mohmand Agency, on the border with Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, did put up some resistance to the advance of the Pakistani militia backed by the armed forces, the authorities seem resolute to move on and bring these ‘no-go areas’ under Islamabad’s control.

The ongoing military operation on the Pak-Afghan border has several critics, in and outside Afghanistan. It has been termed an intrusion and a violation of the Durand Line agreement. Afghanistan has an old claim over the North West Frontier Province, which was once part of united Afghanistan before the Afghan government and British India agreed in 1893 to accept the Durand Line as the permanent border between the two countries. The threatening remarks by Zalmay Khalilzad, advisor to President George Bush on Afghanistan and the Middle East, a statement attributed to Afghan Defence Minister, General Qasim Faheem, and the latest outburst of Corps Commander, Jalalabad, Hazrat Ali, are not much to the liking of Islamabad.

Such disputes are unavoidable, given the porous nature of the long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. One theory is also that securing the border between the two countries will ensure Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. The presence of international forces may also be a reason for Kabul to seek a resolution of the dispute with Pakistan in a friendly atmosphere. Some Afghan observers believe the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan had ceased to exist following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the presence of international forces has, at least, brought the country back on the world map as a state.

In a bid to calm down tempers between the two sides, mainly on the Afghan side of the divide, Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, visited Kabul last week on a two-day official trip to discuss a wide range of issues, including the border dispute, with Afghan authorities. Kasuri told journalists in Kabul that Pakistan was a vast country which had no intentions of undertaking any incursions into Afghanistan. He also talked about the tripartite commission, which he said, was the proper forum to take up the issue of border violation if it had, indeed, occurred.

However, accepting the Durand Line as a permanent border for the Afghans and their government is a bitter pill to shallow. And the Afghan interior Minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, who recently visited Pakistan, said as much. He told reporters that the Hamid Karzai-ledtransitional government was in no position to decide sensitive matters like the demarcation of the controversial Durand Line.