Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bad Fences Make Bad Neighbours

Many believe that Pakistan is trying to use the “war on terror” to legitimise a long-disputed border.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

With all problems their country is facing, it would seem unlikely that Afghans would spare much time to fulminate over a century-old border dispute.

But the Durand Line, which divides Afghanistan from Pakistan, is one of the most sensitive and explosive issues in Afghanistan today. Everyone from taxi drivers to the president has something to say about it, and the sentiments are far from positive.

The question has now resurfaced with a Pakistani proposal to erect a fence along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Pakistani president Pervez Musharaff voiced the proposal last month in a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rather than in talks with his Afghan counterpart, which has brought Afghan resentment to boiling point.

The border in question is a poorly demarcated, 2,600- kilometre line devised by British minister Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893 to separate British India from Afghanistan. Pakistan inherited the boundary when it gained statehood in 1947.

Afghans claim that the line was imposed on the Afghan monarch Amir Abdul Rahman but was never formally accepted by the country. The Afghan government has tried to abrogate the treaty unilaterally, most recently in 1948, but it still stands as the internationally accepted border between the two countries.

Durand’s line cut neatly through the Pashtun population, which some maintain was no accident. With the troublesome, warlike Pashtuns divided, the British had a better chance of subduing Afghanistan, which it wanted as a buffer zone to check the expanding Russian empire.

There are now some 16 million Pashtuns on the Pakistan side of the border – equal to or greater than the number who live in Afghanistan. No reliable census figures exist for Afghanistan, but it is estimated that Pashtuns comprise between 40 and 60 per cent of the approximately 27 million population.

The British never managed to subdue the fiercely independent Afghans, but the legacy of the Durand Line continues to spark anger and resentment.

Afghans firmly believe the treaty has lapsed since it was due to expire after 100 years, in 1993. Britain’s Foreign Office has said the agreement has no expiry date.

The line is now accepted and recognised by the international community, and a re-examination of the border seems a fairly remote possibility.

But Afghans have not lost their determination to regain what they consider their rightful territory, and are convinced that Pakistani policy aims to keep their country weak and unstable so as to prevent them staking their claim.

When he proposed building a fence, President Musharraf argued that it would make it hard for insurgents to cross the currently porous border.

Afghan president Hamed Karzai vehemently rejected the idea, telling a press conference in Kabul that a wall would not deter terrorists. It would, however, have a host of other disadvantages such as dividing tribes and families.

But Karzai’s angry response may be all but irrelevant; Musharaff took his proposal not to the Kabul government, but to what many Afghans call the “real power” in the region - the United States - seen as a firm friend and protector of Pakistan. This perception has done little to dampen the growing resentment of the American presence in Afghanistan, at a time when the Taleban are becoming increasingly active in the country.

“Pakistan has made this proposal to the US government because Americans are here in Afghanistan, and Americans have ensured security in this country,” said Mohammad Naem, a press officer at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul.

It was just a proposal, he added, and furthermore it was designed to stop the flow of terrorists and weapons across the border, not for any darker purpose.

But such explanations do not wear well within Afghanistan.

“With the presence of Americans in Afghanistan, Pakistani forces are advancing hundreds of kilometres into Afghanistan’s soil,” said political analyst Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, who also edits the magazine Jarida-ye-Milli-ye-Afghan. “Now it wants to construct a security fence along the border to legalise Afghanistan’s occupied territory by Pakistan. If American support was not behind Pakistan, it would never be able to do such things.”

Karzai’s government has done nothing to stop Pakistan’s encroachment, he added, because it is reliant on American support.

Pakistan has come under increasing pressure from the United States to clamp down on Islamic insurgent groups and stop them sending insurgents into Afghanistan. This may be one reason that it advanced the idea of a fence to seal the border, say experts.

“Pakstan wants to show it is an ally in the war on terror,” said Habibullah Rafi, a political analyst and member of the Academy of Sciences.

But Rafi also suspects Islamabad is trying to exploit the weakness of the Afghan government and its friendship with the United States.

“Pakistan has two goals in building the wall,” he said. “On the one hand, it wants to get billions of dollars from America for construction, on the other, it wants to legitimise the Durand Line.”

Political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar agrees.

“[Pakistani] forces have advanced into Afghanistan’s territory and now it wants to make the Durand Line valid by constructing a wall,” said Akhgar. “I think it is up to the Pashtuns on that side of the border to decide their own fate.”

The US embassy in Kabul was noncommittal on the fence proposal.

“We work with both Afghanistan and Pakistan on security issues and regularly encourage strengthening cooperation on security,” said embassy spokesman Lou Fintor. “Military officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US meet periodically to discuss matters related to the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region. This is a subject of regular discussion between U.S. officials and the leaders of the two countries.”

But the issue of the wall touches a very deep chord in the Afghan psyche, and no matter what decision is made in the halls of power, Afghans themselves will continue to hold strong opinions.

“Construction of the wall would mean a second division of Afghanistan,” said Wolesmal. “History has shown that the Berlin Wall was destroyed, the border walls in Gaza were destroyed, and this wall will also be destroyed if it is ever built.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is the editor of the Afghan Recovery Report in Kabul. Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.