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Can A Fence Help In Fighting Terrorism In Pakistan And Afghanistan?

A soldier stands guard along the border fence at the Angoor Adda outpost on the border with Afghanistan in South Waziristan tribal district in western Pakistan.
A soldier stands guard along the border fence at the Angoor Adda outpost on the border with Afghanistan in South Waziristan tribal district in western Pakistan.

For months, Pakistan has been touting a fence along its western border with Afghanistan as an antidote to terrorist violence and an answer to Afghan and international claims that Islamabad supports insurgent groups in the neighboring country.

But the razor wire fence, more than 3 meters tall along the nearly 2,500-kilometer 19th-century Durand Line is unlikely to address the real drivers of terrorism in the two countries. Instead, it is becoming yet another sore spot in the volatile relations between Kabul and Islamabad that have long been plagued by mistrust and suspicion.

Already dubbed the Berlin Wall for attempting to create a physical barrier between the estimated 50 million Pashtuns bisected by the Durand Line into the two countries, the barrier will increase resentment among trans-border tribes and communities hard done by years of terrorist attacks and military operations.

Since the spring, Pakistan’s powerful military -- the main supporter of the fence -- has been showing journalists the progress on construction. Islamabad says the fence will cost more than $500 million and will help regulate cross-border movement and prevent militant attacks inside Pakistan.

"[The fence] is a paradigm change. It is an epoch shift in border-control management," Major General Nauman Zakaria told journalists on October 18.

Pakistan Says Afghan Border Fence A 'Paradigm Change'
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As head of Pakistani military operations in western South Waziristan tribal district, Zakaria has overseen fencing on a part of the Durand Line that bisects the Pashtun Wazir tribe. He is adamant that militants will not be able to cross the once-invisible line, which was first drawn between a suzerain Afghan Kingdom and the British Empire in 1893.

"There will not be an inch of international border [in South Waziristan] that shall not remain under our observation," he said.

Earlier in October, Pakistani security officials in southwestern Balochistan Province said security trumped any concerns for the mobility of clans and communities living on both sides of the Durand Line.

In Chaman, a Balochistan border crossing connected to the Afghanistan’s Spin Boldak border town, the distinction between who is a Pakistani citizen and who is an Afghan is not easy. For many members of local trans-border Achakzai and Noorzai Pashtun clans, it was a seamless society where they could freely move and trade between the two towns.

Pakistani officials now expect them to live as divided and even hostile communities in separate, antagonistic countries.

"These tribals have to understand that this is Pakistan and that place is Afghanistan," Muhammad Usman, commander of Pakistan's Frontier Corps paramilitary force in Chaman, told Reuters. "[A border wall] was there in Germany; it is in Mexico. It is all over the world -- why not in Afghanistan and Pakistan?"

Pakistani soldiers keep guard as citizens return from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman in October
Pakistani soldiers keep guard as citizens return from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman in October

For more than a decade Islamabad, has touted the construction of a border barrier as a remedy to international concerns and criticism over militant sanctuaries and support for extremist groups.

Islamabad's counterterrorism policies, however, have been murky. In the initial years following the demise of Afghanistan's Taliban regime in late 2001, it vehemently denied the presence of and support for any militant groups on its soil. Pakistan's military dictator Pervez Musharraf then claimed credit for cooperating in killing and capturing key Al-Qaeda leaders while denying the presence of the Afghan Taliban.

Mounting terrorist attacks ultimately prompted the Pakistani military to move against groups responsible for the violence inside the country by 2014, but yet again it spared the Afghan Taliban, particularly its deadly military wing, the Haqqani network.

Islamabad has also failed to implement key parts of a national counterrtorism plan that the country's political and military leaders crafted after a massacre at the Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar in December 2014.

Last year, a senior Pakistani official admitted that Islamabad holds considerable influence over the Afghan Taliban because "their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities and their families are here." In May last year, a U.S. air strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in Balochistan.

Even senior estranged Taliban leaders have called on the current Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzda, to distance himself from Pakistan. “How can the Taliban leadership, now camped in Pakistan, demand that people in Afghanistan or elsewhere pledge allegiance to them?” Syed Tayyab Agha asked in a bombshell October 2016 letter.

While ignoring Taliban sanctuaries on its soil, Pakistan has painted itself as a victim of terrorism. Islamabad's claims about the presence of remnants of the Pakistani Taliban's presence in Afghanistan along its border are true, but its reluctance to completely cease support for the Afghan Taliban has enormously contributed to preventing meaningful counterterrorism cooperation with Afghanistan.

Now the construction of a fence on a border not recognized by successive Afghan governments has created a new headache for Kabul and undermines its effort to seek cooperation with Islamabad.

Ashraf Ghani visited Paktia's provincial center Gardez in late October.
Ashraf Ghani visited Paktia's provincial center Gardez in late October.

"Nobody can change the course of history by erecting a barbed wire fence. Our blood and love are inseparable," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a gathering in southeastern Paktia Province last month. "Those who think that by erecting a fence they can separate our people need to think again. We will only need a few pliers to cut this fence."

After assuming office in September 2014, Ghani repeatedly reached out to Pakistan to establish a cooperative relationship. But Islamabad’s reluctance to stop Taliban violence pushed the Afghan leader to blame it for a failure in counterterrorism. "Those who have separated themselves from the global consensus [on terrorism] need to think again," Ghani said in a pointed reference to Pakistan without naming it.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently acknowledged Pakistan's challenges in managing two unstable borders in the east and west with India and Afghanistan. But he too emphasized the need for changing Islamabad's outlook.

“You [Pakistan] have to begin to create greater stability inside your country and that means denying safe haven to any of these organizations that launch attacks from your territory,” Tillerson told a U.S. Senate panel on October 30. “Pakistan will find it in their interests to begin to disassociate these long-standing relationships that have developed over time with certain terrorist organizations.”

Such messages reverberate inside Pakistan, too. Former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand says the fence is unlikely to have a major counterterrorism impact but will create hurdles for millions of civilians.

"It will not benefit anyone but will be a loss for everyone," he told Voice Of America. "[It will] harm millions for a few terrorists who can easily find new ways to move across the border."

Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, says fencing the Durand Line also violates the agreements that Pakistan inherited from British India seven decades ago. These agreements granted the trans-border tribes “easement rights,” which recognize their right to free movement across the border.

In Afghanistan, officials are keen to emphasize the fence will create "more hatred and resentment" between the two neighbors.

"The fence will definitely create a lot of trouble for the people along the border on both sides, but no wall or fence can separate these tribes," noted Gulab Mangal, governor of the eastern Nangarhar Province.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.