Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan And Afghanistan Divided Over Border Trench

The border trench between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The border trench between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Like many small Afghan traders living along the border with Pakistan, Ramzan ekes out a living by taking clothes, auto parts, food, and electronics across the porous frontier to sell on the other side.

He doesn’t have to worry about duties, visas, or other formalities associated with international trade, but there will soon be a new obstacle in his way when a 480 kilometer long trench along the border is completed by the Pakistani military.

Ramzan, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, said the trench and the resulting control over cross-border movements will devastate his business in Chaman, a border town in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province and a key trading hub with Afghanistan.

"This boundary was never a hard border during the past few decades," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "It was always open during the reign of Daud Khan in Afghanistan [in the 1970s], the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan [in the 1980s] and the Mujahedeen and the Taliban stint in power [in 1990s]."

The Pakistani military claims the trench will help in preventing militant infiltration and drug smuggling into the country.

But some Pakistani politicians, Afghan officials, and members of the border communities on both sides oppose the move. They say the trench will further irritate the already strained relations between the neighbors and disrupt the livelihoods of people who depend on cross-border trade between the two countries.

"If Pakistan wants to stop terrorists from coming in, it should stop training the terrorists that it trains and sends into Afghanistan," said Ramzan. "This is just another effort to squeeze us economically and push us towards embracing terrorism."

Usman Kakar, provincial president of the Pakistani Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, says digging trenches in the remote border region would neither stop terrorists nor dissuade drug traffickers.

"Most militants and drug smugglers use the regular roads and easily get through government check points," he told Radio Mashaal. "This will be unacceptable to the [Pashtun] tribes living across the border in the two countries," he said.

The division of some 50 million Pashtuns on either side of the border lies at the root of many conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kabul has never recognized the more than 2,500-kilometer-long “Durand Line,” a 19th-century demarcation established between British-controlled India and the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan.

During the past four decades of turmoil in Afghanistan, Islamabad has helped or turned a blind eye to Islamic radicals crossing into Pakistani territory and using it as a base for fomenting violence in Afghanistan.

Still, Kabul is adamant that it cannot be coerced into recognizing the Durand Line as an international border. Akram Khpalwak, Afghanistan's minister of Border and Tribal Affairs, says the communities living on both sides of the border are entitled to decide its future.

"We have always opposed efforts to divide our people on both sides of the Durand Line," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "This line bisects tribes and communities. Some have homes inside Afghanistan and lands inside Pakistan, and they move frequently between the two countries, how can we agree to such measures?"

In 2006, Pakistan met with strong resistance to a plan to mine and fence the border.

Despite the current opposition to the trench, Pakistani security forces seem unwilling to back down. Officials say they have already dug more than 300 kilometers of the trench.

In response to the criticism from Afghanistan, Pakistani Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tasnim Aslam told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the trench in Balochistan is not a foreign policy issue.

"Whatever we are doing, we are doing it inside our territory, we are not doing anything inside Afghanistan," she said. "It is a matter of our internal security."

Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak believes Pakistan and Afghanistan would be better off with an open border.

"We live in an era of globalization and we need to focus on how to increase trade and cooperation with our neighbors instead of digging trenches and mining and fencing our border," he said.

Khudai Noor Nasar contributed reporting form Quetta, Balochistan. Asmat Sarwan, Omaid Marzban and Boriwal Kakar contributed reporting from Prague.