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Villages Along Afghan-Pakistan Border Brace For ‘Berlin Wall’

Pakistani soldiers keep guard as citizens return from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman in the southwestern Balochistan province.

For decades, Pashtun tribal people from the villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan have ignored the invisible line that demarcates the two countries. But now they are bracing for the prospect of a Berlin Wall-style divide.

In response to the threat of Islamist attacks, Pakistan is constructing a fence to keep militants from easily crossing the porous frontier, more than 2,500 kilometers long, which runs along the disputed colonial-era Durand Line drawn up in 1893 by the British.

The Afghan capital, Kabul, for its part, opposes the fence, which will bisect so-called “divided villages” where few residents hold passports and loyalty to the Pashtun tribe often trumps national allegiance.

Chaman district is home to seven such villages, as well as the bustling border-crossing hub of Chaman in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province in the southwest. Further north in the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), there are believed to be other divided villages.

Balochistan officials are attempting to ensure Pakistani citizens in these villages remain on their side. Security concerns, they maintain, override any worries about broken communities.

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

An aerial view shows the border-crossing town of Chaman in Pakistan.
An aerial view shows the border-crossing town of Chaman in Pakistan.

But many remain skeptical about the fence. Previous attempts by Pakistan to build such a barrier a decade ago floundered, and many have questioned whether it would be possible to secure such a long border.

In recent years, several populist world leaders have spoken out in favor of building walls to curb the inflow of foreigners, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump, who envisions a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Hungarian right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently put up a fence along the border with Serbia to prevent Syrian refugees and other Muslim migrants from entering the East European country, which serves as a gateway to the European Union.

In anticipation of the project, Pakistan is planning to build more than 100 new border posts, and Islamabad is seeking to recruit more than 30,000 soldiers to man them, according to a senior military source.

"Trump is doing as per requirements of America; we are doing as per requirements of Pakistan," Usman said.

During Pakistan’s census survey this past May, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan boiled over in two divided villages. Afghan border troops, objecting to the census, clashed with the Frontier Corps in Killi Jahangir and Killi Luqman villages near Chaman, leaving more than 10 people dead.

Citizens wait their turn to enter from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman in southwestern Pakistan.
Citizens wait their turn to enter from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman in southwestern Pakistan.

Kabul and Islamabad have traded accusations of sheltering militants and providing safe havens for Islamist groups carrying out cross-border attacks.

Many residents in Killi Jahangir and Killi Luqman say they welcome the fence in the hope it will prevent bloodshed. But others worry it will hurt businesses and separate them from friends and family.

"There will be no infiltration of terrorists or suspects from Afghan areas … but my own small business, which I was doing with Afghan people, will be affected," said Abdul Jabbar, a Pakistani owner of a small enterprise in Killi Jahangir.

The Pashtun tribal heartland has long posed a security challenge for Pakistani officials. Stretching for hundreds of kilometers, with rugged mountainous terrain, the region has for decades been a hotbed of arms and heroin smuggling. U.S drone strikes have also targeted militants from al Qaeda and other groups in the region.

For the likes of taxi driver Abdul Razzaq, though, having peace of mind offsets the loss of business due to the fence.

"Now I can sleep in my home without any fear," he said.

With reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Gul Yousafzai for Reuters

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