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Border Closure Haunts Pashtun Clans Ahead Of Eid Celebrations

An Afghan man pushes a cart with a woman and children as they cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Torkham (file photo).
An Afghan man pushes a cart with a woman and children as they cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Torkham (file photo).

Tens of thousands of Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border fear they will not be able to pay customary visits to friends and families during the Eid al-Fitr holiday this week in the wake of ongoing border tensions between the two neighbors.

Many tribes and clans among the estimated 50 million Pashtuns are divided into the two countries by the Durand Line. The 19th century border, more than 2,500 kilometers long, has haunted relations between the two countries for decades.

In the latest episode of bilateral tensions, Islamabad is attempting to enforce border controls and closed the Torkham border crossing following clashes between Pakistani and Afghan security forces last month.

Every day, tens of thousands of Pashtuns cross through Torkham connecting northwestern Pakistan with eastern Afghanistan across the famed Khyber Pass.

The recent closure and following strict border controls are now testing Pashtun families whose members live on both sides and frequently travel to take part in celebrations, ceremonies, and funerals for members of their closely knit communities bound by blood relations and ancient tribal codes.

Not accustomed to carrying passports or having to apply for visas, members of the Pashtun border tribes say the recent measures have restricted their free movement across the Durand Line.

“I miss my daughter. I fear I will not be able to see her and her family this Eid,” said Riwaj Khan. A member of the Pashtun Shinwari tribe, Khan lives in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber tribal district. But his daughter is married to another Shinwari family across the border in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province.

Qudratullah, 35, an Afghan who goes by one name only, has lived most his life in Pakistan as a refugee. He recently returned to his native Marko village in Nangarhar Province.

He is now wondering whether he will be able to visit friends and relatives -- most still live in Pakistan. "I don’t think I will be able to meet my family members and friends across the border this Eid,” he said.

Since the demarcation of the Durand Line in 1893, members of the border communities have been able to freely move between the two countries. The practice continued after the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

But last month Islamabad declared that only those with valid passports and visas will be allowed to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities say the measures are meant to ensure better border management and prevent terrorists from entering the country from Afghanistan.

The issue, however, is more complex and controversial. Since 2001, Kabul has accused Islamabad of harboring Taliban and other hard-line militants. Islamabad counters that the leadership of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, a deadly faction that often claims credit for violence in Pakistan, has operated from hideouts in eastern Afghanistan since 2009.

Afghans link the renewed border tensions to the fallout from the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in a U.S. drone strike in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan on May 21. For years Kabul has claimed that Quetta, Balochistan's capital, served as a de facto headquarters of the Taliban.

Mutual recrimination after the Taliban leader's killing intensified with Islamabad's efforts to build a gate at the Torkham border crossing. Afghanistan opposed the construction, and tensions at Torkham soon led to a cross-border exchange of gunfire and shells, resulting in many casualties on both sides.

While people were allowed to cross the border again late last month, new rules by the Pakistani authorities at Torkham have made it a difficult undertaking.

“A few days ago, our family celebrated a wedding, and we invited our relatives from across the border to join," said Abid Shinwari, a resident of Khyber district's main town, Landi Kotal. "Security officials stopped them and [after much back and forth] only allowed our female relatives to enter Pakistan, while the men were turned back.”

Border tensions have also created serious problems for an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

On June 30, Islamabad extended their stay for six more months -- hours before registration cards were set to expire.

The government of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, however, resented the federal government’s decision and said there should be no deadline extension.

Last month, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa detained thousands of Afghan refugees. There were reports that hundreds were forcibly deported after their stay was declared illegal.

Such harsh treatment of Afghan refugees provoked a sharp rebuke from global rights watchdogs. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the “uncertain residency status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has encouraged police harassment, threats, and extortion."

The tensions prompted politicians to call for restraint and an amicable solution of the problem.

“Tensions between the two governments is increasing hatred among the people, who share the same language and culture," said Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, a Pashtun politician and leader of the Qaumi Watan Party. "This is spreading animosities, which will not only harm people-to-people contacts, but also won’t end well for the two governments.”

Another politician, Afrasiab Khattak, said the cross-border movement of Pashtun border tribes was not hampered by the British Empire and was largely tolerated by Islamabad.

“Closing the border for a people who share the same language, culture, and even blood ties is illogical,” he said.