Pak-Afghan Relations and Border Management

Prof Shabir Ahmad Khan

What practical steps should be taken by Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent their border tensions from escalating?

According to literature on change in foreign policy, changes in regional and global orientations require basic shift in actor’s role and policy. Similarly foreign policy of a given country changes when policy goal is achieved, lost or eliminated.

The Afghan policy was right in the past as per the prevailed circumstances then and it may have achieved its objectives or the policy goal may have been eliminated or lost. In addition, there is a drastic change in regional geo-political configuration in post US/NATO withdrawal scenario and therefore Pakistan may require a fundamental shift in its policy regarding Afghanistan due to change in policy goal and change in regional orientation.

Pakistan has to live with Afghanistan, neighbors cannot be changed nor are they chosen. Afghans implicitly and explicitly respect the sanctity of Pak-Afghan border; however borders management everywhere in the world involves complexities. Pak-Afghan border management is an exceptional case carrying burden and intricacies of imperial legacy. The British through Old Frontier Policy aimed to develop a frontier of separation in the form of Pak-Afghan border as Russia across the Amu Darya was perceived as a threat.

However Pakistan has reversed that inherited imperial policy recently and the new Frontier Policy aims to develop a frontier of connectivity in the direction of Eurasia’s heartland and beyond. Because Russia, present in many forms across the Amu Darya, is no more a challenge rather a strategic partner having converged interests with Pakistan in Central Asia.

The aims and objectives of new Frontier Policy need to be focused while dealing with the Afghan imbroglio and managing Pak-Afghan border. Security measures shall be placed on border crossings however weaponising border crossing serves no one’s interests. Way forward shall be based on shared ideals of peace and development.

A paradigm shift towards trade and connectivity is very much possible if we could learn lessons from practices world over. China and USA are countering and challenging each other in various regions but their trade is almost $600 billion, China and India are fighting each other but their bilateral trade is around $80 billion.

The borders all over the world are jointly managed by the respective countries for mutual security. Throughout the history border fences and walls have been built for security and sovereignty purposes. According to one source there were only 15 border walls at the end of the cold war while in 2020 number of such walls have increased to 77. An unhindered porous border provides easy access to anti-state actors, militants, drug traffickers and criminal elements.

A logical apprehension persisted domestically and internationally that porous Pak-Afghan border negatively affecting the peace on both sides. Therefore border management has been a key component of Pakistan’s counter terrorism strategy for which fencing of the Pak-Afghan border started. There is a need to have a joint mechanism between Pakistan and Afghanistan for border management for enhanced security.

A well coming statement was given by Haji Mohiballah Afghan Counselor General in Peshawar in one of the Conferences at Area Study Centre that Pakistan and Afghanistan will jointly manage the Pak-Afghan border. A mechanism need to be developed for the provision of legal documents to patients coming from Afghanistan at border crossings. Pakistan may help Afghanistan to develop a border security force that work in tandem with Pakistan for border security and with all other neighbors of Afghanistan.

Respect and interests are mutual concepts. Afghanistan is a quagmire; treat it as a sovereign state. Afghanistan and its neighbors have to respect and accommodate each other’s interests for shared prosperity and security. The major powers have conflicting interests in Afghanistan and in the region.

The covert support of global power brokers to ‘militias’ and terrorist groups pose greater threat to Afghanistan and to the region as well. Nurturing proxies will lead towards common destruction.

Thus, the policy needed is to discourage militancy. Afghanistan and the region have to sink or swim together. Countries of the region have to address the security and economic issues collectively from a regional perspective.

It is imperative that the senior leaders on either side avoid hate filled statements which became a norm in the republican era (post 9/11). While the republican governments (Karzai and Ghani) failed due to incompetence, corruption and indiscriminate bombings of wedding and funeral ceremonies, they succeeded in nurturing hatred and blaming Pakistan for their failure.

Pakistan also has to go along with the region and the world community as far as Afghanistan is concerned. The regional countries particularly the neighbors of Afghanistan have ethnic, linguistic and political ties with the country, they have to support and help Afghanistan to move in a right direction. Afghanistan shall be compelled to focus on developing a counter terrorism unit that work in coordination with all neighbors of Afghanistan.

A regional mechanism need to be developed to help Afghanistan and the entire region. For a strategic regional alignment, it is imperative particularly for the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan to develop a platform for regular consultations of national security advisors. China and Pakistan may take the lead in this regard.

The entire region Central and South Asia depends on smooth relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Historically the areas of current day Pakistan and Afghanistan served as the main artery of trade and logistics in all directions. I have developed a concept i.e. transition from shatter-belt to regionalism. Shatter belt is a region subject to external interventions and internal divisions.

An important question does arise that whether it is external intervention or internal divisions that turn a region into a shatter belt? Answer to this question demands intensive research on shatter belt regions. I am optimistic that with the withdrawal of US/NATO forces and diverted Russian attention due to conflict with Ukraine; Central Asia is ready to move from a shatter-belt status to a gate way region, revive the historical links and open up in southern direction.

This will materialise the Central and South Asia economic corridor with a vast network of energy pipeline, railway, highways and electricity lines via a stable Afghanistan.

This paradigm shift from security to connectivity is possible through a regional approach and a pledge from the neighbours of Afghanistan in particular and the international community in general to intervene positively and constructively in Afghanistan. Research suggests that high risk states are strongly influenced through trade as greater trade openness reduces the likelihood that high risk states will originate or participate in conflicts, resort to violence or increase levels of repression.

China’s policy of neutrality towards Afghanistan is a pragmatic one which focuses on trade, BRI, and ready to negotiate with any stakeholder. Policy of neutrality is in line with the Afghans’ collective character. Same pragmatic policy is also needed by Pakistan. In this regard movement of trade convoys need to be enhanced and accelerated through smooth border crossings between Pakistan and CARs via Afghanistan irrespective of international recognition.