Recently, SAV contributor Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy wrote a piece arguing that Pakistan’s recent policy of stricter border control on its western front with Afghanistan “is likely being driven by the former’s apprehensions regarding the latter’s increased capabilities”—that is, the possibility of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), infiltrating Pakistan. Her assumptions are based on reports of insurgents using crossings at Torkham and Chaman over other crossings, and other instances of Afghans obtaining Pakistani identity cards through bribery. These points may be important, but they are not the principal explanation for the necessity of a more regulated border. Pakistan’s motivations for border control are a broader issue of Pakistan’s economic, human, and territorial security. Thus, it is important to understand the overall context of Pakistan’s decision to regulate its border with Afghanistan.
Islamabad’s new border strategy is three pronged: excavating trenches along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, building gates on major designated entry points, and increasing the capacity of law enforcement agencies for better surveillance. The primary reason is to curtail the entry of terrorists and criminals into Pakistan, not a response to some sort of Afghan intelligence capability. In the first phase, a 1,100 km trench was excavated – wherever the terrain allowed — from Chagai to Zhob district in Balochistan, which will be extended to cover the entire 2,400 km border in the second phase. So far, the two gates constructed this year are at Torkham and Angoor Adda while a gate at Chaman was completed back in 2003.
Krishnamurthy’s idea that border control measures have taken on new urgency recently does not hold water because even the current set of construction projects started in November 2014, and were expedited due to the APS attacks and formulation of the National Action Plan of 2014. Also, as Krishnamurthy herself acknowledges, the idea of fencing parts of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not new. Calls for closing the border were made by the Pakistani side early in the so-called “War on Terror,” and repeated periodically over the years, only to be dismissed by Afghanistan. In fact, such proposals were also supported by the Bush administration, but because of the high cost and manpower required for fencing the entire length of the border, limited or selective fencing was proposed in 2007. However, the then-Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan disagreed, citing the fear of mines being used, and on the pretext of the Durand Line and the hindrance it would cause to the flow of refugees between the two countries.
It is important to emphasize that, in contrast with Krishnamurthy’s argument, there is a strong anti-terrorism motivation for closing these border crossings. Torkham and Chaman are certainly not the only border crossings, but they are the easiest routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan because of connecting highway networks and daily heavy traffic. Approximately 10-15,000 people cross Torkham on a daily basis, most without proper documentation. Resource constraints on Pakistan’s end make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify and search each person. In fact, in January of this year, the Bacha Khan University attack was planned and facilitated from the Torkham crossing. This may have pushed Islamabad to speed up the border plan. This is not to say that terrorists, criminals, and foreign agents—like the recently captured alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav—would not use other entry points, but that the overall strategy of trenching, regulation, and the rough terrain of mountains and ravines at least help deter some. Furthermore, the Afghan intelligence explanation does not consider that infiltration by foreign agents does not always require illegal border crossings; they usually use aliases and get proper visas from embassies for their espionage missions.
There’s also the bigger question of economic and human security. The amount of human trafficking and smuggling of goods and drugs across both sides of the border is a direct consequence of the nature of the border itself. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that Pakistan is the destination or transit point for almost 40 percent of the opiates produced in Afghanistan. There is also a broader economic argument for improving border security. According to some estimates, $550-600 million worth of goods are smuggled into Pakistan from Afghanistan, and absent any trade duties or taxes levied on such goods, Pakistan loses a great deal of potential revenue. Even simply the “illicit cigarette trade” from Afghanistan into Pakistan accounts for a PKR 24 billion ($230 million USD) loss for the government of Pakistan per year. As Pakistan is strengthening its economy and trying to increase its tax to GDP ratio, it is important to plug gaps like these.
Moreover, the mainstreaming of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa cannot take place without regulation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, since it would be akin to making a house without doors and windows. Reducing lawlessness in FATA is as much a constitutional rights issue as it is about physically securing and preventing the areas from being used by criminals and terrorists. Regulation of entry and exit points can achieve that in the short term until some semblance of peace returns to both sides of the Durand Line. However, such an attempt to regulate human traffic needs to be carefully assessed in order to both to find a balance between the need to augment security mechanisms and to allow genuine movement of human resources between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which benefits both countries.
Border management with Afghanistan has been on Islamabad’s agenda for the last decade or so, and current events are a manifestation of that. Strengthening the economy, reducing cross-border movement of terrorists and criminal elements, and attempts at mainstreaming FATA are most likely the primary motivations for Islamabad’s strategy, rather than as a protective measure against NDS infiltration. It is likely that Islamabad will push to build as many as seven more gates on major crossings, finish the second phase of trenching the 2,400 km border, and try working out a joint border management program with Afghanistan.
Editor’s note: This article is a response to Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy’s “Tightening Borders: Islamabad’s Changing Strategy?”