By Joseph Hammond
While President Trump is having trouble adding a few miles of fence to America’s incomplete border with Mexico, Pakistan is busy building one of the world’s longest border fences.
Climbing over some of the world’s toughest terrain, Pakistan’s border fence will stretch more 1,800-miles and ascend more than 12,000-feet above sea level. It will march over mountains, span gorges, and descend into desert plains—halting, at last, on the Chinese border. The fence will seek to protect valleys and mountains that invading armies have crossed for centuries from Alexander the Great to Mongol hordes.
Built to divide Pakistan from Afghanistan, the logistical difficulties of the wall are enormous. Construction workers require constant armed protection from terrorists and bandits, who often blend in among the 60,000 people, many of whom are Pashtun tribesmen, that Islamabad estimates illegally cross the Pakistan frontier every single day.
“Pakistan is trying to differentiate between the the general Afghans who wants to travel to see relatives or do business and the flow of militants and undesirable people who can cause problems at a time when the the future of Afghanistan is a big a question mark,” says retired Pakistani general Talat Masood.
At high altitudes, in winter, the Pakistan Armed Forces are also fighting sub-freezing temperatures, strong winds and a lack of drinkable water. All food and supplies must be carried in by truck, over treacherous and snaking unpaved roads, hewn into mountain contours.
Despite the perils and pains of construction, a frozen few are working through the winter months to complete the border fence. Pakistan’s fence is projected to be completed in the coming year.
The border fence is supposed to stop terrorists from carrying attacks in one country and fleeing to safety in the other. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the terror attacks flow both ways.
In 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan began work on the fence, in earnest, just a few years ago. Pakistan projects completion of the long-delayed project, which has cost an estimated $550 million, by the end of 2019. Last year despite the Trump administration’s move to cut some military funding to Pakistan, Islamabad reportedly appealed to the Trump administration for more funding to finish the ambitious project.
Nations as diverse as Estonia, Greece, Israel, Morocco, Mexico, and Spain (around its small African enclaves) have thrown up border walls to slow illicit migration. Though none are as long as Pakistan’s or involve conquering such inhospitable terrain.
— Tribal Journo (@mureebmohmand) January 12, 2019
Pakistan has also deploying a tank at a border checkpoint some 12,000-feet above sea level, which, one of the highest ever deployments of an armored fighting vehicle.
The tank overlooks a section of the Pakistan border opposite the Tora Bora region in Afghanistan where an U.S. and allied troops fought Al-Qaeda remnants in 2001, according to press reports. The tank stands as a reminder that Al Qaeda and other terrorists remains active in the region.
As Pakistan and the U.S. move toward striking a deal to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to stabilize its border with Afghanistan.
That border is known, on both military and civilian maps, as the Durrand Line.
Work on forts & fence continues on Pak-Afg Bdr. Total length 2611 KM. Work on 233 of 843 forts & 802 of 1200 KM pri 1 areas completed.Aiming speedy completion in pri 1 areas,overall completion by Dec 2019 IA.Shall benefit peaceful people of Pak & Afg while restricting terrorists. pic.twitter.com/o5xQbxEiEh
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) December 15, 2018
It is named after an 1893 agreement between British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan. It marks the 2,640-kilometer (1800 miles-long border between what was once the British Northwest Frontier and rival Russian and Chinese proxy states. Since the interest of three empires—Chinese, British, Tsarist Russia, then converged in Central Asia, the British sought Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect its rich holdings in India.
Following the signing of the agreement the British Empire largely kept the strategic Khyber Pass open and the border secure through payments to local tribal chiefs and a string of outposts. However, the “Northwest Frontier” as it was known would continue to be the focus of “police actions” until the time of Pakistan’s independence in 1947. A young Winston Churchill accompanied a relief force sent to one beleaguered garrison in 1897. Today, Pakistan maintains that it inherited the border that as the successor state to the British Raj in the region.
“We have seen more skirmishes and tensions along the border in recent years thatn we have [ in decades],” said Masood, “ Pakistan has consistently maintained the wall is not relevant to the border dispute but, many Afghans perceive the wall as an effort to make the Durand Line a fait accompli.”
Modern Afghanistan has never accepted the border and it continues to be a source of tension between both countries. Opposition to the Durand Line has been nearly the one constant in Afghan foreign policy. Afghanistan cast the lone vote against Pakistan’s admission to the U.N. and tried to raise the issue again with the United Kingdom before Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Flummoxed with the creation of Pakistan, Kabul simply announced it would not recognize the Durand Line – creating a de facto Cold War and sparking numerous clashes over the decades.
“Afghanistan claims the land beyond the almost imaginary line up to the Indus [river],” said Pashtun expert and journalist Daud Khattak. “Many Afghans, mostly Pashtun nationalists, believe that Amu Darya (river) and Indus River are the natural borders of Afghanistan.”
The Indus River essentially bisects modern-day Pakistan.
Members of the Afghan Millat, a party with a strong Pashtun nationalist base, have long opposed the Durand Line as a final border. (The Pashtun are a vast ethnic group that have traditionally lived in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and certain parts of India ). The Pashtun nationalist dream vary from simply annexing the historically Pashtun city of Peshawar to the grandiose winning access to the sea by annexing the intervening lands known as Baluchistan where Pashtun are a minority.
Aside from the romantic ideas of some political parties, the concerns of the largely Pashtun populations located on both sides of the border are more prosaic. For centuries border trade and intermarriage have flourished. And they want assurances that both forms of congress will continue.
Criticisms of the project are not hard to find. The environmental impact of the wall is unclear and a recent Reuters article compared the border to the Berlin Wall.
The comparison is ridiculous, according to the Pakistani officials, noting that the Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier that was more than 12-feet high in most places, topped with razor wire and featured armed guards that machine-gunned those who tried to climb over it. The Durand Line fence is not concrete and is not guarded by machine-gunners though the barrier includes a number of strong points. When completed the chain-link fence anchored in concrete, is largely meant to slow intruders long enough for border guards or soldiers to arrive.
Khattak says that terrorism in the region and groups like the Taliban have benefited from the border issue. “Many of the present-day problems, mostly security issues, are related to this dispute. During the 1970s, the Pashtunistan issue was hyped by the Afghan side. Later Pakistan’s support for the 1980s Jihad and Mujahedeen was meant to break the back of that (Pashtunistan) movement.”
In other words experts suggest part of the Pakistani support of the Mujahedeen was not only a Cold War calculation but, an effort to undermine the idea of a united Pashtun nation. The Taliban’s Islamist message indirectly down-played the importance of ethnic identity among Pashtuns. Yet, even despite their ties to Pakistan the Taliban refrained from recognizing the Durand Line when they seized the country in the late 1990s.
Others in Afghanistan have different views of the border. Veteran parliamentarian Abdul Latif Pedram, an ethnic Tajik, has long called for Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line as an international border. Pedram was the first candidate to declare his intention to run in 2019 Afghan presidential election.
With Pakistan rushing to complete its border fence, violence remains a threatening complication. Fighting between Afghanistan and Pakistan over a disputed village on the border left several dead in 2017.
“This is an existential issue for the Pakistani military, and it will never retreat from the border regardless of the opinions of Pashtun nationalists,” said Salman Siddiqui, a long-time Pakistani journalist who is now an academic in London. “The border is fixed in the Pakistani imagination and the military will do anything to maintain it.”
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