The closing of the Torkham border crossing and the refusal to allow Afghans not possessing relevant travel documents to enter Pakistan was always going to have multi-dimensional ramifications on the course of relations between the two countries, which can now be seen in the tensions on the border that resulted in the tragic martyrdom of a Pakistan Army major. The rationale for the Pakistani decision to limit the crossing of Afghans into Pakistan is simple: many acts of terrorism were attributed to Afghans entering Pakistan unlawfully and national interest dictated a more restrictive policy that would deny entry to those not possessing proper documents and whose identity cannot be established.
However, something that should not be ignored is that there are 235 entry-exit points along the 2,250km border, but customs and immigration procedures are applicable only at Torkham and Chaman. For someone intending to engage in acts of terrorism inside Pakistan, it will be naive to attempt to cross the border at Torkham and Chaman, and expose themselves to the risk of being caught by dozens of officials manning the border on each side. Such terrorists or their supporters would rather take any other convenient route to enter Pakistan. Secondly, facts suggest that over the last 10 years, hardly one per cent of Afghan nationals or refugees have been found involved covertly or overtly in sponsoring terror attacks in Pakistan. Most terror attacks have either been planned by terrorists inside Pakistan or by Pakistanis who have found shelter inside Afghanistan. Another important factor that we need to consider is the question of resources: do we have the manpower, space and facilities to check 10,000 visas every day in a place like Torkham, located at the entrance of the Khyber Pass where hundreds of trucks carrying goods are parked on each side with transporters seeking clearance from more than half a dozen departments?
The recent violence at the Torkham border crossing will surely create animosity and anger within people on both sides of the border. The hostility in Afghanistan has the potential to have long-term consequences for Pakistan, keeping in view the range of projects of great strategic significance, like CASA-1000 and TAPI, which may be negatively impacted if this situation persists. The fate of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is set to be a key for our infrastructure and energy needs, may also be indirectly impacted. There is a need for more effective border management on the Pak-Afghan border. However, considering that Islamabad has not been able to develop a positive working relationship with New Delhi and is digging trenches on its border with Iran, border tensions with Afghanistan will only allow anti-Pakistan feelings to deepen in that country. Is it in our interest to isolate ourselves internationally and promote an image of a country that cannot coexist with its neighbours?
Consider the enormous implications for Pakistan. There are about 150,000 Pakistani refugees living in the province of Khost in Afghanistan. These tribesmen were able to go across the border easily because their co-tribesmen on the other side did not object to them seeking refuge in Afghanistan when their lives were in danger as the military operation got underway in our tribal areas. There are also close to 150,000 Pakistani skilled workers living inside Afghanistan, mostly without travel documents. There are tribes on both sides divided by the Durand line. Common ethnicity is a major factor. Under a treaty signed between Afghanistan and the British Indian government in 1905, people within five miles of the border are not required to present any documents and are allowed to travel freely without any hindrance. From the Afghan point of view, that treaty is still binding on both Afghanistan and Pakistan — the successor state to British India. Sentiments against Pakistan in Afghanistan run deep for several reasons. According to a recent public opinion survey in Afghanistan, the favourability rating for Pakistan had plunged to a dismal 3.6 per cent. Should this not be a wake-up call for us?
Then there is the issue of Afghan refugees. In the wake of the arrest of some Afghan spies in Quetta, there is a crescendo of voices emanating mostly from armchair ‘analysts’ in the media calling for forcible repatriation of all refugees. The one who kicked off this debate was the Balochistan interior minister who basically said that Afghan refugees will be humiliated and kicked out of Pakistan if they don’t leave soon. Apart from the unfortunate choice of language by the minister, what he and others have not realised is that these refugees have come from areas in Afghanistan that are most insecure because of insurgency and where government institutions, like schools, roads and hospitals don’t function. Having lost their homes, the refugees have nowhere to go. Despite this, voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan happens all the time. On average, around 20,000 Afghan refugees are repatriated each month. Having lived here for over 30 years, are we going to force them to leave and generate huge anger and hatred for Pakistan? Is it fair under international law to force refugees to go back against their will? Would such a step not sow the seeds of long-term hostility towards Pakistan? Then there is the question of so-called undocumented refugees — those whom the authorities here have not been able to reach and register. Should they be penalised for the inability of our institutions to register them? Not a day passes by without innocent refugees, mostly hawkers, vendors and street peddlers who have lived here for decades, being picked up by the police, detained and humiliated with scant regard for any norms of justice or the thought that these people may be the sole bread-earners for their impoverished families.
While every country has the right to secure its borders and introduce a system to address a lax security system, it is best if that is done with mutual understanding with the other side. Too often our decision-making is predicated upon transient security concerns and there is little regard for long-term strategic interests of the country. There is a need for reappraisal on both sides before it is too late.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2016.