Erecting a wall is an unworkable idea. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border passes through a rugged, mountainous terrain that is difficult to navigate except at some points where there are lowlands or passes which make crossings easy for both people and transport. There are about 235 entry/exit points along the border, but most of these do not permit vehicular transportation because of the high altitude or snow in winter.
Another dimension of the inhospitable terrain is scarcely mentioned or analysed. Although there are thousands of Afghans who cross the border into and out of Afghanistan on a daily basis at some well-known crossings, like Chaman, Gadani, Birmal, Ghulam Khan, Saidgi, Kharlachi, Laka Tiga, Teri Mangal, Torkham, Nawa Pass, etc. where some systems are in place to check and scrutinise the documents of men and women crossing, there are no such arrangements along the entire length of the border. In order to keep a watch over the entry of militants to and from Afghanistan, a huge network of security posts on the border has been established since 2003-04. On the Pakistani side of the border, there are about 1,150 security posts, which are manned and supervised round the clock, using equipment and technology to check or prevent crossing by suspected militants. On the Afghan side, there are roughly 150 posts to keep vigil over the crossing of the border.
Now there is another bizarre idea of sealing the border, by erecting a wall that will make it impossible for anyone to cross the border except at a few designated openings. Here, firstly, one might consider the magnitude of the problem of erecting such a wall and whether any such project would be justified on any ground or yardstick. The Nato and Afghan officials have been agitating on the issue of volunteers crossing over into Afghanistan and taking part in the fighting in that country against the Afghan and coalition forces. But one might ask: on how many occasions in the past 13 years have those crossing over into Afghan territory for militant attacks been intercepted, encountered, captured or killed? If indeed, there is big movement of volunteers into Afghanistan from the tribal areas, there would have been most certainly instances of the Afghan/coalition forces engaging those volunteers and killing some of them and then showing this to the world media. The Nato forces have all the latest equipment, plus the facility of radars, unmanned reconnaissance planes, night goggles, etc. to spot any such movement of militants, more so when it has been allegedly taking place on a ‘daily’ basis for years now. The fact is that there is no evidence to suggest that Afghans or other volunteers, based in the tribal areas, have been going across in large numbers and attacking Afghan government positions and installations. Having said that, one must admit that some, a relatively small number of people, would certainly succeed from time to time to escape incognito into Afghan territory to carry out attacks despite all the precautions taken by both the governments. But such few people should not determine or influence the course or tempo of resistance, which is mainly and predominantly an indigenous struggle.
Would such a movement of a small number of individuals (it is impossible for groups to cross) warrant the construction of a wall all along the border? The claim that Pakistani border posts in Bajaur and Dir also come under attack from Afghan-based groups of the Pakistani Taliban, would not merit consideration for the concrete fencing of the border because those attacks are mostly launched not by crossing the border, but by rockets and missiles fired by the disgruntled Swat Taliban militants.
Then there is the stupendous cost of this project running into billions of rupees. Because the Pakistan-Afghanistan border traverses through high altitude snow-bound peaks, zigzagging ravines, thick forests, populated villages and rivulets, it will be difficult to raise a wall here. The cost of keeping round-the-clock watch over this behemoth would be unbearable. And would such a wall completely seal the border? The US-Mexico border is one of the most carefully regulated and controlled borders in the world. The US is spending an astounding amount of money on preventing the infiltration of illegal immigrants into its territory and has committed a large number of forces to block the entry of such immigrants. But has it worked?
The other fallout of the project — perhaps, more important from the political angle — is the provocation it will cause in Kabul. No government in Afghanistan would accept the logic behind the gigantic project on the border. It will be considered a hostile act that will perpetuate an already acrimonious relationship.
The reaction from the people of the area would be no less hostile because such a wall would cut across communities, tribes, jointly-owned properties and would come in the way of trade and commerce, as well as create distances amongst families. Furthermore, the wall would be clearly a violation of the Durand Line agreement, which remains valid to this day between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The easement rights would be violated for residents living in proximity to the border on both sides.
In the face of such overwhelming odds and at the cost of creating resentment among tribesmen as well as generating tense relations with an important neighbour, would it be worthwhile to pursue the idea of erecting a concrete barrier? If the Berlin Wall and the US-Mexico border can be breached, would such a wall be safe for all time to come? Nations identify and seek durable solutions to problems they confront. Resolving one problem and creating a host of others at such a cost to the country is not a feasible idea. The sooner the idea of constructing this wall is abandoned the better.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2014.
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