Pakistan using Durand line dispute as a pretext to target Pashtuns

Recent rise in attacks by Pak forces on areas along Pak-Afghan border indicate Pakistan’s deep hatred for the tribal communities. More than forty people died when rockets were fired from Pakistan Air Force (PAF) helicopters in Kunar, Khost, Paktika and other bordering provinces on April 16, 2022. Islamabad acknowledged only six deaths, and that too, after local witnesses in Kunar province made claims of PAF helicopters firing rockets.

The tribals, especially Pashtuns living in hilly areas on both sides of the border have been the constant target of Pak army; ostensibly working to counter terrorism on the international border. However, what Islamabad refuses to acknowledge is the agony of the tribal people caught in hostilities between the two countries because of dispute over the Durand line. The Durand Line (the border established under British colonial rule and the Afghan King in 1893) divides the traditional Pashtun areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The issue is a remnant of British colonialism in the region and the two countries have been at odds on the matter since emergence of Pakistan in 1947.

Afghanistan’s request for revision of the border was denied by the British at the time of leaving India. Subsequently, Afghanistan announced that all previous Durand Line agreements, including Anglo-Afghan treaties upholding it, were invalid because Afghan rulers were coerced by British pressure. Since then, no Afghan government has recognized the legitimacy of the border. The boundary has since been viewed with utter contempt and resentment by Pashtuns on both sides of the line. They term it an arbitrary action ignoring geography, history and culture of the region.

Pakistan’s recent actions to unilaterally fence the border posts along the disputed border have only added fuel to the fire. The construction of the fence, which started in 2016, proceeded unchallenged till the Taliban recaptured power. However, disagreements over demarcation of the border and the alignment of the fence became evident by the frequent clashes along the border.The Pak Army’s plans for early completion of fencing work received a setback in December 2021 with the Taliban not only stopping its construction in Nangarhar province but also dismantling it. The illusion of the incident being a ‘local event’ was dispelled in January 2022 when Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that the fencing by Pakistan was tantamount to “dividing a nation” and was “illegal” in the eyes of the Taliban. The identification of Durand Line as a ‘national issue’ by the Taliban implies that Islamabad’s attempts to fence it would be resisted in future as well.

The much publicized visit by Pak NSA, Moeed Yusuf in January 2022 to negotiate a ‘bilateral coordination mechanism’ did not result in a consensus on the fence. However, the failure only led to an overdrive by Pakistani forces against Pashtuns. In February 2022, nine incidents of cross border firing/artillery shelling were reported in Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kandahar and Khost provinces. Clashes broke out in February in Kandahar’s Spin Boldak district, in which, six Afghans were killed and around 20 injured. Similarly in March 2022, four incidents of firing/artillery shelling were reported in Kunar, Helmand and Nuristan provinces. The Pak Army officials also issued a warning to the Afghan residents in Jaji Maidan District in Khost and Palosi area of Lalpur district in Nangarhar to leave the area to facilitate border fencing or face serious consequences. The frequent attacks made Taliban Foreign Ministry issue a demarche to Islamabad, highlighting incidents of cross-border shelling.

By supporting the Taliban and helping it seize control of Afghanistan, Pakistan had hoped to establish strategic depth in the country while persuading the Taliban Government into legitimizing the Durand Line. However, when things did not pan out as per its expectations, Pakistan resorted to employing extreme measures such as imposing a blockade at the Chaman post in early October 2021 in addition to existing disruptions at the Torkham Post. These two were major crossings for men and goods and also a major source of revenue for the Taliban government. Pakistan’s military and economic actions have only made clear its obsession to establish control over Taliban and make them subservient to Islamabad.

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