Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan hit rock bottom when a military officer, Maj Jawad Ali Changezi, became the first casualty of the latest violence on Torkham border. He was among the 19 other Pakistanis, eight of them security personnel and nine civilians, wounded in the fighting between Pakistan and Afghan security forces.

Firing between Pakistani and Afghan forces first broke out on June 11 at the border crossing, about 45 kilometres west of Peshawar, over construction of a new border post and a gate on the Pakistani side. Pakistan summoned the Afghan charge d’affaires in Islamabad on June 13 and Afghanistan called the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul on June 14 to register protests at the border clashes.

The Pakistani army has already moved heavy weaponry and additional troops to the Afghan border. Pakistan wants to erect a gate on its side of the border in Torkham to improve security as well as streamline movement of the people entering Pakistan from Afghanistan. This move seemed to have acted as catalyst in the already hostile relations between the two countries.

The main gate at Torkham, the most frequented official border crossing at the end of the Khyber Pass, has been closed since June 11, leaving thousands of people stranded on either side. It is stated to be first time that Afghan and Pakistan security forces have engaged in deadly clashes resulting in casualties on both sides of the Durand Line — a frontier boundary drawn between Afghanistan and British-Indian (now Pakistan) during the British era.

Since Mortimer Durand, the then foreign secretary of British India colonial era, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the then Afghan ruler, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, in 1893, the boundary line between Pakistan and Afghanistan is called Durand Line.

However, after the partition, when Pakistan and Indian emerged as two different states in 1947, Afghanistan had announced that it no longer accepted the 1893 MoU. Since then, Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been able to develop good working relations due to a host of reasons.

Afghanistan claims ownership of territory in some places on the over 2,200-km border with Pakistan. Pakistan, after several rounds of talks, handed over a multi-purposes crossing border point at Angoor Adda to Afghanistan. Afghanistan had claimed its ownership for a long time. Pakistan had recently admitted that it was a Pakistani post built inside Afghan territory and thus returned it to the Afghan government.

The main gate at Torkham, the most frequented official border crossing at the end of the Khyber Pass, has been closed since June 11, leaving thousands of people stranded on either side.
A recent development that practically brought the two countries at loggerheads was Pakistan’s practical initiatives towards improving its border management affairs with Afghanistan. Torkham — a border crossing between the two countries in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region and Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province — was the first point.

The first step the Pakistan government took in this regard was to allow only those Afghans to enter Pakistan via Torkham border who have proper travel documents. According to Pakistani officials, around 20,000 to 25,000 Afghans daily cross the border and enter Pakistan via Torkham without travel documents.

Read also: In the firing Line

As if the Afghans never expected this, they reacted to the Pakistan’s decision harshly and accused Pakistan of violating the Easement Tribe Accord reportedly reached between the British-India and then Afghan rulers. Since the Durand Line had divided tribespeople living on both sides of the border, the British rulers reportedly agreed with Afghan rulers under the Easement Tribe Accord to allow tribespeople living within seven kilometres on two sides of the border to freely move in both the countries.

And that’s why when Pakistan began construction work on the gate, 37 metres inside the border, Afghans severely reacted, terming it against the accord. As per accounts of Pakistani security officials, the Afghans were already angry at strict visa rules and the construction of gate was just an excuse.

The civil administration as well as local tribesmen in Torkham say that there already existed a proper steel gate on Torkham and Pakistan used to close it in critical times. However, they recalled the gate was removed in 2004 when the National Highway Authority (NHA) built and widened the Torkham-Jalalabad highway.

A Landi Kotal-based senior tribal journalist, Sudhir Afridi, still remembers when some officials of the political administration sold the old steel gate to a person in Landi Kotal who dealt in used items. “It was the time when the political administration should have installed a new gate at the same place after the NHA had finished the road construction.”

Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mohmand, who has also served on key government positions including the political agent of Khyber Agency, says Pakistan mishandled a very sensitive issue by keeping its Afghan counterparts uninformed of the construction work on the gate. “There has been a decades-old unwritten accord between the two countries under which the officials of both countries would inform each other about any construction work on the border. A Tehsildar-rank officer would handle all such issues and we never faced any difficulty,” Mohmand recalls, adding that there exists no proper border management hierarchy on Pakistan side of the border.

“It’s an important and sensitive border and there should be one authorised person to handle its affairs. Unfortunately, there are several players including the Frontier Corps, political administration, FIA, ISI, IB, Customs Department, etc, that lead to confusion,” he says.

Pakistan presently hosts more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees. “There are 235 entry-exit routes on the Pak-Afghan border. Why would the terrorists like to enter Pakistan via Torkham when they have other exit points on the long porous border,” questions Mohmand.

Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa, has said Pakistan would build a checkpoint at Torkham border inside its territory, and nobody could object to it. Talking to reporters in Islamabad a few days ago, Gen Bajwa said the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) knew about the border mechanism, saying it was in the interest of everybody. He said Pakistan has taken up the attack on Pakistani forces at the diplomatic as well as military levels and the issue could only be sorted out at the dialogue table.

Bajwa also stated that Pakistan was in touch with US Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, and hoped bilateral talks in the presence of third party would help resolve the issue.

The aftereffects

The closure of the busy Torkham border has troubled hundreds of trucks carrying goods to Afghanistan. They have been stranded on the Pakistani side of the border for five days.

An Afghan truck driver, Khyal Nabi, who belongs to Logar province, says he had just arrived in Torkham after carrying goods from Karachi when the firing began.

“After the long painstaking journey between Karachi and Torkham, I planned to spend the night in Torkham and leave for Kabul in the morning. Unfortunately, when I parked my container loaded with 50 tons of goods, heavy firing started on the border. The Khasadar people came to us and asked us to immediately leave the border and take back trucks towards Peshawar,” says 46-year old Nabi.

He says he and hundreds of other truck drivers took back their trucks to Jamrud and parked on the main road with a hope the border will open soon and they will proceed towards Afghanistan.

The border closure has also badly affected the business activities in Landi Kotal subdivision of Khyber Agency. A wholesale dealer, Sher Ali Khan, claims he has suffered 70 per cent losses in his business. “I used to do business up to Rs90,000 a day. It has come down to Rs15,000 a day due to closure of the Afghan border,” Sher Ali complains.

June 19 , 2016

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