By Zafar Mehdi-What starts as intermittent exchange of fire can sometimes escalate to a full-blown war with far-reaching consequences. Over the past one week, these fears were ignited when estranged neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan resorted to brinkmanship, flexed their military muscle and fired artillery at the Torkham border, leading to many casualties.
After four days of hectic negotiations, the two sides finally blinked and agreed to de-escalate the blazing military and political tensions, thus averting the inevitable. Ataullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar, said there were “central and regional level negotiations” to break the deadlock.
It all started after Pakistani border rangers started constructing a gate too close to the disputed border, beyond the Zero Line, which Afghan troops saw as a blatant violation of the bilateral agreement and international law. In the ensuing clashes, both sides suffered casualties. As the news broke out, doves in Kabul extended an olive branch to hawks in Islamabad, calling for a truce. Omar Zakhilwal, the newly appointed Afghan envoy to Islamabad and the former finance minister, held a series of closed-door meetings with the top political and military officials of Pakistan in a bid to prevent the escalation of violence.
While Pakistan insisted on building a barrier at the border crossing “to prevent terrorists’ entry into Pakistan”, Afghanistan took umbrage because it does not recognize the colonial-era Durand Line drawn up in 1893. Torkham connects eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan with Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
For almost a week, both sides refused to back down from their respective positions. Zakhilwal even threatened to resign and reveal the details of his closed-door meetings with Pakistani officials. He dismissed reports that he had earlier agreed to the construction of the gate at Torkham.
On Saturday, the border was reopened after six days, much to the relief of stranded truck drivers and traders. On Monday, an Afghan delegation led by deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai visited Islamabad to discuss the Torkham border issue.
It’s not the first time, and probably not the last time, that Pakistan has tried to stoke the flames of war in the troubled country. Border incursions and setting up of military bunkers by Pakistani troops along the border in eastern and southern provinces has always been a matter of consternation for the Afghan government. Earlier last year, Pakistani rangers had established check posts in Maroof district of southern Kandahar province before the Afghan border police forced them to retreat. Before that, some Pakistani rangers had secretly crossed into Goshta and Spinboldak districts of eastern Nangarhar province and built small military bases there. In July last year, Pakistani forces had tried to build illegal constructions in the border district of Barmal in southern Paktika province. In the ensuing firefight, one Afghan police commander was killed.
Pakistan’s stirring up of trouble in Afghanistan, though, is not limited to border incursions. For the past several years, Pakistan has frequently fired rockets into bordering Afghan provinces, killing civilians and security forces and rendering many others homeless. A large number of people in these border provinces — mainly Kunar, Nuristan, Paktika and Nangarhar — have been forced to evacuate their homes and move to safer locations.
Former Afghan army chief Shir Mohammad Karimi, who was summoned by Parliament last year, said these attacks are used as “pressure tactics” by Pakistan to force Afghanistan into recognizing the Durand Line as an international border.
Pakistan’s envoy to Kabul has been summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs many times since last year to register protest against the continued border incursions and cross-border shelling by Pakistani troops. In July last year, deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai took reacted strongly to the mortar shelling in Speen Zhay, Dwa Khula, Chunchro Tangai and Kamary Lakar areas of Nazian district in eastern Nangarhar province. At least three civilians, including a woman, were killed in the shelling. In August last year, hundreds of people including tribal elders and local political leaders gathered in Khad Al Jadid area of Kandahar city to protest against the cross-border shelling by Pakistan. A few days later, a large number of people carried out a protest march in Asadabad city of eastern Kunar province against the border shelling by Pakistani troops. Similar protests have been held in many other parts of the country, denouncing Pakistan’s adventurism.
The political and diplomatic ties between the two South Asian neighbours, once described by the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai as “inseparable brothers”, have worsened in recent years. Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani had vowed to pursue the peace process with the support of Islamabad. At the London Conference in December 2014, President Ghani said his government seeks regional cooperation and has started an “active engagement” with all neighbours, including Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reciprocated by saying that he would not allow Pakistani territory to be used for terrorist activities against Afghanistan. “If our soil is used for terrorism activities against Afghanistan, we will take serious action against the insurgents,” he said.
However, he seems either incompetent or unwilling to stop Pakistan-based militant groups from mounting attacks on Afghanistan. And more importantly, he has failed to rein in his soldiers manning the border.
The author is a Kashmiri journalist based in Kabul. He can be contacted at [email protected]