In the wake of a terrorist attack on a Sufi shrine in Sindh, the Pak-Afghan border was closed and the relations between the two neighbouring countries plummeted to a new low. However, the recent exchange of high level delegations aroused hopes of normalcy in the strained relations.
The shelling in Chaman along the border has served a severe blow to these overtures. The intractable problems between the two countries have defied solution for the last seven decades.
Border management is advocated as panacea for a durable peace in the region. The status of the border is still contested by Kabul. In the last four decades, the ground realities have changed remarkably and if taken into account we may find a durable solution for the Pak-Afghan border conflict.
From the outset, the dispute about the status of the dividing line affected the relationship between the two countries. The Durand Line drawn by the British still lies at the heart of Pak-Afghan conflict. The Afghan government opposes fencing and other modalities of border management on the basis of this historical claim.
To counter the Afghan territorial claim, Pakistan resorted to Islamist proxies even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. In the last four decades, the situation on the ground has changed drastically in the Pashtun inhabited areas. The ruling elites on both sides need to take cognizance of the new realities. This will assist them in finding a durable solution for the boundary dispute.
Undoubtedly, Pashtun nationalists enjoyed considerable support on this side of the Durand Line in the beginning of our journey as an independent state. However, the military regime of General Ayub Khan encouraged the induction of Pashtuns into the two powerful state institutions; civil service and Pakistan army.
This recruitment drive played an important role in integrating the Pashtuns into mainstream Pakistan. The nationalist and separatist sentiments in this region were successfully neutralised by giving a fair share to the people of this region in the powerful state institutions.
This successful integration of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can also act as reference material for the present-day turbulent Balochistan. There were, there are, and there will be problems with the centre but the political integration is almost complete. Similarly, in the economic sphere as well, a big chunk of labour force has moved southward for better living.
The socio-economic elite of Pashtuns have also developed stronger ties with their counterparts from other ethnic groups. This has further cemented the bond.
As a result of this integration into the mainstream, horizontal mobility, relative peace, higher literacy rate, and well developed canal system and fertile land, the people of this region have become the cultural and economic elite of the Pashtuns according to Anatol Lieven, the author of, Pakistan: A Hard Country.
According to him, the weight of Pashtun cultural and economic identity lies here (he was in Peshawar for a talk), not in Afghanistan. The people of this region will play a key role in shaping the Pashtun identity in future. This thesis can be extended to political domain as well.
The birth of Khudai Khidmatgar movement played a decisive role in raising political consciousness among the people here. The role of other political and religious parties in enhancing the political awareness among the people is difficult to be understated.
On the other hand, in the war-ravaged Afghanistan the growth of economy, politics, and culture has been stunted by the perennial war and destabilisation in the last forty years. As things stand today, Kabul will fall to Peshawar, instead of Peshawar being annexed. This kind of argument goes against the rationale of Afghanistan’s insistence on its territorial claim vis-à-vis Pakistan.
The equation on the ground has turned upside down and it warrants similar changes in the strategic thinking of the Kabul ruling elite. Unless this disparity in the development trajectory persists, the claim of Kabul to be the lever of Pashtun nationalism stands compromised. The earlier this new reality dawns on the Afghan leadership, the better will be the outcome for the people on both sides of the boundary line.
In this scenario, the redrawing of Durand Line may have some romantic appeal for the hard wired nationalists on both sides but in pragmatic terms its utility is minimal.
This line of argument should not be construed as a call for erecting a Berlin Wall between the two countries. The modern age is the age of soft borders. Our thinking must also shift from geo-strategic to geo-economics. The historical baggage should no more impede our journey to a glowing future.
Instead of redrawing the border we must turn it irrelevant through our deep-rooted social, historical, religious and cultural ties. These deep-rooted ties will definitely bring the two neighbouring states closer.
The border can become irrelevant if the easy transfer of goods and people across the border is ensured. It will help realise the true economic potential of this region. We have had enough mayhem and violence in this region so far, the peaceful solution of conflict will provide the much-needed respite to the devastated millions.
But for this to happen, a shift in the thinking of Rawalpindi and Abpara is a precondition. We will have to bring a paradigm shift in our Afghan policy. As an elder partner in the regional peace and stability, we must not shy away from confidence-building measures as demanded by Kabul.
We need to have political allies in Kabul. So far, it has also been established that our dream of strategic depth is not going to materialise through force. We will have to own Afghans to neutralise the Indian threat in Afghanistan. Though our relations with Afghanistan have always been acrimonious but in the Indo-Pak wars, the Afghans never supported New Delhi.
We need to realise the importance of economic potential of the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia in the context of Gwadar Port. If we succeed in bringing Central Asia into the CPEC fold, the economic dividends will turn Pakistan into a regional giant.
In case of failure, the ISIS-like borderless organisations will thrive on both sides of the border. The forty year long spate of violence will never see an end. The well-conceived CPEC will hardly achieve the desired objectives in a destabilised region. For turning the dream project into reality, we need regional stability and regional integration in economic terms.