For nearly four days, the situation was tense at the Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as the Afghans objected to the fencing work being done by the Pakistanis and even brought their tanks and armoured personnel carriers close to the border in a threatening display of force.
Pakistani military authorities had to stop the fencing work to prevent escalation of hostilities. They also reinforced their forces near the border to send a strong message to the Afghans that there would be retaliation in case of any aggression from the Afghan side.
The busy Torkham border crossing closed down and the movement of people, vehicles and goods came to an abrupt halt. Long queues of vehicles were seen on both sides of the Durand Line border and passengers, mostly Afghans, were stranded in thousands.
For three days, only bodies of Afghan refugees who had died in Pakistan were allowed to be taken to Afghanistan for burial and seriously ill or injured Afghan patients coming to Pakistan for treatment were given entry on humanitarian grounds. The only other Afghans who could enter Pakistan were border and security officials engaged in talks with their Pakistani counterparts to resolve the dispute.
Several rounds of talks were held, but no progress could be achieved as the issue had by then become a matter of ego. The Afghan government wanted Pakistan to reopen the Torkham border before a way out could be found on the fencing issue. Pakistan insisted that the Afghans must admit that they did something wrong by objecting to the fencing being done inside Pakistani territory and then threatening Pakistan by reinforcing the Afghan army and border forces backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
Mercifully, the tension didn’t flare up into an exchange of fire. A single gunshot or even an abuse could have turned the situation volatile and led to hostilities. There was kind of tense calm and the situation never got out of control even though the Afghan forces at one stage cocked their guns in a bid to stop the fencing work.
Finally on May 13, the desired breakthrough was achieved when Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Dr Hazrat Omer Zakhilwal, who is also President Ashraf Ghani’s special representative, met Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi. At the end of the meeting, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa tweeted that routine border traffic at Torkham would be resumed. His tweets added that the Army chief and the Afghan ambassador reiterated their resolve to continue efforts to fight terrorism and bring lasting peace in the region.
The traffic across the Torkham border resumed within no time when the orders from General Raheel Sharif were conveyed to the army commanders on the ground. This was the fourth day of the closure of the border and before long a number of vehicles, lots of goods and many people were streaming across the border. In the few hours until sunset when the border is closed for the day, not only had the traffic resumed but the Afghan and Pakistani security guards at Torkham had undertaken a round of handshaking and hugging each other to celebrate the peaceful resolution of the dispute. It was soon business as usual at Torkham.
Though there was no mention of the fencing issue in Lt Gen Bajwa’s by now famous and regular tweets, one had the feeling that Pakistan won’t give up the fencing project and leave it incomplete. This project had been long in the making and was considered necessary for enhancing security on the border.
Though the Afghan ambassador said in his tweets that Pakistan reopened the border unconditionally, this wasn’t the case in the end as the next day Pakistani engineers and workers resumed the fencing work and this time there was no objection by the Afghan border officials. This meant the Afghan government had changed its stance after realising that it over-reacted and raised the tension on the border to dangerous level.
After years of indecision, Pakistan this time took a tough stand on the issue of border management by closing down the Torkham border and keeping it shut for almost four days. Though it agreed to reopen the border after an understanding was reached between the Army Chief and the Afghan ambassador, Pakistan’s message was loud and clear that this could be done again in case the Afghan authorities continued to resist border management measures that would eventually benefit both countries.
In fact, this isn’t border fencing even though the media has generally interpreted the project in this manner. Only about 500 metres of the border is being fenced and that too 30 metres inside Pakistani territory. The fence would eventually be four kilometres long, but this would encompass Pakistani territory in Torkham area to ensure controlled movement of people and goods through seven lanes. The Pakistani authorities believe this would check the cross-border movement of unwanted people and ensure that Afghans entering Pakistan are documented. They also hope this would help control corruption, facilitate smooth flow of traffic and improve security and trade activities.
Ironically, the plans for setting up of the terminal and the fencing project was shared by the Pakistani military authorities with their Afghan counterparts last year and explained in four meetings that took place in Jalalabad and Peshawar. When the implementation of the project began at Torkham, the Afghan government was informed about it beforehand. No objection was made by the Afghan border officials when the fencing work started and the Pakistanis were satisfied that they would encounter no problems.
A senior security official told this writer that the Afghan military officials asked Lt Gen Hidayat ur Rehman, Corps Commander Peshawar, during meetings in Jalalabad and Peshawar last year that the terminal and fencing project for Torkham should also be implemented at the Angoor Adda border in South Waziristan and Ghulam Khan in North Waziristan. Obviously, they found it useful to check the movement of militants and were keen that it should be extended to other vulnerable spots in the two Waziristans bordering Afghanistan’s volatile Paktika and Khost provinces.
There is every possibility that Islamabad would continue to push for fencing other parts of the 2,500 kilometres long Pak-Afghan border after accomplishing the task at Torkham. A decision has already been taken to refuse entry to Afghans entering Pakistan without legal travel documents after May 31. The easement rights given to the tribes living in the border areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also being reviewed to regulate their movement across the Durand Line. Pakistan has also dug a deep and wide trench on part of its border with Afghanistan in Balochistan. Afghanistan had objected to this project also, but it is no longer raising the issue after realising that the trench was deep inside Pakistani territory.
The decisions to close the Torkham border and open it once the Afghan government agreed not to object to the fencing work were made by the Pakistan Army. The Army chief may have taken Prime Minister into confidence about it, but it was clear as has been the case in the past that the military had the leading role in decision-making concerning security matters.