ISLAMABAD // Stung by criticism that it is doing little to stop the flow of militants into Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has resurrected plans to fence the rugged frontier between the two countries. The programme was shelved by Pakistan's previous military government, led by Pervez Musharraf, who at the time held both the post of military chief and president, after fierce objection from Kabul, which does not recognise the 2,640km boundary.
The new civilian administration led by Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, recently issued a statement saying it wanted members of the Nato-led coalition in Afghanistan to reconsider the proposal. The Afghan government argues a fence would fail to stop militant activity, but would hamper trade and separate families and tribes living along the border. Security officials in Kabul expressed dismay the plan had been given fresh life, saying Islamabad needed to stamp out the roots of militancy instead of fencing it in.
"We, and the international community, both know the Pakistan intelligence services are the source of the Taliban," said a senior Afghan intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Islamabad needs to stop aiding the Taliban and al Qa'eda, stop sending them weapons and stop giving them money." The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has publicly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban and allied extremist groups and recently threatened to send commando teams across the border to hunt down extremist leaders.
Pakistani officials describe the Kabul government as ineffectual and corrupt, and say Mr Karzai has himself to blame for Afghanistan's security problems. Islamabad says the country's poppy crop, amounting to US$3 billion (Dh11bn) annually, funds the Taliban, not Pakistan's spy agencies. Pakistani officials insist they do not want to limit border crossings - estimated at more than 50,000 a day - but want to direct the flow of traffic through checkpoints where ID cards would be monitored and customs fees collected.
Islamabad has erected more than 900 border posts and built about 35km of fence in parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where there are frequent militant crossings, according to Major Gen Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistan army. "We fenced areas where there were known crossings and the Afghan government objected," Major Gen Abbas said. "Since this was being paid for with coalition funds, we reported the matter to the Nato coalition and said, 'Look, one of the members wants us to stop'."
Pakistani authorities also tried to open a biometric identification station at the Chaman border crossing in 2007. Afghan traders protested so violently that they forced the border to close briefly. Officials in Islamabad are weary of being blamed for problems along the border and say the Afghan government has blocked efforts to better regulate the frontier. "The Afghan leadership cannot have their cake and eat it, too," said Mohammed Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry. "If they don't want a porous border, then there has to be more regulation. We are ready to document every person who crosses and we are ready to work in partnership with the Afghans on this."
The fence proposal goes to the heart of thorny territorial and trade disputes that have long festered between the two hostile neighbours. The mountainous frontier was mapped out in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, then foreign secretary of the British Indian government, who demarcated the boundary of his colony with the Afghan ruler at the time, Abdur Rahman Khan. It is now known as the Durand Line. The Kabul government argues the pact expired when British colonialists left the region almost seven decades ago.
The Durand Line divided the Pashtun community, and to this day many Afghans claim large swathes of Pakistani territory, including the bustling frontier cities of Peshawar and Quetta, rightfully belong to Afghanistan. Islamabad has long feared separatist ambitions among its Pashtun community. Meanwhile, officials in Kabul privately worry a border fence would finalise the Durand Line as the international boundary with Pakistan. Most countries already recognise the line as the de facto border.
Another sticking point is related to trade. Pakistan complains that billions of dollars worth of illegal narcotics and untaxed commodities are smuggled across the frontier every year, creating a culture of criminality and costing Islamabad millions in lost customs revenue. A 1965 bilateral agreement allowing goods to be transported duty-free from Pakistan's coast to landlocked Afghanistan gave birth to the so-called U-Turn scheme. Pashtun trucking companies carry goods ranging from refrigerators to foodstuffs from Karachi up to the border areas, whereupon they get smuggled back into Pakistan to avoid Islamabad's protectionist customs fees.
Another problem is the flow of drugs across the border. Pakistan has more than three million heroin addicts, the result of decades of narcotics being smuggled from Afghanistan. In 2007, Pakistan was named a major trafficking country by the United States. Mr Khan, the foreign ministry spokesman, said Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which neighbour Afghanistan, all erected walls and border checkpoints to monitor the flow of people and goods without complaint from Kabul.
"We need to document every crossing and stop illegal crossings," Mr Khan said. "We have to stop the flow of miscreants, weapons, drugs and other smuggled goods." Major Gen Abbass also called on the Afghan army and Nato forces to increase troop levels along the border, saying they had 80 per cent more troops posted to the frontier than on the other side. "We admit we have a capacity problem with our Frontier Corps and we are working to fix it," Major Gen Abbass said. "But we are frustrated by always being blamed. Is the border problem only one side's responsibility to fix?"