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Afghanistan-Pakistan: Volatile Border

With the Afghan Taliban at the helm in Afghanistan and TTP at the border, violence along the border is likely to increase, even as an escalation of terrorist activities projected deeper into Pakistan becomes likely.

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An Afghan child is at an internally displaced persons camp in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan on May 23, 2023. (Photo by Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua)

On September 6, 2023, at least 12 terrorists and four soldiers were killed along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border in the Chitral District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Seven soldiers and over 40 terrorists were injured in the skirmish. An Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) press release said that a “large group of terrorists equipped with latest weapons” attacked two military posts located close to the Afghanistan border, in the Kalash area of Chitral District. The ISPR release added,

Terrorists’ movement and concentration in Gawardesh, Pitigal, Barg-i-Matal and Batash areas of Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan had already been picked up. Owing to heightened threat environment, own posts were already on high alert. The valiant soldiers fought bravely and repulsed the attacks inflicting heavy casualties to the terrorists. During the fire exchange, twelve terrorists were sent to hell, while a large number has been critically injured.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

In another incident on the same day, two people, including a Frontier Corps (FC) official, sustained injuries, as Security Forces (SFs) of both Pakistan and Afghanistan exchanged gunfire at the Torkham border crossing in Khyber District, the main point of transit for travellers and goods between the two countries. Officials in Pakistan blamed the other side for starting the mid-day firefight, which lasted for around two hours, and followed attempts by the Afghan authorities to build a checkpoint on their side, in a prohibited area close to the main border crossing. The border crossing has reportedly been closed since then.  

On August 27, 2023, two SF personnel were injured when terrorists from across the border attacked Orakzai Scouts personnel near Ghakhee Pass, along the Pakistan-Afghan border, in Bajaur District.

Thus, areas in Pakistan close to the Afghanistan border have seen three types of violent incidents: attacks by exfiltrating/infiltrating militants on SF check posts/camps; attacks by militants inside Afghanistan; and exchanges of fire between the SFs of both sides.     

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), four such violent incidents (including the three mentioned above), resulting in 16 deaths (12 terrorists and four SF personnel) and 52 persons injured (40 terrorists, 11 SF personnel and one civilian), have been reported inside Pakistan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan-border, in the current year (data till September 10). During the corresponding period of 2022, five such incidents, resulting in 16 deaths (15 SF personnel and one militant) and four persons injured (all SF personnel), were reported. In the remaining part of 2022 12 such incidents were reported, resulting in 24 fatalities (16 SF personnel, seven civilians and one militant) and 37 persons injured (32 civilian and five SF personnel). Twelve such incidents, resulting in 19 deaths (16 SF personnel and three militants) were reported in 2021. There were seven such incidents in 2020, resulting in 11 fatalities (10 SF personnel and one militant); and another seven in 2019, with 22 fatalities (20 SF personnel and two militants). 

Since April 2007, when the first such incident was reported, there have been at least 153 violent incidents along the border, in which more than 300 Pakistani SF personnel and 98 civilians have been killed, while another 408 sustained injuries (data till September 10, 2023). 90 terrorists were also killed in retaliatory action by Pakistani SFs.

The first exchange of fire between the forces of two sides took place on April 19, 2017. However, no casualties were reported on either side. The first incident of attack by militants from within Pakistan was reported on September 15, 2013, when Major General, Sanaullah Khan and Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef, along with another soldier, Irfan Sattar, were killed in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Upper Dir District of KP. The then TTP ‘spokesman’ Shahidullah Shahid had claimed responsibility for the attack. The first cross-border firing by militants from the Afghanistan side of the border took place on May 4, 2014, in which one Pakistani soldier was killed along the border, under the Bajaur Agency in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Much of the violence is in opposition to fencing work by Pakistani SFs along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The border fence and border check posts along the Durand Line, the disputed Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has been a major bone of contention between the two neighbouring states, as well as for the militants on both sides of the border. Though the conflict over the legitimacy of the Durand Line – the border imposed by Imperial Britain – between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is more than a century old, the recent clashes linked to border-fencing started in September 2005, when Pakistan first announced plans to build a 2,611-kilometre fence (1,230 kilometres in KP and 1,381 kilometres in Balochistan) along its border with Afghanistan, purportedly to check armed militants and drug smugglers moving between the two countries. But Afghanistan raised objections on the grounds that this was an attempt to make the disputed border permanent. After Kabul’s objections, Pakistani authorities temporarily put the plan on hold.

Over a year later, on December 26, 2006, Pakistan again declared its plans for mining and fencing the border, but was again opposed by the Afghanistan Government. The then Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated, on December 28, 2006, that the move would only hurt the people living in the region and would not stem cross-border terrorism.

The attempt to build the fence provoked the first skirmish in April 2007, in the then South Waziristan Agency. Pakistani SFs operating in the region made a three-tier security deployment on April 11, 2007, to stop cross-border infiltration by terrorists into Afghanistan, and fenced 12-kilometers of the border stretch with Afghanistan. However, Afghan troops tore down the fence on April 19, leading to a gun-battle, though there were no casualties. Another attempt was made in May 2007, when Pakistan erected the first section of a fence in the Lowara Mandi area of the then North Waziristan Agency on May 10, 2007, which led to cross-border firing between Pakistani and Afghan forces, in which at least seven Afghan soldiers were killed. The border fencing programme, meanwhile, was halted between 2007 and 2013, due to intense pressure of terrorists active along the border areas.

Later, Pakistan started excavation work on a several-hundred-kilometres-long trench along the Balochistan border in April 2013. The work has progressed rapidly since.

On April 25, 2023, at a press conference, ISPR Director General Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry disclosed that 98 per cent of the fencing work on the 2,611-kilometre Pakistan-Afghan border had been completed. He added, further, that 85 per cent of the proposed forts had also been established on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to curtail the movement of terrorists.

Despite this, much to the disappointment of the Pakistani establishment to secure the western border from terrorists, especially TTP, they continue to operate from across the border with impunity. The United Nations Security Council Monitoring Committee, which submitted its report to the United Nations Security Council on July 25, 2023, thus noted, “Since the reunification with several splinter groups, the TTP has aspired to re-establish control of territory in Pakistan after being emboldened by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan has continuously blaming Afghanistan for the volatility at the border and the violence inside Pakistan. Most recently, on September 8, 2023, the Foreign Office raising an alarm over the “advanced weapons” being used by the terrorists based in Afghanistan, to attack Pakistan, observing, “These modern weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists in Afghanistan who are using these [weapons] to attack Pakistan and its security agencies.” The Afghan Taliban, however, as in the past, continues to deny the TTP’s presence inside its territory.

With the Afghan Taliban at the helm in Afghanistan and TTP at the border, violence along the border is likely to increase, even as an escalation of terrorist activities projected deeper into Pakistan becomes likely.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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