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Afghan/Pakistan border clashes

May 2, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  Worry indications of growing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan

durand-lineSeems like a military engagement between Afghan and Pakistani border troops took place on 1st May.

2 May 2013: …a dispute over a border post grew into a firefight Wednesday night, causing deaths on both sides.  The overnight clash between the U.S.-funded and U.S.-advised Afghan security forces and troops from nuclear-armed Pakistan brings a dangerous new complication to American efforts to wind down the Afghan war. Thursday’s fighting followed weeks of complaints from Kabul about the new border outposts, which were erected by Pakistan across from the Goshta district of eastern Nangarhar province.  The British-drawn boundary between the two countries is disputed by Afghanistan, which doesn’t recognize as an international frontier the so-called Durand Line that cuts through the ethnic Pashtun heartland. The line is also not properly demarcated and, while the Pakistani government says the new fortifications are on its side of the border, Afghan officials claim that they are as much as 30 km inside Afghan territory. U.S. military maps also show that the disputed outpost lies on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, officials say.

Apparently it was declared “resolved” earlier:

In addition to a growing war of words between the two countries, military tension has also been evident.  What makes the dispute more complex (and perhaps inevitable) is that the Durrand Line, although notionally acting as the formal border between the countries is not recognised by Afghanistan or accurately marked out.  I also understood that, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan effectively moved many of its border posts back into Pakistani territory (sometimes by kilometres) to avoid clashing with the Soviet Army.  Nowadays, insurgent groups such as the Taliban, HIG, LeT etc are bouncing across it more or less at will.  The US has accused Pakistani border guards of collusion with these group.  So much ambiguity, not to mention some recent history of past offences.

Analysis and Outlook

This has the character of a playground dispute (which will be of no comfort to anyone caught in the middle) probably brought on by wider strategic issues.  Accurate information (who did what to whom) will not be easily accessible in this part of the world – government spokesmen will trade barbs and call on the other to stop provocations and a slightly less impartial organisation – like ISAF in this case – is increasingly winding down its presence and actions on the peripheries.

I am not clear whether the border clashes are the cause of the tensions themselves or the symptoms of wider issues.  I suspect the latter.  The most recent clashes seem connected to reports of the Pakistani military attempting to build, rebuild or strengthen border positions.  Theoretically this might allow a better control over who crosses between the countries, perhaps enhancing security over a very porous border.  But if the border demarcation is not agreed by either side (the Pushtun tribal region straddles this line) and two nations are not liaising or coordinating coherently (or at all) this could clearly lead to perceptions of encroachment and even territorial ambitions.

Now that the Afghans have a big army, perhaps they feel a little less insecure about a more muscular assertion of the “sovereignty” that Hamid Karzai seems so concerned with these days.  The wider strategic issues fuelling suspicions are the overall uncertainty besetting the region with ISAF withdrawal and a significant insurgency ongoing.  More particularly, the desire for talks with the Taliban and standard accusations from the US and the Afghan government that the Pakistani regime is more concerned with maintaining support and control over the Taliban than genuinely pushing them into credible dialogue.  A view that I still struggle to find fault with.

Future clashes are likely as part of this “ebb and flow” of the strategic dialogue – “posturing” is the word.  A rocket strike here and there might be ignorable, but pitched battles and casualties amongst ground forces of the respective countries would elevate this into a bigger problem amidst an area that already has more problems than it can cope with…

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