The unraveling of historic Pak-Afghan border communities – Arab News Pakistan

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The unraveling of historic Pak-Afghan border communities 

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The Afghan-Pakistan border is unique for reasons of colonial and pre-colonial history, rugged terrain and geopolitics of conflict for which the people in these regions have collectively suffered most adverse consequences. People living in border-towns dividing modern nation-states form frontier communities as they are largely cut off from major centers of power, trade and business. The social characteristics, culture, and values such locations generate make them very different in being self-reliant, having close social networks and developing their own governing authority structures. Being hardy, fierce, hardworking and enterprising become survival values. 

The descent of the British to the region brought the idea of defined borders and sovereignty, the new markers of the modern nation-state which disrupted the historical connectivity, the cohesiveness of tribal communities and older forms of identity among what is currently Afghanistan and Pakistan. Suddenly, their traditional identity was transformed; now, they were either British subjects or Afghan rulers. 

While Pakistan inherited these regions as a successor of the British Raj, the borders remained open and people from both sides moved back and forth freely, engaging in an open trade deep into the towns and cities of the two states. No visa, passport or immigration system existed until the wars in Afghanistan, and the transformation of the border from a remote frontier to a ‘frontline’ eventually changed everything. The border communities were caught in a ‘new great game’ of the two bouts of the Cold War. Then, the Civil War and the US ‘War on Terror’ greatly impacted the traditional order of the borders and authority structure. The rise of the militants as a product of the conflicts and as proxies in the hands of powerful states with geopolitical designs had a blow-back security effect on Pakistan. Further, the collapsed and weak state in Afghanistan resulted in insurgencies and counter-insurgency, and most critically, in the hardening of the borders. In view of the fresh security challenges emanating from 20 years of the American-NATO-led war in Afghanistan, Pakistan had to fence, formalize, and somewhat fortify the border. This has affected the material interests of a wide range of actors involved in the political economy of border and transit trade on which Afghanistan heavily depends on Pakistan’s ports and routes. 

The considered view is that Pakistan will fail to counter militancy if it continues to fail in controlling the border entry and exit points.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

There has been anger and unrest among the border communities as the visa requirements for travel and documentation of transporters ferrying the goods both ways attempt to regulate the trade. Bringing the state onto the historically porous, unmanned, and free-for-all type of border regions has become a necessity for Pakistan, not a choice anymore. The reason is the growing threat of terror groups that benefit from the illegal economy of drug trafficking and smuggling. The attacks from across the border from Afghanistan by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during the past two years have increased by 60 percent, taking the lives of hundreds of military officers, soldiers and policemen. The considered view is that Pakistan will fail to counter militancy if it continues to fail in controlling the border entry and exit points. The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of unregistered Afghans last year, many of whom had crossed the border following the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government into Pakistan, was meant to show determination in claiming sovereign jurisdiction over the border regions. 

The smuggling of goods imported by Afghan traders back into Pakistan with the connivance of local traders and customs officials has been costing Pakistan’s economy and industry very heavily for decades. However, the government woke up to this challenge with a foreign currency crunch while facing the spectre of default last year. According to the Business Recorder, since the coming of the Taliban, $5 million is smuggled into Afghanistan from Pakistan per day. Likewise, a Harvard University-Ministry of Commerce, Government of Pakistan, research report in 2020 revealed that third-party goods valued at $3.3 billion, including such diverse items as auto parts, cell phones, engine oil, diesel, and tires, are smuggled into Pakistan. Further, the illicit trade of Iranian oil and gold across the border from Afghanistan and Iran has undermined the country’s industrial growth and caused losses of hundreds of billions of rupees annually. 

Sadly, the corruption in the corridors of Pakistan’s institutions governing the border space and the economy has allowed the integration of sections of the local communities with the drug and smuggling networks of the region. There are now too many big stakeholders from outside the region, merely throwing crumbs of the illegal economy to the border communities. It is difficult to say whether, in the face of the systemic corruption of the elite, policy inconsistencies, and weak politics, the trade and traditional communities of the Pak-Afghan border towns will normalize anytime soon.

– Rasul Bakhsh Rais is a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
X: @RasulRais 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view

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