Pakistan proposes fence to rein in Taliban
On Tuesday, it announced plans to put barriers and land mines along its 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — First, Pakistan tried to fight the Taliban militia along its remote, craggy border with Afghanistan. Then it tried to make peace with them. This week, Pakistan announced a new solution to the problem on its western frontier: mines and fences along the Afghan border, designed to keep militants from crossing in and out of the tribal zone.
Western capitals, newspapers, and military intelligence reports are increasingly voicing concern that the source of the Taliban's growing power rests in Pakistan and that Pakistan is not doing enough to quell it. This latest approach, beyond being quixotic, is also risky, analysts say: If the fence doesn't work, Pakistan may have exhausted all apparent options – and possibly its credibility, too.
"If this doesn't solve the problem, then what next?" asks Ramiyullah Yusufzai, a prominent journalist and tribal analyst in Peshawar.
For its part, Afghanistan immediately responded with anger to the fence idea. "The border is not where the problem lies," Khaliq Ahmad, a presidential spokesman in Kabul, was quoted as saying.
Many critics in Pakistan agree. "Are we going to detain ourselves? Or should we look into the root causes – the policy of tolerating militants inside our borders," asks Afrasiab Khattak, a political analyst and member of the opposition Awami National Party in Peshawar, near the Afghan border.
Pakistan has repeatedly dismissed the numerous claims that it has shied away from engaging Taliban militants, reiterating its commitment to fighting terrorism. The fence proposal, Pakistani officials insist, has not been timed to address rising concerns in the international community.
"It's not that our military action failed and our political action failed. No. This proposal pre-dates those," says Tasneem Aslam, Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesperson. Ms. Aslam refused to characterize the fence as a barrier to prevent Pakistani-based terrorists from entering Afghanistan, insisting that Taliban violence was an internal Afghan problem.
"There are 200,000 [people] crossing the border a day, and they're not all crossing at designated points. We want to control that," she explains.
In September, however, President Pervez Musharraf admitted that Pakistani militants are responsible for some portion of violence inside Afghanistan.
"There are al-Qaeda and Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," Musharraf said during talks in Kabul. "Clearly they are crossing from the Pakistan side and causing bomb blasts in Afghanistan."
The job of preventing those attacks is, by all accounts, not an easy one. Afghanistan and Pakistan share a 1,500-mile-long border, studded with some of the most rugged terrain in the world. The Taliban are well-trained, well-armed and well-versed in that terrain, analysts agree. There are no easy, short-term solutions. Half-hearted ones, like the fencing proposal, will only chip away at Pakistan's credibility, which some see as already fading.
A more realistic solution begins with an honest review of Pakistan's policy of supporting militants, some analysts contend.
"It is for the policymakers in Islamabad," says Mr. Khattak.
Other analysts caution against such claims, citing a lack of hard proof. But they agree that substantive political reform is vital. Political parties are banned from the tribal areas, meaning there is no force to contest religious leaders who support the Taliban. Draconian, colonial-era laws are the rule of the land, compelling many to view Taliban-inspired laws as more just.
"Pakistan has the will [to stop militants]. It is a problem of its political capacity," says Rasul Bahksh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore School of Management Sciences. Introducing political parties is a critical step, he adds, but one the government has resisted for fears such parties will resist them.
"We are not going to impede the movement between countries," Aslam assured. The fencing proposal, which Pakistan has broached in the past, will include designated crossing points where officials can easily monitor traffic. So far, the proposal has no timeframe.
It is unclear if Pakistani authorities plan to mine and wire the entire 1,500-mile stretch. Pakistan has proposed the project unilaterally – a move that has sparked ire from Afghan officials and raised eyebrows at home.
"You make an agreement when you do these kinds of things. But they haven't discussed it with the Afghan authorities," says Yusufzai.
Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Riaz Muhammed Khan, insisted at a press conference, however, that Pakistan "needs no permission or agreement with any country, including Afghanistan, while carrying out any such project within its territorial boundaries."
The proposed fence would run along the Durand Line, a border set by British colonialists in 1893. Pakistan recognizes the line as an international border, but Afghanistan does not. Pashtun tribes, who live on both sides of the border and have migrated in between for centuries, are unlikely to accept the fence.
"There would be attempts to stop the fence or blow up areas of the fence," says Mr. Yusufzai. Others add that for every militant felled by a mine, many more will emerge from the swirl of death and violence."One part of a family on one side [of the border] will be stepping over dynamite to see family on the other side. Don't we have enough gun powder in our area?" asks Khattak.