Donald Trump border wall calls echo in Pakistan
NORTH WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan The Trump administration and national security officials in Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on issues these days save, perhaps, for one.
Mr. Trump’s desire for a border wall is finding a distinct echo thousands of miles away in Islamabad, where top military leaders often cite the U.S. president’s case for walling off the nation’s southern border with Mexico to defend Pakistan’s efforts to seal its porous border territories with Afghanistan.
“Why is the U.S. looking at a border wall in Mexico? Because you need it. We need it in Pakistan as well,” Maj. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, inspector general of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps for Balochistan province, said of the drive to erect a fence along the contested border with Afghanistan.
“It is the simplest solution in the history of the world,” he said.
Pakistani forces have begun lining the nearly 500 miles of its shared border with Afghanistan with chain-link fence and concertina wire, initially focused on cutting off access across the rugged terrain in North Waziristan.
The move has outraged the Kabul government, which has never recognized the Durand Line as the official border.
Standing on the parapets of Fort Kitton-2, one of several large Pakistani forts along the “zero line” between North Waziristan and Afghanistan’s Khost province, an observer can pick out long strands of shimmering metal and barbed wire crisscrossing the various peaks and valleys up to the horizon.
Troops from Pakistan’s Tochi Scouts, the Frontier Corps unit guarding the North Waziristan line, man small mud-brick outposts spaced evenly along the border fence. Pakistan’s 7th Army Division jointly patrols the volatile border regions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, including North Waziristan.
Islamabad plans to have the country’s entire 515-mile border with Afghanistan sealed off by next year, said Gen. Nadeem, head of the Frontier Corps’ Chaman Scouts. The Scouts are responsible for a majority of the Afghan-Pakistani border belt that cuts between Pakistan’s Balochistan province. “In three years, we will be able to completely seal this border,” he said during an interview at his headquarters in Chaman.
Gen. Nadeem made his comments days before Mr. Trump’s first visit to California as president this month to inspect prototypes for his proposed border wall with Mexico. The promise to build a wall was a staple of Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches in 2016 and remains the linchpin of the administration’s immigration and border policy, despite congressional resistance to financing the estimated $25 billion project.
“We have a lousy wall over here now, but at least it stops 90, 95 percent,” Mr. Trump said of illegal border crossings. “When we put up the real wall, we’re going to stop 99 percent. Maybe more than that.”
But officials in the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani say a wall likely won’t work and won’t address the deeper problem of Islamabad’s treatment of militants within its territory.
A border wall is a ridiculous approach to the problem of extremist violence, Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar told reporters Thursday on a visit to Washington.
“The terrorists cannot be walled off,” he said a breakfast roundtable at the Afghan Embassy. “You cannot stop the extremists with a wall or a chain-link fence.”
Pakistan and Afghanistan would be better served by addressing the root causes of terrorism in the region wealth disparities, government corruption and the tacit support of extremist ideologies for political purposes rather than spending time, money and efforts on the wall, he argued. Pakistan, he said, has created its own “Frankenstein monster” by failing to deal with the terrorist groups.
Walling off terrorism
In Pakistan, the issue driving a border barrier with Afghanistan is not illegal immigration but terrorism and Kabul’s supposed ineffectiveness to control Islamist extremists from crossing the border and creating havoc in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces, long seen as safe havens for insurgents who can operate on both sides of the border, were the last areas handed over to Afghan security forces when U.S. and NATO troops transitioned to an advisory role at the end of 2014 under President Obama.
Pakistan has fielded just over 1,100 posts along the nearly 500 miles bordering Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces, which traditionally have been the sites of some of the toughest fighting, said Maj. Gen. Azhar Ali Shah, head of all 7th Division forces in North Waziristan.
By comparison, Afghan forces have fielded only 145 border posts along the same stretch of territory, roughly a 7-1 ratio, Gen. Azhar said, which has allowed extremists to flourish in the borderlands.
Pakistan said in December that it had completed 92 percent of the border wall and hoped to finish it by the end of this year.
The Pakistani wall-building project has not protected Islamabad from increasingly sharp criticism from the Trump White House over its efforts to defeat the Taliban, Islamic State and other groups threatening Afghanistan.
Mr. Trump has lashed out at Pakistan on Twitter and in speeches over what he says is its continuing support for extremists.
He said the U.S. had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the years and received nothing in return but “lies deceit.” Islamabad, Mr. Trump has said, offers “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
The decision at the end of last year to withhold $225 million in foreign assistance to Pakistan and suspend all military support marked a new low in U.S.-Pakistani ties, which stretch back several decades.
Although U.S. forces have crossed the Afghan border into Pakistan to pursue militants and terrorist targets notably the 2011 Special Forces mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad the Pentagon says there are no plans for major incursions as the Pakistani border wall goes up.
“We have no authority to go into Pakistan,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews has told the Pajhwok Afghan News. Any hot-pursuit missions against Taliban fighters seeking sanctuary inside Pakistan “would certainly be the exception and not the norm.”
On an average day, it takes three to 10 minutes for Afghans and Pakistanis to trek across the border through Friendship Gate, one of two major cross-country thoroughfares between Pakistan’s tribal region and Afghanistan’s southeastern border, Chaman Scouts chief Gen. Nadeem said during a visit to the bustling border outpost.
But with over 24,000 Afghans and Pakistanis making the trip through the gate, which connects Chaman to Spin Boldak in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, along with over 200 trailer trucks hauling tons of cargo every day, the crossing can prove daunting.
The line of cargo trucks waiting to cross back and forth through Friendship Gate, which had been queueing up since sunrise, runs to the horizon by the time Gen. Nadeem’s convoy reaches the main checkpoint. Crowds of travelers press through two narrow archways on opposite sides of the gate one side for those entering Afghanistan and the other for those going into Pakistan.
Many of the same people making the crossing that morning will cross back at the end of the day, said Gen. Nadeem.
The gate runs through a village whose residents live and work on both sides of the border. Fluttering Pakistani and Afghan flags roughly demarcate the border.
Chaman Scouts do their best to manage the seemingly chaotic situation, using a combination of high-tech surveillance equipment and low-tech tactics, including bomb-sniffing dogs and a quick frisk of travelers.
Pakistan says that job has been made more difficult from Afghanistan’s inability or unwillingness to manage its side of the Durand Line.
“This border management is unilateral. There is no support from the other side,” Gen. Nadeem said.
Most of the borderlands between Balochistan and neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual heartland of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, “is totally porous in nature,” with no formal efforts to coordinate border security with Kabul, Gen. Nadeem said.
Despite efforts to work with Afghanistan on cross-border issues, fencing off the entire line between Afghanistan and Pakistan “is totally inevitable now,” Gen. Nadeem said.