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Asia

Border clashes jeopardize already fragile Af-Pak ties

Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are running high as a result of a spate of deadly cross-border skirmishes involving their armed forces in recent days. Experts say extremists will benefit from the situation.

Clashes at the Torkham border crossing between the two sides erupted on Sunday, June 12, over the construction of a new border gate by Pakistan on disputed territory.

While Islamabad says "the gate is essential to verify and check the documents of all crossers," Afghans oppose it citing bilateral agreements prohibiting such constructions along the two nations' disputed border - the Durand Line.

Both sides have reported casualties and the border crossing remains closed.

Reports suggest that the two countries are looking to reinforce their positions along the volatile boundary by sending more troops and weapons.

Troop numbers on both sides have been beefed up, sources tell DW on condition of anonymity.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been at odds over the Durand Line, the roughly 2,200 kilometer-long boundary dividing the two nations. It was established in 1893 by British India and the Kingdom of Afghanistan. But it runs right through the Pashtun heartland, thus making those living to the west of the line Afghan and those to the east Pakistani.

And Afghanistan refuses to recognize it as an international border. That's also a reason behind Kabul's opposition to Islamabad's plans to build a gate at the Torkham crossing.

Afghanistan Flüchtlinge am Khyber Grenzübergang nach Pakistan Archivbild

On a normal day, thousands of people cross the border for business, family visits and even attending schools on the other side

Pakistan's military, on the other hand, argues that it is erecting a fence on its own side of the border in a bid to control illegal and unwanted movement.

The latest bout of tensions seems unlikely to abate anytime soon as Islamabad remains steadfast in its determination to build the gate while Afghans vow to stop the move at any cost.

Devastated locals

But people living in border areas have been the worst affected. "Everything has stopped here. The shops are closed, there is no transportation and people are evacuating their homes," said Mujahed, a local resident, who like many Afghans has only one name.

"The Pakistanis are targeting government facilities. Last night, even homes were targeted and therefore people are fleeing the area," he added.

Locals fleeing the area told DW that two children were also killed in a nearby Afghan village.

On a normal day, thousands of people cross the frontier for business, family visits and even attending schools on the other side.

There are hundreds of shops and businesses along the border crossing which are dependent on people coming to the area, to either cross the boundary or do business with locals. But all civilian activities have come to a halt with hundreds of people stacking on both sides of the border.

"Everybody is worried about the situation because everything stops in this area when the border is closed," Mujahed said.

Mutual suspicions

This is, however, not the first time Torkham border crossing has been closed by Pakistan.

Every time Islamabad is criticized by the international community or angered by close ties between its archrival India and Afghanistan, it closes the border to pile pressure on the Afghan government, says Faizullah Zaland, a lecturer at Kabul University.

Pakistan is particularly suspicious about strengthening relations between Kabul and New Delhi. It views India's growing involvement in Afghanistan as a national security threat.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, considers India as one of its closest allies in the region which has spent over two billion dollars in aid projects since 2001.

Meanwhile, Af-Pak ties have been marred in recent years with Kabul accusing Pakistan of backing Afghan extremists and providing safe-haven for militant groups like the Haqqani network which is blamed for many bloody attacks in the country.

Pakistan denies all the accusations.

Against this backdrop, analysts say the latest clashes and border closing will not provide solutions to the issues the neighboring countries have with one another; rather it will only embolden extremists in the area.

"Security incidents in Pakistan have increased in recent months. If clashes between the two countries continue, extremists on both sides of the border will only get stronger and pose an even greater threat to the region," said Pakistani journalist Shahid Shamim.

He believes the only way out of the current problem is for the countries to pursue diplomacy and work together to ensure the safety of the local residents.

Omid Deedar contributed to this story.