Pakistan’s decision to build a wall across the Durand Line is seemingly not connected with the Trump Administration’s decision to build one across the US-Mexican border, but the way it was announced by COAS Gen Qamar Zia Bajwa shows that there was an element of inspiration. The Durand Line wall idea has been around since the USA has invaded Afghanistan, and is a rather simplistic approach to the problem of the safe havens in Pakistan that anti-US fighters in Afghanistan have. One angle of the problem was tackled by Zarb-e-Azb, which the Pakistan Army conducted in Waziristan to end militant sanctuaries there.
Therefore, it seems that the new COAS considers the wall an integral part of his anti-militant strategy, to accompany Operation Raddul Fasad, which is the expanded version of Zarb-e-Azb. The need for Raddul Fasad came after Zarb-e-Azb’s clearing of Waziristan did not prevent a series of blasts, in which militants struck all over the country and within a week, with Sehwan Sharif the centerpiece, with 90 killed, though a preceding blast in Lahore had claimed the highest-profile victim, a DIG of Police. So denying the militants safe havens has not exactly worked, and it has become necessary to root them out throughout the country through Raddul Fasad, and to prevent them entering Pakistan, either to seek safe havens, or to carry out operations. It should be noted that there is a parallel move to return Afghan refugees to their country. They not only provide safe havens to militants, but also provide recruits to them.
Part of the problem is that the militants seem to be winning. Well, they are not winning so much as the US-backed regime appears to be losing, not just because of military ineptitude, which is considerable, as because the US-installed Kabul regime, despite three elections, is not showing signs of stabilising and establishing roots. The Pakistan Army has abandoned the 1980s and 1990s goal of strategic depth, but seems to have taken a leaf out of the book of the country against which the strategic-depth concept was to be used.
Just as one of the results of the US invasion was the abandoning of strategic depth, similarly it led to the installation of a pro-Indian government in Kabul. Whereas the Zia regime had developed the concept of strategic depth, Pakistan is now faced with the two-front situation it has feared all along, especially in 1965 and 1971, when Afghanistan refused to take advantage of the situation. That forbearance provided the motivation for Pakistan to allow so many Afghan refugees in.
The strategic depth idea answered one of the main questions bedeviling the defence of Pakistan: how much to retreat before making a last stand. The problem lies in the geographical fact that Pakistan has a long border with India across which it can be attacked, and the enemy need not advance across the entire country. It merely needs to reach the railway line, which is on the wrong side of the Indus. The line is merely a few kilometers away from the Indian border at Dehrki, in the Thar desert. With the north cut off from the country’s main port, Pakistan would find its options limited. Strategic depth was meant to combat this, provide the Pakistan Army somewhere to go to.
A wall along the Durand Line would mean that Afghanistan’s ability to provide strategic depth would be in question. Apart from the fact that it would partition the Pakhtun tribes physically which straddle the Line, the answer to the question should be sought in the other wall which has been built in the region, the one across the Pak-India border and the Line of Control across Jammu and Kashmir. India built that fence to stop terrorists’ crossing over from Pakistan. It alleged that there were no freedom fighters in Kashmir, just terrorists crossing over from Pakistan. The Durand Line fence would be based on the same concept, but it would put Pakistan in the position of having its boundaries fenced, with only a narrow gap in the North, through which China already has linked to Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway, as well as a fairly large portion in the southwest, with Iran.
It is worth noting that, like India in the east, Pakistan has no intention of asking anyone to pay. Much of the hullabaloo about the US-Mexican wall is that President Donald Trump has promised to make Mexico pay for it. As the walls were virtually sneaked in, neither has India tried to make Pakistan pay, nor Pakistan Afghanistan. However, there are a number of other similarities between Pak-Afghan relations and US-Mexican to deserve notice.
There is the cultural affinity. Pakistan’s official language is Urdu, but Afghanistan’s are Pashto and Dari. And there is a significant Pashto-speaking population on the Pakistan side, as well as a small Dari-speaking population (the Hazaras of Quetta). The USA’s is English, Mexico’s Spanish. However, all along the USA’s southern land border, which corresponds to the South-West of the country, Spanish is a significant language. Much of that area had once been part of Mexico, and the Mexican people are not the only ones in the Hispanics whom Trump has tried to malign.
It is worth noting that Mexicans have been accused of doing some of the things in the USA that Pakhtuns have been in Pakistan. For example, both have been accused of taking away local jobs. Both have also been accused of being criminals in general, and of drug dealing in particular. Interestingly, Mexico is the source of US heroin, not the cocaine that is supposed to originate in South and Central America; Afghanistan too is the source of heroin for Pakistan. Indeed, at least some of the heroin going to the USA from Mexico would have been manufactured in Afghanistan and smuggled out through Pakistan. Mexicans have always had an influence on the southern USA for the same reason Afghans have had on Pakistan: economic migration. However, many more Mexicans migrate to the USA than Afghans to Pakistan, because the USA is a vastly richer country. However, Pakistanis have not been so concerned about migration, perhaps because many themselves want to migrate to seek better economic opportunities.
The proposed walls do not reflect a new idea. Though the Great Wall of China was finalized under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It was started in the 7th century BC, mainly to keep out barbarian invaders from the Eurasian steppe. It didn’t work, and Genghis Khan overcame it. Walls are a sign of defeat, with most recently the Maginot Line, the wall France used after World War I, failing to keep Germany from invading it in 1940. At the same time, walls have generally not worked, at last not in the sense of solving the problem. Trump’s wall against Mexico will not keep out Mexicans, and the proposed Pak-Afghan wall will be about as useful as the Pak-India wall. Mexican migration will not stop unless migrating to the USA is not attractive enough a prospect to justify the hassle. Similarly, militancy will not stop unless there is more of an effort to address the militant agenda. The Trump Administration is invested in one; the Pakistan Army in the other; both seem likely to meet the same fate.