Border security between Pakistan, Afghanistan ruffles feathers

Thursday, January 9, 2003

GHULAM KHAN BORDER CHECKPOINT, Pakistan -- Glowering and tugging anxiously at his formidable beard, Shah Wali squatted on the parched earth of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier to ponder his next move. He had a family wedding to attend, and things weren't looking hopeful.

Would he try again up the road at the border post, staffed by guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles who had already turned him away? Or would he wander into the rugged hills and try to slip into Pakistan that way?

"They're just not letting me through," complained Wali, a 40ish laborer from eastern Afghanistan, perched near a tiny oasis of eucalyptus trees and run-down shops in the no man's land between the two countries. "This is new. This hasn't happened before."

Dispute with U.S.

More than a week after a disagreement with the United States over American military "hot pursuit" reaching over Afghanistan's edge, this remote checkpoint -- one of many along the invisible line that separates the two countries -- is being patrolled by Pakistan more tightly than ever, residents say.

The Pakistani-Afghan border meanders through more than 1,300 miles of desolate, gnarled terrain that is barely monitored in places and entirely unfenced and unsupervised in others -- much to the consternation of U.S. officials, who plead for tighter controls.

Both the terrain and centuries-old cultural folkways make that difficult.

It's impossible to see where Pakistan ends and Afghanistan begins, and most people in the tribal region don't even try. They have long journeyed back and forth at will, and extended families straddle the frontier -- some cousins in Pakistan, others in Afghanistan.

"It's quite different from other borders in other countries. Half a tribe is on one side, half is on the other," said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, director of the National Crisis Management Center at Pakistan's Interior Ministry. As much as possible, he said, Afghan nationals are not allowed in.

"It's very difficult to patrol the entire area," Cheema said. "There is a lot of movement taking place. But we are trying our level best."

Pakistan has dispatched more than 60,000 troops to guard the borderland during the past 17 months as part of its commitment to help the United States prevent al-Qaida fugitives from reaching Pakistan.

But it has also made clear that patrolling the border is Pakistan's job, not the U.S. military's. A Dec. 29 skirmish between American troops and a Pakistani border guard about 60 miles south of here prompted Pakistan to reiterate that the U.S. military should not violate the border.

Ghulam Khan, one dot on that frontier, is less bustling than it was two months ago. The final 8 miles of Pakistan feature five checkpoints guarded by army troops, the frontier corps, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the Khasadar, the security force of the tribal regions.

Place to play

"We want to go to Peshawar, but we can't," said Murat Khan, a 12-year-old Afghan aiming to reach northwestern Pakistan's biggest city with his mother. Both times they tried to cross, they were rebuffed.

"I want to see Peshawar. I heard there are many playgrounds there and things that are fun for kids," Murat said, chewing on a hunk of bread. "But I am stuck here. My mother's in a burqa. How can we cross those mountain trails?"

Up the road, at the post nearest the border, guards wear no obvious uniforms other than caps with an insignia of two crossed rifles. They checked vehicles on both sides, turning away virtually all of those coming from Afghanistan -- and most trying to go the other way.

"The border is completely sealed. We are not allowing anyone to pass through this checkpoint," said Mohammad Yaqoob, the post's commander.

Then he qualified a bit.

"Only people from the Gorbaz tribe can come and go. They live on both sides," he said. "This is a tribal administration. We know each other. If any strangers come, we can identify them instantly."

Even those allowed to pass say they aren't happy about the increased security, though they understand the need.

"We are cooperating with the authorities. We will not give shelter to any wanted men in our area," said Zora Din, a member of the Sadgi, another tribe based near Ghulam Khan.

"We hope the situation will be normalized pretty soon. Because these two areas, these two sides depend on each other," he said. "There are so many connections, so many relations."

Back at the market, Shah Wali's family wedding awaited. He had to make a decision, so he did. It wasn't the legal one.

"I'll try my luck. I'll go by the mountains," he declared, ready to set out Tuesday. "Maybe there won't be a patrol there."

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