Afghanistan’s Borderlands: Unruly, Unruled, and Central to Peace
January 22, 2020
In Games without Rules, author and former Asia Foundation colleague Tamim Ansary argues that bringing rural Afghanistan under centralized rule has been the defining challenge of the Afghan state since the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 18th century. He debunks the colonial myth of an “unconquerable” Afghanistan: it was invaded many times, by Persians, Greeks, Turks, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. For invading powers and national rulers alike, the real stumbling block was not conquering Afghanistan, but governing it.
Afghan kings ruled by forging alliances with local strongmen. Even the influence of tribal leaders waned quickly, however, as one left the towns for the mountains or the desert. Ansary describes rural Afghanistan as a universe of “village-republics,” self-reliant social units where daily life remained unaltered by events in the capital. The wars of the past decades have changed this. National and global politics have left deep scars in the social fabric of rural Afghanistan: bombs and mines turned fertile valleys into deserts; millions left their villages for the cities, Pakistan, or Iran. But to a large extent, these wars have illustrated once again the resistance of rural Afghanistan to central rule.
Afghanistan’s borderlands are an extreme illustration of this governance challenge: border residents tend to have stronger economic and cultural ties with people across the border than with Kabul. And yet, these areas play a central role in the security and economy of the country. Border security is inseparable from the larger war effort, as insurgents take advantage of porous borders and kinship networks to take refuge in neighboring countries.
The borders are also vital to the Afghan economy. Customs duties are the most important single source of government revenue after foreign aid. Despite significant improvements in customs collection since 2015, considerable leakage persists because of insecurity, entrenched corruption, and insufficient processing points along thousands of miles of permeable borders. Security dynamics and cross-border trade are interrelated in complex ways. In his 2000 book, Taliban, Ahmed Rashid exposed the role of Quetta’s trucking mafia in financing the expansion of the fundamentalist movement in the mid-90s. Insurgents levy taxes on trafficking and trade in areas that they control.
In border regions, a vast share of the local population makes a living from legal trade, smuggling, or the grey area in between. A 2019 study by The Asia Foundation looked into livelihoods and trade in the districts of Spin Boldak, in Kandahar province, and Muhmand Dara, in Nangarhar province. The two busiest official crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Torkham and Wesh-Chaman, are located in these districts. Torkham links Kabul to Peshawar via the Khyber Pass; Wesh-Chaman connects Kandahar to Quetta. A representative survey in these districts found that two-thirds of respondents had crossed the border at least once in the past year, and nearly one in five was conducting regular business with Pakistan residents other than family. A large majority reported that their community (71 percent) or their household (56 percent) depended on such trade for their economic welfare, and 47 percent depended on it for their own occupation. The study paints a picture of large traders and smuggling barons profiting most from business opportunities and ineffective border controls, while many more earn a modest living as truck drivers and cargo handlers, or by transporting licit and illicit goods along local trails.
From the perspective of local residents, the border is an artificial line that divides families but also provides economic opportunity. Although they acknowledge the contribution of porous borders to national insecurity, border residents do not see lax controls as a threat to their own safety. Instead, they worry about the impact of tighter controls on their lifestyle and livelihoods. In the past few years, a series of measures by Pakistan have drastically limited their traditional freedom of movement. These measures include fencing the border, establishing additional security posts, and requiring incoming Afghans to show proper passport and visa documents. (Previously, border tribes were allowed to cross without them.) Pakistan has also occasionally closed the border, sometimes for days or weeks at a stretch, usually in response to security incidents.
From the perspective of Pakistan, these measures are part of a legitimate effort to enforce border security, curb smuggling, and boost legal bilateral trade. The goal is to encourage people and goods to pass through official border crossings, where they can be more easily controlled and taxed. Security measures such as the border fence are combined with positive incentives: in September, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the 24/7 opening of the Torkham gate, which used to be closed at night. This measure was intended to reduce the long wait times at the border, a major grievance of Afghans trading fresh produce. Afghans say delays persist despite Khan’s initiative, and it remains to be seen whether these policies will have the intended long-term effects. One way or another, they will durably affect the vast majority of border residents whose livelihoods, and often healthcare or education, have long been dependent on their ability to cross into Pakistan.
Why does this matter for peace? Western commentators have focused on geopolitics and ideology to explain past and current Afghan wars. Tamim Ansary and Ahmed Rashid remind us, however, that the rise of the Taliban in the 90s was not just a religious reaction to the instability and insecurity of the Afghan civil war; it was also a revolt of southern tribes rooted in historical grievances and a sense of marginalization. Improving border management and the rule of law in border regions might be a legitimate goal, but unless the needs of local populations are taken into account, such efforts may feed a fresh cycle of frustration and sow mistrust in the benefits of peace.
Last year, U.S.-Taliban peace talks raised hopes for an agreement on a political process to end the war. It remains unclear whether the talks will resume, and if they do there is no guarantee that they will succeed. Nonetheless, key governance issues that have been pushed aside by the war will eventually reclaim their place in the Afghan public debate: What role for the central state in border regions? How to protect borders against traffickers and insurgents and improve customs revenues without hurting livelihoods and fueling local grievances?
These are questions that The Asia Foundation wants to help answer. Over the next four years, our offices in Afghanistan and Pakistan will undertake joint research to document changes in policy and other conditions along the border and their favorable or adverse effects on local livelihoods, trade, and security. This work will be done through the X-Border Local Research Network, a partnership with the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Rift Valley Institute, supported by DFID, to study conflict-affected borderlands in Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa and suggest more effective responses from the international community and national governments. Our research this year will focus on how border residents on either side adjust to tighter border controls. Future studies may look at the integration of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bilateral trade, and other relevant topics. Stay tuned for updates on this work by visiting the X-Border Local Research Network webpage.
Adrian Morel is associate director for conflict and fragility in The Asia Foundation’s Program Specialists Group. He can be reached at [email protected]. This essay is adapted from an article published previously in Peripheral Vision. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation or the UK government.
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