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EDITORIAL: It was a deeply saddening incident that took place at the Chaman border crossing with Afghanistan last Thursday, causing avoidable loss of life and unnecessary exchange of accusations between Islamabad and Kabul. According to press reports, the trouble started when an unruly mob protesting against restrictions on border crossing due to Covid-19 pandemic attacked the Frontier Corps office and a quarantine centre, resulting in the death of four people. The Foreign Office (FO) in Islamabad later explained that cross-border trade was allowed on the Afghan government's request, and that "due to Eidul Azha, pedestrians' movement was also allowed. People gathered for this purpose were deliberately targeted by Afghan forces for incomprehensible reasons." Afghan media report too said that the Afghan forces acted while the unrest was happening on the Pakistani side. The authorities there though claimed that 15 lives were lost in Spin Boldak due to shelling from the other side. Whatever triggered the firing, the unfortunately reality is that it resulted in several causalities on both sides.

Provocative behaviour by the Afghan security forces is not something new, though this time the loss to life and infrastructure is too high. In fact, relations between the two countries have always been problematic. The present incident is linked to Pakistan's efforts to secure the 2, 430 kilometer long porous border by constructing a fence, disapproved by the Kabul government. It has been designed mainly to stop TTP terrorists - according to a recent UN report 6000 to 6,500 of them are present in Afghanistan - from launching cross-border attacks into this country. Besides regulating movement of people through designated entry points, it is also to channelize bilateral trade through legal means which, as the FO averred, is being challenged by elements opposed to such control. Smuggling being a big business in that region, those having a stake in the activity seem to be willing to go to any lengths to exacerbate tensions between the two countries. Also at play is an element of mutual distrust, some of it rooted in history and some related to recent events. But neither country can afford confrontation because of ethnic bonds, shared culture and geography, as well as economic interests. As a neighbour of that landlocked country, Pakistan facilitates Afghan transit trade through good times and bad.

Bilateral relations have improved considerably during the last year and months because of the positive role played by this country in the Afghan peace process. Several high-level civil and military exchanges have taken place. Yet border management remains troublesome. A proper border security mechanism needs to be put in place to deal with situations like the present one. Notably, the FO disclosed that military and diplomatic channels were used to defuse the situation, and that the military engagement ended after "hectic efforts." The same efforts need to be consolidated in a formal, durable arrangement. Kabul may be uncooperative at this point, but perseverance could help.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020