The Gates of Friendship: How Afghans cross the Afghan-Pakistani border

By: Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

There are three official crossings on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a boundary also known as the Durand Line. Two of these crossings are well-known: Torkham in the east and Spin Boldak in the south of Afghanistan. The gates that separate the two countries in the south read “the Gates of Friendship” in Pashto: “De dosti darwaza.” To cross this border in the past, all people usually did not need international legal documents such as a visa or even a passport. This has changed. At Torkham, people are no longer allowed to cross the border without legal documents. At Spin Boldak, a verbal agreement with the Pakistani border authorities still allows people to cross the border without a passport, but they often do so with difficulty. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon looks at how the people of these two countries cross these “Gates of Friendship” and how this friendship is really considered.
Border history
Disagreement over the status of the border has been a recurring problem in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, one on which neither side wants to compromise. The de facto border that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan – the Durand Line – was drawn based on an agreement signed in 1893 between Abdul Rahman Khan, the emir of Afghanistan and Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat representing British India. Based on this agreement, Afghanistan’s territorial claims on the area from Chitral to the present-day area of Balochistan were ceded to British India.
In 1947 when the British left the subcontinent and Pakistan came into being, Khyber Pashtunkhwa (also sometimes spelt as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the current Balochistan province were given to Pakistan. The government of Afghanistan at that time did not recognise the new state of Pakistan and Shah Mahmud Khan, the prime minister of Afghanistan, voted against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations. The government of Afghanistan continued to claim Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan as its own territory. Government officials argued that since the 1893 agreement had been with the British, who had now left the area, it was no longer in force. (Later Afghan governments have argued that the Durand Line agreement was entered into for a period of one hundred years only; and on 26 July 1949, a Loya Jirga declared all previous agreements regarding the Durand Line void.)
Since then, none of the Afghan governments has recognised the Durand Line as an official international border, nor has the Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups living on either side of the Durand. Two well-known Pashtun leaders – Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan (1890–1988), who is also known as Bacha Khan and Fakhr-e Afghan (Afghans’ pride), and the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ in the West, due to his non-violent struggle against British colonialism as the head of the Khudai Khedmatgaran (God’s Servants) movement that was allied with Gandhi’s Congress Party, and Khan Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai (1907–73), also a Khudai Khedmatgaran leader, who is also known as Khan Shahid – led the struggle to create a united country. They considered Khyber Pashtunkhwa and Balochistan as Afghan soil. The government of Pakistan, for its part, considers the Durand Line the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Neither side has been willing to compromise on the issue. Even the government of the Taleban, which Pakistan had officially recognised and which was considered very close to the Pakistan government, did not accept the Durand Line as an official border. (1)
The Afghanistan-Pakistan border regime
The Durand Line is almost 2,400 kilometres long and borders one-third of the provinces of Afghanistan. It has three official border crossings that have all the border crossing essentials, such as immigration, customs and security checkpoints: Torkham, Spin Boldak and Ghulam Khan. The Spin Boldak border crossing in the south connects the southern Kandahar province of Afghanistan with Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, via the Khojak pass. The Torkham border crossing links Jalalabad city, the capital of the eastern Nangrahar province, with Peshawar through Momand Dara district and the Khyber Pass. The Ghulam Khan border crossing connects Gurbaz district of the eastern Khost province to Meranshah city, the capital of North Waziristan.
Additionally, there are 18 unofficial motorable crossings and around 235 crossings that are navigable only on foot or by animal, some only with difficulty (see our analysis here). Motor crossings include Nawapas in Momand Dara district of Nangrahar province, Angur Ada in Barmal district of Paktika province, Barikot in Narai and Khash pass in Marawara districts of Kunur province, Jaji Maidan in Jaji Maidan district of Khost province and Zanzir in Shumulzai district of Zabul province.
The Durand Line cuts through two large ethnic groups – the Pashtuns and the Baloch – that have always sought to maintain their cross-border links and have argued their right to free travel. Afghan citizens in general travel in large numbers to Pakistan. According to Afghan officials in Spin Boldak, tens of thousands of people commute through the southern border crossing on a daily basis. A survey report published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2017 gave 20,000 per day for Torkham and 25,000 to 30,000 for Spin Boldak. Many Afghans cross for work or business. Others go to see their relatives, as millions of Afghan refugees still live in Pakistan, or travel to Pakistan for medical treatment or education. In addition, Pakistani businessmen and daily workers commute to Afghanistan on a daily basis, as thousands of Pakistani residents from Chaman district, located near the border, have shops and other businesses in Spin Boldak. Those who cross sometimes do not even carry identification. “Tens of thousands of people from every province of the country cross the Spin Boldak border on a daily basis without legal documents and 500 to 600 people cross this border with visa and passport,” Muhammad Sharif Gharzai, a border commissary in Spin Boldak, told AAN on 7 January 2020.
The Pakistani government has over the past years sought to strengthen its control over the border. It has, at different times, either closed the border or tightened the border crossing rules for Afghans, especially after major security incidents in Pakistan or whenever Pakistan is politically pressured by Afghanistan or the United States over its interference in Afghanistan’s affairs or for giving refuge to terrorist-designated groups. Rules for Afghans crossing the border, for instance, became very strict after the Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) attacked a cadet school in Peshawar in late 2014 in which nearly 141 cadets were killed (see media report here). After this incident, the government of Pakistan gradually tightened border security and did not allow people to cross the Torkham border without legal documents. Before this, people were crossing the border to Pakistan and back to Afghanistan without identification. The Pakistani government also closed one of the official border crossings – Ghulam Khan – during its June 2014 Zarb-e Azb military operation in North Waziristan. The operation was launched in the wake of an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi that was claimed by TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). (The route through Ghulam Khan remained closed for four years. In 2018 it was reopened for limited trade, and on 19 August 2019 this port was officially reopened for all trade, as well as for personal crossings. See this report)
In early 2017, Pakistan started fencing the border with barbed wire along the Durand Line, stating that this tactic was aimed at stopping cross-border terrorists entering into Pakistan. Both the Afghan government and the Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups strongly opposed the move. (2) Before this, Pakistan had already started to plant landmines along the Durand Line, which Pakistan said was to stop terrorists from coming to that country to carry out attacks. The United Nations and the Afghan government both strongly opposed the deployment of landmines. Pakistan has also dug trenches that are three metres deep, three to four metres wide and topped by barbed wire (see Dawn’s reporting here). The fencing construction by the Pakistanis along the Durand Line has several times led to clashes between Afghan border police and Pakistani troops. Despite the controversy, the government of Pakistan said in January 2019 that 900 kilometres of barbed wire had been extended so far. In early November 2019, the Pakistani government said that it expected the fencing and trenches to be completed by the end of 2020.
Clashes have, in turn, regularly resulted in border closures. This was for instance the case in March 2017, when Afghan border police stopped Pakistani officials who were conducting a (Pakistani) population registration survey on Afghan territory, in the Jangir and Loqman villages of Spin Boldak district. After this turned into an armed clash, inflicting casualties on both sides, the Spin Boldak and Torkham borders were closed for nearly 23 days (see media report here). Similarly, on 14 October 2018, when Afghan security forces stopped Pakistani forces from extending the barbed wire fence into the Sro Sahanoarea of Shorabak district, clashes ensued.
To be continued
In response, Pakistani officials closed the Spin Boldak border, even though Shorabak district is nearly 50 kilometres from the Spin Boldak crossing. The border remained closed for two days (see media report here). (See also this 2013 AAN report about Afghan-Pakistani tensions over the border in Nangrahar province.)
The installation of the fence has blocked all motorable unofficial border crossings. The Pakistani government has repeatedly said that it will install alternative crossings. Local residents have confirmed that the Pakistani government has indeed installed alternative gates, for example in Nawapas and Zanzirs, but they say it is not yet permitting people to cross – with the exception, allegedly, of the Taleban. A local journalist in Nangrahar province, who did not want to be named, told AAN in December 2019 that the Pakistani militia does open the gates for the Taleban when they need to cross the border. All indications are that this is part of an official policy of the Pakistani government to facilitate the movement of the Taleban, who have sanctuaries in Pakistan as well as rented hospitals for their wounded fighters in some major cities of Pakistan, for example in Quetta and Karachi. (3)
How do the people commute?
In June 2016, the Pakistani government started enacting stricter border control efforts in both Spin Boldak and Torkham (Ghulam Khan was closed at the time). In Torkham, travellers without a visa were no longer allowed to cross the border in either direction. In Spin Boldak, legal documents were still not necessary, but border crossing rules were tightened. For example, no Afghans were allowed to cross the border without an Afghan national ID. According to a 2017 IOM survey report, the Pakistani actions reduced the traffic through the Torkham border crossing from 20,000 on a daily basis to a mere 2,000 to 2,500 persons. The IOM report also stated that at Spin Boldak, border rules were more flexible and around 25,000 to 30,000 individuals still crossed this border on daily basis. (See IOM’s report here.)

At the Ghulam Khan border point, now that it is open again, only people from the three southeastern provinces – Paktia, Paktika and Khost – are allowed to cross with their tazkeras (national ID card),provided they have relatives living across the Durand Line. They must give the names and places of residency of their relatives, after which the Pakistani border authorities register the names and allow them to cross.

Some people of Chaman district (Pakistan) and Spin Boldak district (Afghanistan) are provided with a simple document by the Pakistani government called a “border pass.” These passes are issued at the border. Travellers do not need to apply; they merely show their national IDs to the Pakistani border police and are provided with these passes. However, sometimes when travellers do not possess a border pass they are allowed to cross without them. The pass is valid for three months and renewable.

According to Afghan officials, as well as travellers who have gone to Quetta and returned, Pakistani officials in Spin Boldak nowadays only accept a certain type of original Afghan identification card (the most recent tazkera in A-4 size) or a passport. They do not allow people to pass with other kind of ID cards. However, Afghans without the required ID are still sometimes allowed to pass after they pay a bribe.

On 27 December 2018, a journalist who worked for a local radio station in Kandahar province told AAN, on the condition of anonymity, “Nearly ten years ago, I was working with an international media NGO. My office had issued me an ID card, which read PRESS at the top. I had that card with me for nearly two years. When I had to go to Quetta, I took that card with me. By showing that card to the Pakistani police, I was able to cross the border.” But now, he said, he needs to show his Afghan national ID card. Once when he was going to Quetta, he only had a copy of his national identity card with him and the Pakistani police told him to turn back. Some young men standing close to the border crossing called him over. “They asked me to give them 1,000 rupees [around seven US dollars]),” the journalist said. “I was sure those young men were linked to the police, as I was already aware of this, as the people who had crossed this border had already told me about them. I gave them the money and they told the police, ‘he is sick, let him pass’, and then they let me cross through the gate.” This man said at many other places he had also paid money to the police to be allowed to cross.

Muhammad Hashem, a traveller from Kandahar, told AAN, “When I went to Quetta to see my relatives, I had my original ID card (A-4 size) with me. When the police asked me for the tazkera, I showed that and the police allowed me to pass the border.” Two of the men who were with him in the vehicle from Kandahar told him, after they met again inside the terminal, that they had needed to give money to the police. He said one of the two passengers had a passport and another had a tazkera, but it had been issued during President Daud Khan’s era (1973–78).

Nur Khan, another Afghan, told AAN in October 2018 that when he went to Pakistan to see his relatives, he had crossed the border easily, as he had his tazkera with him. However, when he came back with his sister and her children, he realised he had forgotten his tazkera in Pakistan. The policeman told him to return. Nur Khan said, “I asked him what alternatives there were to cross the border. I meant for them to ask for money, so I could pay them, but he told me to be careful, as cameras were fixed nearby. After about 15 minutes, he let me go. I think it was because of the children, otherwise I would probably not have been able to come back.” Many other people told AAN that the Pakistani police in practice allow people to cross the border without documents, or without the proper documents, after they pay a bribe.

Apart from the gate at the border, checkpoints mark the road from Chaman to Quetta in as many as six different places where police take money from Afghans travelling to Quetta. Often even visa and passport holders who travel through the Spin Boldak border are compelled to give money to the Pakistani police on the road from the Spin Boldak border into Quetta city.

Different forms of national identity cards

The different forms of national Afghan identity card are a source of confusion and hassle. Afghans can have one of the more than five different identity cards that have been issued in the different eras. ID cards issued during the rule of King Muhammad Zaher Shah and Prime Minister (and later President) Muhammad Daud are passport sized and read “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” next to a logo. This ID comprises 14 pages. The IDs issued during pre-Najibullah PDPA era (1979-87) are also passport sized but with red colour (for communism) and read at the top “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.” The ID issued in the era of the mujahedin government (1992–96) was also passport sized, again reading “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” During the Taleban regime, there were two kinds of tazkeras: one in passport size and the second on A-4 sized paper. The second one was issued right up until the Taleban’s collapse. The Taleban tazkera reads “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The current government also gave out A-4 sized ID documents. The most recent kind of ID card is an electronic version that the current government started issuing to residents of Kabul in May 2018 in a process that continues (see earlier AAN reporting here).

Pakistani border police take advantage of this situation. Sharif Gharzai, the border commissary mentioned above, told AAN in October 2018 that Pakistani officials pretend they accept only one tazkera. In response, in October 2018, a high-ranking Pakistani official in the embassy of Pakistan in Kabul, told AAN, on the condition of anonymity, “Pakistan is a different country and Afghanistan is a different country; the people who cross the border should have legal documents.” He added that as there was a concern about the different types of identity card. Afghan officials should give samples of all valid identity cards to the Pakistani border police. The official said, “At the Torkham border, we do not let Afghans cross the border without passport. In Spin Boldak, we have given this [that they are allowed to cross with only an ID card] as a special concession to the Afghans so that they can cross the border. We will soon implement the visa rules and regulations in Spin Boldak as well.” Well over a year later, this has still not been implemented.

In August 2019, Afghan border official Gharzai told AAN that a few months earlier the Pakistani authorities had said that only the people of the four southern provinces (Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Urozgan) would be allowed to cross the border without documents, and that by August they were saying that only people from Kandahar province and Spin Boldak district would be permitted to pass – this despite the fact that people from other parts of Afghanistan (such as Herat, Farah and Nimroz in the west, and Ghazni and Wardak in central Afghanistan) also go through this border. But for now, he said on 7 January 2020, “Pakistani officials have been allowing Afghans to cross the border with any kind of tazkera ID card for the last three months.” He said that tens of thousands of people still cross the border on a daily basis and that around 500 to 600 individuals cross the border per day with legal documents. According to him, “the Pakistani border police sometimes bother the visa holders as well and take money from them. When we [Afghan officials] hear about this, or when travellers complain that the Pakistanis have taken money, we talk to Pakistani officials and take the money back.” Gharzai said that although Pakistani officials still take money from those who do not have tazkeras, he thought it happened less now compared to the past. He did not say why the Pakistani government had eased the way for travellers to cross the border.

In January 2020, AAN approached travellers who had recently crossed the border, as well as residents of Kandahar province, for an update on the situation. One traveller, Asadullah Khan, told AAN that when he recently returned from Quetta to Kandahar, he did not have his tazkera with him. A Pakistani police officer did not let him cross the border and Asadullah said he quarrelled with the officer, asking him why he did not let him return to his own country. Asadullah said the police officer beat him and searched him. He had 40,000 rupees (around 300 US dollars) with him and when the police officer saw the money in his pocket, “he told me to go with him to a nearby container. When I went with him, he told me that I should give him 10,000 Rupees [around 65 US dollars] or he would put me in prison. I was very afraid so I gave him the money.” Asadullah said that when he crossed the border, he told the story to the Afghan police standing near the gate. He said, “The Afghan police told me to wait for one hour and that they would take the money back from the Pakistanis, but I didn’t want to wait.”

Muhammad Ebrahim Taj, a civil society activist in Spin Boldak district confirmed to AAN that the Pakistani border officials had somewhat eased the border crossing for travellers, but he said that the police still took money from travellers. He thought there were two reasons for Pakistani officials easing the crossings: First, Pakistani shopkeepers with shops in Spin Boldak had staged protests in Chaman district, demanding that their government facilitate the border crossings. Apparently, the Afghan government had also pressured these shopkeepers to seek redress from Pakistani officials. Second, the Afghan government had expelled many Pakistanis (mostly Punjabis) who had come to Kandahar city and Spin Boldak district, with legal documents, to work there – in the construction business but also as barbers, shopkeepers or businessmen, sharing shops with Afghans or Pashtun residents from the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. He said these two pressure tools may have made the Pakistanis ease the border crossings to some extent.

Temporary verbal agreements

The border crossing issues along the Durand Line are the kind that would be best addressed with a permanent, bilateral agreement. The freedom to travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a social and economic necessity. People of these two countries are ethnically, religiously and historically interlinked. An additional consideration, at a lower economic level, is the importance of border crossings for the poor and vulnerable (eg, for shuttle trading, visiting relatives or medical treatment). At the Torkham crossing, the legal document requirements now result in weeks-long travel delays, as Afghans have to wait for their visas. If this visa system is implemented at the Spin Boldak border crossing as well, this will require a huge increase in the number of Pakistani consular employees to deal with the demand. Travellers would need to wait for weeks in front of the Pakistani consulate in Kandahar, just as they are now waiting in front of the Pakistani embassy in Kabul.

An additional complication arises for women and children, as the majority of them do not possess identity cards, due to some Afghan families traditionally not allowing pictures of women taken (keeping their faces from being exposed to strangers). Also, these men might not have considered the need for identification cards for the entire family.

Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan wants the border to be sealed permanently; nor do they want the crossings to become practically impassable. Both sides have an obvious incentive to meet and find a permanent solution to this issue. And yet, neither government has been able to find such a solution.

In practice, the agreements tend to be verbal and made on an ad hoc basis. Sharif Gharzai, for instance, told AAN that border officials of both sides had made a verbal – but not written – agreement in July 2018 that all Afghans and Pakistanis can cross the Spin Boldak border with just their national identity cards. He said that these kinds of meeting take place whenever it is necessary. Gharzai said the Afghan central government does not allow him to make written agreements about the border crossings with Pakistani officials. Although he did not say why he was not allowed to do this, an Afghan government official in the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, who did want his name published, explained. He told AAN that the government of Afghanistan is wary that Pakistan might treat any signed agreement related to the border or border crossings as an Afghan recognition of the Durand Line as an official border. All in all, there appears to be no clear roadmap to a settlement on the various issues that restrict cross-border journeys for Afghans.

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