Pakistani forces hope for help to plug holes in border

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 December, 2003, 12:00am

Day after day, Major Mohammad Ibrahim takes up his post at the new Friendship Gate that demarcates the official Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing at Chaman, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.

Before his watchful eye, waves of donkey carts, horse carriages, trucks, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and people kick up huge clouds of dust as they wind their way through barbed-wire enclosures and checkpoints recently erected by the Pakistani army.

The pressure is high on Pakistan to prevent Taleban and al-Qaeda fugitives from using the country's territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan. 'It gets a little crazy around here sometimes,' Major Ibrahim says. 'You need very strong nerves.'

In this corner of arid Baluchistan, which is adjacent to the Taleban strongholds of Kandahar and Spin Boldak, up to 10,000 people cross the border every day.

'We have done what we can with the available resources, but we definitely need more assistance to maintain and increase our effectiveness,' says General Sadaqat Ali Shah, Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps.

The corps guards the 1,200km border with Afghanistan - inhabited by fiercely independent Pashtun tribesmen and traditionally a 'no-go' area for government forces. Long-established smuggling routes are still used to ferry men, weapons, drugs, and 'tax free' items across the border.

The Pakistani response to criticism from Kabul and Washington over the porous border, which intelligence officials believe is used by Taleban and al-Qaeda forces with impunity, has seen a drastic increase in security.

In Baluchistan, there are now 20,000 to 25,000 personnel on duty at any given time - on top of the approximately 40,000 troops in the adjacent Northwest Frontier Province - manning 307 check posts that were built in the past year.

A year ago, this area was a welcomingly wide open wasteland, through which people crossed unhindered. Now it is a complicated series of barbed-wire passages and security checks. A 50km, three-metre-high, mud wall with barbed wire has also been built.

In the past three months, 3,000 people have been detained trying to cross over illegally. Another 3,000 have been held with forged documents.

'There is an entire industry on both sides producing fake cards, so no one would be surprised if some are still slipping by,' said one Frontier Corps captain.

Meanwhile, the US has granted US$2 million to Pakistan to strengthen border security. Outposts are being built every 800 to 1,000 metres. 'The aid has certainly reinforced our capacity, but we will need more help to maintain the pace of the operation,' said General Shah.

That help, according to Defence Ministry officials, may soon be on the way. In addition to a promised US$1.5 billion weapons grant, officials say the Bush administration has now pledged to help upgrade Pakistan's ailing fleet of F-16 jets and provide more surveillance equipment as part of a new security package.

'There are 101 places to hide goods in a truck, and with the amount of traffic and lack of equipment, we just can't catch everything,' said one corps official.