Islamabad has long struggled to govern its 2,430-kilometer (1,510-mile) border with Afghanistan, known as the Durand Line, which stretches through the Pashtun tribal heartland from Peshawar to Kabul. At times, it has even kept its northwestern border intentionally porous as a way to project power into Afghanistan. For much of the past two decades, however, the permeable boundary has been more of a security liability than a strategic asset.
Taliban and al Qaeda militants took advantage of the lax border security after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, slipping across the Durand Line to regroup in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Eventually, the militants integrated themselves into the region's Pashtun tribal networks and began launching attacks on Pakistani soil and claiming territory in the tribal areas. Islamabad responded with operations against the militants in Wana, South Waziristan, in March 2004. The war that ensued between the Pakistani army and what later became the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militant group continues to this day, though terrorist attacks have become less frequent since 2014.
But Islamabad must prevent militants from crossing its border with Afghanistan in the first place. Consequently, the government recently redoubled efforts to enforce visa and passport requirements at Torkham, the busiest crossing point for people and cargo along the Durand Line. Islamabad also dug a ditch, 4.26 meters wide and 3.35 meters deep, down Balochistan's 1,100-kilometer border. The intent is to eventually extend the ditch along the length of the Durand Line.
These measures will not be enough to secure the border with Afghanistan, though. Torkham is just one of a handful of official border crossings. There are an estimated 340 illegal crossings and countless untold paths through the mountains. The Pakistani government would be hard-pressed to devote the manpower necessary to secure every possible point of entry, even with its formidable army.
Islamabad's war on militancy has also displaced nearly 1 million people from the tribal areas. Repatriating that many people will be not only logistically challenging but also costly, requiring substantial foreign investment to rebuild homes, schools and roads in the war-torn region. The tribes themselves are ethnic groups that have historically resisted outside authority. Disagreements over whether to submit to Islamabad's rule are likely to arise among and within them.
The Pakistani government has many security problems to contend with. But recent attempts to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, an endeavor supported by several major political parties and the military, may be able to finally bring the restive tribal region under Pakistani rule. At least, that's what Islamabad hopes for.