By Rashid Khattak
While the media have understandably been focused on parliamentary elections in Pakistan in recent weeks, including the campaign violence in the run-up to Saturday's vote, the bigger threat to long-term stability in the region may be the ongoing border skirmishes between that country and Afghanistan.
"Dozens of people are killed and injured every day in bomb blasts and attacks on election rallies and public meetings in Pakistan. It is the first priority of media to cover these incidents," said Riaz Khan, an Islamabad-based journalist. "In such a situation, border clashes with Afghanistan become a news story of page three, especially in Urdu newspapers. However, the news is published on the back page in English newspapers."
Part of the problem is logistics, Khan said. "Pakistani media organizations don't have correspondents in the border area and they have to rely on the reports released by different Western news agencies," he said.
One example of the tensions between the two countries occurred on May 2, when Afghan and Pakistani forces exchanged fire over a border gate in the Goshta district of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. An Afghan soldier was killed and two Pakistani soldiers were injured in the seven-hour clash.
The Afghan government accused Pakistan of establishing an outpost on its soil, while Pakistan accused Afghanistan of launching an unprovoked attack.
The more than 1,600-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is known as the Durand Line, and it is often described as one of the world's most dangerous regions. It is named for Mortimer Durand, a British official in India who cut a deal with Afghan monarch Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893. They agreed that neither party would exercise its power beyond the line. Some historians suggest it was never intended as a boundary demarcating sovereignty, but a line of control beyond which both sides agreed not to interfere.
After becoming a state in 1947, Pakistan inherited the Durand Line, and it considers the line its international border, but successive governments in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, have refused to accept it as an official boundary. Issues old and new continue to cause tensions on the line.
"The expected withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 is one of the reasons behind the border clashes," said Khan. He predicted that relations between the two countries would further deteriorate after the withdrawal.
Four days after the initial clash over a security gate, border forces of both the countries were at it again. Some Afghans alleged that Pakistan set up an outpost in Afghanistan to trigger a confrontation, hoping to take the issue of the Durand Line to the United Nations and have it declared an international border.
Najib Amir, a Prague-based Afghan journalist, says Pakistan has a regular presence across the line, and usually faces no resistance.
"Pakistan ... has even issued Pakistani national identity cards to Afghans in some border areas," Amir said. "But this is the first time that Pakistan is facing such stiff resistance from Afghanistan. It shows that something new is in the offing."
And the clashes are uniting the otherwise fractious Afghans, he said. Several anti-Pakistan demonstrations were held recently in cities across Afghanistan, one of them turning violent. Afghans are even beginning to respect their security forces and police as a result of actions on the border.
In the long term, Amir says, "These sentiments will harm Taliban insurgents."
However, like Khan, Amir also worries that tensions will increase between Pakistan and Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces. "I fear that Pakistan will increase interference in Afghanistan [and] that will trigger clashes," Amir said.
Both Amir and Khan agreed, though, that the Pakistanis may not be able to dominate border disagreements as they have in the past. The Afghan army is becoming stronger with each passing day, and also becoming more difficult to defeat.