Borders in 2019 do not just represent territorial frontiers but are sites where ideas of nationalism are performed on a daily basis. Taking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as an example Sanaa Alimia (Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin) looks at how the introduction of ID cards has come to symbolise more than just the the control of a border.
Walls. Fences. Checkpoints. These are the images that spring to mind when we think about the border. Donald Trump, Viktor Orbàn, the rise of the far Right, and, crucially, the mainstreaming of anti-immigration policies by centrist parties means a rise in the number of border walls and fences in the world. South Asia has not escaped this trend – although European colonialism and an acrimonious independence and partition has meant borders have always been securitised. But today it is not the famous India-Pakistan border, home to military confrontation and Bollywood epics, that is the focus. Now attention is on the borders between India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has started to construct a wired border fence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, commonly called the Durand Line. So far one third of the 2,640 kilometre border has been completed. The fence is just one of the ways in which Pakistan is trying to make the border more secure.
Today the nature of borders has changed because of new technologies and processes of globalisation. The border is not just found at the territorial frontier. It is in inner city airports, carried on identity (ID) cards, and tied to the body via biometric data. In addition, scholars show that the border (and thereby sovereignty) needs to be “performed” repeatedly through a series of acts. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan case, border skirmishes, jingoistic nationalism at cricket matches, and tense diplomacy have all reared their head. But for Pakistan, since the 2000s, two things have been particularly important: extending political control in the border regions and control over the approximately two-to-three million Afghans living in the country.
In 2018 the writ of the state was, finally, fully extended to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This however, has little to do with development and democratisation. In fact the tireless work by grassroots activists from FATA has been met with state violence – just take a look at the treatment of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Instead reform in FATA is about overdue state and border-making process that gained urgency because of the “War on Terror” (WOT) and with the resurfacing of the denial of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by Afghan leaders.
Prior to 2018, draconian colonial era “tribal” laws governed FATA. Aside from normalising human rights violations and stunting development, it made the border a formality rather than a lived reality. Interstate tensions aside, Pakistan never really saw the need to change the status of this fluid border region. Effectively, since the 1893 Durand Line agreement between British India and Afghanistan, FATA was a geographic buffer zone. At key junctures this special status has been used for the state’s military/security interests, most notably in the Soviet-Afghan War, which was supported by the U.S., and later to support the Taliban and other selected Islamists.
But in 2001, when Pakistan sided with the U.S. in the “War on Terror,” (WOT) geopolitical interests were reconfigured. As the war in Afghanistan bled into Pakistan the fluid border became a nuisance. Under pressure from the U.S., the state engaged in military operations and U.S.-led drone strikes in FATA to try to get control – although this confusedly required Pakistan to take action against some of its current/former Islamist protégés. Following this, the next step has been political reform in FATA.
In addition, since the mid-2000s Pakistan started to meticulously enumerate how many Afghans are living in the country with the goal of enabling/ enforcing repatriation to Afghanistan. Since the modern state is defined by a relationship between population, territory, and sovereignty, knowing who is present and having a control over their mobility is central to its functioning and showing if its borders work. Historically, population transfer, forced migration, defections, and genocide have been central to state and border making/ remaking – think Israel/Palestine, Greece/ Turkey, post-World War I and II Europe, and, of course, India/ Pakistan.
When it came to Afghans, however, Pakistan had a problem. The country has been home to millions of Afghans since the 1970s and 1980s (when they were welcome), but the state’s paper registration system was glaringly inaccurate. To counter this, in 2005 Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) carried out a nationwide census of Afghans. In October 2006 and February 2007 this was followed with an introduction of a biometric computerised card, the Afghan Citizen Proof of Registration (POR) card. Later, in July 2017, an ID card and registration program for Pakistan’s undocumented Afghans, the Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) was rolled out with the support of the International Organization of Migration (IOM). Pakistan also introduced a computerised biometric ID card for its own citizens, the Computerised National ID card (CNIC) and there have been various unsuccessful attempts to register undocumented migrants in Karachi, including Bangladeshi and Burmese nationals.
The government says the POR and ACC cards are about improving the management of Afghans in Pakistan. In part this is true; ID cards are meant to make the delivery of rights and services easier. But the undeniable main role of the Afghan ID cards is to enable return to Afghanistan. The card is the lynchpin of the repatriation programs that form heart of Pakistan’s Afghan refugee management policy.
Pakistan has been here before. Regimes of documentation and surveillance were used to control mobility across borders and thus make and remake Pakistan’s borders.
Historian Vazira Fazali-Yaqoobali Zamindar shows how The India-Pakistan border was not simply defined by a “moment of arrival” in August 1947, with both countries territorial borders emerging as fully formed. Instead, independence and partition unfolded over a period of years (“the long partition”) that required the control of population movement through permits (1948), passports (1952), and the surveillance of refugee camps. Even today, there are firm restrictions on visas issued to Indian citizens and Indian citizens who are granted entry to the country are often placed under surveillance; the converse applies to Pakistanis in India.
Meanwhile in 1971 Pakistan’s eastern wing separated to become an independent Bangladesh. Following this, in 1973 the National Registration Act led to the introduction of the paper-based national identity card (NIC) for all citizens. The NIC was one tool (amongst others) to meet delineate lines between the new/geographically remade Pakistani state and its former territory (now Bangladesh) and its populations.
Today, I contend, it is the turn of Afghans and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border via the mix of the national roll out of the POR, ACC, and CNIC cards.
This is also being achieved with other, unforeseen impacts of the ID card. Inadvertently ID cards have made state-led harassment of Afghans (and marginalised Pakistanis) much easier. Profiling by law-enforcement officers is not new; the police in Pakistan have a terrible reputation. But now the ID card, which is in widespread use, flags up and/or confirms your identity / legal status.
For Afghans these violations, however, appears to have a darker undertone. Human rights reports show that since the mid-2000s, Afghans are routinely targeted for physical and verbal abuse, individual and mass detention, and even deportation. This violence, aided by ID cards, is the unspoken – and publically denied – coercive part of Pakistan’s repatriation policy for its Afghan population. Repeated acts of violence create emotional responses in those who are its target. Fear. Humiliation. Discomfort. It leads to a change in behaviour, namely millions of Afghans leaving the neighbourhoods in towns and cities across Pakistan that have been their homes for some 30 to 40 years.
This blog post was adapted from Alimia’s recent article “Performing the Afghanistan–Pakistan Border Through Refugee ID Cards,” Geopolitics, 24: 2 (2019), 391-425.
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Sanaa Alimia is a Research Fellow at the Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.