Building walls will not keep ethnic or economic 'threats' at bay: Dawn columnist

A Trump supporter with a sign reading "Pres. Trump Build That Wall" in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, on March 12, 2017.
A Trump supporter with a sign reading "Pres. Trump Build That Wall" in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, on March 12, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Ideas and hopes germinate in the West and are ploughed back into the ground as interests dictate.

Only a few years ago, politicians and humanists were singing merry songs of globalisation. That Earth was, after all, the heritage of common humanity was music to billions of ears around the world. The utopia envisioned by humanist philosophers was taking shape; roads across all borders would be open for business, innovation and travel.

A stronger current of wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan, Brexit and Trump's ascension changed that narrative in no time. Colour, ethnicity, religion and economic interests are stronger, immutable and deeper than any other idea presented in known history.

So is it time to build walls and fences to secure national borders?

The idea of raising walls against invaders and mischief-makers is not new. A story in the Quran mentions Zulqurnain as building an iron barrier to protect the people of a nation against Yajuj and Majuj coming over and making mischief in their lands.

The Great Wall of China was originally built during the Qin dynasty (259-210BC) to stop the northerner invaders. Some 400,000 soldiers and labourers died during its construction. Those who died were thrown between the wall's gaps - reminiscent of a famous couplet by renowned pashto poet Rahman Baba, which said that the world palaces were minarets raised on human skulls.

Why are we embracing a strategy that will fail?

History's verdict is that the wall never effectively prevented invaders. It fell into disrepair and was reconstructed during the Ming dynasty. The Manchus broke through the wall in the 17th century. The best known section of the wall today (70 kilometres long) was rebuilt in 1950 - a structure meant for tourists, not to keep invaders at bay.

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic to prevent East Berliners escaping to West Germany in great numbers. It was called an 'anti-fascist bulwark'. The wall was the most prominent symbol of the Cold War period.

It did not, however, prevent determined East Berliners from escaping; many succeeded, while others were killed attempting to scale it. In November 1989, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany ultimately ordered that the people were free to go to West Berlin. Many came out with hammers, picks and shovels to bring down this symbol of hate.

President Trump, who has earned every abuse from his country's press, is determined to construct a 1,609km long wall along the border with Mexico to prevent illegal crossings. A series of walls and fences along 933km of this border are already in place with cameras and sensors. Trump has done nothing so far except to promote hate between communities and faiths.

Walls being in fashion, India has announced its own plan to construct walls and fences along the border with Pakistan by 2018.

Having failed to foster friendly relations with its neighbours, Pakistan too has resorted to the doomed experience of constructing walls and laying fences along the border with Afghanistan. If Trump wants to build a 1,609km long wall, we have decided to secure 2,430km of our border in this way. The prime minister has sanctioned Rs12 billion (S$160 million) for this folly. Four hundred and twenty three small forts will be constructed, 6km apart, with cameras and sensors all along the way.

The dispensers of such big sums love spending sprees. But has any thought gone into how the installations will be maintained at high altitudes where they are subject to extreme weather conditions? We are creating another fund-guzzler, in true Siachen fashion, and like Siachen will have this cost imposed on us.

Our relationship with Afghanistan requires different handling - reconsidering our policy. Instead, we are placing ourselves in a siege-like situation with both east and west borders barricaded.

These fortresses will turn into hate figures and tempting targets continuously subject to attack. The underlying message is that we are enemy countries. The tribes on both sides of the border hate a permanent military presence.

There were a number of such fortifications inside Fata; hardly a night passed in which they would not come under fire until the time the Quaid (leader) announced the army's withdrawal from Fata. The few pickets and forts that remained would always draw fire at night. The proposed fortresses, stretching all the way, will be difficult to defend in frontier war fashion.

Aren't bridges better than walls? Bridges unite, walls divide. There is no Ahmad Shah Durrani (regarded as the founder of Afghanistan) waiting to launch an invasion. From a historical perspective, Maulana Fazlullah (leader of Pakistan's Taliban) types and the TTP crowd are mere irritants. Afghanistan is a much weaker country than Pakistan.

We should build bridges of love across the divide. It will cost nothing. The only requirement is a change of policy.

The writer is a former civil servant and minister.