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Central Trade Corridor: Envisioning integration and connectivity

Local road networks play an essential role in developing the economy by improving its macroeconomic indicators. Thus, under its local and regional integrative framework, the ongoing CTC project strives to create a win-win situation through constructing a robust within and cross border infrastructure, boosting trade flows, and alleviating the misery of the people living in the scourge of war and devastation. FWO has been a flag-bearer in development of Central Trade Corridor (CTC) by linking Indus Highway with Afghanistan at Angoor Adda and Ghulam Khan. They have constructed 557 km of roads, 40 bridges, and 2 tunnels. Access to Afghanistan through Central Trade Corridor is 100 km shorter than the traditional trade route through Khyber Pass.

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Corridors play a vital role in enabling developing economies to achieve economic stabilization and welfare-related objectives. Undeniably, facilitative infrastructure that improves communication and physical mobility is a cornerstone of local and regional integration and economic growth in recent years.

The foundations of this concept go far back as 1776 when notable economist Adam Smith penned his ideas, “Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country nearly upon a level with those of the neighborhood of the town.

They are upon that, the greatest of all improvements.” Such improvements can be seen in helping cost-effective mobility, thus trade, and improved accessibility of opportunities to all markets, including food, labor, energy, health, and education.

Fundamentally, corridors assist in bridging the inequality index between and within countries by ensuring streamlined sustainable and organized local and regional economic activity in all regions.

Additionally, evidence from the developed states shows a strong nexus between robust economic development and road and transport linkage availability. In this context, economic corridors play a crucial part by ensuring significant linkages between economic hubs and intersections that are usually around urban centers.

In this respect, the ongoing Central Trade Corridor envisaged during COAS General Raheel Sharif’s tenure in 2014 endeavored to connect the tribal regions inside Pakistan to the rest of the country and Afghanistan.

Launching the initiative was very challenging given the war-torn areas where both security vulnerability and terrain were challenging. Given the situation in the area, the Frontier Works Organization (FWO), one of Pakistan’s national strategic organizations, was brought in to work on the project.

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FWO has decades of experience working in such rugged terrain and vulnerable security situations. Several roads under the project have been concluded, including the TorkhumJalalabad Road, 40 Km Old Bannu Road, and the 76 km-long Shakai – Makeen road funded through USAID was an important lateral along with the CTC, which connects the two main axes of this trade corridor – Road Bannu – Miranshah – Ghulam Khan and Road Wana – Angoor Ada.

557 KM of the initially planned CTC has been completed while the new projects in the aftermath of the FATA merger are under construction. Thal- Spinwam- Mir Ali, which is 54 km with two carriageway lanes (11.3m), is a silver lining in North Waziristan’s volatile region; it is progressing by leaps and bounds and is set to complete by April 2022.

It will consist of 3 newly built bridges with a total road construction cost amounting to Rs. 5.8 Bn. Likewise, Timargara Khar Mohmad Gat Road Project (71.197 Km) is under construction to link Mohmand, Bajaur, and Dir subsequently, which will improve economic and development prospects in Bajaur.

There will be a total of 7 Bridges, and 156 culverts with a road construction cost amounting to Rs. 7bn set to be inaugurated by March 2022. FWO has also constructed the Makeen- Razmak- Miranshah road, which links South and North Waziristan and up-gradation of existing 2 bridges.

The Torkhum- Jalalabad Road is a significant part of CTC to link Afghan Ring Road with Jalalabad and onwards to CARs. Mohmand District is known for its mighty marble-laden mountains, and now, after decades, work has started on another dam for Pakistan, the under-construction Mohmand Dam, for which road network is vital.

To undertake this project, Ghallanai-Mamad Gat Project (45 Km), including the 710 miles Nahakki tunnel, was inaugurated by PM Imran Khan in Oct 2020, where he praised the role of FWO in being a strategic construction organization of Pakistan.

The Nahakki tunnel, which 754 construction team engineers constructed, has reduced the traveling time to 15 minutes between Mohmand and Ghallanai. In addition, this GMG road will link with under progress TKMG Road fostering, new economic opportunities in Dir, Bajaur, Mohmand, and Shabqadar areas.

Read More: Pakistan, Uzbekistan do trial runs of trade via war-torn Afghanistan

Vision of CTC

The project’s vision is to link the Indus Highway with Tank-Jandola-Razmak, Bannu- Miranshah-Ghulam Khan – Angoor Ada to Afghan Ring Road till Kandahar (1898 Kilometers).

This side will pass through Port Qasim – Sukkur-Rajanpur – Dera Ghazi Khan – Dera Ismail Khan-Ghulam Khan – Angoor Ada into Afghanistan. By connecting the tribal areas inside Pakistan with improved road infrastructure in the merged districts, CTC would facilitate inter-provincial goods and boost trade with Afghanistan.

It makes the tagline of the CTC project palpable; Winning hearts and minds by eradicating economic inequality through unified infrastructure. The project strives to meet the strategic needs of Pakistan by providing lucrative opportunities for local businesses and small-scale ventures. Consequently, this enabling socio-economic environment can play a pivotal role in altering the local people’s impoverished lives, adding an impetus to economic growth and curtailing cross-border violence, smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Central Trade Corridor
Pak-Afghan trade corridor

Regional connectivity and CTC

As global politics has shifted from geopolitics to geo-economics, securing economic interests and creating a win-win situation has become part of soft power play in contemporary times.

In this respect, South Asia being the world’s most economically promising and dynamic region, had allured regional and external players to synergize their economic stakes in the backdrop of mutual independence and comparative advantage.

Thus, the CTC network can provide a gateway to these economic aspirations to Pakistan and the concerned countries. Moreover, the strategic land-based regional connectivity envisioned through CTC can enable Pakistan to synergize its geo-economic aims strategically.

The project strives to connect the Indus Highway and Waziristan Agencies to the Afghan Ring Road. Perceptively, on the contours of mutual dependency and comparative advantage, CTC can provide our decision-makers an opportune time to put into practice Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis its ties with Afghanistan.

Bridging the Pak-Afghan trust deficit

Marred with distrust, Pakistan Afghan ties have historically remained fractured. Afghanistan was the only country that had voted against Pakistan’s entry into the UN and still holds grievances and refuses to accept Durand Line as an international border.

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With historical griping in the backdrop and Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban in recent times, much of the hostility on the Pakistani side is attributed to increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan and the believed intransigence on the Afghan government in eradicating Afghan-based terrorist outfits dismantling their safe-havens.

Consequently, at this critical point in Pak-Afghan volatile relations, when the United States initiates its exit after twenty years, CTC can sync with several other projects such as TAPI and CPEC.

Alongside opening new trade routes to access the land-locked Central Asian countries and creating new livelihoods for the local populace, the corridor would help alleviate the socio-economic devastation faced by people on both sides of the border due to the Afghan War and War against Terror operations.

Furthermore, combined with Afghanistan and Iran border fencing, the road network provided through CTC will curtail cross-border infiltration and, in essence, will downplay any Indian designs in shaping an anti-Pakistan narrative in Afghanistan.

Through this corridor, Pakistan can exercise its soft influence in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. The US withdrawal will subsequently lead to a reduction of its foreign investment, which has presently reached $8.5 billion in the reconstruction and war building of the war-ravaged country.

The trade route provided through CTC will enable Afghanistan and Pakistan bilateral collaboration allowing the former to extract its minerals and resources and export efficiently.

Enhancing and augmenting trade points with Afghanistan will kick-start greater diversification of regional exports from both countries from these areas, especially with the Central Asian Republics and the Middle East. The trade corridor has immense prospects to jumpstart the staggering Afghan-Pakistan trade, which has tumbled from $2 billion several years ago to $800m.

Read More: Pakistan’s trade deficit rises to $20.83 billion for current year

CTC’s economic benefits

Additionally, CTC can play an integral role in Pakistan’s achievement of its Sustainable Development Goals which are in harmony with its national policy objectives. CTC vision of
robust local and regional integration, if implemented appropriately, will directly impact the prospect of eradicating poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), affordable and clean energy for all (SDG 7), infrastructure, industry, and innovation (SDG 9) and decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), to name a few.

The devastating and protracted Afghan war had catastrophic impacts on Pakistan’s socio-economic, political, and cultural fabric. Irrefutably, the transport network in Pakistan has received a severe setback due to the spillover of militancy and counter-terrorism operations.

Nonetheless, one of the commendable direct dividends from Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched on 15th June 2014 was a considerable reduction in Improvised Explosive Device (IED) incidents as all the local and foreign militants were flushed from the North Waziristan region.

Furthermore, after Operation Zarb-e-Azb, in 2017, Cadet College Razmak and the WANA processing plant were reconstructed in 2017. Being a significant part of CTC, they assist in providing quality education to the cadets, enhancing trade profitability, and decreasing crime rates and smuggling.

By connecting its western alignment with China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) at Dera Ismail Khan, CTC can streamline the availability of tribal products in the Chinese markets. The corridor can foster employment opportunities in constructing roads, motorways, highways, and adjoining infrastructural projects, along with enhancing the quality and sustainability of local transport businesses in North and South Waziristan.

Moreover, this connectivity can augment accessibility for aspiring students to study in colleges such as Cadet College Razmak that hosts students from all across the country to become commissioned officers in the Pakistan Army.

The merged areas of former FATA would further benefit from the KPK planning division initiative centered on developing new urban centers and special economic zones to facilitate the efficient, swift, and comfortable transportation of goods.

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Societal benefits

Previously, the barren and vulnerable road infrastructure in the tribal areas led to major IED incidents and road traffic crashes for locals and military vehicles deployed on these routes, especially during counter-terrorism operations.

Under CTC, metaled asphalted roads will be constructed, which will also serve as the Main Supply Route for quick deployment of troops and their mobility in case of any escalation on the western border in the future.

With numerous employment prospects for the locals, it is evident that CTC would help in containing brain drain in the country. Through regional connectivity and trade enhancement ventures, the local populace of merged districts can easily access their educational right, augment their vocational skills, and in turn, reap ample business opportunities which would pump equitable economic prosperity in the country.

Bumps in the road

The CTC project is not without its perceived challenges that are both external and internal. The tribal heads of the erstwhile FATA are resistant to this positive change as they believe that development will weaken their stranglehold on power.

The educational profile of the people has remained abysmally low, especially among the female segment, which stands at 7 percent. Patriarchal and repressive norms about conformity to decadent code of conduct continue to dominant people’s loves.

Furthermore, the hostile intelligence agencies continue to create impediments in the progression of this corridor by actively taking the shoulder of media. Alongside, the use of psychological warfare that aims to demotivate the locals and other domestic businesses to invest in merged areas of FATA, particularly in North and South Waziristan, is a major stumbling block towards the project completion.

Anti-nationalist elements are rallying for all sorts of criminal proceedings to destabilize, demoralize and disintegrate the unifying forces working to attain CTC. As the outreach of the CTC is to forge regional connectivity and bolster trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan and access the Eurasian heartland, external players are leaving no stone unturned to sabotage the project.

Through the infamous debt-trap diplomacy and creating a counter-narrative concerning CPEC and Chinese investment, negative propaganda towards these developments is being fostered among the masses.

Read More: Pakistan’s trade deficit increases 20.05pc as imports rise in March

Even though Pakistan has bolstered its security defenses and mechanisms through border fencing along its western border with stringent Handling Devices Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) to avert cross border attacks, the threat still hovers. It is because ISIS (Daesh) and other terrorist outfits are susceptible to perpetuate instability in the area ostensibly abetted by Indian Intelligence Agencies.

Bottom line

Financing for the various developmental projects planned along the CTC remains an insurmountable challenge for Pakistan. Its external debt has soared to $45.2 trillion, and this has squeezed the capital required for funding large mega infrastructural projects.

Pakistan’s ability to finance economic corridors has remained strictly limited due to low levels of domestic resource mobilization. Additionally, the country appears to be walking on a tightrope in ensuring the revenue mobilization and constricted public expenditure in response to IMF structural adjustment program with a low tax to GDP ratio standing at 11 percent and a narrow tax base.

Philanthropy has always played an important role in Pakistan and needs to take an active part in supplementing the economic resources need for the underdeveloped and neglected regions of Pakistan. This approach can help to bridge the ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic strife within the country.

Affluent people can take initiatives in the form of self-help schemes for the wellbeing of the locals, like water supply schemes, tube wells, and irrigation facilities to mushroom agricultural production in the erstwhile FATA region.

Likewise, the toll tax generated through CTC can be expended on health, education, and technological improvements for this war-torn area. Capacity building for good governance, policing, administrative tasks, and financial management are the brass tacks for sustainable prosperity in these areas.

The CTC requires institutional oversight like the National Highway Authority for operations and maintenance of the road network. The Frontier Works Organization worked in expanding this network till Ghulam Khan-Angoor Adda; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government now has to gear up for consolidation and deliverance of reforms to the people in that area.

CTC requires to be integrated under an umbrella comprising civil-military technical experts and transportation specialists who can evaluate the efficiency of this road network to augment the invested capital and gain the boons in per capita income of locals.

To sum up, the Central trade corridor will cast positive implications for Pakistan’s economy and Pakistan-Afghan relations. Undoubtedly, this can become a game-changer for FATA amid vacillating national policies.

However, there is always a need for a collective national policy on the ways and resources to promote Pakistan- Afghan-CARs trade securing the tranquility and economic interests of FATA, which holds optimistic and requisite business expansion.

The development of the war-ravaged FATA region had been the utmost priority of the Pakistan army, and the constitutional initiative has always streamlined this main concern. Apart from 178 projects taken by the Pakistan Army in the communication infrastructure, power, and social sector in the Malakand area and FATA region, the CTC is one of the defining and pivotal aims to strengthen regional connectivity with the Central Asian Republics or the Eurasian Heartland, boost commercial and trading opportunities and foster tourism that could supplement the national exchequer.

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