Not very long ago, bilateral trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan had reached more than $3 billion. For a country that has had acrimonious relations with India and none too happy ties with Iran, the rise in volume of trade with Afghanistan augured well for further expansion. A key objective was to open trade routes to Central Asia through the land-locked neighbor’s territory.
But then other considerations took center stage, as usual citing security concerns over a neighbor plagued by an unending insurgency. It was decided to fence the 2,200-kilometer border to block the entry of militants — an idea that proved to be as unwarranted as it was costly.
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Same tribes live on both sides of the border. Thousands of families have cross-border properties and relations. The fencing would permanently disrupt them, and trade would come to a standstill, seriously impacting the economy of the area. It would also generate hostility for Pakistan and, lastly, cost a mammoth sum of $1 billion.
What’s destroying the spirit of bilateral trade?
The fencing is now a reality. Along the border, some six to eight crossing points allow bilateral trade to take place at a specified volume. But there are so many hurdles before goods-laden trucks may cross over. Firstly, there are a number of departments involved in border clearance, each of them functioning independently — there is little coordination.
What happens then is that trucks, containers loaded with all sorts of goods including perishable commodities like fruits and vegetables, are held up for days and weeks before clearance. That not only causes unnecessary delays, demurrage, economic costs, but also destroys the rationale and spirit of a mutually beneficial bilateral trade.
There were also thousands of Afghan students, Afghan refugees who used to travel to Afghanistan to see their next of kin, and many Afghans who would enter Pakistan to meet their relatives
Faced with such daunting challenges and painful checking of each and every trade item which takes hours for each vehicle, the volume of trade has plummeted to just $400 million per annum.
Creating unnecessary hurdles, lacking any uniformity in the application of rules, every agency operating to the exclusion of the other has marred the traffic environment at the few crossing points that are open to people and goods.
The plight of commuters
What has added to the woes and hardships of the people is a new policy-driven again by “security considerations,” requiring commuters to obtain visas for travel across the border. Thousands of people used to cross the border every day at Torkham and Chaman, allowed to cross the border on the basis of any identification.
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Large numbers of people coming from or leaving for Afghanistan included the ailing and sick who used to visit Pakistani hospitals for medical treatment. There were also thousands of Afghan students, Afghan refugees who used to travel to Afghanistan to see their next of kin, and many Afghans who would enter Pakistan to meet their relatives. That is no longer possible because of the new travel policy.
Ground realities paint a different picture
All these measures have created bitterness, resentment and hostility on the other side of the border. While there is so much rhetoric and loud talk of promoting bilateral relations in all sectors, on the ground uncalled-for policies — that are totally incompatible with objective realities — are being put into practice to the detriment of the people on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border and to the detriment of bilateral trade and cultural relations.
Unless there is a drastic reappraisal of thinking and policy, the situation is not going to improve, which would not be a good prospect for Pakistan given its strained relations with two other neighbors.
Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at Arab News Pakistan and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.