Chaman border closure leaves lasting effect

Published September 22, 2016
People at the border crossing either going to Afghanistan or entering Pakistan.— Photo by writer
People at the border crossing either going to Afghanistan or entering Pakistan.— Photo by writer

CHAMAN: Though traffic flows normally across the Pak-Afghan border at Chaman today, a set of unfortunate incidents resulted in complete closure of the border for 14 days, with things returning to normal on Sept 1.

The event had aggravated the already strained Pak-Afghan relationship, while also causing losses believed to be worth billions of rupees for traders and common people from both sides of the divide.

The reason behind the border closure was that on Aug 18, the participants of a rally organised by Pasban-i-Watan and PML-Q reached the Pak-Afghan border without any hurdle and staged a demonstration there against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his remarks about Balochistan. In response, a crowd of Afghans on the other side torched the Pakistani flag.

On the same evening, Pakistan was forced to close the border for an indefinite period and demanded an unconditional apology from the Afghan government. The Afghan administration questioned why Pakistani protesters had staged the rally at the Pak-Afghan border and accused them of burning President Ashraf Ghani’s portrait. When pressure mounted, the Afghan government condemned the incident in writing and assured that it would not happen again, leading to the reopening of the frontier.

Afghanistan is totally dependent on Pakistan for everything right from grain to milk, juices and electric appliances; the latter is the biggest market for smuggled Japanese and Chinese goods. Pakistan also imports fresh and dried fruits and scrap from Afghanistan. According to Pakistani customs officials, over 80pc goods of the Afghan transit trade return to Pakistani markets through smuggling.

In the aftermath of the border closure and subsequent reopening, not a single official from both the police and civil administration in Chaman is ready to accept responsibility for how a rally organised by pro-government parties managed to reach the border without any hurdle.

Deputy Commissioner Qaisar Khan Naasar expressed his ignorance, saying: “I and my administration had no knowledge about the rally and we got to know about it when they reached the border.” District Police Officer Sajid Khan Mohmand gave a similar response. Local residents also expressed their unawareness about the origins of the rally.

However, security officials have a different view. “It was a rally of civil society and if they raised slogans against Indians, torched their flag and Modi’s effigy, what objection do Afghans have and why [did] they disgrace our national pride [flag?],” asked Frontier Corps IG Major-General Sher Afgan. “No one should consider petty issues like disruption of business for a day or a week; [they] should think in broad perspectives as national honour is above everything,” he said.

Yet around one month after the ugly incidents occurred, local residents are still complaining about the losses they had to incur due to the closure. Long queues of trucks and pick-ups carrying goods from Pakistan were witnessed at the border, waiting for their turn to enter Afghanistan after completing the legal requirements of customs and security checks. After reopening of the border, FC Balochistan got the opportunity to impose some new regulations for the people going out or coming in purely for security purposes.

However, to compensate the people of Chaman, the FC has given a concession of smuggling flour for two hours a day. Hundreds of pushcarts loaded with sacks of flour are parked close to the border hours or even a day before their turn to enter Afghanistan finally comes.

“No Afghan can now enter Pakistan without any valid document of identity and similarly, residents of Chaman are allowed to cross the border with proof of identity,” Col Aziz Ahmad told Dawn. He said that 453-kilometre-long trenches had been dug along the border to check illegal crossings on 30 to 50 unfrequented routes.

Additionally, the government has decided to install a modern system called IBMS (Integrated Border Management System) linked with satellite with the help of Nadra to collect the data of all those who cross either side of the border. “The system is similar to the one installed at all airports,” said Rashid Mahmood of FIA.

In the past, it was much easier to enter Pakistan. Every Afghan of Pakhtun ethnicity used to enter Pakistan without any difficulty on showing a Pakistani CNIC, though it was harder for non-Pakhtun communities like Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks to enter Pakistan, but not impossible courtesy the human smugglers. Chaman’s local residents are entitled to go to Afghanistan in the morning and return home in the evening for business.

The Afghan government has never accepted the regularisation of the border-crossing system. The Pakistani government had installed a modern biometric system at the border in January 2007 for recording fingerprints, retinas or facial patterns for identification upon entry and exit of persons. The Pakistani government tried its best to make use of this system, but the Afghan government’s response was always lukewarm.

Ultimately, after a few months of its installation, some 2,000 people entered Pakistan and stormed the booths of the biometric system, damaging them, thereafter returning to Afghanistan without any resistance. Since then Pakistan, due to Kabul’s pressure, never tried to regularise the border crossing.

According to a senior FC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the biggest hurdle is divided population as huge compounds are being built right at the border with two doors — one that opens into Pakistan, another into Afghanistan, and people cross through these compounds without any hurdle.

“Our revenue jumped from Rs950 million to Rs1.5 billion in the last six months in the wake of some measures to regularise trade for discouraging smuggling as Afghanistan sends us only fruits, both fresh and dry, and scrap, while everything you [can] name goes there,” said Hamid Qamberani, Assistant Collector, Customs. He said the losses were computed at Rs8.33m per day due to the border closure.

“The losses due to the closure run in billions of rupees as right from a shopkeeper and cart pusher to big trader all got affected,” Haji Abdul Ghani, the Senior Vice President of Chaman’s Chamber of Commerce, observed.

Published in Dawn September 22nd, 2016

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