Closing the border

Published March 15, 2017

With thousands of people stranded on both sides and traders unable to move their goods across, the sealing of the border with Afghanistan has created a serious humanitarian crisis. One fails to understand the rationale behind this action that is hurting Afghans as well as Pakistanis. This ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’ approach is certainly not going to get us anywhere. The entire episode reflects our inability to respond more responsibly in times of crisis.

It is a month now since Pakistani security forces closed the border crossings following the recent wave of terrorist attacks carried out by militants operating from sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has demanded that the Kabul government take action against those groups. The border closure is apparently being used as a pressure tactic.

But this knee-jerk action is counterproductive, and has only complicated the problem further. Not only has the border closing exacerbated the plight of people living on both sides, it will also cost Pakistan’s economy dearly both in the short and long term. The two crossings — Torkham and Chaman — are the major channels of trade and commerce between the two countries.

Nothing positive can be achieved by the extreme and thoughtless measure.

Before the closure, hundreds of trucks and containers mainly carrying foodstuffs such as fruit, meat and milk would pass through these two posts alone. The sealing of the border has also affected the trade and movement of people from other checkpoints in the tribal areas. Thousands of trucks with perishable materials are stuck on both sides for the past one month. According to one estimate, traders from both countries have been losing about four million dollars a day because of the border closing. Pakistani traders are bearing about 80 per cent of those losses.

Read: Border closure hits Pakistani, Afghan traders

The rising tension between the two countries and the drawdown of the US-led coalition forces have already caused a huge drop in our exports to Afghanistan from 2.5 billion to 1.3bn dollars. The exports are expected to go down further with the growing uncertainty caused by this new low in relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

Over the past few years, the volume of Afghan imports from Iran has increased manyfold. Karachi has been the traditional port for the Afghan importers but now many traders have shifted to the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas for foreign trade. Although the distance is much longer, resulting in higher transportation costs, the traders have no choice but to use the only alternate route available.

Moreover, the government is also losing huge revenue because of the closure. According to a report, 500 trucks on average used to cross the border every day, paying Rs10,000 each in customs duty and transit fees. The closure has also affected local traders and those associated with the transportation business. The cumulative losses to the economy by this irrational action are incalculable and it would be extremely difficult to retrieve the situation.

More serious, however, is the political fallout of the closure that has affected common people. Thousands of Afghans cross the border every day not only for business purposes, but also to meet their relatives and even for medical treatment. Hundreds of Afghan children attend schools on the Pakistani side. The volume of traffic at these two border crossings can be judged by the fact that more than 50,000 people crossed over when they were opened for two days. The hardship caused by the closure will certainly not win us the sympathy of the affected population.

One wonders what objective we really wanted to achieve by this extreme and thoughtless measure. It certainly cannot bring the Kabul administration to its knees and force it to hand over the 76 militant leaders allegedly responsible for the terrorist attacks inside our territories.

Certainly our security forces’ concerns regarding cross-border terrorism are understandable. It is true that Pakistan cannot eliminate the threat of violent extremism inside the country without dealing with the free movement of the militants. The Kabul government maintains that the sanctuaries of the Pakistani militants are located in the region where it does not have much control.

But there is also a ring of truth to the allegation that those militants may have some tacit support of elements within the Afghan intelligence, who try to justify it citing the reports about the top Afghan Taliban leaders enjoying sanctuary on Pakistani soil. This tit-for-tat action and ongoing battle of the sanctuaries has created a very dangerous security situation for the entire region.

Extremist organisations such as the militant Islamic State (IS) group have exploited the widening gulf between Kabul and Islamabad to escalate terrorist operations on both sides of the border. Interestingly the group which was behind the latest spell of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has also claimed responsibility for last week’s assault on a Kabul military hospital that killed or injured scores of patients and medical personnel.

This daring attack in a high-security zone heightens concerns over the growing capacity of the global terrorist group to launch such spectacular attacks. Most Afghan security officials, however, doubt the IS claim, maintaining that the highly organised operation with insider support bore the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, the most feared of the Afghan Taliban factions. Whoever may be responsible for the increasing militant violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is alarming. The escalation on the border has certainly provided favourable conditions for the militants.

One of the arguments given by the Pakistani officials to justify the closure is that the measure would help strengthen border management and stop cross-border movement by militants. There is no denying that strict border management is necessary for enhancing our security, but it is not enough to check the movement of terrorists along a 1,500-mile porous border.

Reactive actions such as closing the border in response to terrorist attacks show a lack of maturity. What is needed is to formulate a coherent Afghan policy to deal with a common threat.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2017



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