ISLAMABAD: In a historic move aimed at strengthening people-to-people contact and boosting trade ties with Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan on Monday announced round-the-clock opening of the Torkham border.

The decision taken on the directive of Prime Minister Imran Khan had the backing of the army and all other stakeholders, said Adviser to the PM on Establishment and Fata Reforms Shahzad Arbab.

The announcement was made in a meeting just a day after Pakistan closed its consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif over security concerns when an Afghan woman was caught taking a hand grenade into the consulate.

However, the infrastructure required for the offices and accommodation of immigration staff, security personnel and other officials at the Torkham border and other necessary arrangements to ensure 24/7 crossing may take another six months.

Move aimed at raising volume of Pak-Afghan trade from existing $1.5bn to $3.5bn

In a tweet, PM Khan said: “I have tasked the relevant government stakeholders to make the necessary arrangements for the Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan to remain open 24/7 within the next six months.

“This step (functioning of the border crossing round the clock) would be instrumental in boosting bilateral trade and enhancing people to people contacts between the two brotherly countries.”

The decision was announced in a meeting, which was presided over by Adviser to the Prime Minister Shahzad Arbab. Besides Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Finance Minister Taimur Saleem Khan Jhagra, officials of the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, interior, commerce and trade and relevant departments including Nadra and National Logistic Cell attended the meeting.

The minister said two key decisions regarding the Torkham border were taken in the meeting. The border would remain open round the clock and a task force would be created to ensure completion of related work within next six to 12 months, he said.

Mr Jhagra had earlier disclosed that the federal and KP’s provincial governments had decided to expedite work on the Torkham border project.

Mr Arbab told Dawn that all stakeholders had been invited to the meeting to discuss the KP government’s proposal to keep open the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan 24/7 to increase trade with the neighbouring country.

“It was a good suggestion and all the stakeholders including those from the defense wholeheartedly supported and endorsed it,” he said.

The participants in the meeting called for arrangement of adequate accommodation facility for security personnel, officials of other relevant departments including National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Frontier Constabulary and immigration department.

“We need infrastructure, including residential quarters, there to accommodate manpower working on three shifts and this might take six months,” Mr Arbab said.

The adviser said he would hold a follow-up meeting on the issue next month to assess progress.

The current volume of trade with Afghanistan stood at $1.5 billion, down from the all-time high of $2 billion after some transit trade was diverted to the Iranian port of Chabahar.

“We expect the volume of trade to go up to $3.5 billion if we are able to commission round-the-clock trade with Afghanistan,” said the adviser.

Talking about security concerns on Pak-Afghan border, Mr Arbab said: “There is no security issue on our side and the Afghans want it too.”

On Sunday, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor announced that work on a 900-kilometre-long portion of the fence along the Pak-Afghan border had been completed.

A source close to the adviser to the prime minister told Dawn that the government hoped that the decision would increase yearly bilateral trade between two neighbouring countries by 25 to 30 per cent. However, the source added, people of the two sides would have to get visa to cross the border.

The meeting was also informed that over 14,000 people crossed the border from both sides when it remained opened for eight to 10 hours a day. However, the participants were told the influx of people would increase if the border would remain open day and night. Currently, around 4,000 visas are being issued every day by the Pakistani consulates in Afghanistan, including 2,500 visas by the embassy in Kabul, they were informed.

While briefing journalists regarding the border fencing work a day earlier, the ISPR DG said the fence would help check the movement of terrorists from across the border and the situation would improve after the project’s completion next year.

In 2018, bilateral trade with Afghanistan via the Torkham border crossing had gained momentum, albeit at a slow pace, as the government decided to ease certain restrictions it had imposed on export and import to and from Afghanistan since 2016. The meeting was informed that over 110,000 trucks had crossed the border from the two sides during the past six months.

In November, however, bilateral trade through the border remained suspended for several days after the customs clearing agents and transporters went on a strike citing a lack of facilities.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2019

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