TRADE with Afghanistan through the Chaman border crossing has been suspended lately due to protests organised by local pressure groups, resulting in losses running into the millions each day. However, the state, instead of losing patience, should continue to employ a gentle touch while still remaining firm on its position. The protesters on the Pakistan side of the border, said to number in the thousands, include traders, political workers and members of civil society who are unhappy with the state’s new ‘one document policy’, which is aimed at overhauling the laissez-faire manner in which the crossing has been traditionally operated. Under the policy, anyone hoping to travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan through Chaman must hold a passport with a valid visa in order to be allowed to cross. This may seem like a straightforward condition to anyone accustomed to international travel, but Chaman has traditionally been an ‘open’ border notorious for smuggling. Given recent developments in Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, it is not surprising that the authorities want to keep a closer eye on who is crossing in and out, and, as such, their demand is not unreasonable.
However, the state must also protect the interests of all Pakistanis who are going to be affected by this policy and should take measures to ensure that the transition to this new system is a smooth one. To be fair, the new system does represent a major hurdle for people who could previously cross over as long as they had their national ID cards with them. They cannot be expected to adapt to an alien system overnight — interim measures should be taken to facilitate them. Afghan authorities have been invited to start consular services in Chaman, but till they are able to do so, some other arrangement, perhaps involving temporary travel passes issued by the respective governments, can be explored. Meanwhile, the protesters must continue to be reasoned with and made to understand the security and administrative needs that have necessitated the new policy. Care should be taken so that the visa requirement is understood not as a punitive or restrictive measure but as a policy meant to protect those living in Pakistan. Obviously, some illicit interests will be threatened by it, but the country cannot forsake its national interests for some unscrupulous elements.
Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2023