March 10, 2021 will always be marked as a protest day against the closure of trade routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as a voice for easing business. On this day, the exuberant and sentimental people of the area flocked towards a big procession, led by Aimal Wali Khan, a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), which ultimately converted into a public meeting that voiced the woes caused by trade embargoes and closure of trade routes.
Freedom of movement and expression is a fundamental right and placing of barriers on routes to discourage people from reaching their destination was most unfortunate, and sent out a negative message that the area was a no-go zone.
Emotions at the occasion re-elected deep-seated reaction against the long-drawn war of the last 41 years in Afghanistan, which brought nothing but death, destruction and displacement.
Echoing the sentiments of people, in particular of those living by the Pak-Afghan border, the rally echoed that Pakhtuns on both sides of the border were affected by the closure of the trade routes. Therefore, both the countries should remove the restrictions to improve their exports and bilateral relations, in aid of the people.
As both countries are strategically important, they should strengthen their bilateral diplomatic relations. The opening of trade routes would enable both Pakistan and Afghanistan to provide job opportunities to their people, and improve health and education facilities, besides enhancing trade activities.
Cordial trade relations between the two countries would go a long way to bridge the gap and help in countering terrorism and create a soft image of the region. This necessitates doing away with the trust deficit between the two countries to improve bilateral trade in the larger interest of their people. Any negligence on the part of the neighbouring states would further affect their own people.
There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s trade is rooted in history and spread from Kabul to Calcutta and Bombay. Families of Bollywood celebrities like Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan carried out such trades, which brought them to present-day India. Kabul, as a centre, connected the Sub-continent with Central Asia and acted as a medium for the transfer of culture. This trade provided opportunities to the bustling bazaar of Qissa Khwani and others of Peshawar for the amalgamation of different cultures, mirroring tolerance and forbearance in their ethos.
In this context, the commerce minister of Pakistan has rightly said that Pak-Afghan trade has three dimensions including transit trade, bilateral trade and informal trade. These need to be facilitated and eased for further enhancement of trade, by improving custom clearances and ending securitisation.
Today, we live in a world of complex interdependence and interconnection. No nation can claim to be completely independent, therefore, the foreign policies of countries are devised in a fashion that fosters mutual benefits. The European Union and ASEAN are such examples. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite having a shared history and culture, are not utilising the opportunities available to them at the optimum level, with the ultimate sufferers being the people on both sides of the border.
The unpleasant aspect is that trade with Afghanistan decreased from $3 billion to $500 million in 2018, according to circles within the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Bilateral trade volume was $1.6 billion during 2014-15, $1.22 billion during 2015-16, $1 billion during 2016-17. The volume of trade remained at $930 million till April 2018, indicating a sharp decline.
The same trend continues even today; the average trading volume remained at $1.2 billion as compared to $2.5 billion. According to Zahid Shinwari, former president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, there is a potential of $8 billion worth of trade, while $5 billion can easily be achieved.
Pakistan has a good market for construction materials, food items, and pharmaceutical items, but unfortunately, this trade decreased considerably. Around 10,000 containers of Afghan transit trade land at Pakistan’s port every month. However, the closure of borders every now and then adversely affects the trading activity.
Apart from other reasons, stringent visa policy also hinders the trade. These hardships have provided opportunities to Iran and India to capture the Afghan market, for which the Chabahar port and air are being used.
The survey conducted in this regard revealed that the Pak-Afghan trade provides employment not only to the thousands of people around the bordering areas but also to the thousands spread across Karachi to Chaman, Ghulam Khan and Torkham. Petrol pumps, hotels, tuck shops, fruit shops, mechanic shops, and daily-wage labourers, pushcart vendors, growers and producers of jaggery and poplar and other ancillary businesses and jobs flourish as a byproduct of this trade. Besides, private hospitals and clinics are also dependent on such movement.
Enhancement of international trade not only generates capital but also boosts production of industries which are always dependent on markets. Mutual interdependence also leads to cordial relations and avoidance of war. The people in the area need trade and not war. It is high time that both countries evolve a mechanism for easing business and trade so that mutual prosperity is achieved.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2021.