August Issue 2019
An Open Door
After Prime Minister Imran Khan’s directive a few weeks back, that the Torkham crossing on the Pak-Afghan border be opened from August 1, 2019 onwards, the relevant departments have not yet started taking the necessary steps to implement this.
The aim is to leave the crossing open 24/7, so as to boost bilateral trade and enhance cross-cultural relations between the two neighbouring countries. Prior to this, the crossing would only be open from 9am to 5pm, daily. The initiative to boost trade came to light after Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan on June 27, 2019, to meet the prime minister.
In the aftermath of the announcement by the Pakistani government, various government departments and other stakeholders have highlighted the pros and cons of the new policy.
According to Asma Paracha, the Deputy Collector of Customs at Torkham crossing, no practical steps have been taken so far on the ground to start preparing for the opening of the crossing, after the federal government’s announcement. She says the customs department has worked out details regarding the number of staff members and props that will be required once the change comes into effect and has shared this with the concerned authorities. The additional requirements include 200 new officials and up to 400 transport vehicles (250 to 300 vehicles from Afghanistan already enter Pakistan at the crossing on a daily basis).
“There is no proper lighting system, scanners, walk-through gates, additional accommodation space, installation of close circuit television (CCTV) cameras and IT systems to run the entire process,” says Paracha. She complains that only a single scanner for imports from Afghanistan has been installed at Torkham crossing point, while the same facility is not available for exports.
Zahidullah Shinwari, former president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Chamber of Commerce and Industries, applauded the step taken by PM Khan and said that while the move to boost exports to Afghanistan may not reap any short-term benefits, it might have long-term advantages if the policy were executed in letter and spirit. He links the improvement in bilateral trade with the enhancing of people-to-people contact between the two neighbours and the shunning of differences.
“Bilateral trade suffered a severe blow when, during the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) of 2010, Pakistan implemented some conditions for Afghan traders that created impediments for them to transport multiple goods to Afghanistan,” says Shinwari. After the agreement, the exports to Afghanistan would take too long, with a great deal of time wasted on the clearance process.
This agreement coerced Afghan traders into using alternate routes for trade, like the Iranian port of Chabahar. According to Shinwari, the agreement was a fatal blunder, as it led to a fall in exports to Afghanistan and by 2015, it ceased to exist altogether.
The new border-management policy introduced by Pakistan in 2016-17, included the fencing of the 2,500-kilometre-long Durand Line. Crossing into Pakistan required valid visas; numerous Afghan citizens and traders were not familiar with such regulations, according to Shinwari.
“Economic stability can be ensured if there is a cordial political atmosphere between the two brotherly countries but, unfortunately, both sides in last few years, remained in a stalemate, which left adverse effects on trade,” he says, adding that bilateral trade can be boosted to $8 billion, if the agreement is renewed by both countries, with a softening of conditions for investors on both sides in terms of visas and other affiliated problems.
The volume of Pakistani exports to Afghanistan was $2.4 billion in 2010-11 and fell to $1.3bn in 2018-19, according to statistics provided by the KP Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The President of the Transport Union (Peshawar to Torkham), Haji Azeemullah, welcomed the move and pointed out that if the border remained open constantly, it would lessen the likelihood of traffic jams and loaded and unloaded vehicles would pass through the crossing with ease at different points during the 24-hour cycle. Transporters’ grievances too could be resolved with this development if the officials of the national logistics cell, customs, passport and NADRA perform their duties efficiently, according to Azeemullah.
He laments that in recent times, vegetables, fruits and other perishable items end up rotting due to the extensive delay caused by the clearance process at the crossing, which can take up to five hours. This, however, would speed up considerably with the open-border policy.
Information shared with Newsline by the district administration of Khyber Tribal District reveals that about 6,000 to 10,000 people from Afghanistan cross the border and enter into Pakistan on a daily basis, while a minimum number of Pakistanis cross the border into Afghanistan. The figure was much higher back in 2015-16, with 15,000 to 20,000 people crossing bordering area.
A senior official stationed at Torkham crossing, who requested not to be named, said that the district administration had conducted two surveys in the recent past, yet this had not been followed up with any action. According to him, additional NADRA officials and others have been deployed at Torkham after the government’s announcement.
Commenting on the security measures at Torkham, he said that the administration had deployed seven platoons, each comprising 30 to 40 Khasadars or Levy officials (referred to as police after the merger with KP). He also added that the officials of the national logistics cell (NLC) would also perform their duties and increase their numbers.
The opening of the crossing is expected to boost bilateral trade from $1.5billion to $3.5 billion. However, the practical, material requirements needed to effectively implement the functioning of a permanently open crossing may take another six to 12 months, according to the Adviser to the PM on Establishment and Fata Reforms, Shahzad Arbab.
Sardar Khan, a 70-year-old resident of Afghanistan’s Nangrahar province, entered Pakistan via Torkham, to seek medical help in Peshawar, for his 10-year-old son, who suffers from thalassemia. “We pedestrians also face numerous problems while crossing the point, as patients and old men often get stuck in the huge rush,” he says. “We are extremely happy about the move, as it will ease their miseries… both sides should soften border rules so that citizens avail the advantages.”
While implementing the federal government’s decision in letter and spirit, the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mahmood Khan, and the Advisor to the Prime Minister, Arbab Shehzad, visited the Pak-Afghan border at Torkham on July 31, for evaluating the arrangements before the opening of the Torkham crossing.
They were informed that officials of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Customs, NADRA, the Passport office and other departments have been increased to facilitate the vehicles and pedestrians. Counters on both sides have also been increased from 16 to 24 and some counters have been reserved for women.
Cameras for vigilance purposes have been increased from 67 to 96, whereas the lighting arrangements have also been improved to facilitate border crossings at night.
Farid Shinwari is a Peshawar and FATA-based journalist who writes for a number of leading publications.