Afghans turn to smugglers as Pakistan terror spat locks border

In a 2013 file photo, hundreds of trucks wait to enter Pakistan at the the border crossing at Torkham Gate in Afghanistan.


By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Bloomberg | Published: March 20, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) — Afghans are increasingly turning to smugglers as Pakistan’s monthlong border closure blocks trade and causes food prices to soar after a bitter terrorism spat between the two neighbors.

More than 2,000 trucks have been stranded with about $4 million lost in daily trade between the two nations, said Khanjan Alokozay, the deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. While Pakistan’s trade has been hit as it exports more to Afghanistan, its neighbor is suffering as it imports $2.5 billion of food and materials annually from Pakistan, he said.

Retailers in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said prices of fruit and vegetables sold at market have doubled as they rely on illegal transporters, while the cost of rice has risen by as much as 30 percent.

The border closure, the worst since a two-week sealing in August, further undermines an already fragile relationship between the two countries, both of which accuse each other of harboring militant groups that carry out attacks. Following a series of suicide bombings across Pakistan, the military blamed “hostile forces” in Afghanistan and ordered a shutdown of the 1,510-mile porous and disputed border.

That was followed by Pakistan’s demand for Afghanistan to hand over 76 suspected militants. In response, the government in Kabul asked Islamabad to take action against 85 leaders of the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network and other groups it says uses the country for bases and safe refuge.

At face value, Pakistan’s moves reflect concerns over Islamic militants crossing the border that has been disputed ever since Sir Mortimer Durand helped draw it up in 1893, when Britain ruled much of South Asia. Pakistan has also forced out 600,000 Afghan refugees since July, Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.

Afghanistan’s concerns are also valid, according to U.S. Gen. John W. Nicholson. While Pakistan has cracked down on some militants in recent years, the Taliban and Haqqani Network still use bases in Pakistan to launch attacks in Afghanistan, the NATO commander in Afghanistan told the U.S. Senate last month.

In a temporary reprieve, Pakistan on March 6 reopened the main Torkhum and Chaman border points for two days, allowing thousands of stranded people to return home. However, the crossing points may only reopen permanently once Afghanistan has placed “proper” checking and verification mechanisms, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said last week.

On Wednesday, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s foreign affairs adviser, and Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, met in London for trilateral talks. Pakistan’s Zakaria told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday while he can’t give a date for reopening of the border, the measure is “temporary.”

“We expect Pakistan to take this issue seriously,” Musafir Quqandi, a spokesman for the Afghan ministry of commerce and industries, said in an interview. “Pakistan shouldn’t shut the lucrative crossings for the sake of a political issue.”

With traders resorting to the same routes as arms smugglers and insurgents to get perishable goods into Afghanistan, high food prices will remain high until Pakistan relents, Alokozay said.

“Afghanistan heavily relies on Pakistan,” said Ahmad Massoud, an economics professor at Kabul University. “The continuation of the closure may further escalate prices and cause Afghan markets to run out of vegetables and fruits.”

Kamran Haider contributed to this report.

©2017 Bloomberg News
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