No Closure

The Afghan-Pakistan border crossings at Torkham and Chaman-Spin Boldak were closed by the Pakistani government after a string of militant attacks in mid-February, which the Pakistani military leadership claimed were carried out by militants operating from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. As a result, hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan citizens, carrying valid travel documents, were stranded on the 1600 mile border. The border closure was intended to increase security in Pakistan and check the influx of terrorists from Afghanistan. It was painted out by the Pakistani administration as a ‘necessary step’ in the interest of both countries to be able to work together in combating terrorism—as though closing one of South Asia’s busiest trade routes and halting trade could help the fragile Afghan-Pak relationship resolve its differences.

This begs the question: What does the government’s decision to seal the Pak-Afghan border then achieve?

Apparently, it led to a surge in the already very high anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan. The closure was read by majority Afghans as a way to inflict pressure on the Kabul government to take action against terrorist sanctuaries on Afghan soil.

Pakistan closing its border to Afghanistan is not an anomaly for Kabul. Pakistan’s unwritten policy of closing borders has manifested itself on various accounts in the past 15 years– more so, when bilateral relations with Afghanistan tense. Traders on both sides have suffered as a result– however, the landlocked Afghans have suffered most because of the price hike caused by the closure, since most Afghan imports and exports come through Pakistan.

The only change that can be anticipated with certainty is an escalation of friction in Afghan-Pak relations, as a result of which Afghanistan is likely to move closer to India, Iran and Central Asia. If Pakistan continues to mishandle bilateral trade and border-related matters with Afghanistan, Pakistan is most likely going to be replaced with India, which has presented itself as eager to fill the vacuum time and time again.

Needless to say, being replaced by India in any context does not sit well with Pakistan’s regional interests.

Afghanistan has taken steps to diversify its trade partners; now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), it can import from and export to 163 countries. Interestingly, this time around, prices also remained relatively stable in Afghan markets during the border closure. Afghanistan is increasingly looking to Iran, India, China and Central Asian countries to substitute Pakistan’s imports.

While there has been a significant drop in the trade volume between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Afghan-Iran trade volume has increased from $1.5 billion to $2 billion, which makes a quarter of Afghanistan’s annual trade. As of October 2016, Afghanistan’s exports to India amounted to $79.81 million, with imports at $151.94 million. India has further relaxed its visa policy, attracting Afghan medical tourists and encouraging Afghan businesspeople to now stay for as long as up to 180 days in India, strengthening people-to-people relations between the two countries—a sharp contrast from Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy.

Afghanistan, Iran and India are growing closer together on the economic front because of: deteriorating Afghan-Pak relations, lifting of international sanctions against Iran, the construction of the Iran-Afghanistan railroad, India’s plan for the Chabahar Port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Highway in Afghanistan. Added to that, the major motivation behind the Afghanistan-India air corridor is so that Afghanistan does not have to rely on Pakistan for overland trade anymore.

However, it is still not too late for Pakistan and Afghanistan to find common ground: to import power from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and gas and oil from Central Asia, the most cost-effective route for Pakistan will have to be through Afghanistan. Same goes for Afghanistan’s need to access open waters, which will have to involve passing through Pakistan.

The closure of borders doesn’t serve any substantive purpose for either of the two countries, other than alienating the respective populations. Closing the border, if the leadership in Afghanistan is not on board, has no real connection to combating terrorism either. The fight against terrorism will have to be a joint and coordinated effort. Several Pakistani officials have come forward and confirmed the presence of anti-Afghanistan armed groups operating from Pakistan. Similarly, Afghanistan is also known to have anti-Pakistan militants based in Afghan territory. The pragmatic approach would be for both countries to take action against these militants that are currently operating from their territories with greater political and military cooperation between the two governments in Islamabad and Kabul.