Top businessmen from Afghanistan and Pakistan went into a huddle this past week to raise a collective voice about the consequences of closing the border on Feb 17. The consensus that emerged from the meeting, organized by a private sector think tank under the intervention known as Beyond Boundaries, was an emphatic demand for it to be unsealed as soon as possible. Initially, said the declaration, the border should be opened at least until all the cargo stranded on either side of the fence is cleared, while both governments try to sort out their political and security issues directly or otherwise.
Nearly 5,000 containers remain stranded, mostly between Karachi and Torkham and Chaman. Hundreds of them are carrying egg and milk aligned items, which take an additional charge of 55 dollars a day for refrigeration. Most of the cargo is Pakistani food exports for Afghanistan or Afghan transit trade.
Members of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industries pointed out that at least half a dozen closures within the last 12 months is debilitating for business and people on both sides. The ensuing delays in clearance, demurrage or detention charges, or costs of inspections (in case customs officials decide to conduct a random check of a container) have often been crippling for the Afghan importers, they pointed out.
The number of Afghan transit/commercial containers through Pakistan has gone from 75,000 in 2010 to less than 50,000 in 2016. This business has gone to Iran, Uzbekistan and China
They claimed that customs at Karachi use the threat of consigning containers for random checks as a blackmail tool to extract gratification. If we refuse to pay some Rs20,000 to Rs25,000, we eventually have to pay nearly double the amount if a container is marked for a snap check, they said.
Arbitrary increases in the taxes on seasonal fruits and vegetables, Afghan traders underscored, only add to the costs of doing business through Pakistan. The impact of abrupt closures, corruption between the port and the two border crossings, as well as inconsistent taxation can be gauged by the fact that the number of Afghan transit/commercial containers through Pakistan has gone from 75,000 in 2010 to less than 50,000 in 2016. This business has gone to Iran, Uzbekistan and China. These are relatively expensive propositions but more secure and risk-free, members of the PAJCCI cautioned.
Once lost, the market and confidence are difficult to regain, said the body’s president, Zubair Motiwalla. He also requested the government to waive demurrage and detention charges from Afghan cargo that is at the Karachi because the closure is not the fault of Afghan importers.
Additionally and more importantly, because of the administrative measures such as the abrupt closure, Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan has been battered like never before. This will be difficult to repair, Khalid Stanakzai, a graduate from Peshawar and a young CEO of an Afghan company, said.
These businessmen also met National Security Advisor General (retd) Nasir Janjua and minister for commerce, Khurram Dastagir. These meetings conveyed some clear messages to the Afghan government through their businessmen; a unilateral opening of the border without reciprocity from our Afghan friends is unlikely. Some sense of understanding on border management has to be realised. We are ready to facilitate as much as we can but please allow us to regulate the border. We know the closure alone is not the answer to terrorism but we expect reciprocity and respect for our concerns that we have continuously conveyed to the Kabul government.
Janjua asked the Afghan delegation how could Pakistan help if neither the Kabul government nor the Taliban were ready for talks, with Pakistan beset by its own limitations. We tell them to leave Pakistan but then they go and exploit the opportunities that are available to them in Afghanistan. We have to fight this enemy jointly and for that dialogue has to resume. For that the ball is in Afghanistan’s court, he said.
Both Dastagir and Janjua explained categorically that while all Pakistanis feel the pain of violence in Afghanistan, it is not life as usual any more. We will have to move away from historical notions on the border in favour of a pragmatic ones. That is why Pakistan continues to beef up major crossing points on the 2,560 km long border regardless of whether Afghanistan engages in dialogue or not.
The third message to the Afghan guests was to stop looking at Pakistan through the Indian or American prism. Unless we conduct the relationship bilaterally, and until Kabul stops advocating for India, it will be hard to move away from the standoff. Diplomacy rests on rationale and needs and not emotions or historical notions, it was conveyed.
Pakistan remains committed to bilateral dialogue on security and economics. And we are still waiting for the signal from Kabul on many meetings on issues such as the revised draft on transit trade or the Joint Economic Commission. The ball is in Kabul’s court, minister Dastagir said. A rational discourse, he said, will certainly help suffering Afghan and Pakistani people and traders at large.