March 21, 2017 |

Behind the scenes diplomatic efforts, particularly by the United Kingdom, as well as intense lobbying by business community and civil society has finally yielded fruit.

Life at and through Torkham and Chamman border to Afghanistan will now return to normal, allowing tens of thousands of people and vehicles to travel either side of the border. The order to open the borders came after the UK special envoy Mark L.Grant hosted a meeting between Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz and the Afghan National Security Advisor (NSA) Hanif Atmar in London late last week.

Pakistan had used “TTP-led terrorist sanctuaries” and a spate of attacks as the justification for the closure on February 17. That is why a statement issued by the Prime Minister House, quoted PM Nawaz as hoping the Afghan government would address the reasons that led to the closing of the border.

Bilateral relations had dipped to a new low after Pakistan slammed the border shut, alleging the Afghan authorities had failed in checking anti-Pakistan terrorists operating out of eastern Afghanistan.

In this context, one could assume, Pakistan’s unilateral action was designed to deliver three key messages to the Afghan government.

Firstly, a unilateral opening of the border without reciprocity and some sense of understanding on border management in a situation complicated by terrorist and criminal syndicates will not be possible. Secondly, how could Pakistan help in the peace process if neither the Kabul government nor the Taliban are ready for talks, with Pakistan beset by its own limitations.

Resumption of talks and fighting the common enemy depends on Kabul, Afghan officials were told. The third message was to stop looking at Pakistan through the Indian or US prism. Unless we conduct the relationship bilaterally, and independent of the historical baggage, it will be hard to move out of the current stand-off.

Although the border will ease life for tens of thousands, repairing the damage to Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan will be an extremely formidable challenge. Top businessmen from Pakistan and Afghanistan, brought together by a private initiative Beyond Boundaries in Islamabad to lobby for opening of the border, also delivered the same message.

Pointing out at least half a dozen abrupt closures of the border within last 12 months, corruption by customs-police officials between Karachi and the border itself, and arbitrary raise by Pakistan in taxes of seasonal fruits and vegetables, Afghan and their Pakistani counterparts warned that business is fast moving away from Pakistan to Iran and Central Asia. Only a more professional and pragmatic approach could restore levels of bilateral and transit trade via Pakistan to the peak of $ 2.5 billion in 2010, they said.

Pakistan needs to work on two fronts; firstly, it has to – through demonstrable actions – blunt the Afghan allegations that its territory serves as the strategic backyard for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network militants.

Secondly, it needs to push for a rationally drastic review of the bilateral and transit trade agreements under a third-party vigil. In order to quell Afghan reservations and also address frequent complaints of willful violations or high-handed deviations by Pakistani customs and police officials, the government shall have to anchor the bilateral and transit trade regime in internationally accepted and practiced regimes relevant to landlocked countries.

Thirdly, transit trade access is as much an obligation on Pakistan as it is the duty of the Afghan government and businesses to deal with the issue professionally rather than act out of a bloated sense of entitlement.
Fourth, a 2560 km porous border, and a volatile situation complicated by trans-border terrorist and criminal networks places huge responsibility on both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Only a rational bilateral approach anchored in law and diplomatic norms can help the two countries avoid acrimony, suspicion and more bloodshed.


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