For two weeks starting late February the Afghan-Pakistan border crossings at Torkham and Chaman-Spin Boldak were closed by Pakistani authorities. Thousands of people and vehicles were trapped on both sides of the border. Even Afghanistan-bound Afghan citizens with valid travel documents on them were stuck on the Pakistani side of the border, as Pakistan would not allow them to enter Afghanistan. The border crossings were closed unilaterally by Pakistani authorities following several deadly attacks across Pakistan in mid-February, which left around 100 dead and another 500 wounded. Apparently, the measure was intended to boost security in Pakistan, and to curb the influx of terrorists from Afghanistan – as if terrorists used regular border crossings to sneak into Pakistan.
It seems that Pakistani authorities did not properly take into account the long-term negative consequences of frequently closing their border crossings with Afghanistan. This move will have further deepened the growing divide between the two countries, and drive Afghanistan closer to India, Iran and Central Asian countries, among others. By closing its border with Afghanistan, Pakistan will achieve no substantive objectives.
Border Closures Deepen the Afghan-Pak Divide
Over the last 15 years, Pakistan has closed its border multiple times with Afghanistan, with the frequency tending to rise when relations between the two countries are at a low ebb. For this reason, Afghans believe that Pakistan uses border closures as a bargaining chip to force concessions from Afghanistan. Time and time again, border closures by Pakistani authorities would force prices in Afghanistan higher, as a big chunk of Afghanistan’s imports and exports came through Pakistan.
As such, border closures with Pakistan mainly affects two categories of people: first, businesspeople in both countries; second, Afghan medical tourists in Pakistan. Afghanistan is trying to find a long-term solution to the problem, but it is at any rate in a relatively better position to help its businesspeople as well as its medical tourists.
First of all, Afghanistan has diversified its trade partners, and it no longer has to rely on any one or two countries for trade, especially for imports of basic food items and petroleum. Having become a World Trade Organization (WTO) member, Afghanistan can now import from and export to 163 countries. Consequently, unlike in the past, despite the key Af-Pak border crossings being closed for almost two weeks, prices on Afghan markets remained stable. And the longer the border remains closed, the less its impact on Afghan markets becomes, as Afghan businesspeople have more time to substitute imports from Pakistan with those from Iran, India, China, and Central Asian countries.
As a result of tense relations and frequent border closures, according to BCC Persian, trade volume between Pakistan and Afghanistan has declined from $3 billion a couple years ago to just $500 million in early 2017. Taken at face value, these figures indicate more than an 80 percent drop in commerce between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This best showcases how Pakistan’s unwritten policy of closing borders as a means of putting pressure on Afghanistan has failed to produce any tangible results.
In the meantime, Afghan-Iran trade volume has increased 25 percent, from $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and now accounts for a quarter of Afghanistan’s total annual trade. As trade with and through Pakistan has become more troublesome, Afghan businesspeople have tilted toward Iran. A number of factors now point to growing commerce between Afghanistan and Iran: the continuing deterioration in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the lifting of international sanctions against Iran; construction of railroad between Iran and Afghanistan; and India’s building of the Chabahar Port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Highway in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan and India are also working on ways to expand bilateral trade. Last year, at the Heart of Asia Summit in Amritsar, Afghan and Indian officials looked at establishing a commercial air corridor, so that both countries would no longer have to rely on Pakistan for overland trade. As of October 2016, Afghanistan’s exports to India amounted to $79.81 million, with imports at $151.94 million. When Chabahar Port becomes operational in early to mid 2018, those figures (currently about half the Afghan-Pak trade volume) should rise. Unlike Pakistan which continues to alienate Afghan businesspeople, India has “liberalized” its visa policy for Afghan businesspeople, who can now obtain one- to five-year visas, and can stay in India for up to 180 days continuously.
Second, last year Pakistan’s The News International reported a significant drop in Afghan medical tourists visiting Pakistan. The same source quoted Dr. Tariq Khan of the Northwest Hospital in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that 40-50 percent of its patients had been Afghan citizens, but that the hospital had seen a sharp drop in that number. A couple of years ago, the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul observed that nearly one-third of Pakistani visas were issued to Afghan medical tourists.
These numbers would have represented a significant contribution to the Pakistani economy. But as India continues to court Afghan medical tourists and relaxes its visa policy, an increasing number of patients are heading for India. If Pakistan made travel conditions less onerous, it would likely once again see an influx of Afghan medical tourists, not only contributing to Pakistan’s economy but also strengthening people-to-people relations.
Afghanistan and Pakistan Need Each Other
As Afghan-Pak relations continue to deteriorate, Indo-Afghan relations will deepen further, as India will step in to fill the vacuum created by Pakistan, something that could hardly be considered to be in Pakistan’s interest. For instance, India didn’t start expanding the Chabahar Port overnight after the fall of the Taliban to compete with Pakistan. Over time, as Pakistan mismanaged trade and border-related matters with Afghanistan, India’s presence grew, and the gap between Afghanistan and Pakistan became wider still. In other words, when Pakistan steps back, India steps in.
Yet there is still room for cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For example, to import power – for which demand is skyrocketing in Pakistan – from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Pakistan has to rely on Afghanistan. Extending power pylons from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through China to Pakistan invites economic disaster. The same is true of Central Asian gas and oil, which Pakistan needs for its growing population and economy. The shortest, cheapest, and naturally most feasible way is through Afghanistan. If Afghanistan needs access to open waters through Pakistan, the former needs viable access to Central Asia through the latter for commerce and energy.
More importantly, both countries need to take joint and coordinated action against terrorists. Pakistan has to take firm steps against the militants that operate from its territory against Afghanistan. The fact that anti-Afghanistan armed groups operate from Pakistani territory is now accepted even by Pakistani officials. The question Pakistan should wrestle with is what to do about them. Afghanistan for its part should also take action against anti-Pakistan militants based in Afghanistan. Afghanistan can no longer deny allegations concerning the presence of Pakistani Taliban on Afghan soil. Pakistani Taliban active in Afghanistan do not target Afghan interests, while the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan don’t target Pakistani interests.
Despite deteriorating state-to-state relations, people-to-people relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain strong, albeit vulnerable to media propaganda and the actions or lack thereof of their respective governments. Repeated border closures on the part of Pakistan are driving ordinary Afghans closer to India and Iran, as evidenced by the 84 percent decline in bilateral trade, and the 50 percent drop in Afghan medical tourists in Pakistan. Worse, the most recent border closure seems to have failed to force Afghanistan’s hand. If Pakistan were to reverse its policy of creating obstacles for Afghan medical tourists and businesspeople, it is likely that Afghans would once again replace India and Iran with Pakistan as their natural and closer trade partner, and as a destination for medical tourism.
Arwin Rahi was an adviser to the governor of Parwan, where the U.S. had its largest military base and detention facility in Afghanistan. He has written for the BBC Persian, Forbes, the Diplomat, and the OSCE Academy and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, among other outlets. He has a master’s degree in politics and security studies with a focus on Central Asia and Afghanistan from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, and a master’s degree in international affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas. Rahi can be reached at [email protected].