By Rustam Shah Mohmand
Never before has the Pak–Afghan border been in such a mess. And never before has it caused such pain and misery to millions of people on both sides.
On a ‘normal day,’ hundreds of trucks loaded with all sorts of goods and commodities are stranded on each side of the border at Torkham — the main crossing point not very far from Peshawar. These trucks have to wait for days to get ‘clearance’ to pass. And getting clearance is not ‘easy.’ The drivers have to spend days under sweltering sun and seek some space to rest at night, battling mosquitoes. Most of the fruit or other eatables decompose and have to be abandoned at a great loss to businesses. What a sad, ugly spectacle at an international border crossing between two ‘brotherly’ countries!
Corruption is endemic and is well accepted and tolerated as long as people, goods or trucks can manage to pass through after three, four days of blistering summer. The situation at Chaman-Spin Buldak crossing point in Balochistan is no better either. Other crossings along the border are either not operational or limited to just a few vehicles — at the discretion of those who have the authority to ‘manage’ the border.
Why has it come to such a pass?
One can imagine the sufferings of the people crossing the border and their anger and frustration for the hardship and humiliation they endure. Firstly, there is the problem of around 10 different agencies managing the border traffic. And each department has its own ‘mandate’ or charter to go by. The local civil administration that used to coordinate the activities of other agencies and lay down a system for quick and orderly clearance of people and goods is no longer in the lead role. And that has caused all the problems. With the civil administration no longer exercising control and assuming responsibility for efficient border management, the role has been assigned to the civil armed forces or the military – with little accountability. This has developed a culture of total indifference to the woes and hardships of the travelers. Afghans have to cross the border to meet their relatives in Pakistan, seek medical treatment, do business, and to meet their sons and daughters studying in Pakistani educational institutions. Such movement along the border has been going on for generations. As a matter of fact, the right of people on both sides to cross the border without any hindrance has been recognized in a treaty that was signed between the Kabul government and the British India. But that is an old story.
Not very long ago, Afghans used to be permitted to cross over into Pakistan on the production of a ‘tazkira’ or identity card. There was no need for passports and visas. No problems were caused in administering such a system. Now all Afghans are required to possess a valid passport and visa for travel to Pakistan. But the administrative infrastructure to issue visas to thousands of Afghans every day does not exist. That has led to agony and anger all over the land-locked country. Another big issue is that in 2019 the entire border was ordered to be fenced at an astounding cost of $1 billion. Such fencing of the border created a string of complications for the people, especially those living close to the border.
The fencing for which no approval was sought from parliament was pushed through at an exorbitant cost — in the name of ‘national security.’ It cuts across tribes living on both sides of the border. No longer can members of the same tribe visit relatives on the other side; they can’t attend weddings of their loved ones, neither their funerals. More importantly, it has closed all doors on border trade that provided means of livelihood to thousands of people. The fencing of the border that has to be maintained at a great cost to the country has led to acrimony and hostility in Afghanistan. On the one hand, there are no resources or administrative machinery to issue thousands of visas every day and on the other, the border has been completely sealed. What message is being conveyed across to the government and the people of Afghanistan? No wonder the border trade has come down to just under $700 million from more than $2.5 billion a few years ago.
The goal of a border management policy is to help stabilize the frontier, create a conducive environment for trade, enhance people-to-people contacts, and to promote better understanding between neighbors. A policy that is designed to perpetuate hatred and ill will would kill all chances of expanding bilateral ties. And the ultimate sufferers would be the people. In addition, the border security would be in jeopardy.
The current border policy runs counter to the goal of promoting brotherhood, peace, security, prosperity and better management. There is a need for a dispassionate reappraisal based on lessons learnt. It is imperative that an authorized representative of the civil administration assume complete control of all the border crossings, while other departments give their professional inputs. The goal should be clearance of people, goods within a couple of hours with no backlog, no delays, no inconvenience and no hardship for travelers, traders, students, men, women, children, sick and the elderly. Better border management would enhance Pakistan’s image and reduce the sufferings of the people.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)