After its closure in February, the Pak-Afghan border was reopened for two days this week to let thousands of stranded children, women and men on both sides of the border go to their homes. Many trucks and containers loaded with all sorts of goods, some of them perishable, could also proceed to their destinations. The sudden and unilateral closure of the border by Pakistani side last month had created a humanitarian crisis that was deepening with every passing day. So opening the border and providing respite to thousands of stranded people is a positive step. But its closure once again for an indefinite period doesn’t augur well for normalisation of relations between the two close neighbours. This isn’t for the first time that the border has been unilaterally closed by the Pakistani side in total violation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement of 2010. This has become a routine strategy for Pakistan for putting pressure on Afghanistan. According to the said agreement, Afghan trucks are to enter Pakistan through Torkham (Khyber Agency), Ghulam Khan (North Waziristan) and Speen Boldak (Balochistan). There are five other lesser known crossing points that are manned and formally controlled by both sides. They are Arundu (Chitral), Gursal (Baujore), Nawa Pass (Momand Agency), Kharlachi (Kurram Agency) and Angoor Adda (South Waziristan). There are hundreds of other crossing points on the 2650 kilometres long Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan (according to one estimate at least 262). So the argument of “blocking the movement of terrorists” across the border in favour of its closure doesn’t hold ground. Why would the terrorists use the crossing points where there are security forces deployed on both sides for controlling the border in the first place. This possibility weakens further when one considers the fact that there are hundreds of uncontrolled and unfrequented routes available for terrorists to use for their cross border movement. The so called border management can be at best a long term project implementable only through bilateral cooperation. Unilateral border blockade actually hurts the prospects of the mutual cooperation on the border management project.
The present confrontation on the borders is further aggravated by heavy Pakistani artillery shelling into Afghan territory and terrorist attacks on some Pakistani border posts causing loss of precious human life on both sides. So what can be the real purpose of closing border indefinitely when the claims of “border management” and “blocking terrorists” do not hold ground? Those who have been carefully following the Pakistani security establishment’s Afghan policy can tell you that we have been here before. In early 1989, the Pakistani supported Afghan Mujahideen had tried to economically strangulate the government of President Dr Najibullah by making an effort for imposing an economic blockade on the routes in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Food supplies were the particular target of that blockade. Unlike the Afghan Mujahideen of that time, the Taliban aren’t able to do it by themselves. They don’t have the capacity. In fact mentors of Taliban on the east of Durand Line are quite disappointed in them although they wouldn’t publicly accept it for obvious reasons. Taliban haven’t been able to capture and hold even a single province in the almost three years despite the vast supplies and support received by them. So the conventional wisdom is that an economic blockade will weaken the Afghan Republic, making it vulnerable to the fresh Taliban spring or summer offensive.
It is interesting to note that the obsession of Pakistani security establishment with the Talibanisation of Afghanistan has seriously undermined the economic interests of Pakistan. Since 1991, there has been a lot of talk about accessing Central Asian markets which could have been a game changer for Pakistani economy even better than CPEC in the sense that it wouldn’t have required heavy burden of foreign debts. But the main hurdle on this path has been putting Taliban first to regional trade. Under Taliban controlled Afghanistan, Pak-Afghan annual trade was around 250 million dollars. In the post Taliban era, trade had reached to 2.5 billion dollars and in 2014 both sides had agreed to raise it to 5 billion dollars. Bilateral formal trade between the two countries has drastically decreased and is heading towards zero level due to growing insecurity, tension and border closures. The contradiction between Pakistani policy of regional economic cooperation and her Afghan policy was demonstrated quite dramatically by the fact that the latest border closure came at a time when Pakistan was hosting ECO Summit for promoting region connectivity and economic cooperation. It goes without saying that projects like TAPI and CASA will have no chance of implementation in presence of Taliban militancy.
Growing Indian influence in Pakistan’s western neighbouring country is used as justification for Pakistani support for Taliban. But Pakistani makers of the country’s Afghan policy have never pondered over the fact that their crude pressure over and coercion towards Afghanistan has greatly helped India in gaining further foothold in that country. India has consistently focused on projecting its soft power in Afghanistan by building dams, roads, schools, hospitals and monuments of democracy such as parliament and court buildings. Since Pakistan supported Taliban target all these facilities of public good, it is only natural that Pakistan and her policies receive a negative perception in the minds of common Afghans. Indian policy towards Afghanistan is quite sophisticated when it comes to promoting a soft image. PM Narendra Modi makes it a point to say some Pashto and Dari words in his public speeches in Afghanistan apart from appreciating rich culture of the host country. Even Indian technocrats are so conscious about their soft policy that they call India as economic partner of Afghanistan rather than a donor. In the light of these facts is it surprising to see the expansion of Indian influence in Afghanistan?
Another socio political fallout of a prolonged border closure with Afghanistan is its intended or unintended negative impact on the economic situation of the Pashtuns living in Pakistan. Thousands of Pashtun families including businessmen, transporters and daily wagers depend on transit trade and border trade with Afghanistan. Border closure seriously punishes them. Economic deprivation coupled with recent racial profiling of Pashtun IDPs in Punjab and Sindh can deepen political alienation among them. Pakistan’s bankrupt Afghan policy which brought drugs, klashnikov culture, extremism, sectarian and terrorism in Pakistan in the past can bring ethnic polarisation as well. Can Pakistan remove the albatross of a bankrupt Afghan policy from its neck for becoming a stable and prosperous country is a question crucial for her future.