The Khyber Agency’s sub-division Jamrud touches Peshawar – the former in FATA, beyond the pale of the constitution; and the latter in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, very much within it. The famous shops for hashish, alcohol and other substances have been closed or replaced with barbecue restaurants under the slogan of “Nashay ke khilaf jihad” (Jihad against substance use). The shutters of shops are coloured with Pakistan’s green and white flag. Near the Takhta Baig check-post, green Pakistani flags indicate the complete elimination of Taliban militants from the Khyber Agency.
The road from Peshawar’s Karkhano area to Landi Kotal is newly built by USAID with a huge budget. But cracks have appeared at various points along the road, due to the passage of heavy transport vehicles – part of the transit trade with Afghanistan and further.
A majority of the containers have been bought on 50,000 rupees-per-month installments. Everyone is worried about their installments
Noor Zia, an Afghan woman, was in Peshawar for medical treatment. Then the Sehwan attack happened in Pakistan’s Sindh province and in response, Pakistani authorities closed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which stretches for upwards of 2000 kilometres. Noor Zia was stuck in Landi Kotal, Pakistan, at the doorstep of her country’s border. She was waiting to traverse the 500-yard distance to cross the Durand Line – the famed name of the border ever since British colonial times. A few days ago, in a stampede on the border, she fell and never stood up again. Noor Zia died while looking towards Afghanistan and her body was sent to Afghanistan.
Incidents such as this have ignited much anger across Afghanistan. Hundreds of stranded Afghans – men, women and children with legal documents – on the Pakistani side of the border are desperate for their homes. They are unable to cross. Frustration is rising everywhere – in a Pakistan wracked by terrorist violence and in an Afghanistan which feels its people are being unfairly blamed.
In February, a series of horrific suicide attacks at the Mohmand Agency (FATA), Lahore, Sehwan and other parts of the country violently called into question the claims from Pakistani official circles of having “won the war” against terrorists. It is a well-known jibe now that the militants’ “back has been broken” (a common refrain from Pakistani officials) many times but the injured and paralysed terrorists are still able to hit the very centre of big cities. In Mohmand Agency and Shabqadar, the armed forces’ response was greatly appreciated but it is hard to deny that Pakistan’s previously much-vaunted counter-terror strategy is failing to achieve its ultimate goal – that of protecting civilians across the country from jihadist violence.
Pakistani authorities seem to have been jolted into action after the carnage at the sacred shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh, which caused some 88 fatalities and was claimed by the Islamic State group; and an attack in Lahore in which more than a dozen lost their lives, for which responsibility was later claimed by the Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Following this and other violent attacks, a series of operations carried out by security forces in different part of the country resulted in a claimed killing of 100 terrorists and thus presumably the score been ‘equalised’. In the absence of further details, the value of such actions by the authorities remains a mystery.
The attack in Sehwan proved a strong presence of the Islamic State group in Pakistan, although such ground realities were continuously denied by the state authorities previously.
Pakistani authorities closed the Chaman, Torkham and other crossing points into Afghanistan and blamed Pakistani-born, Afghanistan-based terrorists for the attacks. The Afghan ambassador was summoned by Pakistan’s powerful military and handed over a list of terrorists based on the other side of Durand Line. Security forces spoke of surgical strikes in Afghanistan and of destroying the terrorists’ training camps. To strengthen these claims, the military’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued photos to the media.
Dr. Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, issued a social media message as a reaction to the border closure: “Continuous unreasonable closure of legal Pak/Afghan trade and transit routes can’t have any other explanation except to be aimed at hurting the common people.”
The ambassador went on to claim that “border crossing points have been manned by hundreds of military and other security personnel, and have all checking infrastructure and equipment in place”. Representing the view from Kabul, the ambassador rejected the idea that a closing down of the border from the Pakistani side would be beneficial in counter-terror operations.
Aziz Afridi, a history student, rejects the official policies of both the neighbours. He tells me that he believes instead of coming closer together, “the two brethren (Afghanistan and Pakistan) are splitting day by day, although we are of the same colour, creed and culture.”
I find that more than 300 stranded Afghans are stuck – with legal documentation – in the Khyber Agency’s Landi Kotal Bazaar. The local shopkeepers in the bazaar tell me that historically the Torkham border crossing has remained closed many times and that each time the locals would come to help the Afghans. But this time, the residents are reluctant to openly assist these stranded men and women – from fear of incurring the suspicion of authorities.
A white-bearded old man speaks to me only on condition of anonymity. “This is pathetic. The great culture of Pakhtun hospitality is being ruined this way!” He believes this situation is due to the failure of policy-makers to take into the account the effects of their decisions on people on the ground, on both sides. “Such policies only implant the seeds of hate, and nothing else!” the old man concludes.
Saeed Khan is trapped – with a visa on his passport. He sleeps and eats on a plastic mat provided by a local organisation. “I am here for my boy’s medical treatment in Peshawar but for days now we are waiting and waiting…” a disappointed Saeed wails. “This would not normalise the relations, it hurts us and I won’t come here next time!”
Saeed starts weeping. He further complains, “We were considering Pakistan our home and every difficult time for this land upsets us as would a difficult time for Afghanistan.”
In these times of suspicion and hostility, there is an organisation called the “Landi Kotal Falahi Tanzeem” (LKFT), run by Akhtar Ali. “We provide two meals including breakfast to the Afghans on a daily basis” Akhtar says. He adds that local small businessmen, Afghan traders in Peshawar city and even journalists from the Khyber Agency contribute for this humanitarian cause.
At the time of NATO forces’ active presence in Afghanistan, the local people established container terminals on Peshawar’s Ring Road. This very risky and profitable business flourished on the road from Peshawar to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These terminals were attacked dozens of times by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) due to their role in providing logistical support to NATO soldiers. Since the withdrawal of a major chunk of foreign soldiers from Afghan soil, these busy terminals became deserted. But due to the Afghan border closure these spots once again became important for transporters – to wait in.
In one of the terminals there are more than 20 containers full of goods. All are waiting for a green signal to resume their journey towards various Afghan cities.
Sources in Landi Kotal Bazaar inform me about the smuggling routes still unsealed
Zawta Khan, whose family is in the transport business since three decades, tells me: “Our four containers full of cloth, tea, shampoos and other goods are standing in this terminal. We could earn 10,000 rupees per day but after the Torkham Gate shut down, I spend 2,500 to 3,000 rupees as expenses for drivers, conductors and watchmen each day.” He counts it all on his fingertips.
Since three weeks, the Afghan border is locked by authorities. On the Indus Highway, in most of the hotels for drivers and petrol stations, hundreds of containers and trucks lie waiting, the vehicles with windscreens covered.
Agha Gul is a watchman in a petrol station on the Ring Road. He is the only happy man for the closure of the Afghan border, as he earns a good amount on a daily basis these days.
“I am watching eight containers and get 1,600 rupees every 24 hours!” Jan smiles. The happy watchman further says, “My salary is 8,000 rupees per month but now in border-closure days I make good money. Now, every day I buy fruits and fresh vegetables for my family…”
Transporter Zawta Khan, understandably, is not so delighted. He says that on the Indus highway and even the Ring Road (which is in Peshawar) robbers could at any time attack and take the drivers’ belongings and goods from containers. They are, therefore, forced to hire watchmen 24 hours a day.
Anwar Khan, an Afghan transporter, is carrying garments, cosmetics and soap to Kabul. Anwar was born in Pakistan but after the recent crackdown on Afghan refugees he has migrated to Jalalabad across the border. “I have flourished here in Peshawar’s Baghwanan village and now it’s very tough to adjust in Afghanistan at once.” Anwar Khan is stuck in Khyber Agency for the last 20 days and still doesn’t know his fate. “During the day, the road leading to Torkham border is busy but after the sunset these dry mountains scare us!” a worried Anwar says.
Anwar has his own container worth Rs. 8 million. “After much hard work and struggle, I have bought it. But I am in a state of great worry now, for my asset and my life – while staying under the open sky in the middle of black hills!” he laments. “My family is very worried these days for me, and once a day I inform them about my whereabouts. I let them know that I am alive!”
Zawta Khan and Anwar Khan opine that a majority of the containers have been bought on 50,000 rupees-per-month installments. Since 20 days, vehicles are stopped on both sides of the border. Everyone is worried about their monthly installments. They talk about the daily losses, not just in terms of immediate payments. I am told that the containers can weigh some 50 tons each. Standing in one place, bearing such a weight, can ruin a vehicle’s tires – an additional expense which could go up to 40,000 rupees.
Both the transporters are of the view that the continuous chaotic and strained relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan will set the stage for much longer rifts between people. Anwar Khan says, “We transporters could pave the way for peaceful coexistence, as we are travelling all the time from Karachi in Pakistan to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.
Even though the watchman Agha Gul is earning good money while the border stays closed, he wishes for a peaceful route from Kabul to Delhi via Lahore.
Zawta Khan, meanwhile, emphasises that transport is the real driver of any economy. “If transporters are ruined,” he trails off – he believes the consequences are obvious.
Meanwhile, my sources in Landi Kotal Bazaar inform me about the smuggling routes still unsealed. “The Bazaar Zakhakhel route is still open and the rough road is being used by smugglers with clandestine agreements with the local political administration” one source tells me.
My sources further tell me that that Bazaar Zakhahkel is effectively under the control of the Tawheed-ul-Islam group. I am further told that the organisation is targeting the banned Lashkar-e-Islam group – the followers of hardliner militant Mangal Bagh in the Khyber Agency. My sources say members of the group are able to circumvent restrictions on firearms and vehicles with unpaid customs.
Haji Dadeen is in the barbecued meat business since decades. He is a famous for his delicious cooking in Landi Kotal. Before the border closure he would slaughter 12 to 14 lambs in his hotel each day and was living a comfortable life with his family. “We have never been in such a recession even during the Afghan war. These days I slaughter only 4 to 5 lambs…” he says
Khyber Agency journalist Abdul Azam points out that business on borders always depends on the free movement of people. It creates interdependence for both sides of a border such as this one.
Azam believes all those who have legal documents should be allowed through. Ugly incidents like the death of Noor Zia will ruin bilateral relations, he believes. “The inhabitants of the border could be great peacekeepers due to their centuries-old cultural and religious relations with the people on the other side” the journalist opines.
Malik Sohni, president of the Sabzi (vegetables) and Fruits Mandi (wholesale market) is very upset and complains about the new policy of sealing the border. “We appreciate the achievements of the state against militancy but this sudden shutdown strategy badly damages our businesses,” Sohni says. For Pakistani agricultural products, Afghanistan is a crucial market, Sohni points out.
The Pakistani exchequer receives billions of rupees per day as custom duties from legal business with Afghanistan. Beside this there are dozens of clearance points on the Ghulam Khan, Torkham and Spin Boldak border crossings. A report says that after the European Union and the United States, Afghanistan is the third major destination for Pakistani products. Due to the continuous hostile relations, Pakistani exports have fallen dramatically.
Kabul-based Afghan journalist Abasin Barial tells me about the changes in prices of various products after the border closure, “Pakistani agricultural and industrial products have been replaced by Iranian, Chinese and Indian ones and this time there is no chaotic situation as it was in previous times.” Abasin believes the Afghan government has been working to minimise dependence on Pakistan.
Anwar Khan says, “We transporters could pave the way for peaceful coexistence”
Businessman Zahid Shinwari, Director the Pakistan-Afghan Joint Chamber of Commerce, criticises the Pakistani government’s policies towards Afghanistan. “Our products have been replaced by China, Iran and India in quick succession in Afghanistan!” Zahid discloses.
A repeated theme that comes up is that the closure of bilateral trade hurts Pakistan just as much as Afghanistan – perhaps even significantly more. Zahid Shinwari categorically rejects claims of closing the long Pakistan-Afghanistan. The businessman is of the view that only the legal business routes have been closed, but that smuggling is still going on.
“Both the nations are facing a testing time in their history,” journalist Abdul Azam remarks. “Instead of a blame game, neighbours should work together for eradication of militancy from the region” he believes.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @raufabdur