The closure of the Pak-Afghan border has precipitated a new round of tensions between the estranged neighbors, with an amazing capacity to engage in recriminations.
In what was widely seen as a knee-jerk reaction, Pakistan sealed the main border crossings in Torkham and Chaman after a new wave of high-casualty terror attacks, blaming Afghanistan-based militants for the carnage in Sehwan, Charsadda and Lahore.
A landlocked country, Afghanistan is heavily reliant on imports and has reason to complain about inordinate delays in clearance of shipments and extortion on the road from Karachi to Torkham. Because of the blockade, truckloads of commodities have perished causing business people huge losses.
One felt intrigued by GHQ summoning Afghan diplomats and handing them a demarche, seeking deterrent action against Pakistani insurgents, who are allegedly hiding in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces and orchestrating assaults from there.
Hard on the heels of the Durand Line blockade, Pakistani troops heavily shelled what they called insurgent hideouts on Afghan soil. Incensed by the shelling, Kabul predictably came up with a tit-for-tat response, summoning the Pakistani ambassador four times in less than a fortnight.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan’s Deputy Commander-in-Chief General Murad Ali Murad asked ambassador Abrar Hussain point-blank for de-escalation of tensions, reopening the crossing points and halting incursions.
A perfunctory look at the Islamabad Declaration amply proves ECO states are gravely concerned at the multiple challenges facing Afghanistan today.
As both sides toughened their positions on terror sanctuaries and the border tiff, President Ghani and his chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, stayed away from the important gathering.
Instead Ambassador D. Omar Zakhilwal attended the summit and focused on regional connectivity and integration. This low level of participation, an act of tokenism, was indicative of the deep-seated animosity between Afghanistan and Pakistan, chiefly on the Durand line that Kabul does not recognise as a formal border.
Unauthorised to make any decision on defusing the current edgy situation, the ambassador only grumbled about Pakistan’s confidence-busting actions. While seeking the instant reopening of all transit routes, he saw little rationale for the blanket measure.
Since the summit was all about enhanced regional trade and connectivity, Afghanistan’s absence signalled its cynicism about the Pakistani initiative. A country trying to promote trade in the neighbourhood is least expected to resort to one-sided steps like restricting the movement of people and merchandise.
In the build-up to the summit, the Ghani administration slammed the stringent border controls and mass arrests of Afghans in Pakistan as an exercise in smoke and mirrors. The forcible repatriation of thousands of documented refugees has obviously put his under-resourced and unprepared government in a pickle.
During the current week, thousands rallied in the Panjwai district of Kandahar and Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, shouting “death to Pakistan” and “down with aggressors”. Residents of the two provinces, unlike their compatriots in the north, generally view Pakistan as a friendly nation that has hosted them for decades.
One key objective behind Kabul’s decision was to show the world at large and ECO members in particular that Pakistan — seeking access to the vast Central Asian market — has little respect for the decisions of any regional grouping. The Afghan government insists on the implementation of the decisions taken at previous meetings.
In fact, the border closure runs counter to the very spirit behind the creation of ECO — bringing member states closer through greater trade in the region. Many Afghan commentators believe Ghani’s presence at the summit would have sent a message that he has kowtowed to Pakistan’s pressure tactics.
CBMs such as people-to-people contact and cross-border commerce can go a long way in ending the ongoing conflict and discouraging extremism. On the contrary, choking these channels emboldens insurgents to intensify their activities and pose even more sinister threats to both nations.
Under the transit trade deal between the two sides, supply routes have to be kept open. But at the moment, more than 6,000 goods-laden trucks are stranded on both sides of the border. Mounting demurrage costs, transport fares and perishing products have perceptibly left business people in a quandary.
Pakistani exporters, who failed to deliver transactions on time under the transit trade agreement, as well as WTO and Saarc principles, have suffered tremendously. Will Islamabad see the patent reality that the road to Central Asia lies through Afghanistan?
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
This article first appeared at Dawn. Click here to go to the original.