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Asia

Afghan-Pak border reopens, problems still remain

Pakistan has temporarily reopened its border with Afghanistan allowing thousands of stranded people to return home. But trade between the two nations has yet to resume and businesses are losing millions each day.

Pakistan on Tuesday, March 7, temporarily opened its border crossings with Afghanistan - Torkham and Chaman - which it had closed last month after a wave of militant attacks in the country killed dozens of civilians. 

The border will remain open for two days and people holding visas from either country are allowed to cross.

But transportation of commercial goods and merchandise is still not allowed both ways.

That means Afghan and Pakistani businesspeople have to continue waiting indefinitely before business can return to normal.

Officials, however, say the border closure has already dented business on both sides, resulting in losses amounting to about $80 million over the past three weeks. Perishable goods, they add, have either gone bad or had to be sold for a very low price.

"Afghan and Pakistani businessmen are losing $4 million on average each day," said Khan Jan Alokozay, vice chairman of Afghanistan's Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI).

Afghanistan, Alokozay noted, is not suffering alone; Pakistani factories, businesses and the logistics industry are paying a huge price too.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan rely heavily on each other with regard to international transit and trade. Landlocked Afghanistan's closest, and therefore cheapest, route to international waters is through Pakistan's port city of Karachi.

For Pakistan, meanwhile, Afghanistan presents the shortest route to reach Central Asian markets.

Afghanistan also remains a huge market for Pakistani products, with the total value of exports in 2016 estimated at $1.5 billion. Total bilateral trade, meanwhile, amounted to around $1.8 billion.

Closing border won't stop militants

Pakistan's move to close the crossings was aimed at stopping militants from Afghanistan from entering the country and carrying out attacks on Pakistani soil. Experts, however, say the measure is futile because militants don't necessarily have to use the official crossings.

Instead, militants with sanctuaries on either side of the border often use one of many other unofficial crossings along the over 2,400-kilometer frontier.

"There are over 20 unofficial crossings along the Afghan-Pak border which militants use to move between the two countries," Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based analyst on the Taliban and a former member of the group, told DW. "I believe the initial goal of closing the border from the Pakistani side is to put economic pressure on Afghanistan," he added.

Many other Afghanistan observers agree, pointing to Islamabad's efforts to highlight to countries like the United States - a mutual ally of both South Asian nations - that it also suffers from cross-border terrorism.

Both Kabul and Islamabad accuse each other of providing sanctuaries to militant groups which carry out terrorist attacks on the other side of the border. And Pakistani and Afghan officials customarily deny the allegations leveled by the other side.

"It is very difficult to determine what Pakistan is aiming to achieve, but it is a fact that the closure of the border caused damage on both sides of the border but the impact on Afghanistan was bigger," Yunus Fakur, a Kabul-based analyst, told DW.

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Islamabad is increasingly worried about India's influence in Afghanistan. Former Afghan diplomat Ahmad Saidi argues Pakistan is trying to put pressure on Afghanistan to achieve its long-term goals such as persuading Kabul to distance itself from New Delhi.

"Governments pursue long-term policies and consider the current loses that people suffer as collateral damage," he said.

Looking for alternatives

Tensions along the Afghan-Pak border have existed for many years. The government in Pakistan, experts say, often closes border crossings for political reasons causing millions of dollars of losses to Afghan businesses.

To end Afghanistan's reliance on Pakistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been working with countries like Iran and China to seek access to international waters and markets.

Consequently, Afghanistan, India and Iran signed a deal last May to develop the port of Chabahar in Iran and committed themselves to building a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that could help halve the time and cost of doing business in the region.

Increasing business with Central Asian countries is another measure Afghanistan has taken, which has led to a drop in trade between Kabul and Islamabad over the past couple of years.

But Pakistan still remains the cheapest route for Afghanistan to reach international waters. Experts warn that using the border crossing as a means of putting political pressure will only result in the people of both countries paying a higher price. "It is the ordinary people who pay the ultimate price for bigger political games. The government in Kabul and Islamabad need to put an end to the current situation," Fakur said.

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