Taliban back to bite Islamabad: How closure of crucial Pakistan-Afghanistan is upending daily lives


Pakistan is facing trouble from all corners. Besides the economic crisis plaguing the nation and plunging it into despair, the country is also facing trouble with its neighbours at its borders. Over the last two days, the Pakistani leadership has been in talks with Taliban authorities in neighbouring Afghanistan to resolve differences that has led to the closure of their busiest border crossing, stranding thousands of cargo trucks and travellers from both sides.

The talks — led by Pakistani defence minister Khwaja Asif along with ISI chief Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum and Afghanistan’s acting deputy prime minister for economic affairs Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — are being held after Afghan authorities closed the Torkham border crossing, a key trade route, accusing Pakistan of not abiding by its commitments.

Following the talks, a statement from the Afghan side read, “Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighbours and should have cordial relations. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants expansion of commercial and economic relations with Pakistan as such relations are in the interest of both countries.”

The statement further stated that political and security issues should not affect trade and economic matters between the two countries and be kept separate from political and security problems.

But what’s the background behind the talks? Why did Afghanistan shut the crossing? How does it affect both countries? We give you all the answers and more.

The Torkham border crossing

At the very heart of the issue is the important Torkham border crossing. For the unaware, Afghanistan and Pakistan share an over 2,600-km long border. It has 18 border crossings and of them, Torkham located along the Grand Trunk Road is one of the busiest.

It has been used by traders and invaders from Alexander the Great to the British Empire. The Torkham crossing was also a route that US-backed mujahideen took into Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is part of a region “caught between various empires,” says Sarfraz Khan, a University of Peshawar international relations professor.

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

Today, the crossing is manned by the Afghan Border Police and Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. Some 10,000-15,000 people use the crossing near the Khyber Pass each day. The crossing is also used extensively for trade purposes. In November last year, director of the Pak-Afghan Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industry had said that the export volume of Pakistani products to Afghanistan through Torkham border point was continuously increasing.

It is of utmost importance to Afghanistan that uses it for exporting coal and receive food and other essentials from Pakistan. It is also become the main point of entry to Pakistan for Afghan refugees.

Why shut the crossing?

On Sunday, the Taliban — which is ruling Afghanistan — shut down the border crossing. Their reason: they claimed that Pakistani immigration officials were “misbehaving” with Afghan visitors, particularly those seeking medical care in Pakistan.

When asked about the closure of the border crossing, Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as saying that Afghan citizens were being “very humiliatingly” treated by Pakistani border officials.

The Torkham border crossing is often used by people in Afghanistan to enter Pakistan for medical aid. FIle image/Reuters

“Their travel documents and identity as well as refugee cards were being torn and thrown away. Patients requiring medical care (in Pakistan) and elderly men as well as women were also being harshly treated,” said Mujahid.

Following the closure of the border crossing, tensions escalated further on Monday when Pakistani border guards and Afghan Taliban forces traded cross-border fire. The incident led to one Pakistani guard being injured, as per an ANI news report. Locals in the area, according to several reports, also said that they could hear heavy gunfire for hours.

Mohammad Ali Shinwari, a resident of Landi Kotal on the Pakistani side, said the border was closed late on Sunday and gunfire erupted early on Monday, Reuters news agency reported. “When we heard gunshots in the morning, we got worried and believed that troops of the two countries might have started fighting,” he said.

What’s the result of shutting the border crossing?

The closure of the border crossing at Torkham has led to trade coming almost to a halt; thousands of trucks carrying goods and essentials are stranded.

Zia-ul-Haq Sarhadi, a member of Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chambers of Commerce, said that over 6,000 trucks have been stopped on both sides of Torkham border. According to Sarhadi, closure of Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has caused heavy losses to the traders.

He added that Afghanistan relied on goods from Pakistan for much of its needs and many trucks were also heading to different Central Asian locations using Afghanistan as a transit point. “The traders and particularly those supplying fresh food items such as fruits, vegetables are facing huge losses as trucks are stranded for days now,” he said to Pakistan newspaper, The Tribune.

Stranded trucks loaded with supplies for Afghanistan, line up on a highway after Afghan Taliban rulers closed a key border crossing point Torkham, in Landi Kotal, an area Pakistan’s district Khyber along Afghan border. AP

He also told the newspaper that some trucks had been diverted to other, smaller crossings, but traders were worried about the security of truck drivers travelling in those regions.

Besides trade being impacted, shutting the border crossing has also hurt people in need of medical aid.

Will this hurt Pakistan-Afghan ties?

Pakistani leaders have been in talk with their Afghan counterparts on the issue, but as of now talks have yielded no results. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that the border crossing has been shut down. Over the past 20 years, the gateway has been shut down for traffic and passengers once by Afghanistan and mostly by Pakistan for unknown reasons.

Also read: Time for India to keep an eye on Kabul as all’s not well in Afghanistan and Taliban-Pakistan ties

Ties between the two countries are already strained in light of the rising violence in Pakistan being perpetrated by the Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is allied with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistani officials have previously alleged that the outlawed group is launching attacks on their country from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban has denied those accusations.

Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also raised the issue of the violence by the TTP at Munich Security Conference on Sunday, saying that the risks of armed fighting stemming from Afghan soil could affect the world.

With inputs from agencies

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Taliban back to bite Islamabad: How closure of crucial Pakistan-Afghanistan is upending daily lives
Taliban back to bite Islamabad: How closure of crucial Pakistan-Afghanistan is upending daily lives
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