BANNU, Pakistan -- The likely reopening of a major trade route with Afghanistan has brought joy to North Waziristan, a beleaguered tribal district in northwestern Pakistan.
Traders view the looming resumption of trade and transport links with the southeastern Afghan province of Khost through the remote Ghulam Khan border crossing as a much-needed step to revive local economy.
They say reviving the trade route would go a long way toward restoring local jobs and businesses in North Waziristan after a decade of terrorist oppression and years of displacement following Pakistani antiterrorism offensives.
Haji Sattar, a trader in North Waziristan, says reopening the route after nearly three years will be crucial for reviving the local economy.
“We are elated and look forward to the reopening of this route, which will be a huge contribution to reviving our businesses,” he said. “It is a vital trade artery and offers a shortcut between the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the [southern Pakistani seaport of] Karachi.”
The Ghulam Khan border crossing was closed before the beginning of a large-scale Pakistani military operation in June 2014. Islamabad claims thousands of militants were killed in the Zarb-e Azab offensive, which forced Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and an assortment of Pakistani, Afghan, and Central Asian militants to flee the region. For years, North Waziristan was seen as the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda and various allied groups.
This road connects North Waziristan to Afghanistan's southeastern Khost Province.
But North Waziristan’s civilians say they are they are the worst victims of militants attacks and Pakistani military operations ostensibly aimed at countering the militant groups. Zarb-e Azab forced more than 1.5 million North Waziristan residents -- three-quarters of its entire population -- to move to Pakistan’s neighboring Bannu district or seek shelter in Afghanistan’s Khost region and neighboring Paktika and Paktia provinces.
Sattar hopes the opening of the route will help alleviate the suffering of Waziristan traders who are eager to re-establish business after years of exile.
“Pakistan can resume being a major supplier of wheat and rice to Afghanistan,” he said. “We want Islamabad to invest more to develop Ghulam Khan [as a major border crossing with Afghanistan].”
Islamabad announced the reopening of the Ghulam Khan crossing on November 15 when outgoing military chief General Raheel Sharif inaugurated a new road linking the border point to the county’s road network.
The 84-kilometer USAID-funded highway links Ghulam Khan to Bannu and will reduce the once six-hour journey to 90 minutes.
Naik Wali Khan, another North Waziristan trader, says the reopening of the trade corridor will help traders in some of the most underdeveloped regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“It will be a very attractive option for hauling supplies between Karachi and Kabul because it cuts the costs and travel time between the two cities in half,” he said. “In Waziristan, it will create jobs and profits in transport, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.”
Kamran Afridi, North Waziristan’s political agent, the most senior bureaucrat, sees trade along Ghulam Khan resuming within days.
Pakistani and Afghan officials meet near the Ghulam Khan border crossing.
He says trade with Afghanistan is the backbone of Waziristan’s economy.
“This [trade with neighboring Afghanistan] is the most important milestone in restoring stability to the region,” he told Radio Mashaal in September. “This will benefit both the state and the general population at large.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz Wazir in Bannu, Pakistan.