BANNU, Pakistan -- The reopening of a major trade route connecting western Pakistan’s North Waziristan region with southeastern Afghanistan was touted as a major step toward stabilizing the restive border region, which is still reeling from years of terrorist attacks and the military’s counterinsurgency sweeps.
But four months later, traders say the Ghulam Khan border crossing has failed to deliver the prosperity that was promised because of customs restrictions that block free trade between North Waziristan and the neighboring southeastern Afghan province of Khost.
Qamar Zaman is one of scores of traders in North Waziristan’s administrative capital, Miran Shah, whose livelihoods depend on importing produce from Afghanistan.
“This amounts to economic murder. We have no option but to protest this move,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Trade through this border crossing is our economic lifeline.”
Another trader, Abdullah Khan, says customs officials at Ghulam Khan have stopped them from importing tomatoes and grapes from Afghanistan.
“When the border first reopened [in May], our business flourished, but now it is dead,” he said.
North Waziristan traders say customs authorities are only allowing Pakistani traders to export cement, food, and electronics while preventing them from importing Afghan produce. Many are still not sure what rules they are supposed to follow.
“Everyone knows trade between the two countries can flourish if it is bilateral,” Khan noted. “We borrowed a lot in Afghanistan. Now our debts are piling up.”
Khan says the only thing that made their investment profitable was the relatively free movement of goods across their restive border. “We would send goods into Afghanistan and then bring in stuff from there [without any paperwork],” he said.
Khan says traders in North Waziristan incurred huge losses when the Ghulam Khan crossing was closed for nearly four years after the Pakistani military launched a large-scale military operation in June 2014. More than 1 million residents were displaced by the offensive, which the military says rid the region of militants.
In Khost, Afghan trader Anwar Khan sees little economic benefit in restricting trade through Ghulam Khan in the name of customs regulations.
“We were really hoping for an economic upturn in this underdeveloped border region when the crossing reopened, but these [customs] measures have brought bilateral trade to a virtual standstill,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our farmers have lost a lot because they can’t find a market for their produce.”
Anwar says several of his trucks carrying fruit and ropes made from plants have now been held up at the border crossing for more than a week.
“It’s difficult to do business in such conditions,” he said.
The nearly 2,500-kilometer porous Durand Line border between landlocked Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically seen few regulations.
In the past, most of the official trade between the neighbors took place through the Torkham crossing in the north and Chaman in the south. In recent years, Pakistan fenced off many parts of the border and opened several new crossings for official bilateral trade.
Authorities in North Waziristan say trade through Ghulam Khan is key for reviving the local economy. A senior civilian official told Radio Mashaal they are hoping to sort out the customs issues soon.
Tahir Iqbal, a senior customs official dealing with customs operations along the Afghan border, says that since 2014 Pakistan’s central bank requires all imports to obtain an Electronic Import Form (EIF) issued by a bank.
“Imports through all the other border crossings provide us with the EIFs because we are legally required to have them,” he said. “Without these forms, we cannot clear imports to enter our country.”
Iqbal says traders in North Waziristan know that the form is mandatory because Islamabad is trying to regulate trade with Kabul. “So far, most of our trade [with Afghanistan] has been undocumented,” he noted.
In Miran Shah, traders are anxious over the prospect of their business being documented, fearing it will eventually invite more regulations and taxes.
Zaman says he expects an exception from Islamabad considering the suffering, violence, and displacement they have endured.
“The ban on imports has really trashed our hopes,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz’s reporting from Bannu, Pakistan.