TORKHAM -- Pakistan is gearing up efforts to keep the Pakistan-Afghanistan border open 24/7 after a directive from Prime Minister Imran Khan to promote trade and two-way movement by individuals.
"I have tasked the relevant govt stakeholders to make necessary arrangements for the Torkhum [sic] border to work round the clock within next 6 months," Khan tweeted January 28. "This step will be instrumental in boosting bilateral trade & enhancing people to people contacts between the two brotherly countries."
Following Khan's orders, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly held its first ever session in the tribal districts January 29 in Landi Kotal, near the Afghan border, in a move seen as empowering the area.
The same day, KP Finance Minister Taimur Jhagra also visited the Torkham crossing to assess arrangements for the cross border movement of goods and people.
On February 2, a high-level delegation led by Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua inspected the security and border arrangements.
The delegation, which included both civil and military leaders, visited the pedestrian terminal at the Torkham gate to inspect the immigration process, scanner machines, the passport and Pakistani National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA) offices, as well as the export and import terminals.
Political leaders, traders and the general public on both sides of the border have welcomed the move, expressing hope that it will ease tension and misunderstanding between the two countries.
"A mechanism is being devised based on the directive of the prime minister for 24-hour traffic across the border, as it is imperative for trade and the increase [in trade] volume," Jhagra told Pakistan Forward February 2.
"Opening the border is the only way to boost Pak-Afghan trade and support the countries' economies," he said. "The KP Assembly session followed by members' visit to the border is proof that we are taking it seriously."
"Prime Minister Imran Khan's directive to keep the border open 24/7 is a positive sign," said Zahidullah Shinwari, director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce.
"Pakistan is willing to boost trade with Afghanistan, as its volume of $3 billion in 2012 has now dropped just to $1 billion, which is worrisome," he told Pakistan Forward.
"We have to go for free trade with Afghanistan like other countries if we really want to regain the lost trade volume," he said. "Besides, we have a dire need to enhance customs and trade facilities at Torkham and Chaman as well as in Kharlachi and Ghulam Khan."
A positive development
Khan's focus on opening the border and on boosting trade is a positive development for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Shahid Hussain, a member of the KP Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"Prime Minister Imran Khan's orders are encouraging for the dying trade between the two countries," he told Pakistan Forward.
"We have been pressing for more facilities at the customs and crossing terminals, in addition to the provision of security," he said.
"The 24/7 opening of the border is a welcome step and will boost ties between the two countries and remove misconceptions," said Hikmat Safi, spokesperson for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan must realise that the only way to development is to boost trade ties, as Afghanistan is a gateway to Central Asian states -- potential markets for Pakistan -- while for Afghanistan, Pakistan's land route is indispensable, he said, referring to Afghanistan's need for access to the Arabian Sea and to India.
"If the border remains open 24 hours a day, tonnes of fruits and vegetables, which rot on trucks, will reach the market," he told Pakistan Forward. "Quick [cross-border] traffic will also benefit traders greatly."
A new demand
About 350 tribal elders from KP and ten districts of Nangarhar Province gathered January 20 in Torkham to ask the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to allow them to cross the border without a passport.
The Momand, Afridi and Shinwari tribal elders said an identification card should be adequate for them to visit their families on both sides the border.
The passport requirement has weakened brotherly relations and they want free movement along the border, they said.
"We want free movement in Torkham, and this is our right," Shakir Afridi, a tribal elder from Landi Kotal, Khyber tribal district, Pakistan, said at the gathering. "We want the same type of life that we had before."
"If we are not given our rights... we will be forced to rise and ask for our rights," he said.
"Now, when you go to the Pakistani consulate, thousands of applicants are waiting there; they don't get visas," said Rana Gul Shinwari, a resident of Ghani Khel District, Nangarhar Province, referring to a backlog of applications that the overburdened consulate cannot process.
"Before we were going and coming by using our tazkiras," he said at the gathering. "We do not accept fences and walls. We have the same language. We are from the same tribe. We should be allowed to live our life."
Fencing across the border
More than a quarter of the security fence along Pakistan's 2,611km-long border with Afghanistan has been completed, the Pakistani army announced last December.
The army has fenced off 802km of top priority border areas, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor tweeted December 15, adding that it expects to fence off 1,200km of priority border areas by the end of 2019.
The border fence is meant to "benefit peaceful people of Pak & Afg while restricting terrorists", he wrote.
The Pakistani government allocated $143 million for the fence on November 28, the second tranche of funds covering the total cost of $470 million.
The government allocated $140 million during the last financial year and expects to pay out the remaining $190 million in 2019-2020.
"The fence will block the movement of terrorists who are sneaking into Pakistan through rugged terrain and inhospitable routes," Sadaqat Ali, a retired police officer in Chitral District, KP, told Pakistan Forward.
[Ashfaq Yusufzai from Peshawar and Khalid Zerai from Jalalabad contributed to this report.]