Afghan-Pakistani border tensions costing millions

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The closure of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is more than inconvenient; it is costly.

Officials on both sides of the border say in just one month, the closure has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost trade, and tons of perishable goods have rotted in stranded trucks.

The two countries accuse the other of harboring their militant enemies. Both countries deny the other’s charges. This longstanding tension reached a breaking point when Pakistan closed all border crossings on Feb. 16 after a string of brutal suicide attacks last month that killed more than 125 people. Islamabad claims the attacks were orchestrated from safe havens in Afghanistan.

Kabul too has been battered by horrific attacks, the latest a coordinated assault against a military hospital that killed more than 30 people.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal has asked Pakistan’s political leadership to reconsider the closure. Pakistan recently agreed, but only for two days to allow an estimated 35,000 stranded Afghans and Pakistanis to return to their homes. Families on both sides of the border share relationships and cultural roots.

But aside from the political back-and-forth and personal inconveniences, the closure is hurting business in the region.

The border is one of the most lucrative trade crossings in South Asia. Cross-border trade includes everything from supplies destined for NATO troops still stationed in Afghanistan to Afghan goods transiting through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea port of Karachi destined for international markets, said senior Pakistani customs officer Samad Khan.

Ziaul Haq Sarhadi, senior vice president of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, said the annual trade target of $2 billion dollars has plunged to $1.5 billion because of frequent border closures. The real potential, if the two neighbors could get along, is up to $4 billion in annual trade, Sarhadi said.

“We understand the sensitivities,” Sarhadi said in a telephone interview, referring to border security. However the closures are already creating shortages of goods in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan depends on Pakistan for everything from needles to helicopters,” he said.