Pakistan is opening its border with Afghanistan for just 48 hours starting today, and only for people. This is too little too late for those who lost over two weeks of their lives stranded at the border, or who depend on regular and legal cross-border transit. In addition, Pakistan is not allowing transit of containerized cargo that is now piling up at the seaport in Karachi on the Arabian Sea and incurring demurrage charges. That containerized cargo is the economic life-blood of Afghanistan, which is landlocked and dependent on Pakistan’s ports. Pakistan should immediately open its border with Afghanistan to legitimate migration and trade.
Pakistan claims that it closed the border due to terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan. But given that terrorists can use small clandestine trails known as ratlines through the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and bribe Pakistani border guards along the way, Pakistan’s reasoning rings false. The reality is that Pakistan’s border is porous to terrorists, but not to containerized cargo. So Pakistan is not closing the border to stop terrorism, but rather to put economic pressure on Afghanistan through trade sanctions by another name.
Pakistan’s continued border closing to legitimate trade has even given breathing space to terrorism over the past two weeks, because it restricts critical Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) and NATO shipments for counter-terrorism and stability operations. In 2010, at the height of NATO involvement in Afghanistan, NATO depended on Pakistani routes for about 70% of its requirements. In 2010 and 2011, Pakistan cut off NATO supplies to Afghanistan for political leverage. NATO and the ANSF probably continue to get a large percentage of supplies through Pakistan, so the border closure puts a severe strain on Afghan operations against Pakistan-supported Taliban, Haqqani Network, Islamic State, and other terrorists. There are plenty of Pakistanis who can lend these terrorists support. A 2015 Pew Survey found that 9% of Pakistanis approve of Islamic State. Another Pew Survey in 2014 found that 8% of Pakistanis approve of the Taliban, and 12% approve of Al Qaeda. Pakistan’s military, which has a hand in supporting these terrorists, is the most popular institution in Pakistan at 87% approval. As Noman Ansari, the editor-in-chief of youth-oriented IGN Pakistan opined in 2015, We must stop believing Pakistan’s lies about its border closing, and admit that Pakistan is trying to economically pressure Afghanistan and NATO. This is consistent with its general attempts to restrict trade between its adversary India, and Afghanistan. Pakistan and its ally and largest trade partner China are aggressive, and see democratic countries like the U.S., India, and Afghanistan as strategic competitors. As a result, China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) has largely sidelined India and Afghanistan in favor of Pakistan.
India is a key potential trading partner for Afghanistan, and increased trade between the two democracies could strengthen India and increase Afghanistan’s economic independence from Pakistan. But Pakistan would prefer Afghanistan to be an economic and diplomatic dependency — strategic depth for its conflict with India.