By Farman Nawaz (Dawn – Pakistan)
PAKISTANI traders were expecting some kind of announcement during or after the recent visit of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Kabul. But the Afghan president and the Pakistani prime minister were more interested in plans to counter terrorism.
No doubt, terrorism must be the top priority of the two sides. However, trade links can also bring closer these two neighbours that are wary of each other. Despite the fact that for the last three decades Pakistan and Afghanistan have had the chance to shake off distrust and come closer to one another, there remain several negative perceptions and misunderstandings between them. This has led to severe mistrust.
While at such a tenuous stage of relations and regional politics, Pakistan may feel uncomfortable about revealing all its thoughts to Afghanistan, it would be better to discuss mutual problems honestly before the situation worsens. There is much sense in doing so as that would enable us to find solutions to our own problems.
Here in Pakistan it is said that Afghan friends advise Pakistani traders not to disclose their identity as they move around in Afghanistan. In fact, it is considered safer for them to disguise themselves and, if approached, to identify themselves as Indians, as there is a perception here that in Afghanistan, Indians are more respected than Pakistanis.
This appears incongruent and awkward because until some years ago, Pakistanis moved freely in Afghanistan. In fact, I still know a few Pakistanis who are working in Afghanistan and they are quite satisfied. Nevertheless, we must pay attention to those who are raising objections. If it is true that there are negative sentiments about Pakistanis in Afghanistan, then we must ask why our Afghan brethren has turned against us.
Here in Pakistan it is strongly believed that Indians are indulging in intrigue against Pakistanis in Afghanistan. But then, by the same token, we must also ask ourselves if there is an ongoing intrigue against us in the Arab countries where Indians are better paid than Pakistanis. We may even ask ourselves whether Indian tactics are responsible for the UK not willing to provide its cricket grounds to our team. It is about time that Pakistanis emerged from this cocoon of the Indian fear-fantasy.
If we believe that for three decades we helped our Afghan brothers then how is it now possible for Indians to replace Pakistanis in Afghanistan’s markets? In fact, we would do well to reflect on the fact that if our own market is full of Chinese items we are hardly in a position to blame someone else when they occupy our erstwhile position in Afghanistan.
Here in Pakistan it was hoped that after the Pakistan-Afghanistan trade agreement, Pakistan would have the opportunity to gain access to markets across the border. Strangely enough, everyone appears to object to this agreement. The traders’ association in Peshawar has raised many objections about it. Even motorway authorities are complaining about the right-hand-drive vehicles coming from Afghanistan. Strangely, the same vehicles and drivers face no such impediment in India.
Pakistani traders have complaints about the zero tax on Indian items in Afghanistan especially as Pakistani items are heavily taxed. This heavy taxation compels them to adopt illegal methods like smuggling. (In much the same way, Indian items are smuggled to Pakistan which causes losses to Pakistani manufacturers and importers.) As smuggling from India to Afghanistan is difficult that may be the reason that Afghan authorities have levied no tax on Indian items, to help Indian traders compete with Pakistani items. Nonetheless, this issue needs the attention of the concerned authorities in Afghanistan.
In fact, the issue of smuggling is a very serious problem for the provincial government of Khyber Pakhunkhwa. Last year, when a judge of the Peshawar High Court blamed the provincial government for the smuggling, a senior official of the ruling Awami National Party made uncalled-for remarks against the judge while talking to the media. He strongly denied the charge of smuggling and asked the court to provide proof of how such smuggling was possible in the presence of international forces on the borders. The problem needs to be identified publicly and tackled.
Besides the smuggling issue, Pakistani traders also perceive that Afghan traders find Indian markets more profitable than Pakistani markets. So Pakistani authorities must facilitate Afghan traders because only a long-term solution to this problem can bring harmony to our trade relations. Unless this happens, this friction will lead to a deadlock on the Pakistan-Afghanistan trade agreement, which can exacerbate the situation — although, Pakistanis and Afghans would also do well to remember that ups and downs in our trade relations should not be allowed to upset religious, cultural and political relations between the two countries.
Afghan trade is in its initial stages and it will come across many hurdles. Secondly it may hurt Afghans but it is a fact that Afghanistan is still not a sovereign country like Pakistan. It is under the yoke of international forces and Afghans will have to look towards them for many issues, although in all fairness, it must be said that Pakistan, after six decades, continues to wait for foreign help to bolster its economy — and in recent times to recover from the devastation of the summer floods. The Afghan war was more severe than the recent floods in Pakistan. It is also our fault that we did not exercise a beneficial influence on the civil war in Afghanistan which is now dominated by a number of forces.