In 2010 Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to open the Ghulam Khan crossing point from Khost to Waziristan to strengthen cross-border trade and reduce travel times. Pakistan closed the checkpoint earlier this year
Waiting game: customs infrastructure at Gurbuz in Khost remains closed until Pakistan reopens the border crossing. (Photos: Zarwali Khoshnood. Main photo: Wisal Yousafzai.)
It was supposed to be a symbol of improving relations between the two countries. Afghanistan invested 250 million afghani (4.3 million US dollars) into a commission to build customs infrastructure at the border post and USAID pledged 39 million dollars more to restore the road to the border through the Khost mountains that would bring “500 million annually in trade” to Pakistan alone, according to the head of the chamber of commerce in the Pakistani border region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Customs houses and immigration checkpoints were built and staff allocated from both countries to man only the third official crossing point between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the 2,600 KM+ Durand Line frontier. The other two are Torkham to the north, which services Jalalabad to Peshawar and Chaman to the south in Baluchistan, which links Kandahar to Quetta.
When the Ghulam Khan border crossing from Khost to North Waziristan opened in 2010, trade briefly boomed. The chekpoint was closed and then reopened by Pakistan in 2012, before being closed again in early 2014 due to the Pakistan army's ongoing operation against Islamic insurgents in Waziristan.
Pakistan closes the crossing point
“The Ghulam Khan checkpost was closed in March 2014 because of the Pakistan army's Zarb-e Azb operation against outlaws in FATA” says Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Chamber of Commerce President Zahid Shinwari. Shinwari says Ghulam Khan will reopen after the military operation is concluded to reduce the load on the northern Torkham crossing point, where there are extensive works on the stretch of road from the border post at Torkham to the provincial capital Peshawar, creating a “huge rush”.
Fasttrack to Karachi
Shinwari's counterpart across the border in Khost says the Ghulam Khan checkpoint will revolutionise cross-border trade. “This route is 450-kilometres shorter than the Torkham transit route to Karachi in Pakistan. Using this route, traders will be able take goods to the centre of the country much faster,” says Nawab Amirzai, head of Khost's chamber of commerce.
The head of exports at the Khost customs directorate, Malim Jan Mandozai, says establishing infrastructure will be key to making Ghulam Khan a thriving trade route between the two countries. “Here and in Bannu consulates should be opened and roads should be constructed to international standards, because these roads will carry vehicles loaded with 50 to 60 tonnes of weight,” says Mandozai.
Road started 10 years ago unfinished
Pakistani authorities seem to be split on the benefits of opening Ghulam Khan. “On the one side the Pakistani government wants to increase imports and exports with Afghanistan but on the other side they are not interested to develop the infrastructure on the border at Ghulam Khan,” says the head of KP's Chamber of Commerce, Shinwari.
Shinwari laments that work on the customs posts at Ghulam Khan was started ten years ago but has still not been completed. “Construction on the Pakistani side road from Bannu to Ghulam Khan which was started in 2011 by Frontier Works Organization has also still not been completed,” Shinwari told Afghanistan Today.
Local residents in Khost watch lorries pass by on the road to Ghulam Khan. Before the border closed, up to 150 lorries crossed the checkpoint every day.
The mayor of Gorbuz, the border district that houses the Afghan border post, says opening Ghulam Khan will allow the district to become a trade hub wedged between the two countries. “There will be an opportunity to open a joint bazaar on the Ghulam Khan transit route which could easily be accessed by people on both sides of the border,” says Mayor Mohammad Akbar Zadran. It remains unclear if the market would benefit from tax breaks similar to Free Trade Zones (FTZs) in other countries.
Local residents urge the Afghan government to pressure Pakistan to reopen the transit route soon. Badshah Khan, a 30-year-old Khost trader, says Ghulam Khan “can play a vital role in making the lives of the people on both sides of the border economically better.”
Refugees still crossing at Ghulam Khan in 1000s
The border post at Ghulam Khan remains closed officially because of the Pakistan army's offensive in Waziristan, yet thousands of IDPs displaced by the violence have crossed into Afghanistan using the Ghulam Khan crossing point. Hassam Dewar, a resident of North Waziristan who regularly uses the Ghulam Khan to travel to Afghanistan, estimates that at least 5,000 refugees from Waziristan have crossed to Khost fleeing clashes between the army and local militants, in which nearly 100,000 people have been displaced. Residents in Khost say up to 150 lorries crossed the border at Ghulam Khan everyday before it was closed.
The Pakistani army fears formally reopening Ghulam Khan will allow insurgents it is hunting to flee to Afghanistan. Yet businessmen across the border believe an open Ghulam Khan crossing point will boost trade, which in turn will strengthen security. “Ghulam Khan can build on the economic cooperation in tribal areas and bring about a change in people’s lives who are compelled to go towards extremism mostly because of financial needs,” says 35-year-old Khost trader and lorry owner Nawab Khan. Many businessmen still use the crossing point informally to smuggle goods like flour, cement and timber both ways.
"Up to 10 new crossing points"
Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials (L-R): Additional Secretary Sohaib Mahmood, spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam and Akhtar Munir, press officer at the Embassy of Pakistan in Kabul. (Photo: A Razzaq)
At a recent meeting at the Pakistan Foreign Office, a spokesman for the ministry said Pakistan was planning to open “9 or 10 new crossing points in the next few years. Besides Chaman, Torkham and Ghulam Khan, informal transit routes, used mainly by smugglers and insurgents, are found in Parachinar in Upper Orazkazi Agency, as well as in Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency and in Chitral. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman said there was no time frame for the opening of the extra crossing points.
A retired Pakistan mlitary source familiar with negotiations to open new crossing points says several have been identified. "An opening at Kurram Agency can be ideal as it has an easy route with a minimum time lapse at either side of the border and Kabul and Islamabad can be reached easily. Ghulam Khan, North Waziristan, can be the next opening because it leads to central Afghanistan," says retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, who was part of the Triparty Committee, an informal border commission made up of Afghan, Pakistani and US officials.
"The third opening can be the historic route in the Gomal area. By opening these check posts both nations can double the transit trade," adds Brigadier Shah.
Afghanistan's newly-elected president, Ashraf Ghani, talking to the Khost governor on October 13, said: “I am by all means prepared to sorting out the problems in regard to the Ghulam Khan transit route in the coming two months. I will also sign an official agreement with Pakistan to make this transit route an economically beneficial route for the people of Afghanistan and Khost province.”
A. Zia contributed additional reporting to this story.