Islamabad : There is a need to establish a high-powered working group at the level of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan with representation from the business community and relevant think tanks which can advise the government on how to continue to conduct transit trade for Afghanistan in the coming days, especially in times of a prolonged lock down.
The policy recommendation was given at a virtual Focus Group Discussion (FGD) titled “Pak-Afghan Bilateral Trade and Transit vis-a-vis COVID-19 and the Way Forward” organized by Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) and its sister organization Afghan Studies Centre (ASC).
The panellists were of the view that both the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan agree on the flow of some bilateral and transit trade, despite the testing times of COVID-19 and that is why the Pak-Afghan border is now allowed to be opened three days a week. However, at present, due to limited capacity on both sides, over 7000 containers are stuck at Karachi port, while only 100 at maximum are allowed to pass into Afghanistan a day through Torkham and Chaman border crossing points.
Afghanistan relies heavily on Pakistan for transit as well as bilateral trade necessary for the livelihood of its people as well as its business community. So, when the flow from Pakistan in both cases gets halted, it not only causes inflation inside Afghanistan due to shortage of commodities, but also a lot of difficulty for the people. Pakistan has now provided special permission to resume the handling of Afghan cargo at Gwadar port under the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement 2010 to help in early clearance and quicker transportation of sugar, wheat, and fertilizer to Afghanistan. However, Gwadar port can be utilized more optimally for trade and transit for Afghan side for other goods as well.
It is pertinent to note that, the Prime Minister Imran Khan is keen on liberalizing measures at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for trade, and has often issued directives, but still there is lack of clarity around the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
The experts requested the Government of Pakistan to follow the container inspection regulations as per Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). Currently 100 per cent of cargo inspection is being carried out which is resulting in delays and traffic congestion.
They suggested both governments to adapt safe transit trade protocols which is currently being followed by many countries across the globe. They suggested that in the absence of air cargo, movement of people should be considered following certain protocols adding that apart from bilateral and transit trade, trade in services has been also reduced between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which can be normalized by the movement of people under certain SOPs
They said that mistrust amongst both countries at the state-level still exists due to historical baggage. Thus, traders along with the governments should introduce tangible steps to curtail smuggling and undocumented trade, so as to avoid the adverse impact of mistrust of economic activity between the two sides
They also recommended one window operation for both bilateral and transit trade movement and separate terminals and counters for traders and their consignments, so to beef up the smooth mobility, lowering the transaction cost; hence more economic gains across the border.
The experts demanded both countries to implement APTTA whole-heartedly as it already contains all the aspects required for transit trade as per World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and regulations. They said that there is an opportunity in COVID-19 crisis as well and the Pakistan must respond to that, i.e., look into COVID19 related needs of Afghanistan and how it can quickly increase exports to Afghanistan. They opined that meeting between the central banks of Pakistan and Afghanistan would be beneficial.
The panel of experts included Dr. Vaqar Ahmed, Joint Executive Director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI); Mozammil Shinwari, Former Deputy Commerce Minister, Afghanistan; Dr. Shabana Fayyaz, Head of Department, Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad; Zia ul Haq Sarhadi, former Senior Vice President, Pak-Afghan Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industry; Said Mehmood, Chairman, Harris Company and Honorary Consul General of Tajikistan; Faiza, Secretary General, Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PAJCCI); Amina Khan, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI) and Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director, CRSS.