Losing the Afghan market

Pakistan needs to change tack on Afghanistan. For if it does not, it will continue to feel the pinch in terms of ongoing drops in bilateral trade. Indeed, just over the last two years this has fallen from $2.7 billion to $1.2. And while we understand that cross-border attacks are a reality for both sides — Pakistan’s ‘symbolic’ and repeated closures of the shared border last year alone cost traders from each country millions in wasted dollars; not to mention the tonnes of perishable goods that were left to rot in stranded trucks. Indeed, at the time the Vice President of the Afghanistan- Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce noted that the real potential of bilateral trade was somewhere close to the $4billion-mark.

Yet while Islamabad may have believed that our western neighbour was dependent on imports from our side — it did not use this leverage well. Instead of focusing on flushing out remnants of certain militant networks those at the helm sought to punish the Kabul regime for its failure to do the same. When what it should have done was try and create an environment conducive to dialogue; regardless of unfair American remonstrations hurled our way.

Today, we are paying the price — quite literally — for our own myopia. For India has swooped in to cut by 50 percent the Pakistani market. The latter, after all, heavily subsidises its exports. And it, along with China, does not bring with it the (false) stigma of being an ‘enemy’ nation. For while Beijing threatens traditional US hegemony in the region it is fast on its way to superpower status; meaning that it will be treated for now with American kid gloves. Whereas India is Washington’s strategic partner for the 21st century. Indeed, the latter enjoys an enhanced role in Afghanistan under the Trump Town South Asia vision. Naturally, it will not be putting boots on the ground there. But it will be splashing the cash on investment projects across our western border. Already, it is said to be offering air tickets at discounts of 75 percent. Meaning that Afghan medical tourism is no longer destined for this country.

So what is to be done?

A good place to start would be for Pakistan to get fully behind President Ghani’s peace package for the Taliban; as this would hopefully go some way to normalising our border security. Secondly, we must unequivocally show concrete steps when it comes to curbing terror financing. Thirdly, we need to reach out to Kabul and establish bilateral ties outside of the American prism; meaning building on what the COAS cemented last year. And finally, Islamabad has to stop cribbing about the US. Yes, the present administration is known to be belligerent when it feels it is not getting its own way. But Pakistan is not unique on being on the receiving end of this. We are not saying that the civil-military leadership has to like it. We do, however, recommend that we concentrate on our own neighbourhood. And this means doing our best to fortify such mechanisms as SAARC. As well as trying to normalise relations with India; including reciprocating the New Delhi’s tentative willingness to take Kashmir off the front-burner. Which is different from putting it on the back-burner.

What we cannot do is rely on Chinese investment stakes as translating into Beijing automatically having our back when we need it to.  *

Published in Daily Times, March 7th 2018.