The recent closure of the Chaman border to curb smuggling has caused friction between locals and security forces on both sides of the border
The local people and Frontier Corps-Balochistan came face-to-face over the issue of complete closure of Chaman border for the last five months that resulted in killing of six people including a woman and injuring over two dozen others. However, in the wake of negotiation between the representatives of political parties and traders, the government decided to open the border for formal trade including Afghan transit trade from August 12 for normalization of the situation.
The federal government has been deliberating closing the Chaman border due to the problem of smuggling through this route which costs the national exchequer trillions of rupees a year. This had not been done for fear of strong protest from the local people. Covid-19 provided the government the opportunity to enforce a border closure to prevent smuggling.
Some 2,000 Chaman locals run their businesses on the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. Nearly 10,000 people cross the border through Chaman daily using CNICs and Afghan cards. Allegedly, Japanese trucks, vehicles, their spare parts, home appliances, cloth, among other items, and fresh and dry fruits and lambs are smuggled into Pakistan while wheat, fertilisers, home appliances, construction material, bathroom fittings, dairy products, eggs, chickens, their feeds are taken illegally into Afghanistan. Smuggling is a very lucrative business. Border security officials, too, are accused of making billions of rupees a month for allowing this to go on. It is also the biggest hurdle to legal trade between the two countries.
On this occasion, several businessmen joined hands using the Lagharies (labourers or porters) to pressure the government to accept their demand to open the border. They had set up a protest camp and hundreds of people used to visit the camp daily to express solidarity with them in their protest against the long closure of border. To allow the citizens of both countries to spend Eid holidays with their families, the government announced that it was opening the border only for two days to let the people go home. July 29 was the first day in months on which the border remained open for five hours. Thousands of people crossed the border. However, on the second day, instead of opening the border where 3,000 to 5,000 Afghans and some 3,000 Pakistanis were waiting, the local administration and the Frontier Corps officials closed the border and demanded that the protestors call off their protest. Otherwise, they said, the border would remain closed for an indefinite period.
The protestors didn’t accept the condition. Rather, they started encouraging Afghan citizens to approach the border gates and force entry by dismantling those. The protestors, whose number had now grown to 2,000-3,000, started pelting the Frontier Corps personnel with stones. The FC men responded by firing teargas shells and later opened fire to keep protestors away. This resulted in six people, including an Afghan woman, accompanied by her husband and four minors, getting killed. More than 20 others were injured. The Afghans broke the main gate and forced entry into their country. Pakistanis who had been waiting at Afghan border also did the same. Some Afghans too threw stones at Pakistani forces. This was followed by opening of fire by Afghan forces on FC border posts. The Pakistani side returned the fire. The two sides were engaged in exchange of fire for hours till Islamabad and Kabul made contact with the local commanders to disengage their forces. The Afghan side claims that 20 Afghan citizens were killed and scores injured. The Pakistani forces have said that neither their personnel nor any citizen was killed or injured.
Next, the protestors ransacked two quarantine centres before putting them on fire besides damaging government buildings and security cameras and attacking police stations and damaging official vehicles. All computers and machines for biometric system installed at the border for formal exit and entry were destroyed. The violence continued for two days; however, no loss of life was reported although about a dozen personnel of law enforcing and security agencies were injured.
“The authorities didn’t realize that their unreasonable demand from hundreds of charged protestors, and in the presence of over 5,000 Afghan nationals, may spark violence and may lead to loss of lives besides causing hatred among the citizens against the forces and state”, says a local journalist who requested anonymity.
Home Minister Ziaullah Langov and ANP’s Ismarak Achakzai rushed to Chaman and engaged the notables of the town in negotiation to calm down the protestors assuring them that the border issue would be resolved. A meeting was held a week after Eid with the representatives of political parties and traders, and the government announced the opening of border for formal/ legal trade.
ANP’s parliamentary leader in the Balochistan assembly, Asghar Khan Achakzai, who belongs to Chaman, sought support from the 22-member opposition in the house of 65 for a strongly-worded resolution urging the federal government to open the border. Border trade, he said, represented the only source of employment for local people these days. The remaining three ANP MPAs didn’t follow his lead; rather, they stood with government. The treasury benches didn’t let Achakzai and the opposition prevail.
“We, the border people, have no objection to regulation of trade but the government has to provide alternate employment opportunities. Otherwise, the situation would get worse which is beyond the imagination of our short-sighted security officials”, says Achakzai.
Kabul has historically disputed the 2,640 kilometre-long Durand Line, as the permanent border between the two countries. During the border fencing, Afghan forces have been opening fire on Pakistani forces which has led to casualties on both sides. During the Census in 2017, Afghan forces fired at Pakistani forces in villages close to Chaman town. This resulted in an exchange of fire that according to Pakistani authorities killed 49 Afghan soldiers and injured scores. An FC official and two civilians lost their lives as a result of shelling by Afghan forces.
“The days when all sorts of Japanese goods/machinery were smuggled into Pakistan inflicted losses of trillions of rupees to the national exchequer are gone. Such a system doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. Trade with Afghanistan will be regulated and everything exported to Afghanistan or imported into Pakistan will be taxed”, says a senior FC official. He says smuggling also affords cover to terrorists from across the border who enter Pakistan bringing huge quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives.
The government, he says, will provide alternate employment to porters whose number is estimated at around 4,000. He says initially they’ll be paid Rs 20,000-25,000 per month. Eventually, most of them will be appointed in levies, the PDMA and the NLC.