Trade and economic relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to be improving, despite the recent history of mutual suspicion between the Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul and Islamabad’s past support of the Taliban regime, which U.S. forces and the Northern Alliance toppled in December 2001.
In a July 13 joint press conference with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri declared, “Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan is growing by leaps and bounds, and the days are not far [away] when it will reach the billion-dollar mark.” Kasuri noted that the trade volume between Pakistan and Afghanistan rose from $20 million in 2002 to over $700 million in May 2004.
Abdullah reiterated that relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been “improving and expanding day-by-day” since Pakistan abandoned its support of the Taliban regime shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. On the political level, Abdullah said that a memorandum of understanding had been signed when Pakistan’s Interior Minister Syed Faisal Hayat visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, on July 12. The agreement is designed to build cooperation against terrorism and promote other bilateral security issues. In a new development, the foreign ministers of both countries will be meeting twice a year to discuss issues of mutual interest.
An agreement was also reached between the two countries to release Pakistani prisoners being held in Afghan prisons. These prisoners fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Reportedly, over 600 Pakistani nationals languish in a prison in Shiberghan, northern Afghanistan, an area controlled by warlord general Rashid Dostum. Another agreement will allow an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan to participate in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections.
Abdullah, who is on a three-day official visit to Islamabad, also held talks with Pakistan’s finance minister, Shaukat Aziz, on boosting trade and commercial relations between the two countries. Aziz reviewed the improved relations between the two countries, citing the resumption of airline service, the establishment of Pakistani banks in Afghanistan, and projects to build new roads and improve existing ones connecting the two countries. He said that Pakistan would install scanning machines at the border posts in Chaman in Baluchistan province and Torkham in the Northwest-Frontier Province to expedite the transfer of goods between the two countries. He also said a railway line will be built from Chaman to the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. Aziz also said that that the ongoing construction of Gwadar port in Baluchistan with Chinese aid would bolster trade with Afghanistan (The News, Islamabad, July 14).
Earlier, Baluchistan’s governor, Owais Ahmed Ghani, said Gwadar would be connected to the provincial capital (Quetta) and other areas through road and rail links, and that later a railway line would be extended to Kandahar, the principal city in southern Afghanistan. Ghani said these developments would be completed within five years (Pakistan Press International, July 3). Before that, Pakistani Minister for Railways Ghous Bakhsh Mehr said on June 23 that the railway link between Chaman on the Baluchistan border to Kandahar would be completed by 2008. He said that a feasibility study for the project had been completed and construction work would begin as soon as the plan is approved (PakTribune.com, June 24) Also, Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz said Pakistan will construct an industrial park in Jalalabad and a trade complex at the border post of Torkham at the end of the Khyber Pass leading to Afghanistan (Pakistan News Service, June 30).
In a parallel development, Pakistani Minister for the Interior and Narcotics Control Syed Faisal Hayat, on a two-day visit to Afghanistan, announced July 12 that Pakistan would continue to work with Afghanistan to prevent terrorism. He discussed this issue with his Afghan counterpart, Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali. Hayat offered to help Afghanistan train its police in support of the upcoming elections in October and next April. He remarked, “Afghanistan is our neighbor. A strong Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan” (Xinhuanet, Kabul, July 12).