EDITORIAL: Pak-Afghan transit trade
International law makes it binding on the neighbouring nations of landlocked countries to provide transit trade facilities. Afghanistan’s transit trade through areas that now constitute Pakistan is rooted in history since British times. Another neighbouring state, Iran’s infrastructure did not allow such a facility in the past. However, now efforts are afoot to link Chahbahar seaport through a railway network to Afghanistan and further to Central Asia, but that will take time. Therefore, transit through Pakistan is currently the only viable option for Afghanistan. Although the recently signed accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan did not concede the Afghan demand of allowing it transit trade facilities from and to India via Pakistan, ostensibly on the plea that India should allow Pakistan similar facilities of trade with Nepal and Bhutan in return, that a broad based understanding has been reached between the two countries is a welcome development. Pakistan’s reluctance to allow Indian goods transit through Pakistan is rooted in its wariness of the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. In the context of the present seeming impasse in peace talks between India and Pakistan, it was hardly expected that Pakistan would agree to such a concession at this time.
That the US played an important role in getting this agreement negotiated was highlighted by the conspicuous presence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke at the time of the signing of the record note. The agreement was long overdue since the changing ground realities and technological advances necessitated the two countries revisiting their previous agreement signed in 1965. The old method of transit and high import duties or illegal charges by custom officials on both sides had encouraged smuggling, which incurred a loss of revenue and flooded the Pakistani market with cheap smuggled goods. Some supplies meant for Afghan destinations transported through open trucks ended up in the Pakistani market. The use of containers of international specifications for non-perishable goods of appropriate size is expected to prevent this to a great extent. It is also hoped that the issue of smuggling will be appropriately addressed in the new Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), to be signed after the review process has been completed by both sides.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have reached an understanding on the broad parameters of Afghan exports to Pakistan and India and the use of Afghan territory for Pakistan’s exports to the Central Asian states. This is a major achievement as Pakistan had dreamed of accessing Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which yielded 15 new states and thus offered new markets, which, like Afghanistan, are landlocked and have vast economic and trade potential. Geographically, routes to the south for Central Asia are most feasible for trade, as other directions involve long distances, lack of infrastructure or prohibitive climate and topography. If Pakistan is successful in tapping the Central Asian markets, it can become a major trade corridor through the Karachi and Gwadar seaports. Similar attempts are being made by Iran through developing the Chahbahar seaport, which is located on the Makran coast in the Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran, just a few kilometres away from Gwadar across the border. It has been officially designated as a Free Trade and Industrial Zone by the Iranian government. In such a competitive environment, better transit services and more developed infrastructure will give an edge to Pakistan. Tapping this potential is of critical importance for Pakistan’s heavily aid-dependent economy. *
SECOND EDITORIAL: Dam it
The recently reconstituted Council of Common Interests (CCI), rejuvenated after some fine-tuning in the 18th Amendment, has unanimously passed a resolution approving the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. Proposed to be built on the Indus River, about 315 km upstream from Tarbela, the approval could not have been more welcome. The CCI has delivered a national consensus for a dam that will go a long way in addressing our energy crisis and water scarcity.
Because of Pervez Musharraf’s insistence on constructing the Kalabagh Dam, not a single megawatt of electricity was added to the national grid in his nine-year tenure, neither in thermal nor any other form. Despite his efforts, cajoling, and even making concessions to the opponents of the controversial Kalabagh Dam, no consensus could be forged; if anything, opposition to the Dam in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hardened in response. More acceptable projects such as Diamer-Bhasha should have been started immediately it became obvious that Kalabagh was a bird that would not fly. It was time to do the doable to pull the country out of the energy deficit pit into which Musharraf had pushed it.
The minimum time required for building the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is projected at nine years — three to build the roads and other infrastructure before heavy equipment can be moved into such difficult terrain, and six to actually construct the dam. If only the previous government had had the foresight to put into action what this government has now decided to do, we would have been well along by now in the construction of Diamer-Bhasha and closer to gaining an additional 4,500 MW of much needed electricity, apart from storage of 6.4 MAF of water. One controversial issue that is still pending is the location of the power house, as that will determine which province would obtain the net profit once it comes on line, whether Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or the newly created Gilgit-Baltistan.
The government is now urged to ‘get on with it’. Our power shortage, threats to food security and water scarcity that is damaging agriculture do not give us the luxury of any further dilly-dallying. Now that the consensus decision has been made by the CCI, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam must be built on a war footing. *