For decades Afghan and Pakistani merchants crossed freely at Chaman, a dusty, wind-swept frontier town in Pakistan’s southwest, but an unprecedented bid by Islamabad to impose border controls is sparking fears for bilateral trade.
Chaman is one of just two major crossings from Afghanistan into Pakistan, where until recently border controls were virtually absent along the disputed colonial-era line crossed with impunity by traders and travellers.
But a new attempt by Pakistan to secure the once porous frontier is wreaking havoc, with thousands of people and hundreds of trucks forced to queue at Chaman’s “Friendship Gate” until their movements are processed on an electronic system that went online in September.
Traders used to crossing at will now find themselves waiting for hours while some say their trucks can at times sit idle for weeks at a time, meaning perishable goods go to waste.
Businessmen like Fazal Karam complain of delays and customs duties eating into their already narrow margins.
“My truck has been left standing on the border for 15-16 days,” the 50-year-old Afghan fodder trader said.
Officials on the Pakistani side have even dug a trench which runs parallel to the border, blocking anyone who might try to circumvent the official checkpoints.
Islamabad – which has also tightened controls at the other major crossing, the famed Torkham Gate on the Khyber Pass – insists the new measures are necessary to stop the flow of militants and boost customs revenue.
The Pakistani government estimates that undocumented trade on the border exceeds $2.5 billion annually, costing millions of dollars a month in lost customs duties.
Landlocked Afghanistan imports basic goods like milk, juices and household items while exporting fruits; Pakistanis buy cheap electronics, fabrics, medicines and tyres brought over by Afghan traders.
The two nations are divided by the “Durand Line”, a 2,400-kilometre frontier drawn by the British in 1896 and disputed by Kabul, which does not officially recognise it as an international border.
Ethnic Pashtuns living along the border have traditionally paid it little heed, with villages straddling the frontier that have mosques and houses with one door in Pakistan and another in Afghanistan.