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Photo Source: The News International

Pakistan Reader# 663, 8 September 2023

Pakistan and Afghanistan: The Problem in Torkham



Torkham is tucked into the steep Khyber Pass valley, which has been travelled by traders and invaders since Alexander the Great to the British Empire.

Shamini Velayutham

On 6 September, a gunfire broke out between the Pakistan and Afghanistan border security forces, shutting down the prominent commerce route between the two countries at Torkham. Torkham is a key hub for the transportation of people and products between Pakistan and Afghanistan border crossing. The border closure came two days after caretaker Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said the US military equipment left behind during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan had fallen into militant hands and made its way to the Pakistani Taliban, who are allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pakistani authorities asserted responsibility for starting a gunfight, which broke out after the Afghan government began constructing a roadblock on their side in a restricted area close to the main border crossing. On 7 September, followed by the previous incident, the border remained closed. The closing of the border has led to disruption in the border with a long-standing queue of heavy vehicles laden with goods in both the borders.

What/Where is Torkham?
Torkham is tucked into the steep Khyber Pass valley, which has been travelled by traders and invaders since Alexander the Great to the British Empire. In the 1980s, the US backed mujahideen utilized Torkham as a passage into Afghanistan. Torkham again acquired strategic significance since 2001; arms and equipment supply route for 75 per cent of the NATO coalition's supplies. These were shipped from Karachi, on the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan, through Peshawar, then via the pass to Torkham it finally reached Kabul. Because of local extremist activity, traffic across the pass has frequently been impeded.
 
Why is Torkham in the news?
Following a deterioration in relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the Torkham border crossing was shut down. A closure in February 2023, left thousands of trucks loaded with products stranded on both sides of the border for days this was one of the many times the crossing has been shut down. On 7 September, according to Pakistani authorities, hundreds of trucks carrying perishable goods, such as fruits and vegetables, were waiting on both sides of the border for the reopening of the Torkham crossing, which is an important commercial thoroughfare and Pakistan's trade route to Central Asian nations.
 
Dawn was apprised by local sources that no one was being permitted to enter the border beyond the Michni checkpoint, which is located close to the Landi Kotal bazaar and has a commanding view of the border crossing. According to Irshad Momand, the assistant commissioner for Landi Kotal, the subject is currently being considered at a higher level between Islamabad and Kabul “due to its global importance.” He also stated that “We normally tackle and resolve local issues during our meetings with the Afghan authorities at a lower level according to our mandate. But the current border suspension is a sensitive matter and is now tackled at a high level.”

What are the issues in Torkham?
On the Afghan-Pakistan border, tensions have been building for a while, culminating in exchange of gun fires. It is completely reasonable for Islamabad to want to protect its borders and control the movement of people and products into and out of Afghanistan. The 1,500-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is unregulated for a large portion of the distance, which is the difficulty Pakistan must address. There are only a few checkpoints between the two nations, the biggest of which are in the south at Torkham and Chaman, but wide swaths of uncontrolled land allow everyone from migrants to militants to enter Pakistan undetected. As a result, while it is admirable to increase security at Torkham, Pakistan's border problems are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. The Torkham encounter and Pakistan's capacity to exert control over the movement of products into and out of Afghanistan should serve as reminders to Kabul of how crucial it is to break its cycle of dependence on Pakistan and look into alternative trade routes. This advantage has been frequently employed by Pakistan as a negotiating and coercive tactic. In fact, Pakistan has shut down Torkham numerous times in the past whenever problems between Pakistan and Afghanistan have arisen.

References
Ibrahim Shinwari, “Torkham crossing stays shut for second day,” Dawn, 8 September 2023
“Chitral incursion,” Dawn, 8 September 2023
Ashrafuddin Pirzada, “Torkham border remains shut for second day,” The News International, 8 September 2023
“Battling terror,” The News International, 8 September 2023

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