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Parliamentary diplomacy


January 18, 2021

National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser’s conduct of parliamentary diplomacy through the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Afghanistan presents an interesting case study.

To put things into context, it is useful to first examine the malaise plaguing our trade engagement with Afghanistan. Trade and commerce with Afghanistan has been suffering for a number of years now. It’s peak at around $2.5 billion in 2011 has been reduced to a nice memory only. In 2019, the volume of trade had come down to around $800 million. In tandem, was the huge diversion of nearly 50 percent of Afghan Transit Trade through Pakistan to Iran in the same time period. Pakistan literally enabled Chabahar to flourish at the cost of Karachi ports.

So, how did this dip in trade happen? The answer is rather simple. Afghan transit trade is inextricably linked to our bilateral trade. Whenever Afghanistan faces any issues vis-a-vis its transit trade, it puts up non-tariff barriers for bilateral trade as well. The export sector thus pays the price for government caution or ill-conceived activism. Security considerations were leveraged against trade by both sides. And smaller problems were resolved in a way that bigger problems were created. The passionate anti-smuggling drive also depressed Pakistani exports substantially.

With these challenges in the rearview mirror, the speaker of the National Assembly took the initiative to mitigate the situation and unshackle the huge potential of trade and investment between the two countries. He formed an executive committee of the Pak Afghan Parliamentary friendship group. The committee had cross-party representation; MNAs with expertise in international trade law and commerce were brought in along with representation from regions most affected by the dip in bilateral trade – like erstwhile Fata and Chaman.

Various clusters of issues were identified and task forces were established to deal with those issues in a focused manner. Over 15 institutional stakeholders were co-opted in the committees and task forces. They were given a simple overarching objective: to increase the number of transit trade containers clearing the border crossing points from an average of then 250 to 2000. It was a time when over 12,000 account transit trade containers were stuck at airports with 4000 more between Karachi and border crossing points like Torkham and Chaman.

Containers used to take anywhere between 28 and 40 days between airports and border crossing points with Afghanistan. There were illegal and extorted parking areas and routes where the trucks were forced to stop and made to pay anywhere between Rs10,000 and Rs60,000. The situation was really grim, and the distrust of Afghans was at an all-time high.

Asad Qaiser frequently called meetings of all stakeholders and made them work out sustainable solutions to over 50 big and small issues responsible for the dire straits. The forum was so successful that it exceeded its own expectations. A highly liberal visa regime was introduced for Afghans wishing to travel to Pakistan. In just October and November, the Pakistan embassy and its consulates in Afghanistan issued over 150,000 visas. These included 30,000 business visas.

Three new border crossing points (Ghulam Khan, Kharlachi and Angoor Adda) were operationalized for Transit Trade. Illegal staging areas were closed down and the time taken by a transit trade container to clear Pakistan came down to three days from 28 days. In just four months, the level of container clearance had surpassed 2700 per day, nearly 11 times than the July 2020 levels. On the heels of these developments, a grand trade and investment forum was organized in Islamabad, which was attended by over 150 Afghans including the speaker of the Afghan national assembly along with members of Afghan standing committees, policymakers and big businessmen.

The beauty of this initiative is that progress was achieved under the cardinal principle that parliament is a recommendatory and oversight body and will not interfere in the affairs of the executive and a lot can be achieved in trade with Afghanistan without compromising the security imperatives in vogue.

These parliamentary endeavours tremendously reduced the distrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghans were so appreciative that after a long time they became more than willing to finalize a Preferential Trade Agreement with Pakistan along with the next generation agreement on the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade.

The stage is all set now for a rapid and sustainable expansion of bilateral trade as well. Its potential is immense and anywhere between $6 billion to $8 billion. If Pakistan is able to tap this opportunity well, job growth in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan would be substantial. According to some estimates, for every billion dollars of exports to Afghanistan, 500,000 jobs are created in Pakistan. Hence, these measures could substantially alleviate poverty through job creation in areas at the forefront of the war against terrorism. It would thus result in a paradigm shift in the security situation there.

The next step is to put the goodwill created to good use and negotiate a revision of Afghanistan’s policy framework vis-a-vis Pakistan’s transit trade in a way that we are able to reach out to the economies of the five Central Asian Republics through it, opening up a huge market of over 300 million souls for the Pakistani industrial and services sectors. If and when that happens, huge opportunities for Pakistani exports would manifest.

The lesson from the speaker’s initiative on Afghanistan is simple: trade should lead the way and must not be made hostage to the ups and downs of politics or security. The speaker’s initiative has shown the way parliament can play its role in the expansion of Pakistan’s trade and investment ties with the world. It has set a very high bar for parliamentary diplomacy in future.

The writer is a foreign service officer.