Parliament, a glorious talk shop, a debating society of sorts and a platform for playing out of Parliamentary politics. These are unfortunately some of the common perceptions about the most August public forum of the land including its critical function of Parliamentary diplomacy.
Against this current of public opinion, things are changing fast under the incumbent Speaker. His result oriented approach and passion for meaningful progress drive this change. Asad Qaiser’s conduct of Parliamentary diplomacy through Parliamentary Friendship Group with Afghanistan presents an interesting case study to understand this change.
To put things into context, it is useful to first examine the malaise plaguing our trade engagement with Afghanistan. Trade Commerce with temperamental Afghanistan has been suffering for a number of years. It’s peak around US$2.5 billion in 2011 has been reduced to a nice memory only. In 2019, the volume of trade had come down to around US$800 million. In tandem, was the huge diversion of nearly 50% 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.
How this dip in trade happened?, The answer is rather simple. Transit Trade of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our bilateral trade. It is a common practice of Afghanistan that when it faces any issues vis-à-vis its transit trade, it erects 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. Resolution of smaller problems was done 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, Speaker 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 a 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. These inter-alia included Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Interior, FBR, State Bank and Railways. 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 ports with 4000 more between Karachi and the border crossing points like Torkhum and Chaman. Container used to take anywhere between 28 to 40 days between ports and border crossing points with Afghanistan. There were illegal and extorted parking areas and route where the trucks were forced to stop and made to pay anywhere between Rs.10,000 to 60,000. The situation was really grim. The distrust of Afghans was at an all-time high.
Asad Qaiser frequently and regularly called meetings of all stakeholders, made them sit together and work out sustainable solutions to over 50 big and small issues responsible for the dire straits. The forum was so successful that it even 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 3 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 Afghan including Speaker of the Afghan national assembly along with his seven heads of 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 oversight body and will not interfere in the affairs of the Executive and 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 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 to US$8 billion. If Pakistan is able to tap this opportunity well, job growth in KP and Balochistan would be substantial. According to some estimates, for every billion dollar 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 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 revision of Afghanistan’s policy framework vis-à-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 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. Speaker’s initiative has shown the way of how 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 and a gold standard for the Parliamentary diplomacy in future.
— Mirza Salman Babar Baig
The author is a Foreign Service officer, who deals with Special Initiatives of the Pakistan – Afghanistan Parliamentary Friendship Group
Email; [email protected]