A decade ago, Ziaullah Khan Afridi had only one truck to transport vegetables between Peshawar and Lahore. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, when U.S.-led NATO forces invaded Afghanistan and a supply line was opened from Karachi to Afghanistan, Afridi registered his truck and started supplying NATO goods.
“It was a very fruitful business,” said Afridi. “A single trip was more lucrative than the whole month’s income dealing in other business.” With the passage of time, Afridi gradually collected a small fleet of five trucks. “My business was going well but one day some unknown militants attacked my two trucks and damaged them massively; it was the day when my business started declining.” He spent a lot of money, he said, on repairing those trucks in the hope that his business would stabilize.
“But the announcement of withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan was like the last nail in the coffin,” he said. Demand started dwindling in Afghanistan and that affected transporters adversely.
With the recent rise of Iraq and Syria as the hot spots of counter-terrorism campaigns, Pakistan and Afghanistan appear to have lost some of their strategic importance for Washington and its Western allies.
As a result, both Pakistan and Afghanistan are apparently feeling the pinch of reduced American funding.
Zahid Shinwari, former president of Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that until 2001 “we were having a trade volume with neighboring Afghanistan of around $300 million. But, after the landing of U.S. and the NATO troops in Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda, the trade with Afghanistan received a giant boost and by the year 2010 the volume of trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan crossed $2.3 billion.”
But since the United States and NATO announced their pullout from the region, the trade volume nose-dived to about $1.2 billion, a staggering stumble of over $1 billion in one year. With an uncertain political and security situation prevailing in Afghanistan, a number of projects are closing down, the real estate market has slumped and investors are not ready to take any chances amidst the prevailing conditions.
“On the other hand, transporters in Pakistan, especially the truckers, have badly suffered because of this situation. Because of the sharp decrease in trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the transit trade, the truckers have lost big business and many have been compelled to lay off their businesses completely,” said Shinwari.
“A lot of money flows into Pakistan as well with this war on terror because it was a front line ally of the United States. To beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Pakistan’s support was essential and they not only used logistic support from Pakistan but the [shortest] supply line and somehow its bases as well,” said Professor Sarfraz Khan, director of the Area Study Center in Peshawar.
“Approximately $15 billion was injected into Pakistan’s economy. That helped in producing new jobs, control[ed] price hike, improved the living standards of people and gave stability to the government,” said Khan.
Shift in strategy
Peshawar based journalist Shamim Shahid said the U.S. pullout was a “shift in strategy.
“Now, the U.S. troops will help the Afghans in strengthening their government and enhance their ability to cope with the external and internal threats to their sovereignty.” According to the journalist, U.S. objectives are now to protect the development process in Afghanistan and to deal politically with the militancy.
Former defense attaché and security analyst retired Brigadier Saad Muhammad explains why it would be a mistake for the United States and NATO to drop Afghanistan and Pakistan from their priority list.
“They don’t realize that if the things were not kept under control here in Afghanistan and this region, the situation will blow up far beyond what we are seeing in the Iraq and Syria because of ISIS. If these extremist groups were left on their own and if they once again got united and managed to take over power in this region, they will become a serious threat to the world’s peace in the future. Far more serious than what we are seeing in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
Although the United States said it will stay in Afghanistan to support the country’s new government, its presence after the pullout will not be enough to keep things stable and thwart militants, especially if coupled with a major drop in financial support, he said.
“This financial help that has been [injected into] Afghanistan and Pakistan certainly has helped improve the education, health and infrastructural development projects,” said Saad.
The Pakistani Army, heavily engaged in fighting militants within its own territory, will continue to need U.S. financial support, he concluded.