February 21, 2023
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities were in talks Tuesday to resolve differences that led to the closure of their busiest border crossing two days ago, stranding thousands of cargo trucks and travelers on both sides, according to officials in both countries.
The Taliban closed the Torkham point of transit with the landlocked country’s eastern neighbor Sunday, accusing Pakistani immigration officials of “misbehaving” with Afghan visitors, particularly those seeking medical care in Pakistan. The tensions also sparked brief skirmishes between security forces of the two countries across nearby border posts hours later, killing a Taliban guard and wounding a Pakistani soldier, security sources said.
Local border officials from the two countries have since held several rounds of negotiations to defuse the tensions and reopen the border crossing, one of several formal routes on the nearly 2,600-kilometer border. But Torkham remained closed and the outcome of the talks was not known as of Tuesday evening.
Pakistan has not publicly offered comments on the standoff since its eruption on Sunday.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has defended the decision to suspend traffic through the crossing, alleging Afghan citizens were being “very humiliatingly” treated by Pakistani border officials.
“Their [travel] documents and identity as well as refugee cards were being torn and thrown away. Patients requiring medical care [in Pakistan] and elderly men as well as women were also being harshly treated,” Mujahid said in a statement his office released to journalists late on Monday. He added, however, that the issue would be resolved soon through talks.
Authorities in Islamabad rejected Kabul’s charges and also blamed Taliban forces for initiating the “unprovoked” predawn cross-border gunfire on Monday.
A Pakistani official, who requested anonymity, said the Taliban shut the border gate after Pakistani immigration authorities had denied entry to attendants of Afghan medical patients for not having valid travel documents or identity cards.
Afghan and Pakistani traders reported the border closure had been causing huge financial losses to business of the two countries, saying several thousand trucks loaded with commercial goods, including fresh fruit and vegetables, were stranded on both sides.
Traders said the cash-strapped Taliban leadership in Kabul heavily relied on trade with Pakistan to generate much-needed revenue and the border closure was hurting that effort.
“This issue damages both countries because we are transporting goods. We have trade with Pakistan,” Khan Jan Alokozai, the vice president of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was quoted by the Afghan Tolo news channel as saying.
The Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan in August 2021 and have since increased trade with Pakistan, exporting thousands of tons of Afghan coal and other supplies every day to the energy-starved neighboring country.
The Taliban-led finance ministry said on Monday its revenue collection in 11 months of the current fiscal year had reached a historic more than $1 billion, with a major portion coming from taxes collected at borders.
Last month, a World Bank assessment also backed the Taliban’s claims of strong revenue collection and exports in the first nine months of financial year 2022-2023. The report noted that Pakistan remained the destination for 65% of Afghan exports. Islamabad has also removed tariffs and eased visa restrictions for Afghan traders in recent months to encourage bilateral trading activity.
Pakistan allegedly sheltered Taliban leaders and fighters while they were waging a deadly insurgency against U.S.-led Western troops in Afghanistan for almost two decades before reclaiming power 18 months ago.
But Islamabad’s relations with Taliban leaders, which have not been recognized by the world, have since gradually strained over allegations Kabul was not preventing anti-Pakistan insurgents from using Afghan soil to orchestrate cross-border terrorist attacks.
Pakistani military officials complain Taliban forces guarding the Afghan side of the frontier “still behave like insurgents” because of a lack of professional military training, leading to occasional flare-ups between the two sides.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari reiterated those concerns while speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week and advocated for the world to help the Taliban to build their capacity in dealing with security challenges.
“We need to find a way to build the capacity for them to able to do. They don’t have a standing army, they don’t have a counterterrorism force, they don’t even have a proper border security force,” Zardari said.
But Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi swiftly rejected Zardari’s assertions as untrue, describing Taliban security forces as “professional and experienced” and claiming that “Afghanistan’s security is now much better than many countries around the world.”
Balkhi also rejected allegations that terrorism in Pakistan was stemming from Afghan soil, saying his government remains determined not to allow anyone to use Afghanistan against other countries, particularly against its neighbors.