Inside Khyber Agency - III: The road to Afghanistan is paved with bribery

Published: March 21, 2012

Trade through the Khyber Pass is hampered due to poor infrastructure, mismanagement and corruption . DESIGN: MAHA HAIDER

TORKHAM: 

Diesel? Check. Water? Check. Rs30,000 for bribing officials along the road to the border? Check!

This is a plausible checklist for a truck driver transporting goods from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

One such driver, Ashraf Khan, has been doing the job for 20 years. “We keep extra cash which is distributed at every checkpoint from Karkhano Market to the Torkham border,” he says. According to Ashraf, there was even more extortion when NATO supply routes were in full swing. He adds that a single truck disburses between Rs30,000 and Rs40,000 through the road that leads to the commercial border between Pakistan and Afghanistan – the gateway to Central Asia.

Following another driver, who asked not to be named, Ashraf’s claim is validated. This man is driving his truck from Peshawar into Khyber Agency, headed eventually to Kabul. He displays a big wad of Pakistani rupees, hidden in his glove compartment, to be used solely for bribery.

As we approach a checkpoint, men in black militia uniforms sit with machine guns strapped on their shoulders. One of them is standing, signalling almost every heavy duty transport vehicle to stop. The protocol is always the same: the driver opens the door, a handshake and a few words are exchanged, a four-to-five thousand rupee bundle is transferred, and the journey continues.

One security official agrees to talk about the bribery, but asks not to be identified. “I collect around Rs300,000 per day, but I don’t get to keep much of it,” he says.

According to the man, who is an employee for the administration of the Political Agent of Khyber Agency, the money is sent to the head office back in Peshawar. “I only get a few thousand rupees every day. If only I was promoted, I could make more,” he admits without shame.

Unofficial tolls are not the only problem businessmen encounter in trade to Afghanistan, which experts estimate is worth around $3bn per year.

The rail route here has been completely shut for many years. The railway line was laid by the British during the colonial period and played an important role in trade through the Khyber Pass.

But for almost two decades the track has been idle, with landslides covering most of the tunnels that pass through the hills of Khyber Agency. According to authorities, it was shut down for security reasons in the 1990s and never reopened. Due to such poor infrastructure, several exporters say that Pakistan is quickly losing the market share for many products in Afghanistan. Meanwhile India, Iran and Russia are taking advantage of the growing market there.

The roads are also a concern. “They have fixed this road in many years,” says Ziaul Sarhadi, an exporter based out of Peshawar who represents the Sarhad (K-P) Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We have met with several government representatives. They have been promising us but to no avail.”

Sarhadi adds that exporters pay all duties and taxes levied on them – and yet the government cannot even construct a proper road. “Poor infrastructure is an added burden to our ever-increasing costs,” the businessman complained.

A drive to Torkham, which is just 40 kilometers from Peshawar, takes around four to five hours for trucks. On this winding road that cuts through a hilly range, potholes and broken barriers cover most of the road. Some turns are single track, at times jamming the road for hours. With heavy dust in the air as a result of constant traffic, it is quite a perilous ride, especially with the added threat of attacks from militants.

Somewhat surprisingly, therefore, the political administration in the area feels all is well. “The road is not so bad. It needs improvement but we are short of funds so we cannot really do much yet,” says Syed Ahmad Jan, the additional political agent responsible for development work in Khyber Agency.

When a comparison is drawn with the Pak-India border, he says the tribal areas are being discriminated against. “The National Highway Authority is dominated by Punjabis who like to develop their own province,” he says. He also thinks the road to Afghanistan will stay in its current condition unless they receive significant funds, which is unlikely in the near future.

A Rs10bn budget was announced for FATA this year by the federal government, but a visit to the tribal belt proves that not much of it is being spent on infrastructural improvement. “There is a serious misuse of funds by federal government appointees in FATA. The government needs to realise the potential it is wasting by ignoring corruption on this trade route,” says Senator Abdul Raziq Afridi, who belongs to a political family from the tribal agencies.

“The government should be making money, but instead individuals are,” the senator says.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2012.

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