The market town of Torkham stands on the Old Silk Road, with one foot on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Islamabad seeks to secure its frontier, Torkham illustrates the tension between trade and security in conflict-affected border towns. Read the full blog post and report.
Nathan Shea (00:00):
It's not uncommon for families to have family members on either side of the border, or to have to cross the border to be able to go to a hospital or to be able to go to school. The history that we see of border fences and everybody needs a passport and everybody needs a visa is relatively new. That creates grievances.
John Rieger (00:21):
A town divided by a turbulent border finds a way to endure and to profit. Today InAsia from the Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.
Tracie Yang (00:29):
And I'm Tracie Yang. The market town of Torkham stands on the Old Silk Road, with one foot on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But this vital gateway to trade is also a long-time pathway for militants and contraband. As the government in Islamabad seeks to secure its frontier, Torkham illustrates the tension between prosperity and security in conflict affected border towns.
John Rieger (00:53):
Here now to tell us more about Torkham and cities like it are Nathan Shea of the Asia Foundation's Conflict and Fragility Unit, and Azeema Cheema, Director of Research and Strategy at Verso Consulting in Pakistan. They're part of the team behind the new report, Border Towns, Markets and Conflict from the X-Border Local Research Network. Nathan and Azeema, welcome to InAsia.
Nathan Shea (01:13):
Thanks for having me.
Azeema Cheema (01:15):
Yeah, thanks for having me too.
Tracie Yang (01:16):
Azeema, the new report starts with the border town of Torkham. Amid the chaos of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last August, paint us a picture of Torkham. Where is it and why does it merit close attention?
Azeema Cheema (01:31):
Torkham is important, simply because it's the major border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with one other border crossing in the south. But the gate itself is home to communities living on both sides that are essentially divided by this border.
Azeema Cheema (01:50):
And our investigation focused on how a certain set of policy decisions, in this case by the Pakistani government, had an impact on the local market system, that had an impact on the social system, and also had an impact on the state-society relationship.
Tracie Yang (02:07):
Pakistan has been working hard to stabilize its border with Afghanistan, right?
Azeema Cheema (02:11):
Tracie Yang (02:12):
How has it been trying to work through that?
Azeema Cheema (02:14):
For a long time this has been a porous border, subject to a challenging security paradigm. It also is one where cross-border movement of goods is necessary to sustain livelihoods. So there's a dual challenge of, A, maintaining security, whilst continually allowing movement.
Azeema Cheema (02:34):
The Pakistani government has been trying to regularize it through a regime of visas, through regulations around trade, by setting up systems of taxation, by setting up border terminals. And finally, because of the difficult security paradigm, constructing a border fence. Now the border fence was the most controversial because the fencing cuts off villagers who have family, assets, interests, loved ones on both sides, and access services in both countries.
John Rieger (03:08):
Nathan, why don't you weigh in here. In your essay this week you speak of Torkham as a place that has been disrupted by conflict for many years, but has managed to survive and to profit.
Nathan Shea (03:20):
Yeah, as Azeema was saying, Torkham is the major border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And one of the key routs between the two capitals of Islamabad and Kabul runs through Torkham.
Nathan Shea (03:32):
It's the Old Silk road Essentially, and so what that means is that it's an incredibly important route for the trade of goods between the two countries, but also regionally between Central and South Asia and between Europe and Asia. So even though the area has experienced significant conflict for decades now, the priority very much is around trade and continuing the transit of trucks through that area.
Tracie Yang (03:56):
Nathan, in your essay this week, you observed that for Pakistan attempting to stabilize a conflict-affected market town like Torkham, represents a difficult paradox. Can you describe that paradox for us?
Nathan Shea (04:10):
Essentially there's some trade-offs that are trying to be managed by the various state actors that have control in these border areas. Borders are seen as a key area for states to be able to work on, to secure that border area, to be able to provide effective customs and immigration policies.
Nathan Shea (04:27):
At the same time, there are local communities that live in these areas and that have lived there for generations. It's not uncommon for families to have family members on either side of the border, or to have to cross the border to be able to go to a hospital or to be able to go to school. The history that we see of border fences and everybody needs a passport and everybody needs a visa is relatively new. That creates grievances. It creates grievances with the state and can often lead to conflict.
Nathan Shea (04:56):
And so in a space where governments are trying to be able to secure their border, trying to stop the movement of guns and weapons and militants they might see, instead these barriers become the driver for violence. And essentially that is the nature of the paradox.
Azeema Cheema (05:13):
I'll add to the paradox that Nathan was talking about. Essentially through our research, what we have found is that in context of fragility, where state regulation is often dogmatic and they prescribe the A to Z of border control, the border system itself is flexible to the local context and responds to conditions on the ground. So the border systems tend to shift between tiers of formality and informality, depending on local conditions, as opposed to depending on the state's directive.
John Rieger (05:52):
It sounds like in these conflict-affected border towns there's a durable system of customary behavior, that doesn't easily yield to formal regulations from distant capitals.
Azeema Cheema (06:06):
Nathan Shea (06:07):
Essentially, despite the discussion that we've been having about conflict and violence and the fragility that exists in these areas, there is a dependency on some level of stability at the same time.
Nathan Shea (06:19):
Even back in August last year, during the period in which the Taliban were rapidly taking over Afghanistan and taking over many border gates, when Torkam was taken, it was only closed less than a day because there was a massive need for the regular continual movement of goods. And for those goods to be able to hit the markets down in Islamabad and Kabul, and for the state to be able to earn import taxes and other sort of duties from that movement of goods. This is not that controversial. This is part of the market system.
Tracie Yang (06:54):
Now the report we're discussing here has a broader focus than South and Southeast Asia. Why don't you tell us about the larger project?
Nathan Shea (07:04):
For sure. This research is part of a project called the Cross-Border Conflict, Evidence, Policy and Trends program, which is supported by the British government. Our particular part of the project, which is the X-Border Local Research Network, is very much focused looking at these local conditions and how conflicts affect local communities.
Nathan Shea (07:23):
The report itself, it features six case studies. As well as Torkham, we also look at a town called Shwe Kokko on the Myanmar-Thailand border. We look at Sarmada in Syria, which is on the border with Turkey, as well as the maritime border in Yemen in a town called Makha. And then there are two case studies from South Sudan.
John Rieger (07:44):
Well, let me throw this out to both of you. How can we bring peace and security to these conflict-affected border towns without aggravating either cross-border or state local antagonisms?
Nathan Shea (07:59):
It's very challenging. One thing that we should think about and we should work towards in border towns is not just building the infrastructure that we need to be able to create trade and support those that live in the downstream markets in the capital cities, but undertake development activities that work for the betterment of those local communities in that area.
Tracie Yang (08:21):
Yeah, I guess that was my follow-up question, is how do you incentivize better decision making at the government level?
Azeema Cheema (08:29):
The answer to your question in summary is better evidence.
Nathan Shea (08:33):
I think what's often missing in a lot of discussion about borders is the local voices and the local analysis. Embassies or policy makers or development workers, INGOs, they're based in their downstream capitals rather than in these conflict-affected border areas.
Nathan Shea (08:53):
And so being able to work with local stakeholders, local researchers, and other groups in this space, and being able to not just capture their voices but amplify them ,and being able to bring them to an international policy audience is incredibly important to be able to get a more accurate understanding of local dynamics.
John Rieger (09:13):
Nathan Shea and Azeema Cheema. Thank you both for joining us today.
Nathan Shea (09:17):
Thank you so much.
John Rieger (09:18):
Well, thank you so much for having us.
Tracie Yang (09:19):
And that's our podcast for this week. Nathan has written quite compellingly about the puzzle of Torkham and other conflict-affected border towns in this week's InAsia blog, where you can also find a link to the full report, Border Towns, Markets and conflict. They're well worth a read.
John Rieger (09:34):
And if you enjoyed our conversation today we invite you to subscribe to the InAsia podcast, where our guest next time will be former US ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius. Until then, I'm John Rieger.
Tracie Yang (09:45):
And I'm Tracie Yang.
John Rieger (09:46):
Thanks for listening.