Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Sugar trapped on the Silk Road

Fabrizio Foschini 8 min

For many observers of Afghanistan, local and foreigner, Pakistan has become, through the years, an indispensable part of the political equation, its image increasingly darkened by the spread of conflict to its own territory and because of the the charge of interference in the Afghan conflict. Pakistan itself, its politics, society and economy, and especially those of areas bordering Afghanistan are increasingly studied, researched and analysed. However, enjoying opportunities to actually visit the country, and to exchange views with Pakistanis, is not necessarily a frequent occurrence for those based in Kabul. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini has tried to write down some sweet memories of a recent visit to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The flight is a short one. There is just time to catch a glimpse of the lofty Spin Ghar range from a different angle from usual – the greenery of Kurram and Tirah – before the airplane starts descending towards the city below. You only start to really realise you are out of Afghanistan when you land amid carefully tended grass lawns dotted with edifying signs in English – ‘Complacency leads to poor quality work’ reads one – or after spotting the unmistakable silhouettes of the tapus, the Indian Kites, the most recognizable air trademark of every city in the Subcontinent. But the definitive proof is something else that catches and dazzles the eyesight of every traveller coming from Kabul and entering Peshawar – the cars. For eyes inured to the dictatorship of Toyota Corolla in Afghanistan, the traffic of Peshawar looks like a motorised Brazilian carnival: Toyotas mingle freely with Suzukis, Renaults, Peugeots and other exotic species.

The trip was a success from all points of view. Hospitality in the campus of the University of Peshawar, one laid in the most beautiful way possible to conceive, was quite a treat, and the occasion, an international conference organised by the Department of Political Science in cooperation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation turned out to be a most interesting and well-organised event. All conspired to transform the visit to a reputedly dangerous part of Pakistan into a very pleasant holiday, an event which some of my Afghan colleagues back in Kabul had foretold.

The conference went by the promising name ‘The Dynamics of Change in Conflict societies: Pakhtun Region in Perspective’, and did not fail to meet expectations. The two days of presentations and talks, mainly focusing on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa but with some interesting excursions on the Afghan side of the border, presented a vast array of topics and showed that a lively debate on many crucial issues affecting the border region is going on in Pakistan. Themes familiar to Afghans – gender issues, political participation and the opportunity, or the ways, of seeking a reconciliation with militants – engendered heated, but open-hearted discussions among participants and public alike.

The only lamentable absence was that of Afghan scholars: none were present at a conference which concerned Afghanistan very closely. The organizers said they had sent the invitation in the form of a call for papers to several Afghan universities, but had not received any proposals. For the true success of such initiatives, it is of course desirable that in the future both sides make a more concerted effort to ensure a participation of the Afghan academic establishment.

On the other hand, the possibility to meet and talk to Pakistani students was as interesting as the conference itself. They were eager to know more about Afghanistan, a country so near culturally and geographically, and yet so problematic to access for many of them. Only a few had actually visited Jalalabad, even fewer Kabul, on short trips, and the extent of their curiosity ranged from the political field to those of music, leisure and food.*  Female students were eminently present and active in questioning the speakers about their research, and the veils that covered their features did not blunt their acumen and keenness. ‘If we had had this conference 10-15 years ago, there wouldn’t have been more than a handful of girls with veils over their faces,’ noted a professor. ‘Now those who do not are a minority.’

Not every veil is the same however. When I went to Swabi and its lush countryside, I noticed the predominance of a particular pattern of chador, in the Iranian sense of the word, a blanket wrapped around the body by women, which here is white dotted in black or red. With its regional distinctiveness and historical pride – the pattern has been documented as first developed by women in Swabi in the early nineteenth century, old ones were embroidered while nowadays they are cheaply printed – it has been able to withstand a trend to adopt the burqa, which is definitely more pronounced in areas closer to Peshawar.

The idyllic countryside break made me feel at home, especially given that the landscape and cultivations looked quite familiar, only, instead of the quintessential Italian village bar, here there is the hujra (guest house in Pashtun villages), the focal point in which to engage in idle talk on any subject with some pretensions of authoritativeness. It so happened that, on learning my provenance and my profession, my local hosts and neighbours raised that king of bar topics – politics.

After asking about my views on the situation in Afghanistan, they cautiously inquired about my ideas of what the Pakistani and Indian involvement and interests in the Afghan conflict are. One of them reached the conclusion: ‘Of course, India has its own interests there, every country has its own interests. But for us here it is like that: If an Afghani dies, we die.’** Before I could grasp the inner meaning of this, he added something even more puzzling: ‘Think of the molasses, for example.’

The sugarcane harvest is now in its prime and the scent of the fermenting molasses is as pervasive there as that of the jasmine blossoms on the campus of the Peshawar university. The canes, gane in Pashto, are cut, and grounded with a simple machinery very similar to that of thenayshakar-sellers in Kabul. But the juice thus obtained is not consumed eagerly by kids and passers-by. It is rather channelled to an oversizedkarahi, the cast iron plate used to cook chappli kebab, under which burns a huge fire – fuelled by the same sugarcane stubble. The juice gradually solidifying at the edges of the plate is removed with a large spoon and put aside. It will turn into gor, the prized jaggery widely used in cooking or making preserves – and widely exported too.

‘The welfare of Afghanistan is very important for us,’ continued he ‘We are affected by all political and economic development beyond the border. We used to make good money by sending our gor to Afghanistan and the Central Asian markets beyond. The harvest has been good, but a few months ago, the export of gor has been banned by our government, along with buffalo meat, and we are going to loose the Kabul market…the point is that our politicians are closely connected to the economic elite or they themselves own big sugar refinery industries. They want to keep the internal market overstocked so that they can purchase the gor from us farmers at a very low price.’***

Thus, I realized that farmers, here at least, have a positive attitude towards an expansion of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) signed in 2010, and implemented, although in a half-hearted way since 20 June 2011. This sounded astonishing, as the trade agreement is usually condemned in Pakistan as damaging to the national economy and strategic interests. In fact, this anti-APTTA position had emerged also in a paper presented at the conference, which related the complaints made by traders in the border region about the shortcomings of the new trade agreement and the economic and political threat posed by India through it.

The APTTA is substantially a revision of the previous 1965 trade agreement between the two countries, designed to guarantee access to India for the Afghan products through the Wagah border, and access to Central Asian countries for Pakistani goods through Hairatan. However, the way that led to it – the first draft goes back to 2008 – has been a difficult one, and the transit of goods through the two countries is still hampered by many problems.

Critics of the agreement on the Pakistani side fear that if the APTTA is implemented as it is, Indian goods will reach not only Afghanistan, but also the Central Asian markets and eliminate Pakistani goods from those places. Furthermore, they argue, India would replace Pakistan as a major supplier to ISAF troops and for reconstruction materials generally in Afghanistan. Finally, as was heard at the conference in Peshawar University, it is commonly agreed that the treaty had been ‘imposed on Pakistan by the US’, to create a direct land link between Delhi and Kabul, while Pakistan still does not get direct access to other land-locked countries like Nepal or Bhutan.

However, uneasiness over the APTTA, at least in the case of many traders, probably depends more on the cumbersome formalities put in place by the agreement, and the loss of smuggling opportunities they entail. For years, a very common and profitable way of smuggling has been that of importing goods through Pakistan without paying fees, under the pretext that they were meant for Afghanistan, and then to smuggle them back (if they had exited Pakistan at all) for the internal black market.* ***  The APTTA has actually been designed to curb these practices, and one of the bones of contention that got the process stuck for months has been Islamabad’s insistence on getting bank guarantees from Afghan importers, which would then be cashable in Pakistan after the goods had transited, and in developing tracking devices to monitor the containers’ movements. Now these procedures are being implemented for both sides, and if this is causing liquidity problems and delays to traders (read here complaints by Afghan traders), it will in all probability also reduce the incidence of smuggling.

As for the US pressure, no doubt Washington has been pushing for the APTTA, which the late special representative Holbrooke used to call, ‘the most significant agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan in at least 50 years’. It fits in with the US’s pie in the sky strategy of developing a New Silk Road. (Details can be seen here and here) However, now even Zalmay Khalilzad in a speech to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 3 November has recognised that, ‘currently the New Silk Road initiative is largely a slogan’ (read here).

Actually, the possibility to commercialize their products is more vital to local Pakistani farmers than to Hillary Clinton, especially in these years of economic crisis, natural disasters and political turmoil. These not only hampered the international transit of goods, but also trade internal to Pakistan. To stick (sic) to sugarcane production as an example, the divisions of Swabi, Mardan and Charsadda are the region’s main producers of molasses, while the main local market is Malakand. In 2009, most of the roads leading to that area were blocked by army operations against Taleban militants, and transport of agricultural products proved impossible.

During that bloody year, many other businesses had the same fate. Mining enterprises in adjacent Buner (a provincially administered tribal area) suffered tremendously from the infighting. ‘My family had spent a lot of money in building a carriage road up to the mine we have in concession,’ said another local ‘You know what the state of roads there is. Well, the army artillery hit our road massively and we had to do repair works, costing more than ten lakh rupees and the state did not reimburse us at all. The security forces even arrested and tortured one of our workers there, mistaking him for a militant. Even now the extraction of marble has not resumed.’

The roughness of the military operations may draw some criticism, but when it comes to the US, the fiery standoff between the Pakistani army and the superpower during the last months wins unanimous praise, including in the hujra where I sat. ‘Americans have failed Pakistan twice’ recalled the village schoolteacher. ‘In our 1965 and 1971 wars with India, they did not move a finger to help us. Now we don’t like all these American…threats.’

The atmosphere, which had grown somewhat gloomy, was brightened up by thoughts of the farming work to be done the following day and the hujra talk slowly shifted away from politics. In fact, it was soon turned by the teacher, who is an avid student of English, first into a review of the several English grammar books and language courses he possesses, and finally into a technical appraisal of the Italian FIAT tractors, and of the benefits and disadvantages compared to their Pakistani replicas made in Dera Ghazi Khan. Thanks God, hujra talk, like its bar and pub equivalents, only presumes a faint claim to the knowledge of whatever topic may be dealt with. Still, it sometimes complements academic discussions.


* Much less pleasant and understandable – unless one wants to see malice behind it – was the insistent questioning from a local journalist about the religiousness of the Afghans and that of their state institutions. My status as a foreigner of course allowed me to refuse passing any comments on such issues, and to solicit different questions lest the interview be immediately over.

** Many Pakistani Pashtuns call the Afghan citizens ‘Afghani’, either out of sheer mistake, like some foreigners in Kabul, or in the intent to include Afghans of all ethnicities, in contrast with their concept of ‘Afghan’, still much related to that of being a Pashtun-speaker and inscribed in a Pashtun tribal genealogy.

*** Indeed, buffalo meat, cheaper than cow’s but similar in taste, has increasingly become a much sought after item in the Kabul meat market. As for the sugar mills in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Mardan boasts the biggest in the whole of Asia.

**** In Taleban times, this trickery was laid bare by the importing of television sets, video recorders and other banned goods supposedly for Afghanistan.


Commerce Pakistan


Fabrizio Foschini

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