Afghanistan: Land of Opportunity

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Afghanistan: Land of Opportunity

WAR-RAVAGED. That’s how most people would describe Afghanistan. But for the two hundred odd men who throng the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar every day, the land is full of opportunity.

They are tailors, carpenters and unskilled manual laborers. And they’re not just Pashtuns. Many Punjabis are in the line too. Why would they leave their homes and journey into a land that has no viable central government, an armed insurgency and NATO forces renowned for their accurate friendly fire?

Cash. When you’re being paid double for your troubles, why wouldn’t you seize the opportunity? The economy at home is in free fall. Karachi, the economic hub and a microcosm of Pakistan, is being dragged back to the internecine warfare days of the ‘90s. Foreign investors have pulled out of the Karachi Stock Exchange; a barometer of the nation’s fiscal health. The population continues to grow at an exponential rate which translates into fewer jobs and more people fighting for those few jobs. Frankly, things at home don’t look too good.

And then, like a gift from above: Afghanistan. The infrastructure has been destroyed. Dollars are being pumped in by the USAIDs of the world. They need cheap, unskilled labor. That’s our specialty. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Pakistanis are in high demand in the Afghan market. They ask for less money than the natives and work day and night. Everyone’s happy; except, of course, the natives. Many Afghanis are resentful of the influx of workers and want the government to formulate a policy to stop them from coming in. But that is unlikely to change the status quo as most of those who cross the border do so illegally. Those who follow the rules complain that they are interrogated by intelligence agencies at the border about alleged links to Indians and Americans working in Afghanistan (The News, May 13, 2011). The expats say they’ve complained to the Pakistani Consulate in Kabul but it hasn’t stopped ‘intelligence inspectors’ from harassing them. Ironically, the thousands who cross illegally aren’t asked a single question.

Afghanistan’s popularity is also due to ease of getting visit visas. Free of charge and obtained within three days, Pakistani workers resort to visit visas because the Afghan Embassy does not issue work permits. Haji Meraj, First Secretary at the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar claims the rejection rate of visas is zero (Dawn, Feb 26, 2011). For Pashtun workers, there’s also the added advantage of a shared culture across the arbitrarily drawn Durand Line. When the food and language are similar, it’s home away from home.

Where does this leave Pakistan? Ghulam Sarwar Khan Mohamand, former president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes that a vacuum has been created by the migration of workers. This shortage has led to an increase in the cost of labor in Pakistan. He puts Afghan reliance on Pakistani workers at 70% (Dawn, Feb 26, 2011). The irony is not missed by Afghans who see this tide of workers as a sort of pay back for the refugee camps of the ‘80s.

A porous border and stagnating economy are the premium ingredients of this tragic recipe. Policies made by both governments to stem the tide of migrants will be utterly useless unless Pakistan can create jobs for its rapidly increasing population and get its economy back on track. That will require strong political will to curb the urban war in Karachi, increase the tax base and reduce the defense budget. Unless Pakistan begins to see its people as its greatest strength, it will be unable to stop those who can from running away to greener pastures.