Hazrat Ali Attar

A persistent protest, now stretching over 43 days, unfolds at the Pak-Afghan border in Chaman, where thousands unite under a singular demand: the reinstatement of the old system governing the Chaman border.

Decoding the Old System

The previous system permitted border crossing with the national identity card of Qila Abdullah and the Tazkira of Kandahar. However, post Chaman’s designation as a separate district in 2021, this privilege narrowed to the identity card of Chaman and the Tazkira of Kandahar, making passports obligatory for individuals from other districts in Balochistan.

The Transition to Passport Requirement

The shift to a passport requirement at the Chaman border originated on October 8, during a visit by the caretaker Chief Minister of Balochistan, Mir Ali Mardan Domaki. The announcement, made during a tribal jirga, faced opposition from tribal leaders who demanded a review. Despite assurances that their concerns would be communicated to higher authorities, the decision triggered widespread protests by the city’s residents and various political parties.

Chaman City’s Population Dynamics and Livelihood Struggles

Chaman city, with a population of 436,000, accommodates over 100,000 Afghan refugees. A staggering 70% of the population relies on the border for livelihood, given the absence of other employment opportunities. The decision to mandate passports triggered unanimous rejection by the people, political parties, and business entities, culminating in a 40-day protest involving thousands.

Inception of the Protest and Participating Parties

The protest commenced on October 20, featuring active involvement from political entities such as Awami National Party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Balochistan Awami Party, Pashtunkhwa Mili Awami Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, National Democratic Movement, Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, Laghari Ittehad, Traders Union, All Pakistan Tehreek, Wesh Zwanan, civil society activists, and local residents of Chaman.

Opposition to the Passport System

Sadiq Achakzai, spokesperson for the ‘Dharna’ Committee, voiced strong opposition to the passport system. He argued that Chaman’s economy, where 70% are border-dependent, would suffer. Additionally, the barbed wire installation at the border has separated villages and households, posing a direct challenge to the traditional practice of cross-border movement between Chaman and Speen Boldak.

Ameer Mohammad, General Secretary of Laghari Ittehad, emphasized the long-standing connection of tribes across the border, asserting that the state is attempting to interfere with their livelihoods. He questioned the state’s contribution in 76 years and highlighted the government’s attempt to take away jobs.

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Olas Yar Khan, Senior Vice President of the Chaman Chamber of Commerce, expressed concerns about the economic implications of passport requirements on Pak-Afghan trade. He argued that the implementation would disrupt daily border crossings, affecting local traders and the working class. Khan questioned the government’s alternative employment options and criticized the ban on items in the Afghan transit trade by the caretaker government, leading to trader losses. He pondered if such decisions fell within the caretaker government’s mandate.

Caretaker provincial information minister Jan Achakzai’s attempts to mediate with the Chaman sit-in organizers on October 25 proved fruitless. The Dharna Committee’s primary demands were the removal of the passport requirement at the Chaman border and the reinstatement of the Laghari package. Despite assurances from Achakzai that Chaman citizens’ employment is the state’s responsibility, negotiations reached an impasse. Jan Achakzai emphasized that the decision to implement the border passport system rests with the Apex Committee, deeming it final.

Highlighting security concerns, Achakzai mentioned the prevalence of suicide attacks, with 14 attackers originating from Afghanistan this year. He also noted Afghan refugees’ involvement in 700 criminal cases, underscoring the necessity of regulating the international Chaman border.

Subsequently, the Dharna Committee engaged in talks with Corps Commander Lieutenant General Asif Ghafoor on October 26 at Chaman FC Port. Ghafoor clarified the state’s decision to make passports and visas mandatory from November 1, with recommendations for a tailored mechanism for Chaman residents and increased employment opportunities. He defended the democratic right to peaceful protest but warned against lawlessness at the international Chaman border, emphasizing the state’s priority on maintaining legal documentation.

Progress and Ongoing Challenges

Despite a 40-day sit-in, Laghari Union President Ghausullah Achakzai expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s perceived lack of seriousness. The Dharna Committee’s delegation to Islamabad on November 14 failed to yield progress, leading to the boycott of the polio campaign and the closure of the Pak-Afghan International Highway on November 20. The resulting daily financial losses and the distressing impact on the working class, exemplified by young man Gul Shah’s suicide attempt, intensified the protest’s urgency.

Ghausullah Achakzai outlined a vision where the entire Pashtun belt joins the protest, potentially disrupting national highways connecting Punjab and Sindh. The announcement of an important development on December 2, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Khan Shaheed Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, adds to the momentum. Political parties, including the Awami National Party, Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party Khushal Group, National Democratic Movement, and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, declared province-wide protests in support of the Chaman sit-in.

With a warning that the government bears responsibility for any violent incidents, Ghausullah Achakzai affirmed the protest’s persistence until their legitimate demands are met.

Governor Balochistan Abdul Wali Kakar’s visit to Chaman on November 29 marked an opportunity for dialogue. In a Jirga attended by tribal elders and Dharna Committee representatives, Wali Kakar acknowledged the community’s dependence on the border and committed to finding a lasting solution through mutual understanding within five days.