Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Carpet Industry Still Faces Challenges

Hand-woven rugs are an important export for Afghanistan, but neighbouring Pakistan is attempting to make inroads into the industry.
By Abdul Baseer

Carpet weaving is one of Afghanistan’s foremost industries, and the hand-woven treasures constitute one of the best export hopes. But years of civil strife drove many to flee their country for neighbouring Pakistan, where their business continued to flourish.


Now, the government in Kabul would like to see the weavers bring their looms back home. However, continued instability in many areas of the country, coupled with enticements by the Pakistani government, which wants to keep its own rug industry going, are prompting some Afghan carpet-makers to relocate aboard and discouraging others from returning home.


Abdul Shukoor, a resident of Kunduz province, has a carpet-weaving business that keeps seven members of his family employed. In his village, he told IWPR, 50 families engaged in the trade have already gone to Pakistan.


“In Pakistan everything is available, they pave the way for us. If something isn't done for carpet weavers and traders here, they'll all go to Pakistan,” he said.


Afghan hand-woven carpets have been famous for centuries, and are one of the most profitable economic activities in the country. In the period preceding Afghanistan’s two decades of war, carpets accounted for around ten per cent of exports. The industry still helps lubricate the local economy.


Traditionally, most carpets were woven in northern areas of Afghanistan. But after the communist coup in 1978 and the years of Soviet occupation that followed, millions of refugees including carpet weavers fled the country, the majority to Pakistan.


Afghan government leaders say all that’s changed now and they are doing their best not only to support those weavers who stayed in the country but also to encourage others to return.


“Conditions have now improved for Afghan businessmen,” said Ghulam Nabi Farahi, the deputy minister of commerce. “We have signed a protocol with Ariana Afghan Airlines to transport carpets made by Afghan weavers to world markets…. and now we take their rugs to Japan, America, Canada and all European and Arabic countries tax-free.”


Projects are under way to provide land for industrial parks where carpet factories would recruit traditional weavers. And the push is on to attract international investment.


But primitive conditions, the lack of basic necessities such as electricity and water, and the continuing unrest in many parts of the country keep investors at bay.


“Gunmen rule in our area; if went there, they’d not only loot our properties, but our lives would be in danger as well,” said Sayed Mohammad, originally from Faryab province. He now runs a carpet shop in Peshawar, Pakistan, and says he has no intention of going back to Afghanistan.


Farahi dismisses claims that security concerns are driving weavers to Pakistan, “The security situation in Afghanistan is better than in most other countries, and the security problems faced by Afghans exist elsewhere in the world too.”


Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to welcome the weavers with open arms and is anxious to discourage them from returning to Afghanistan.


According to Hamid Qaderi, president of the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce, the Pakistani government has enticed Afghan weavers to remain by offering them subsidised land, housing, electricity and security.


”This shows astuteness on the part of Pakistani officials,” he said.


Still, Afghanistan is anxious to reclaim its prominence on the world carpet market and government officials like Farahi insist that the industry will once again prosper.


“I can tell you with confidence that the carpet weaving businesses which are now in Pakistan will be transferred to Afghanistan within the next five or six months,” he said.


Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.