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

Cross-Border Trade Depressed in Afghan North

Merchants claim customs procedures at Hairatan checkpoint are riddled with corruption and red tape.
By Qayum Babak
  • Bridge connecting Afghan border town of Hairatan with Uzbekistan. (Photo: Qayum Babak)
    Bridge connecting Afghan border town of Hairatan with Uzbekistan. (Photo: Qayum Babak)
  • Hairatan is a key trading hub for Afghanistan. (Photo: Qayum Babak)
    Hairatan is a key trading hub for Afghanistan. (Photo: Qayum Babak)
  • A rail link connects northern Afghanistan with Central Asian transport networks. (Photo: Qayum Babak)
    A rail link connects northern Afghanistan with Central Asian transport networks. (Photo: Qayum Babak)

Trade through Afghanistan’s main northern route has collapsed, and while officials blame unfair rules and security problems, merchants say procedures there are so corrupt that they prefer to use other routes. 

Hairatan sits on the river Amu Darya, connected by bridge with the border town of Termez in Uzbekistan. A new railway from the main provincial town Mazar-e Sharif up to the border connects Afghanistan to freight networks via the Central Asia states to Russia and Europe. That should give Hairatan a unique advantage over road-only crossing points into Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south.

Instead, trade through Hairatan has fallen away dramatically. According to Arash Yunusi, chief executive of the Balkh region chamber of commerce, import volumes in February stood at 2,000 tons, compared with 80,000 tons in the same month of 2012.

Traders from northern Afghanistan raised concerns about the future of commerce through Hairatan when they met at the Balkh chamber of commerce in Mazar-e Sharif on February 11. They warned that the economy of northern Afghanistan would be at risk unless central government acted swiftly to address problems with cross-border trade arrangements.

Afghanistan remains heavily reliant on imports, and is vulnerable to any changes in the terms of trade. Pakistan, in particular, has imposed severe delays on freight heading from Afghanistan for export via the port at Karachi.

Local officials say the reason why Hairatan is suffering is that the customs rules there are stricter than elsewhere.

Speaking on February 18, provincial governor Atta Mohammad Nur suggested that central government was applying a higher standard to Hairatan than to other checkpoints.

"Everywhere except Hairatan, tariff and taxes on export goods have been lifted, but our traders are still being charged taxes for export goods and the custom laws are applied equitably," he said.

The governor’s spokesman, Monir Farhad, argued that Hairatan was effectively being punished for sticking to the rules.

"All the relevant regulations from the finance and commerce ministries are applied properly to traders at Hayratan. So they go to [other border checkpoints] that are more to their advantage,” he told IWPR.

Yunosi, meanwhile, claimed that goods were simply smuggled into Afghanistan at other locations.

"The fall in imports through Hairatan has been caused by goods coming in through other routes without being subjected to tariffs and taxes, because staff there are corrupt," he said.

Afghanistan’s trade minister Anwarolhaq Ahadi, visiting Hairatan port on February 18, denied the rules applied there were any different from elsewhere.

"It needs to be stated clearly that the law is enforced in equal measure at all border checkpoints,” he said.

Ahadi acknowledged that imports had slumped at Hairatan, but contrasted this with Aqina, a border crossing with Turkmenistan further west, where import revenues were rising rapidly.

Local traders to whom IWPR spoke disagreed strongly that the Hairatan checkpoint was less corrupt than others. Many said the problems stemmed from officials in Balkh region appointing relatives to positions of power on the border.

One of the few businessmen prepared to speak on the record was Sayed Taher Roshan Zadah, who said the reason people avoided shipping goods though Hairatan was not the customs duties they had to pay, but “bureaucracy and… customs officers who take bribes”.

"The corrupt, bribe-taking staff in Hairatan, who mostly have the backing of senior government officials… have robbed traders so much that all of them have started fleeing the port," said the businessman, who heads the Roshan Zadah Group.

Aref Totakhel, who speaks on behalf of the traders who use the checkpoint, agreed that staff there were “most corrupt”.

“They bought their positions and they extort bribes… just as they please, using various pretexts,” he said. “That’s why traders have grown tired of it.”

Asked about problems at Hairatan, Farhad said, "I can neither confirm nor deny that corruption exists, but it isn’t on as large a scale as the traders say".

Saleh Mohammad, a departmental director in the local customs office, insisted that staff there operated by the letter of the law.

The reason imports were falling, he said, was “the daily announcements and warnings from the media about the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014. Traders have halted their commercial activities because they are scared of 2014."

Speaking on February 11, finance ministry spokesman Wahid Tawhidi denied suggestions that security fears were depressing foreign trade. Like Ahadi, he pointed to increased import revenues at Aqina, and said the same was true of Koshki and Islam Qala in Herat province, where goods are traded with Iran.

Sayed Sakha, regional finance chief for Herat province, confirmed that customs revenues were on the rise there.

"Our revenues have risen eight per cent this year, due to increased levels of imports and exports,” he told IWPR by phone.

Back at Hairatan, trader Totakhel told IWPR he was being driven to desperation by the bureaucracy involved in getting goods across the border.

"Believe me, I have collected 15 signatures so far to obtain a lawful order, and I’ve paid out money as well,” he said, clutching a handful of documents. “I’ve been going around for three days now. I’ve grown weary of life, yet my work is still not done."

Qayum Babak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.