Islamabad: Giant trucks thunder along the main stretch of highway that peels away from the Pakistani border, carrying cement, fruit and chemicals to the Afghan city of Jalalabad.
Vulnerable to attacks from Taliban and Islamic State militants, the crucial 74-kilometre expanse of road that runs near the famed Khyber Pass is undergoing a major facelift after security concerns forced a seven-year delay in the project.
As well as paving the way for an expansion in bilateral trade between the two countries, the road is at the center of the struggle between Pakistan and India to maintain influence over Afghanistan.
“It’s strategic interest that is prompting investment in Afghanistan,” Imtiaz Gul, executive director at the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “Goodwill is secondary.” In the last decade India’s investment in Afghanistan has created discomfort for Pakistan, he noted.
In October, Pakistan pledged a further $500 million to help reconstruct Afghanistan, in addition to an existing $500 million package on health, education and infrastructure that includes a 400-bed hospital in Kabul and more than 2000 scholarships for Afghan students.
“India, too, has focused on building infrastructure such as dams, highways, and power infrastructure as well as the new parliament in Kabul. It has largely refrained from supporting Kabul militarily because of Pakistani sensitivities,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, fellow at the Brookings India think tank.
“For India, the priority is a stable and plural Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban. This would ensure that the region is not a hotbed for terrorism and is instead a conduit to Central Asia,” Jaishankar said.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan remains in the grip of a resurgent Taliban and repeated attacks from Islamic State militants. Bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been severely strained over Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, presenting significant challenges to economic development in the region, said Abdul Baqi Amin, director of Center for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul.
The neighbours accuse each other of harbouring militants who carry out violent assaults on the both side of the border. Even so, Pakistan is Afghanistan’s largest trading partner with annual trade of around $2 billion. The two governments pledged last year to increase bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017.
“Pakistan is still seeking a dominant role in Afghanistan politics to stand against its rival India via building roads or taking part in other projects in Afghanistan,” Amin said.
India also plays a strong part in Afghanistan through projects such as the construction of Salma Dam in Herat, he said.
Some of this investment is bearing fruit. In 2015, Afghanistan and Pakistan trade increased from $1.03 billion to $1.7 billion, according to Pakistan central bank figures, and Pakistan, as one of South Asia’s fastest growing economies, is eyeing the central Asian markets for trade expansion.
Trade between Pakistan and central Asian republics combined accounted for just $74.27 million in 2015-16, according to Pakistan Trade Development Authority.
With the expansion of the Torkhum-Jalalabad road, Islamabad is also looking to the expansion of the corridor to central Asia, creating an economic engine for the region.
As the main gateway to Afghanistan, more than half of Afghanistan’s 2014 trade with the rest of the world was done via Pakistan’s two border crossings, Torkham in the north and Chaman in the south, according to Pakistan Business Council.
“If you see the history, people just came here to fight and brought war to this area,” said Amjad Ali, director of the road project for Pakistan’s national highway authority, referring to the use of the Torkham crossing by NATO forces prior to 2014 as well as the long history of invasions via the Khyber Pass.
“Now more than 600 trucks each day cross the border via this road and once the second carriageway is completed and the mechanism at border is upgraded it will go up further.”
As he spoke, a small contingent of Afghan guards deputed to Pakistani contractors in Jalalabad point to pockets on both sides of the road where Taliban and Islamic State militants are based.
Pakistan is among the best performing economies in Asia and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif aims to boost it further after China pledged to invest $46 billion in its economic corridor linking its less-developed western part to the Pakistan’s deep-sea port of Gwadar.
Despite the harsh exchange of rhetoric between Pakistan and India, Pakistan’s minister for planning and reform and the brains behind Sharif’s development policy, Ahsan Iqbal, offered an unexpected olive branch, inviting India to join China’s corridor in order to promote economic growth in south and central Asia.
“We need to normalize ties in this part of the world,” Iqbal said in an interview at his office earlier this month. “A better political environment is the key for better economic cooperation.” Bloomberg