Trade volume has increased by more than three times in one year via the Ghulam Khan border terminal in the dusty town of North Waziristan in Pakistan. Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

Ghulam Khan, North Waziristan: Hundreds of cargo trucks filled with goods, mostly food, are lined up and stand ready to cross into Afghanistan’s Khost province from Pakistan near the Ghulam Khan border crossing - vital commercial crossing into Pakistan. It is one of the nine divisions of North Waziristan, a former tribal region that is now a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since the 2018 merger.

Ghulam Khan border terminal

About seven-hour drive away from Islamabad city lies the border town Ghulam Khan with clear blue skies, miles of rugged landscape and sun-baked mud houses. The terrain is dusty but the town has what is needed for international trading - a smooth road connecting Pakistan to Afghanistan and beyond.

The flag of Pakistan and the new white flag of Afghanistan flutters atop as the border guards and truckers are busy in their everyday routine. Around 62,836 trucks went from Pakistan and about 62,093 arrived from Afghanistan from December 2019 to February 2022 via this route which is also used for transit trade for Pakistani goods to Central Asian markets and for Afghan goods to Pakistan’s ports.

Ghulam Khan border town in North Waziristan district is one of the vital commercial crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

Local businessman Malik Mohammad Qabil Shah, the resident of Sher Khel village of Ghulam Khan division, says the region is peaceful and business is picking pace. “We are currently importing coal and dry fruits from Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan) and sending it to Peshawar, Lahore, Sargodha and Faisalabad,” Shah told Gulf News. “The local people lost their homes and shops during Zarb-e-Azb but the region is now much peaceful which is good for business and development of the region.”

Life returning to normal in region once hit by terrorism

Until a few years back, North Waziristan was considered the hub of terrorism as Pakistan suffered serious fallout from the US-led war in Afghanistan since 2001 with the influx of millions of refugees and surge in militant activities. In 2014, Pakistan’s military launched operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ (named after the sword of the Prophet Muhammad) aimed at “foreign and local terrorists” in North Waziristan. The operations helped root out terrorist groups from the region but also displaced about one million people, destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

North Waziristan which was once considered the hub of terrorism and saw extensive military operation and displacement of one million people is now witnessing development. Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

“Many bazaars are still deserted. People are returning to their hometowns. But these are poor people. They need government’s support to earn a living” insisted Fazal Mohammad, a local trader from nearby Sher Khel village. “Reopening Ghulam Khan terminal and declaring it transit route is a good omen. We are hopeful that the region will now attract more business and investment.”

Omar Khitab, assistant commissioner of North Waziristan’s main town of Miranshah, said that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is focused on “rehabilitating people and increasing economic activity in the region.” But he agreed with the locals saying more needs to be done to return to normal life. “It will take some time to resume business as people started returning in 2018 but their homes and shops were ruined during the military offensives against terrorists” Khitab told Gulf News.

‘We want peace and education’

Local administration with support from the military has built and renovated infrastructure, roads, schools and hospitals. “We want peace and education in our region. We want schools for our boys and girls” said a Pashto-speaking elderly tribal leader Haji Darya. At least 222 schools and colleges have been restored at the cost of Rs 1.7 billion bringing the total number of schools in the region to 838. North Waziristan is home to some 543,254 people.

Locals of the North Waziristan region say they want peace and education in their region. At least 222 schools and colleges have been restored since 2018. Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

Fencing and legal border crossings

To ensure peace and security in border towns, Pakistan has fenced most of the 2,670 km border it shares with Afghanistan. The officials say the fencing will help prevent cross-border terror attacks and control the illegal movement of people and goods. Some locals, who used to move freely across the porous border, complained about restricted movement and customs duties but officials say declared border crossings are essential to help regulate trade.

Ghulam Khan terminal is also used for transit trade for Pakistani goods to Central Asian markets and for Afghan goods to Pakistan’s ports. Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

Trade volume increased

“The trade volume has increased by more than three times in one year,” Shahid Ali Khan, deputy commissioner of North Waziristan district, told Gulf News. Some 500 trucks are crossing the Ghulam Khan border each day as compared to 100-120 trucks in March 2021. “Three loading points have created roughly 11,000 local jobs” he shared. The goods mostly traded include fresh fruits and vegetables, poultry, dried fruits, rice and cement. Pakistan and Afghanistan have agreed to allow the free movement of trucks from March 21 to increase the trade volume that had plummeted in recent months and to improve regional connectivity with Central Asian states.

Untapped mineral wealth in North Waziristan

The rugged border region that has long been thought of as more a natural wasteland hides untapped mineral deposits worth billions. “Development and investment in the mineral industry can change the destiny of people and transform the economy of Waziristan,” says Malik Abdul Samad, tribal leader and teacher, who lives in Haider Khel village of Mir Ali division.

Factfile of North Waziristan
Area: 4,707sqkm
Population: 543,254
Language: Pashto
Divisions: 9

The North and South Waziristan region are home to mineral deposits such as copper, gold, chromite, granite as well as oil and gas, experts say. KP board of investment and trade has suggested establishing a processing zone and modern industrial zone to boost the district’s economy, attract investors and create jobs. “Our people have suffered much” due to terrorist attacks followed by military operations. “Now we just want peace, jobs and development in North Waziristan,” Samad said.

North Waziristan is a former federally administered tribal area (FATA) and now a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The region has nine tehsils (administrative divisions): Datta Khel, Dossali, Gharyum, Ghulam Khan, Mir Ali, Miran Shah, Razmak, Shewa and Spinwam.