ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan and Afghanistan are co-operating on a number of projects aimed at encouraging development and trade and restoring peace in the region.
The most recent project approved by Pakistani authorities is the Peshawar-Kabul Expressway, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria told Pakistan Forward.
When completed, the expressway will stretch 276km between Peshawar and Kabul, according to the Pakistani National Highway Authority (NHA).
The highway will eliminate a missing link between Afghanistan and the Pakistani seaport of Karachi. A smaller road does connect the cities now, but the future expressway will have four lanes, according to the NHA.
Pakistan already has started building a two-lane (dual carriageway) highway almost entirely in Afghanistan, between Jalalabad and the Torkham border crossing, NHA spokesman Kashif Zaman said, adding that the highway, when complete, will replace a single-lane Jalalabad-Torkham road that dates back to 2006.
"Such co-operation is a pre-requisite for fruitful political engagement," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies. "Roads bring people together."
The countries are major trading partners.
Pakistan is the largest importer of Afghan goods, buying US $188m (Rs. 19.6 billion) worth in 2014, according to the World Trade Organisation.
That same year, Afghanistan bought US $1.3 billion (Rs. 135.9 billion) of Pakistani merchandise.
The countries plan to raise their annual bilateral trade to US $5 billion (Rs. 522.5 billion) by 2018, Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif confirmed last November in Islamabad to visiting Afghan Minister of Finance Eklil Ahmad Hakimi.
"Pakistan believes that a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Afghanistan is in the best interest of the country and the region," Nawaz Sharif said at the time.
"Pakistan will extend all possible support to Afghanistan ... to consolidate a long-term bilateral and regional partnership," he said.
Improved communication and transportation between Pakistan and Afghanistan are essential, Sabur Ghayur of Kabul, a former adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, told Pakistan Forward.
"Afghanistan imports 70% of its food from Pakistan," he said. "Some vegetables, poultry and other foods spoil because of the long transit time on poor roads."
The projects will improve Pakistan's image in Afghanistan and will lead to more co-operation, he said.
Poor roads and communications impair traders and business owners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abdul Rauf Alam, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said.
"The road projects will have a positive impact on economic activities in the region," he told Pakistan Forward.
Pakistan also has projects planned to develop the education and health sectors in Afghanistan, officials from the two countries say.
Pakistan in recent years helped Afghanistan build an engineering university in Balkh, a faculty of arts at Kabul University, a faculty of science at Nangarhar University, and Rahman Baba High School in Kabul, Zakaria said.
In addition, Pakistan helped establish three hospitals in Kabul, Logar and Jalalabad.
Pakistan is awarding scholarships to thousands of Afghans to study at Pakistani universities, Ghayur said, adding that the move will help improve understanding between the countries.
Such initiatives will bring Afghanistan and Pakistan closer together and boost co-operation in other areas including joint action against terrorism, Islamabad-based defence analyst Lt. Gen. (ret.) Amjad Shoaib said.
Education, social services and better economic opportunities discourage extremism, he told Pakistan Forward.
Pakistan and Afghanistan recently entered into a Quadrilateral Co-operation and Co-ordination Mechanism with two other countries to fight terrorism, he added, expressing hope that Pakistan and Afghanistan would reach a similar bi-lateral deal.
Already the two countries co-operate in military training and exchange delegations on defence co-operation, he said.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have a "multi-dimensional" relationship, "so there is no shortage of areas for co-operation," Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal told Pakistan Forward.
"They include security, trade and transit, and economic co-operation," he said, adding that both sides are working to further enhance co-operation on counter-terrorism.
In June in Tashkent, the countries agreed on a bilateral mechanism for security and regulation of movement of people and vehicles across the border, he said.
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