ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistani government, which has been making efforts to bolster relations with Afghanistan, is trying help more Afghans secure visas to the country after the coronavirus outbreak triggered a backlog of applications.
The government on September 29 decided to allow its embassy in Kabul and other consulates in Afghanistan to process visa applications, Pakistan's ambassador to Kabul, Mansoor Ahmad Khan, said in a tweet on October 13.
"Yesterday 12 October Pakistan Embassy in Kabul issued 2,059 visas to Afghan nationals," he said in the post. "We are working to further facilitate visa applicants. From today our Consulates are also issuing visas to Afghans".
The application process has been slowed as the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the closure of some agencies in Afghanistan, Khan told Pakistan Forward October 13. The move by the government will help alleviate the application backlog, he added.
"The long queues at the Kabul embassy are because the visa process was closed due to COVID-19, but now we have started the process not only in Kabul but also in the four consulates in Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar."
"To shorten the long queues, we have increased both the number of our staff and number of visas being issued on a daily basis," he added.
Khan said his team is trying its best to make the application process easier so that all Afghan applicants can obtain a visa in a dignified fashion.
"We are providing full assurance that there is no visa fee and no one should give a single penny to any agent, police constable, official or middleman. We also informed local media and have displayed banners near the embassy building to make people aware," he said.
"I also met with [acting] Afghan Foreign Minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar, who gave me full assurance that the queues and the number of applicants coming to the embassy and to the consulates will be properly managed so that both the embassy and Afghan authorities can make the process operate more smoothly," Khan said.
While the visa process is a complicated issue and not just a matter that takes a day or two, "I am sure results of the recent developments will have a greater impact for both countries," added Khan.
The moves should help remove obstacles to trade between the two countries, which has been declining, he said.
"The recent steps will not only increase both transit and bilateral trade, but will also boost connectivity while taking practical steps to create opportunities for the businessmen of the two countries," Khan added.
"Leaders in both countries are serious about improving relations and are taking practical steps to bring the peoples of the two countries closer in terms of tourism, trade, transit and connectivity," Khan said.
The Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, receives thousands of applications from eight different provinces, and many applicants have failed to obtain a visa because of the great demand, said Baz Muhammad Abid, a senior Afghan journalist.
"However, now the administration in Nangarhar, along with other relevant departments, began streamlining the process from October 14. All applicants gather at a football stadium to get tokens before moving to the consulate. Then officials and social workers at the consulate check their tokens in order to proceed" with visa processing, Abid said.
"Following those criteria, about 1,000 applicants were awarded a visa on on October 15 and the same number of applicants were processed the next day, so the process will continue at that same pace," Abid added.
'A step in the right direction'
The visa move is the latest mutual effort to strengthen relations between the neighbours.
The landmark peace deal on February 29 between the Taliban and the United States has seen Pakistan take steps to help spur intra-Afghan peace talks, and the chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, visited Islamabad in late September.
There he held talks with top Pakistani officials, including President Arif Alvi, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on the Afghan peace process, transit trade, Pak-Afghan relations, economic ties, visas and other issues.
The same month also saw the reopening of several Pak-Afghan border terminals to facilitate trade.
With the recent effort to improve the visa application process, observers see relations pointing in the right direction.
"We must keep in mind that an improved visa system was a long-standing demand of the Afghans who regularly come to Pakistan, who have historical and family links to Pakistan," said Ammara Durrani, a researcher and specialist on Pak-Afghan affairs based in Islamabad. "It also was needed for education, health, work and business."
"Overall, this is good for Pakistani institutions, markets, businesses, universities and hospitals that have Afghans use their services," she said.
"It's a step in the right direction, and fortunately the timing of the ... peace process gives it more meaning and more substance," said Durrani.
"You can establish infrastructure facilities across the border, you can provide temporary relief to refugees, but those are short-term investments," she said. "It is actually the investment in the people of your neighbour that creates the sustainable long-lasting building blocks for a more trusting, accommodating, co-operative bilateral relationship."