By Hamid Pakteen*
Over a million Afghans refugees in Pakistan are today trapped between a cruel Taliban regime and an apathetic Pakistan state determined to push them into the jaws of harrowing life. Afghans had been fleeing their home in hordes for decades, every time the country went into turbulent conflicts—first the internecine civil wars, then the Soviet occupation, the height of Cold War, the Taliban takeover, the bloody Western occupation, and now the return to the Taliban regime.
Pakistan has played a game of snakes and ladder with hapless Afghans over the years. The Afghan refugees first became an effective tool for Pakistan to exert influence in Afghanistan and advance its strategic interest of keeping the neighboring country as its “strategic backyard“.
Since the Taliban returned to Kabul, aided and abetted by Pakistan in 2021, over 600,000 Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan, adding close to four million existing Afghan refugees, of which only 1.32 million were registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Now Pakistan, on the brink of an economic collapse, is hell-bent on stopping the Afghan flow into the country, pushing back hundreds of them every day.
It wasn’t like this before. Refugees provided a significant counterbalance to Pakistan’s Afghan policy, making Afghans a crucial tool in its strategic planning. Afghanistan was considered a strategic backyard for Pakistan in its conflicting relationship with India. The refugees also aided Pakistan to counter adversarial moves from Afghanistan, including the question of Durand Line.
The Afghan refugees were in fact welcomed by Pakistan during the Soviet invasion which helped Pakistan to cosy up to the Western military bloc, a lucrative and militarily beneficial relationship. The Afghan state used Pashtun groups opposed to Pakistan to exert influence on Pakistan while the Pakistan Army played a duplicitous game of supplying weapons in 1975 to Panjshir province to overthrow the Afghan state.
During the Afghan jihad, Pakistan actively courted Afghans. The ISI utilized the Cold War scenario to create terrorist sanctuaries from the refugee camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Two `universities of jihad` came up as part of this policy. First, in Hayatabad in Peshawar, where the University of Dawat-ul Jihad was run by Prof. Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, one of the most notorious Jihadi leaders under the patronage of Pakistan’s ISI during the Cold War. Second, Darul Uloom Haqqania, some 60 km east of Peshawar, which came to be known as the “University of Jihad” and was home to 4,000 students, mainly from refugee communities.
But after the Soviets left Afghanistan, most Afghans had little interest in fighting with the Western armies. They wanted to live a peaceful and, if possible, comfortable life. Big cities in Pakistan, like Karachi and Peshawar, offered a home away from home–similar language, similar traditions, and religion. The Afghans became part of the urban scape in Pakistan, mixing and merging with the local Pathans and others to create a network of hard-working Afghans. Pakistan also offered a convenient exit gate to Europe and the US for Afghans.
After 2001, the situation changed. The Afghan refugees were no longer welcome. Pakistan imposed stricter monitoring on refugees and implemented sterner detention and deportation policies. Now they are being pushed back into the hell from where they had fled.
*The author chooses a pseudonym. Pakteen is a researcher based in Afghanistan.
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