Afghanistan & Pakistan: An Ebbing Equation

Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been running a countdown  on platform  X,  announcing the ‘number of days’ left for Afghan refugees or ‘illegal foreigners’ threatening ‘arrest and deportation’ by law enforcement agencies.  Even as a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit western Afghanistan resulting in over 2,000 deaths, Anwar ul Haq Kakar’s caretaker government of Pakistan is going through its plan to evict all ‘illegal aliens’ by the end of October 2023. As per United Nations, 3.7 million Afghans fleeing war, poverty, and political upheaval presently reside in Pakistan. But Pakistan, which puts the number of refugees at 4.4 million insists that only about 1.4 million Afghans hold the necessary documentation Proof of Registration (PoR).

Although UN agencies have pressed Islamabad to consider the risks of forcefully repatriating thousands  of Afghan refugees, Pak authorities are adamant about the controversial plan. The Afgha­n Embassy in Islamabad responded by accusing Pakistan of conducting a ‘ruthless’ operation against Afghan refugees, without distinguishing between genders and even arresting women and children.

Former Pakistani senator Afrasiab Khattak has urged Kakar’s government to handle the Afghan refugees with care, warning that “the intense hatred being sown today will breed animosity which will be reaped by many generations. The darkest chapter of Pak-Afghan policy,” he wrote on his X account.

Tensions between the two countries are hardly new; they have been going on for several decades. The issues include water resources and the Durand Line which arbitrarily cut the Pushtuns off from their hinterland and markets in southern Afghanistan. Be it the Afghan Taliban, or previous Afghan governments, insurgent groups – the Haqqanis or the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan, none recognise the legality of the border.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have never really enjoyed what can be termed friendly relations, primarily because of the Afghani claim to Pashtunistan, a historical region inhabited by the indigenous Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The porous nature of the Pak-Afghan border and the lack of its management and regulation, particularly in its tribal belt, domestic economic challenges are domestic in nature, such as the growing ethnic divide, a weak economy, rampant illicit drug trade, unmonitored cross-border movement of ordinary civilians and militants are issues that are common to both countries. However with worsening relations between the two countries, old issues have injected urgency into Pakistani discussions.

The spark for the current deterioration in the relations is Pakistan’s own inability to control a re-energised and emboldened Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)  jihadist movement. Pakistan’s strategic bet that with in power, the Afghan Taliban  would help control anti-Islamabad jihadi groups has grandiosely collapsed.  In the face of increasingly violent attacks the government in order to display action against terrorists has resorted to a knee-jerk reaction that targets 1.1m Afghan refugees living illegally in Pakistan because of what it believes is  “their involvement in funding and facilitating terrorists and other illegal activities.” According to Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry,  author of Diplomatic Footprints, the implementation of the government’s decision to evict all foreign nationals residing in Pakistan illegally, “carries serious implications, and would require meticulous, pragmatic and realistic planning, preferably in consultation with UNHCR and the Afghan government.”

Spokesman of the Afghan Taliban Zabihullah Mujahid last week warned Pakistan against attacking targets in Afghanistan. Human rights groups have called out the Pakistani government for creating a space of ‘fear’ for refugees. On its X account Amnesty International posted “Many Afghans living in fear of persecution by the Taliban had fled to Pakistan, where they have been subjected to waves of arbitrary detentions, arrests, and the threat of deportation. It is deeply concerning that the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is not receiving due international attention.”

The two countries also had a face-off at the UN. The Afghan representative Naseer Faiq exposed Pakistan’s ‘double standards’ at the UN Security Council on 27 Sep 2023, when he said, “on one side, show that they are victims of terrorism, but on the other side they normalise and support terrorist groups in Afghanistan.” However, Pakistan dismissed Afghanistan’s allegation and labelled it “huge political anomaly.” Pakistan’s representative also humiliated Naseer Faiq  stating that “his credentials are questionable as he has no government.”

Pakistan has cornered itself into a difficult position wherein officially it still supports the Taliban regime in Kabul  in order to appease domestic hardliners, and to give the impression that it enjoys an affinity and influence with the Taliban and yet the reality is that the unfettered movement of militants in the northwest border areas has rendered large portions of Pakistan vulnerable to insurgent activity. The Pak-Afghan border has been literally outsourced to militant groups and elements whose activities have been detrimental to the vital interests of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It played the same double game by supporting predominant Pashtun representation in Afghanistan. This support for Pashtun groups has resulted in mistrust of the former among other ethnic factions such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others in Afghanistan. These

groups viewed Pakistan with mistrust, believing Pakistan was a spoiler in Afghanistan.

Risk analyst Huma Yusuf writes, “conflict with Afghanistan would be among Pakistan’s worst nightmares — the defunct concept of strategic depth perversely inverted.” Pakistan’s mounting economic difficulties, rising challenges to internal stability, uncertainty and instability in the country’s institutions and worsening external relations, are only pushing the country further into the arms of China.

Meanwhile the impecunious Afghan migrants face the wrath of authorities. Despite the government’s claim that only illegal refugees are to be sent back,  Nawid Shahab, an Afghan refugee told RFE, “They detain migrants who have PoR cards, and they detain migrants who are undocumented. There is no difference between them”…”Every night, every day, in every corner of Pakistan, they detain immigrants who have legal documents.” Despite the principle of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution, Pakistan is undertaking the deportation of Afghans refugees, including the separation of families and deportation of minors.  After the  November 1 deadline set by the government, law enforcement agencies would confiscate the properties and businesses of Afghan migrants. In the face of poor economic and social conditions for women in Afghanistan, forceful repatriation is not only complex but downright brutal. The Taliban government which is yet to be internationally recognised does not have the capacity to effectively integrate the returnees.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with New Delhi based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.