Afghans: The forgotten victims of the Great Game

Seeking refuge: There are over two billion Afghan refugees in Pakistan

It’s a very tricky situation for them. They have no love lost for their motherland, Afghanistan, as they have remained away from it for decades together, yet they are being forced to go back home. After all, they are refugees in Pakistan, though many of them consider it as their new homeland. It never occurred to them even in their dreams that one day they would have to leave the place where they had been living for a long time, forgetting the past.

Considering them as a source of the economic and other problems faced by locals, the authorities in Pakistan ordered these refugees to go back to the land of their forefathers with bag and baggage by March 31, 2017, but the date has now been extended to December 31, 2017. The hapless Afghans have been allowed some more time to prepare themselves to face the uncertainties ahead — for getting uprooted again to rebuild their lives in a new environment! How tragic, indeed, but there is no escape route! They have to undergo this harrowing experience in any case!

They are, no doubt, victims of circumstances, but that is not the whole truth. They are, in fact, victims of the Great Game that began with the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, resulting in the birth of the ‘mujahideen’, fighting to liberate their homeland with the help of US weapons and money coming to them via Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the ISI. They had no idea why their country had become a battleground for the then two super powers with Pakistan being on the one side and Afghanistan’s communist rulers, puppets of the then Soviet Union, being on the other side.

Ultimately, Afghanistan became the graveyard for the super power in its immediate neighbourhood, but the cost had to be paid by the innocent Afghans too. They had to run away with their families to save their lives, leaving their hearth and home behind. Since those days there was no major checking of their antecedents on the border with Pakistan and those living on the other side of the Durand Line (in Pakistan) were also Pashtu-speaking people like the fleeing Afghans, they opted for taking shelter in Pakistan. Thus lakhs of uprooted Afghans became refugees in Pakistan, first in the wake of the Soviet intervention in their country in 1979, then the civil war that continued till the formation of the Taliban government in the late 1990s and the US-led multinational attack on Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the twin Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon complex in Washington DC.

Most of the Afghans who deserted their homes for safety reached Pakistan, but some, mostly Shias, took refuge in Iran too. The number of these refugees at one time was estimated to be nearly 30 lakhs, including both the registered and undocumented categories. Some of them began to leave for home after the setting up of the first elected government in Afghanistan with Mr Hamid Karzai as President. The process of reverse migration has been continuing since then. Yet there are over two billion Afghan refugees in Pakistan — nearly 1.50 million belonging to the documented category and over 1 million being undocumented ones — still waiting to be repatriated.

Most of those who got uprooted have grown up children and grandchildren. These Afghans are now well-settled in the country of their adoption, even if living in camps. Many of them have acquired education and are earning their bread and butter as employees of companies or as self-employed professionals like doctors. They have been pleading for being allowed to live undisturbed wherever they are as they now have no connection with the country of their forefathers. Their pleadings, however, have no meaning for the Pakistani authorities, who blame these aliens for all kinds of crime committed in that country. Afghans are suspected to have been behind most of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, even when such incidents are owned up by Taliban factions and home-grown jihadis.

Locals hate them not only because of this factor but also due to the negative propaganda that their continued presence for decades has multiplied the economic worries faced by the people of Pakistan. While their loyalty to Islamabad has always been doubtful, the Pakistan establishment, including the army, has, of late, developed more hatred for them owing to the Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan endeavouring to strengthen its relations with India and resisting pressures from Islamabad against this development. As a result, the wall of suspicion between Pakistan and Afghanistan has become thicker, straining their relations considerably. The recent exchanges of fire between their security forces on the Torkham border post on the Durand Line have also contributed to the worsening of their ties. The India factor working against the Afghan refugees in Pakistan provides a great opportunity to New Delhi to take advantage of the evolving situation in Afghanistan with increased financial aid for large-scale economic activity in the war-ravaged country. Such a huge army of Afghan returnees — in lakhs — from Pakistan is bound to affect the thinking of the Afghans and their government, which might lead to heightening of tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. India could not ask for more. Pakistan’s perennial search for strategic depth in Afghanistan may get buried in the landlocked country, perhaps forever.

Observers of the Af-Pak area believe that the anti-Afghan refugee sentiment in Pakistan began to get stronger after militants attacked an army school in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 144 students and teachers. This led to the Pakistan government coming out with a 20-point action plan, which included sealing of the long Pakistan-Afghanistan border and repatriation of the refugees to their own country despite there being little possibility of their getting a job opportunity or finding some other source of income.

The UN is committed to providing some financial assistance to each refugee for sustenance once they are back home, but this is not as easy as it appears. The UN wing looking after the refugees is acutely short of funds. It has appealed for more funds to ensure that these uprooted Afghans have at least enough to eat. As the situation prevails today, Afghanistan is just not in a position to absorb such a vast number of returnees, though they are its own citizens. It may lead to a major crisis with security implications of a high order if Pakistan succeeds in repatriating all the refugees by December 31, 2017.

The Afghans in Pakistan constitute the largest population of refugees anywhere in the world. Their number is more than double the refugee population in Europe, those who have run away for safety from Syria, Libya and elsewhere in West Asia. It is obvious that many of these refugees may be suspected to be working for Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in Afghanistan. Their activities will be closely watched by the security agencies of their own country. These returnees will, therefore, be faced with multiple problems, requiring greater attention of the world community. The international community, including the Donald Trump-led US administration, can ignore the emerging scenario in the Af-Pak area at its own peril.