The inhumane decision to expel Afghan refugees

What Pakistan does not understand is that the Afghan Taliban in power in Kabul, even if they do not have international recognition, will not do its bidding

Updated - November 25, 2023 11:39 am IST

Published - November 25, 2023 01:19 am IST

Afghan refugees with their belongings sit atop a truck as they head from a makeshift camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border to Jalalabad, after their deportation from Pakistan, in the Ghani Khel district of Nangarhar Province on November 12, 2023.

Afghan refugees with their belongings sit atop a truck as they head from a makeshift camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border to Jalalabad, after their deportation from Pakistan, in the Ghani Khel district of Nangarhar Province on November 12, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

While international attention is focused on Israel’s merciless bombing of Gaza and its ground attacks, Pakistan’s decision to expel 1.5 million undocumented Afghan refugees in the beginning of winter is escaping sufficient global scrutiny. The Israeli action, since October 7, has resulted in thousands of deaths, including of infants, and widespread destruction of territory. Even hospitals have not been spared. It may therefore be considered inapt to mention the Pakistani decision along with the Israeli action. The intention is not to compare them but to emphasise that the expulsion of Afghan refugees to an uncertain future is unjustified and will result in deprivation, if not starvation, for many of them. Apart from being inhumane, this expulsion is also contrary to the ties of brotherhood that Pakistan claims binds the Afghans with its own people.

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Significantly, some of the refugees who have been pushed out have lived all their lives in Pakistan. Many built businesses, obviously with Pakistani official complicity, which they are being compelled to sell at dirt cheap prices. This is because Pakistan is permitting departing refugees to take only ₹50,000 with them. The decision is also particularly harsh for girls who have been studying in Pakistani schools and colleges and will now have to abandon their studies in Afghanistan. More than two-thirds of the Afghanistan population is facing a humanitarian crisis. Hence, for the Taliban authorities, making arrangements for their incoming compatriots from Pakistan is, as Caroline Gluck of the United Nation Refugee Agency reported on November 17, “a daunting task”.

Pakistan’s frustration with Afghan Taliban

While Pakistan is supporting its move as being diplomatically, politically and morally correct, the fact is that this decision has been taken on account of the country’s frustration with the Afghan Taliban administration’s refusal to rein in the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP). Caretaker Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar told the media on November 8 in Islamabad, “After the establishment of the Interim Afghan government in Afghanistan in August 2021, we had a strong hope…[that] strict action would be taken against Pakistan-opposing groups, especially the TTP, and they would not be allowed to use Afghan soil against Pakistan”. That hope was unrealistic even though the Pakistani establishment nurtured the Afghan Taliban for over two decades after they were ousted from Kabul in November 2001. Apart from ideological and ethnic affinities between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, the former wish to retain the latter as a card against Pakistan. All through history, the Afghans have been shrewd practitioners of realpolitik. The Afghan Taliban are no different.

The Afghan Taliban’s approach towards the TTP has enabled the Pakistani group to increase its attacks on the Pakistani security forces in recent months. Pakistan claims that terrorist acts in the country have increased by 60% since the Afghan Taliban came to power and that 2,267 Pakistanis have lost their lives in TTP attacks. This is enraging the army. The Pakistani generals feel that the Afghan Taliban would not been able to carry out their successful struggle against the U.S. and its NATO allies in Afghanistan but for the safe havens that Pakistan gave them, and so they should be thankful to Pakistan. What the generals should know is that there is no gratitude in global affairs. Indeed, far from appreciation for Pakistan, Afghans feel that the country has used them for its own interests. Pakistan’s decision on the refugees will only consolidate that sentiment. The Afghan Taliban would not be immune from this widespread emotion against Pakistan.

Speaking at the Margalla Dialogue in Islamabad on November 15, Mr. Kakar hoped that Afghanistan’s governance challenges and the recent transformations would get settled because that would be “pivotal” for Pakistan’s connectivity with Central Asia. Defending Pakistan’s decision on refugees at the Dialogue, Dawn newspaper reported Mr. Kakar as saying “issues would settle the day Kabul would have a legitimate government”. The interim Afghan government spokesman rejected this contention. He stressed that the “incumbent” system is legitimate and enjoyed popular support.

This is not the first time that Mr. Kakar has said that the Taliban government is not “legitimate”. He said so during a TV interview two months ago. Indeed, he went further to state that the idea of a Westphalian state could not be applied to Afghanistan because its governance structure had “multiple layers”. He also expressed doubts about the efficacy of a “central authority”. These comments were made in the context of Pakistani allegations of “terrorist incursions” into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan. He refused to directly respond to a question on whether Pakistan was willing to enter Afghan territory to combat terrorism. However, he said that Pakistan will fulfil its responsibility to defend its borders “at any cost”. Unfortunately, it is the hapless Afghan refugees who are paying the “cost”.

A mutual negativity

Pakistan and Afghanistan’s mutual negativity greatly accelerated once the Soviet-supported communist government came to power in 1978. Pakistan became the base camp for the Afghan jihad, which was supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and China. The withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989 and the fall of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 saw Pakistan intervening in Afghan affairs to form a pro-Pakistan Mujahideen government. Its efforts were repudiated by the Mujahideen groups, and the Pakistani favourite, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, failed to deliver. Pakistan then turned to the Taliban which had emerged in 1994. It helped the Taliban gain control of almost all of the country. After the Taliban were ousted from the country in the wake of 9/11, Pakistan ensured that the Taliban insurgency was successful.

What Pakistan does not understand is that the Afghan Taliban in power in Kabul, even if they do not have international recognition, will not do its bidding. This includes approaches towards India. Clearly, the refugee expulsion is to create fissures among the Taliban, who are Pashtun. That would not be easy, for there is deep resentment among Afghan Pashtuns against Pakistan.

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat

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