Expulsion of Afghan refugees is Pakistan’s response to terrorism, but things will only become worse.
There were no beheadings, daggers, nor pools of blood: The curtain fell on two centuries of Durrani imperial rule with an anticlimax unmatched since Borachio confessed his villainy in Much Ado About Nothing. The ageing King Zahir Shah, in Rome to treat a minor eye condition, exiled himself to Trichia, an idyll on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The only casualty was Habibullah Khan Zurmatai, a dashing young officer of the 4th Brigade, who drove his tank into the Kabul River to avoid hitting a bus.
Even as the king’s cousin and prime minister, Prince Daud Khan, declared Afghanistan a republic and began calling himself president, a procession of late-model sedans headed across the border to Peshawar. The 2,000 royalists exiled in 1973, scholar Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema recounts, the very first political refugees to stream into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Last week, Pakistan began pushing back an estimated 1.7 million undocumented migrants into the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—an act of retaliation for the Taliban’s failure to stop cross-border jihadist attacks. Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar said the decision was made to punish Afghanistan for its continued support of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) jihadists.
Ever since Kakar’s speech, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been pushed back into their homeland through the Torkham and Chaman border—many sleeping out in the cold until they make their way to the slums of Kabul, their few possessions confiscated by corrupt border guards.
The mass expulsion of Afghans comes amid a tidal wave of violence that threatens to tear Pakistan apart. The violence, though, hasn’t been unleashed by refugees. Instead, it’s the inexorable outcome of Pakistan’s long war to annihilate the secular, modern Afghanistan that was slowly rising to its north.
Levelling groovy Afghanistan
To retrieve the Afghanistan that was clawing its way toward modernity in the 1960s now needs extraordinary powers of imagination: The country that had women attending university classes and working in offices, flight crew dressed in elegant skirts, and figured as the backdrop for a Vogue fashion-shoot, today exists only as fading photographs. The Afghanistan of the time was desperately poor, just as it is today. Ever since 1928, though, when the queen Soraya Tarzi tore off her veil in a symbolic assertion of a modern, national identity that transcended religion.
For Pakistan’s post-independence leadership, committed to building a nation around Islam, the idea of regional autonomy seemed an existential threat. From 1953 to 1963, Afghan support for Pashtun autonomy led Pakistan to impose a ban on transit from Karachi to the landlocked country and a break in diplomatic relations.
The rise of former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw fresh tensions break out. In 1970, the Pashtun-nationalist National Awami Party (NAP), together with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), formed the provincial governments in the North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan. Zulfikar dismissed the provincial governments, sparking off an insurgency. Leaders of the NAP, like Ajmal Khan Khattak, took refuge in Kabul, according to the historian Khalid Homayun Nadiri.
Leaders of the Islamist movement in Afghanistan, scholar Ijaz Ahmad Khan has recorded, were, in turn, granted safe haven in Peshawar after the 1973 coup. Figures like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Ahmad Shah Masood began staging raids against President Daud’s regime, organised by then-Brigadier Naseerullah Khan Babar.
The so-called Saur revolution of 1978, which saw Daud and much of his family butchered inside the Arg palace in Kabul, brought a socialist government to power led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. The brutal fighting this sparked off led the Soviet Union to commit forces inside Afghanistan in 1979. General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime allied with the United States to wage war against the Soviet Union, using the Islamist factions to raise armies of jihadists for this anti-communist crusade.
Even as millions of refugees fled into Pakistan, as Afghanistan’s cities and rural infrastructure were destroyed in savage fighting, Islamabad ensured its Islamist proxies maintained tight control of the new immigrants. All refugees had to be registered through one of the seven mujahideen religious groups, scholar Maya Safri has written, in order to be eligible for aid.
Fighting the refugees
Following 9/11, as its Taliban clients fled across the border, Pakistan began to argue that the refugee camps were the source of its security problems. Large refugee camps like Kacha Garhi, Zarinoor and Jalozai were demolished. Families were given one-time payments of up to $100 for five members to relocate. Alternative camps were offered in remote regions like Dir and Chitral, Safri notes, but most who left ended up in the shanty towns rapidly growing along Kabul’s periphery.
The United Nations says it repatriated over four million refugees from 2002 to 2022, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest many simply cycled back as migrant workers, especially after the withdrawal of the United States ended a short-lived economic boom in Afghanistan. Large numbers of Afghan refugee families, as Sophie Landin reports, had no relatives left in their home country, making it impossible to relocate.
Even as it evicted Afghan refugees, Islamabad continued to pursue a policy of accommodation with ethnic Pashtun and ethnic Punjabi jihadists. The journalist Daud Khattak has recorded that military ruler General Pervez Musharraf signed a peace agreement with commander Nek Muhammad Wazir soon after 9/11, ceding local power in return for ending attacks on the army. In 2005, there was another deal with jihadist warlord Baitullah Mehsud. The third happened in Swat, and several more – written or informal – in 2008-2009.
Islamabad was forced to go to war against the TTP in 2014 after the country found itself besieged by jihadists. The TTP was pushed back across the border—and when the Islamic Emirate took power, Islamabad hoped its proxy government would ensure they returned home as loyal clients of Pakistan. Soon after the fall of Kabul, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government began relocating jihadists in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, ceding them mini-Emirates in the hope of buying peace.
An imploded policy
The implosion of Pakistan’s policy became clear earlier this month when jihadists overran the Mianwali air force base, killing several military personnel and destroying Karakorum-8, Super Mushak and F7P fighter-pilot training jets. Fourteen soldiers were also killed in ambushes in Gwadar port. Large-scale killings of security force personnel in the ethnic-Pashtun lands of northern Balochistan, as well as around Gwadar, have seen violence surge to levels not seen in years, monitoring by the South Asia Terrorism Portal shows.
Even though the Islamic Emirate has instructed its cadre not to participate in jihadist operations inside Pakistan, it is either unwilling or unable to rein in the jihadists of the TTP. The journalists Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud and Iftekhar Firdaus noted earlier this year that rival jihadist groups in Pakistan were, in fact, coalescing, sensing an opportunity to expand their power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Though many recent jihadist attacks have been claimed by the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), a new organisation, experts concur this is just a label for the TTP, intended to distance its Islamic Emirate patrons from responsibility for events in Pakistan.
Like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the TJP says it is committed to a global jihadist agenda, for which Pakistan is a stepping stone. Taking inspiration from the anti-colonial Silk Letter movement of Deoband clerics, the TJP says it has “reached the conclusion that except through armed jihad, the enforcement of an Islamic system is not possible in Pakistan.” For the achievement of this objective, for the time being, “hundreds of mujahideen and dozens of fidayeen or Islam are ever ready.”
Expelling powerless Afghan refugees might pander to chauvinists in Pakistan, who have long scapegoated their northern neighbours for jihadist violence. The roots of the crisis, though, lie in the Pakistani State’s religious nationalism and the war its intelligence services have waged against secular-nationalist Pashtun forces.
The seeds of war sowed by the ISI in 1973 have yielded a long, bitter harvest, which now threatens to overrun Pakistan itself.