Growing anti-Afghan sentiments in Pakistan

Growing anti-Afghan sentiments in Pakistan

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Never have Pakistanis expressed such resentment against the Afghan people as they have now. When millions poured in for refuge in 1978, to escape war, hunger, statelessness and anarchy, they were warmly welcomed as brothers in need and given shelter by fellow tribesmen and people of all regions and ethnic groups. 

 We witnessed ethnic, regional and Islamic solidarities overlapping and reinforcing a feeling of resistance against the Soviet occupier. There were two other factors at play: the security and dignity of ordinary Afghans and geopolitical considerations of Pakistan and the Western world in the environment of the second wave of the Cold War. The whole world stood behind the Afghan resistance and refugees like a rock, to get Soviet aggression vacated from Afghanistan. Pakistan acting as a front-line state opened its doors to both the Afghan resistance as well as refugees, who became a recruiting population for the Mujahideen factions. At one point, there were about 3.5 million staying in the camps, villages, towns and cities, but there were many millions more that crossed the country for better destinations. Even today, there are about 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in the country. 

Once the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Cold War warriors went back to their shells and inter-Mujahideen conflict flared up, Pakistanis began to question the country’s involvement with Afghanistan affairs. Opinions became divided along political, ethnic and ideological lines. The central argument was that as the country had been ‘liberated’, there was no justification for the refugees to stay on Pakistani soil. Although the refugee issue became salient, there was no group, party or campaign to throw them out by force. The Mujahideen government, the Taliban and later the post-Taliban regime pleaded for more time for economic conditions to improve before taking back such a large population. Successive Pakistani governments of different political persuasions didn’t wish to waste the goodwill the country had earned by hosting refugees and playing a role in supporting their struggle against the Soviets. The policy has been consistent that return will be voluntary with dignity and honor and that Pakistan will not use any coercion. 

All along, Pakistanis have imagined themselves to be true friends of Afghanistan. But the Afghans have a very different take on the role Pakistan has played in their internal affairs.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

All along, Pakistanis have imagined themselves as true friends of Afghanistan—protectors, saviors and offering security by paying an enormous cost in terms of lost opportunities, spilling over of the ‘drugs and Kalashnikov culture’, and facing the threat of transnational terrorist groups. The Afghans have a very different take on the role Pakistan has played in their internal affairs. As there have been two Afghans—ones supporting the Soviet Union, and later the US war against the Taliban, and those fighting against them—Pakistan has alienated and offended considerable political interests by playing the ‘great game’ in support of resisting factions. Ethnic minorities and Afghan nationalists on both sides of the border see Pakistan as a troublemaker, interventionist and spoiler of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistanis, on the other hand, feel very uncomfortable hearing any ‘hard talk’ about their ventures in Afghanistan. However, it was known among the students of Afghanistan affairs and policymakers that Pakistan suffered from a huge image problem in the country that they had supported for 44 years, but didn’t react publicly, fearing losing more influence. 

In recent years, social media has brought the Afghan attitudes toward Pakistan closer to the attention and scrutiny of the general public. The persistent accusatory tones by prominent Afghan leaders against Pakistan, humiliating and hateful statements, and recently the Afghan mob attacking Pakistani cricket fans in Dubai, have enraged Pakistanis. Along with many other cultural influences on Afghan society through the long years of living in Pakistan, cricket is one of the most popular ones. The aftermath of the match violence has very publicly reinforced negative Afghan images that have been shaping up for years. The political groups in Karachi, Balochistan and the rest of the country are raising serious questions about the presence of Afghans, alleging they are ‘ungrateful’ and play in the hands of Pakistan’s adversaries. 

Pakistanis find the presence of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists in Afghanistan, even under the Taliban movement that Pakistan supported in coming to power, very frustrating, unhelpful and hostile to the country’s security. As very large Afghan diaspora groups displaced by the Taliban turn their tongues and political guns against Pakistan, demands for evicting Afghans may grow stronger. Hate begetting hate may hurt the prospects of millions of ordinary, helpless Afghans sheltering in Pakistan. 

- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais 

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