Pakistan’s eternal foreign policy confusion: How to handle its Afghan refugees

Pakistan’s eternal foreign policy confusion: How to handle its Afghan refugees

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Pakistan’s eternal foreign policy controversy, i.e. its Afghan policy, or ‘Afghan problem’ (depending on who you ask), has been back in the news. There are arguments on both sides of the political and policy divide which oppose and support the opening of borders and the presence of millions of refugees inside Pakistan. But with a change in the foreign policy outlook toward the Afghan Taliban regime, allegedly for not acting against militant outfits who target Pakistani forces on a near-daily basis, there is also a rethink about illegal Afghans present in the country; those without any travel documents or registration with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

For many human rights activists and international agencies, it is the manner and timing that raises the most questions about the abrupt change in a policy that Pakistan pursued for well over 44 years. So, what changed now and how was it different then?

There were humanitarian, security and strategic issues that shaped and defined Pakistan’s response to the Soviet-Afghan war. The Soviet aerial bombing, its ‘scorched-earth’ campaign, had the clear military purpose of driving rural populations out of the valleys, mountains, and border regions to urban areas and into Pakistan to deny Afghan fighters space to attack invading forces. At the time, the refugee population was a source of recruitment for the Afghan fighter groups that Pakistan was supporting. Back then, Pakistan warmly welcomed the Afghans, settling them in camps, allowing them free movement and even permitting them to engage in business. Generally, the locals saw them as ‘Muslim brothers’ displaced by war and accommodated them into their neighborhoods without reservations. 

It was assumed that when peace and stability returned to that country, the refugees would simply go back. They didn’t.

- Rasul Bakhsh Rais 

However, there were some strident voices that spoke up against Pakistan acting as a frontline state against the Soviet Union, supporting the Afghan resistance or hosting millions of Afghan refugees. Some of this criticism came from those who refuted the military’s strategic objectives of creating ‘strategic depth’— countering any hostile power with a dominant role in Afghanistan-- and argued it did not consider the long-term consequences of such a policy for Pakistan’s internal security.

Even with the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in early 1989, neither did the conflict in Afghanistan end, nor did Pakistan’s policy of hosting refugees undergo any review. It was assumed that when peace and stability returned to that country, the refugees would simply go back. They didn’t. The persistent wars, destruction of the Afghan state and its capacity to deliver any social or economic services over the decades were hardly conducive for the repatriation of refugees. 

With the American-led military intervention (2001-2021), the reconstruction of state institutions and with hundreds of billions of dollars flowing in, some normalcy returned and about a million and a half refugees went back. Two million however, still remained in Pakistan. They had businesses here, developed social roots, and a good number of them were very skeptical about peace and stability in Afghanistan. They had good reason to doubt it, as the Taliban movement rose from the ashes within a few years of the war. Pakistan’s open-secret policy of courting the Taliban leadership as a bet for the future didn’t help their (refugees’) confidence either.

Clandestine support to the Afghan Taliban began to grow, as it became obvious that the Americans and their allies were fed up with a ‘futile’ war and wanted to withdraw in a dignified fashion after the Doha Agreement with the Taliban.

The regime the Americans had built with so much blood and treasure collapsed well before their last evacuation flight in August 2021. The same Taliban they had ousted 20 years ago were back in the presidential palace. Fearing backlash, about 700,000 new refugees, mostly associated with the regime, poured into Pakistan. 

Pakistan and the world soon realized that the Taliban had not changed in their ideologies and strategic outlook in the last few decades. More troubling for Pakistan was the Afghan Taliban government hosting and protecting Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders and fighters engaged in militant activities in Pakistan. Its initial optimism of winning the friendship of the Taliban gave way to a sobering reflection on its decades’ long policy of playing favorites in the power games of that country.

Pakistan’s refugee policy has a myriad problems. For one, there are millions of undocumented Afghans mixed in with the local populations. It is suspected that the militants operating inside Pakistan from Afghanistan seek assistance from among these refugee populations. The abrupt expulsion is also meant to send out a strong message to the Taliban in Kabul that there will be serious consequences of their failure to deny safe havens to the TTP.

But politics aside, the fall-out of the expulsion is the suffering of too many innocent people caught up in a long history of strategic mistakes.

- 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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