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‘Hot Winters’ Ahead For Pakistan; Flawed Targeting Of Refugees Could Split The Country Again: OPED



The mass deportation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is indicative of a growing disenchantment between the Pakistani military-controlled establishment and the Afghan Taliban government in Kabul.

This shift in dynamics, merely over two years after the Taliban’s ascendancy to power in August 2021 with Pakistan’s active support, exposes inherent flaws in and failure of Islamabad’s strategic calculations.

It was never a matter of how but when these two entities would clash, foretold by the reversing nature of their relations.

As a result of this growing discord between Islamabad and Kabul, it has gradually given renewed impetus to the Pashtun nationalist movement.

The nationalist movement advocates establishing a unified homeland, the Pashtunistan, for the Pashtuns across the marginalized and largely underdeveloped tribal region. Formerly Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) form the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

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This is the antithesis of the initial euphoria that swept through the ranks of Pakistan’s administration, notably within its influential Pakistan Army, following the Afghan Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul in 2021.

The departure of American forces was interpreted as a testament to Islamabad’s strategic machinations, granting it substantial strategic depth overnight. There existed a pervasive belief within the Pakistani establishment that its backing of the Afghan Taliban’s resurgence of the Kabul takeover would translate into containing Pashtun religio-nationalist militant groups within the broader umbrella of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The group has emerged as a formidable threat to Pakistan’s national security, whose growth has been fuelled by the flawed policies of the Pakistan Army itself. Furthermore, it was perceived as a counterbalance to the endeavors of its arch-rival, India, which had cultivated significant goodwill among Afghans through extensive infrastructure initiatives during the two decades of the republic’s existence.

However, the Pakistani strategic community’s view, entangled in zero-sum calculations, defied rationality, overlooking the historical behavior of Afghan groups and their steadfast commitment to Afghanistan’s interests.

This oversight was particularly egregious considering the Pashtun religio-nationalist currents that have consistently resisted external interference, reflecting a deeply-rooted sentiment tied to the creation of a Pashtun homeland, transcending the colonialism-imposed Durand Line border.

As we know, the British colonial administration established the Durand Line border through an agreement with the Afghan Emir, Abdur Rehman Khan, in 1893 as a demarcation line between British India and Afghanistan to define their respective areas of influence.

The line axed through the historical Pashtun tribal regions and divided the community. It never received any popular legitimacy from the Pashtuns on both sides of the divide, thereby instigating ethnic turmoil.

What’s striking is the refusal of successive Afghan governments to acknowledge its legitimacy. At the time of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the Afghan government refused to accept this border demarcation justified on the premise that the exit of the British colonial administration from the Indian subcontinent nullified the 1893 agreement.

As such, the successive governments in Kabul infused the Pashtun nationalist sentiment as the demand for independence increased from the 1950s onwards in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), now the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, along with FATA.

Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban, which was created by Pakistan in 1994, has also never acknowledged the legitimacy of this border. Pakistan’s fixation on containing Pashtun religio-nationalist movements is intrinsically linked to its anxiety regarding the sentiment for the establishment of a unified Pashtun homeland, which has been variously called Pashtunistan (Pakhtunistan).

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This broader context underscores the urgency for Pakistan to recalibrate its approach, recognizing that the historical and cultural ties among Pashtuns transcend imposed geopolitical boundaries.

Islamabad’s strategic short-sightedness is increasingly apparent as the Afghan Taliban government in Kabul diverges from the expectations vested upon it by the Pakistani establishment.

Its endeavor to leverage the Taliban’s ascendancy to curb internal threats, foremost being taming the Pashtun groups, has manifestly backfired, thereby fostering discontent and escalating tensions.

As such, Pakistan has witnessed an exponential surge in anti-government violence, with dozens of bomb blasts targeting the Pakistan Army and other security installations. A report by the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in September 2023 described the first nine months of the year as deadliest for Pakistani security forces in nearly a decade, with hundreds of causalities, apart from hundreds of civilian deaths.

“Pakistan’s security forces lost at least 386 personnel, 36% of all fatalities including 137 army and 208 police personnel in the first nine months of 2023, marking an eight-year high,” the report stated.

The Pakistani government continues to blame the surging violence on TTP while increasingly associating Afghan refugees with the group. As such, the caretaker government has justified the implementation of the deportation policy, accusing Afghans of involvement in terrorism in the country.

Interim PM Anwarul Haq Kakkar claimed that “a significant portion of those involved in criminal and terrorist activities are among these illegal immigrants” who are primarily of ‘Afghan origin.’

It even declared that Pakistan would cease to plead the Afghan Taliban’s case for international legitimization. It warned the de facto Afghan government to choose bilateral relations with Islamabad, the TTP, and allied groups.

The move could be perceived as a pressure tactic to force the Afghan Taliban to tame the TTP, its ideological and tribal ally. Kabul has explicitly resisted such attempts, reflecting Islamabad’s waning influence.

That the government has blamed its security failures and violence on Pashtuns on either side of the border and initiated this xenophobic deportation campaign is nothing but a blatant ethnic profiling of this community.

However, this is not something novel as the Pakistan Army and the broader security apparatus have a history of using Pashtuns as scapegoats for their failure to reign in extremist groups over the years.

This was particularly manifest during its multiple military campaigns across Pakistan’s contested tribal belt during the last two decades, displacing hundreds of thousands in the region and rendering them homeless.

A 2017 report accused the Pakistan government of “not only profiling its citizens belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group, but also incarcerating them merely based on their dress, eating habits, and physical attributes.”

Pakistan Army
File Image: Pakistan Army

Further, provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab in 2014 banned the entry of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the Pashtun community from entering into their local borders by accusing them of potential engagement in violent activities.

The situation of Pashtuns in Pakistan has been further compounded by Pakistan’s systematic apathy towards the region, especially along the border with Afghanistan in former FATA areas, rendering it least developed in every essence.

The dire lack of investment in education, infrastructure, healthcare, and basic amenities perpetuates the marginalization of this community, aggravating their grievances. Osama Ahmad argues that this region lags in Pakistan’s socioeconomic developmental index.

“It is far behind other regions regarding human development and infrastructure. For instance, the only university in the region, FATA University, has had just ten classrooms for the last seven years. Schools and colleges are in disrepair, with no government investments to level them with those in the rest of the country.

“Other problems include excessive power load shedding, shortage of drinking water, damaged houses of internally displaced families, and shortage of health facilities,” Ahmad asserts.

Therefore, the gradually increasing impetus to the Pashtunistan movement can be seen as a direct consequence of Pakistan’s myopic policies and actions that overlook the legitimate aspirations and grievances of its Pashtun population and lead to a sense of injustice, historical neglect, and systemic discrimination.

As such, by relegating the tribal regions to a state of underdevelopment, subjecting the Pashtun community to unjust ethnic profiling, and notably, deflecting accountability for its systemic security lapses onto Pashtuns, Pakistan has inadvertently stimulated this movement.

  • NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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