By Zahid Hussain
The relations between Islamabad and the Taliban regime in Kabul have hit a new low following Pakistan’s decision to expel all undocumented Afghan refugees. Pakistan has linked the deportation drive to counter terrorism action against the militants which it says are backed by the Kabul administration.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar last week said there has been an astronomical rise in terror attacks after the Taliban take-over of power in Afghanistan. He accused the Taliban regime of reneging its pledge to the international community of not allowing Afghan soil for terror activities against any country.
“Unfortunately, after the establishment of the interim Afghan government, there has been a 60 percent increase in terror incidents and a 500 percent rise in suicide attacks in Pakistan,” he said. He said that Afghan nationals had also been involved in some of the terror attacks targeting Pakistani security forces. It was the most scathing criticism of the Afghan Taliban regime by a top Pakistani official yet, and has brought already strained relations between the two neighboring countries to a breaking point.
In an equally harsh statement, the acting minister of foreign affairs in Afghanistan has criticized Pakistan’s decision to expel Afghan refugees from the country and called it “unilateral.” Rebutting Pakistan’s allegation of his government providing sanctuary to an outlawed militant group, the Taliban leader declared the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was Pakistan’s internal matter.
“They have a very strong army and intelligence to prevent it, this issue has nothing to do with us,” he said in an interview to the BBC. He has accused Islamabad of using the Afghan immigrant issue to put pressure on the Taliban government to recognize the disputed Durand Line as a border between the two countries.
This war of words reflects the widening wedge between Islamabad and Kabul mainly caused by the Taliban administration’s refusal to act against TTP sanctuaries. But Pakistan’s latest decision to expel illegal Afghan immigrants and PM Kakar’s outburst have exacerbated the tension.
Meanwhile, by raising the Durand Line issue, the Afghan Taliban foreign minister has opened a new pandoras box. The border between the two countries has remained a contentious issue between them and no Afghan government has recognized its legitimacy. What is most alarming is that the border dispute is being used to challenge the legitimacy of Islamabad’s action against Afghan refugees.
In the past too, Pakistan has tried to repatriate undocumented Afghan refugees but never on this scale. Oddly, such a critical decision affecting the country’s internal and external security has been taken by a caretaker government, which is not constitutionally mandated to take long-term policy decisions. The timing of the decision when the country is confronted with multiple challenges both on the internal and external fronts has also raised questions about the rationality of an action that will have serious geopolitical implications.
For decades, the country hosted millions of refugees fleeing war and devastation. And now, suddenly, they are being told to leave. Many of them were born and grew up in this country and now have nowhere to go in their native land. There are some 1.7 million undocumented Afghans out of more than an estimated 3 million living in this country. Many of them have been here for the past four decades.
Indeed, Pakistan needs to secure its borders and should stop undocumented entries. But over the past several decades, we have left our borders wide open because of geopolitical reasons. Now, to take the abrupt decision to throw out all undocumented migrants is not only near impossible to implement, it will also create serious problems for our internal and external security.
It is also true that the increase in militancy poses a very serious security challenge and must be dealt with sternly. Islamabad should increase pressure on the Afghan Taliban administration to end its backing for the TTP and other militant groups. But expelling poor Afghan women and children does not resolve the problem.
The political fallout of this flawed decision is already apparent in the public protests against the action in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and parts of Balochistan. This show of solidarity of Afghan refugees is not surprising as the same Pashtun people live on both sides of the border. Moreover, this reckless and irrational decision has further strained relations with Afghanistan.
Pakistan needs to resolve our differences with Afghanistan through negotiations rather than by fueling the situation through bluster. We need to bring our house in order first and refrain from taking steps which could have serious repercussions for our national security.
Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain