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OPED: The Great Exodus

Published, Global Affairs Feb 2017

The MIG 21 parked in the Pakistan Air Force Museum Karachi is not exactly a war trophy – it belongs to an Afghan defector who flew by one day and landed at Peshawar air base sometime in 1989 / 1990. He was seeking refuge in Pakistan. There had been others before him. Three decades later, young Afghans are still seeking greener pastures – and making headlines because among them is a trailblazing female pilot who had made her nation proud but preferred to stay behind in the United States while on a training tour.

Pakistan has been doubling as Afghan nationals’ second home for over three and a half decades – hosting some 1.5 registered and 1 million unregistered. It ranks amongst the top three largest refugee communities in the world. The stream of defectors, asylum seekers, migrants and refugees kept flowing while the Reds retreated, Taliban invaded and all through the American occupation.

That surge has been unexpectedly quelled.

There’s a migrant crisis brewing in Europe while parts of South Asia prepare for a mass exodus. And Pakistan has been getting a lot of flak over its decision to curtail its hosting duties. By the end of November 2016, the number of undocumented refugees sent back had already hit 230,000. An estimated one million have been repatriated so far.

According to Newsweek, human rights activists wonder if doing so violates international laws since Afghanistan is a nation at war. Pakistan has also been under the local Taliban, (TTP’s) crosshairs since 2006. Though recent operations against insurgents have yielded results – security is still a prime concern. Refugee repatriation is part of a larger movement that includes securing the Western borders, setting up check-posts and clearing the badlands.

Incoming Afghans will be required to carry papers to cross over. Returning Pakistani tribesmen will be screened. And valid travel documents and visas will be mandatory. These measures are meant to enhance regional security and cooperation – not widen the breach. But, while Pakistan and Afghanistan’s interests in securing peace in the region may align – the shifting nature of their allegiances complicate matters. Out of this arose disagreements over trade routes, accusations of fermenting strife in their respective countries and talks of establishing air corridors with India over Pakistani airspace. These led to meetings in Moscow by China, Russia and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan’s security woes in which Kabul was pointedly left out. Demonstrations outside the Pakistan embassy in Kabul decrying the ISI came on its heels blaming the agency for facilitating the Afghan Taliban who had claimed responsibility for the string of attacks on Afghan soil.

Afghanistan is a nation struggling to emerge from the shadows of war, infighting and occupation yet spurns Pakistan’s offer of providing developmental aid ($500M). A temperamental Kabul that has aligned itself with Delhi isn’t afraid of pushing back. And Islamabad has failed to deploy its diplomatic savvy to extinguish the flames of resentment.

The mishandling of Sharbat Gula’s case by Pakistan is a case in point. The green eyed Afghan girl who made the cover of Nat Geo 30 years ago had been charged with carrying forged papers in 2016, which is a crime regardless of her iconic stature. But the subsequent incarceration of a reportedly sickly widow and deportation gave India an opening to swoop in as a savior and milk it for publicity purposes with offers of free medical treatments and hospitality.

Given that Afghanistan upgraded her status to celebrity, there’s hope that her sorry tale has a happy ending. The rest of Afghans must brace themselves for a bittersweet homecoming since there will be no red carpets rolled out for them. But that episode turned into a PR disaster for the Pakistani authorities, one that was avoidable. Such headlines dilute efforts launched to counter the anti-Pakistan propaganda.

Giving the hordes of migrants a free run of the place during the initial exodus of Afghan refugees into Pakistan in 1980 has had serious ramifications for the country. And the State must take some of the blame for the spread of drugs and the gun culture; for not restricting their movements like Iran had done by keeping them confined to camps. Since the migrants were ethnic Pashtuns, they reportedly melted among the local Pashtun community easily and settled in KPK and Balochistan. 33% registered stayed in camps – 67% roamed free.

In this case, Pakistan’s special brand of hospitality backfired. It was a misstep; as was the deplorable social media campaign painting Sharbat as a spy. Yet, regardless of their differences, a weakened Afghanistan does not serve Pakistan’s interests. Afghanistan’s resistance to enforcing border management controls and refusal to recognize the Durand Line, however, does serve the Taliban / ISIS / Daesh backed agenda. And notwithstanding the Sharbat Gula faux pas, Pakistan’s rationale for deporting undocumented Afghan nationals however has merit because the free passage makes it harder to curb cross border terrorism.

The State has reportedly poured a hundred billion dollars on Afghan visitors’ well-being including education, health-care, food and shelter. It has also extended the repartition date till March 2017. At this point the new years’ greetings sent by Pak Army Chief and an invitation to visit Afghanistan extended by the Afghan leadership may be the only signs that the tide may be shifting. President Ashraf Ghani, their firebrand leader once penned a manifesto - ‘Fixing Failed States – A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World’. He should appreciate more than anybody else the urgency of resolving the Afghan refugee crisis; and bringing them home safely could be a major step in fulfilling his vision.


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