Peace in Afghanistan would always have dividends for the region. The efforts of Pakistan to provide humanitarian aid to avoid chaos in Afghanistan also points to a similar direction. However, the safe havens in Afghanistan used by TTP could become a source of bitter diplomatic relations between the two countries.
That happens in Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily stay in Afghanistan. There is usually a spillover into the neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 until the present day, wars across the border have caused immense disruption for Pakistan. There was little respite after the Soviets finally exited Afghanistan in February 1989. Just a little over a decade later, Afghanistan descended into another war when the U.S. and NATO forces invaded the country in late 2001. This set in train an era of war on terrorism which killed thousands of people and caused endless misery for Afghans and Pakistanis. Despite the exit of all foreign forces on August 15, 2021, and the return to power of the Taliban, which then formed the interim government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), the economic and security situation remains fragile.
Millions of Afghans have fled the country during over forty years of war. The majority of refugees headed over the border into Pakistan. Many have never returned to their homeland and stay legally or illegally in Pakistan. Some have applied for asylum in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and elsewhere and have been successful, but most are unlikely to meet the strict criteria. An unknown number of Afghans try to make the journey to Europe with the help of human traffickers, often the same ones linked to criminal networks, also linked to drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and other criminal activities, only to find the ‘promised land’ was unwelcoming.
While statistics on refugees in Pakistan vary slightly according to data from various organisations, the European Union Agency for Asylum’s May 2022 report indicates that as of January 2022, there were approximately 3 million Afghans living in Pakistan. Around 1.4 million of them are Proof of Registration (PoR) cardholders, approximately 840,000 hold an Afghan Citizen Card (ACC), and an estimated 775,000 are undocumented. It is likely that despite best efforts by Pakistan’s authorities to identify them, the figure for ‘undocumented’ may be higher.
The food and other humanitarian aid has been a lifeline to millions of Afghans to avoid starvation and further deprivation. Ensuring these avenues remain open, and at the same time are strictly controlled through border management, is critical to make every effort to reduce simmering conflicts and total chaos for Afghans and the possibility of another mass exodus of people.
The construction of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border fence has proven highly successful in curbing human trafficking, smuggling, and cross-border movement of terrorists. The new and very tight Border Management System has now made it extremely difficult for illegal crossing, but some still slip through taking cover of terrain and then disappear into Afghan networks within the country. A surprising number of Afghans now living in Pakistan as refugees, return regularly and legally across the border to attend to business or family matters, and then return. This brings to mind the question of whether those who do this can really be classed as refugees given their ability to re-enter the country from which they supposedly fled in fear.
Afghan refugees also fled into Iran which also shares a border with Pakistan. According to the Government of Iran, 780,000 Afghans are documented as living there. Since the upheaval in Afghanistan of August 2021, various sources estimate 500,000-1,000,000 more Afghans have fled to Iran. From Iran, many Afghans try to enter Pakistan.
However, the long and mostly isolated porous border between Pakistan and Iran has been exploited by terrorists, human and narcotics traffickers for years, creating a security and economic issue for both countries. The almost 850 km long Pakistan-Iran border fence is currently under construction, due for completion in December 2023. This will be another significant step towards the security of Pakistan and particularly, Balochistan.
The cost to Pakistan of hosting millions of refugees for so long has been enormous and in the current economic crisis, Pakistan would find it difficult to accept more, should the situation in Afghanistan worsen. While trying to put in place their new systems of governance, the IEA has been struggling to provide basic humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. This is partly due to the lack of infrastructure, but also largely due to freezing of Afghanistan’s funds held offshore and United nations (UN) Security Council’s sanctions related to combating financing of terrorism. To address the growing calls for help, in December 2021, the United Nations adopted a resolution providing a broad exception covering the provision, payment and processing of funds and assets necessary for humanitarian action and activities to meet basic human needs.
It is a positive sign that despite certain issues, there has been significant hard-won change in Swat and the former tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in recent years.
UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2615 reaffirmed that the provision of humanitarian and other assistance to the people of Afghanistan was not a violation of the Security Council’s sanctions related to combating the financing of terrorism, sheltering and training terrorists and Afghan support for any terrorist operating on the territory of another country. This unlocked significant support to address immediate humanitarian needs with help from countries that donated funds to UN and other organisations to implement assistance operations. Funds were not released directly to the Afghan authorities to ensure transparency. It was hoped that this would help stablise the situation.
Pakistan has played its part in providing support wherever possible to help the IEA interim government meet the humanitarian crisis. Apart from its own donations of wheat flour and other essentials, most of the food and other goods provided through humanitarian funding from various countries, enters through the port at Karachi and then moves by road to cross the border daily at Torkham and Chaman into Afghanistan. A good example of this is that in 2022, the UN World Food Programme provided food assistance to 23 million people in Afghanistan, much of which were transported through Pakistan. This also included some commodities which were purchased within Pakistan. Other humanitarian agencies also ship their assistance through Pakistan. The food and other humanitarian aid has been a lifeline to millions of Afghans to avoid starvation and further deprivation. Ensuring these avenues remain open, and at the same time are strictly controlled through border management, is critical to make every effort to reduce simmering conflicts and total chaos for Afghans and the possibility of another mass exodus of people.
However, despite constant global appeals for funding of humanitarian support by the UN and other aid organisations, foreign funding support for Afghanistan is drying up, and the majority of people are grappling with severe food insecurity, particularly in the harsh winters. There is a ‘donor fatigue’ about Afghanistan and recent laws introduced by the IEA related to women and girls working or studying have caused concerns which have halted, at least temporarily, a number of critical humanitarian operations. Work opportunities are scarce for men and poverty is reaching extreme levels. Healthcare is fragile at best and is one of the key reasons that many Afghans try to reach Pakistan. Unless the IEA interim government is enabled to resolve these issues, the future seems bleak for Afghans which could lead to further instability within the country and the region.
The military operations, subsequent peacebuilding, reconstruction, and a myriad of socio-economic projects developed through the Pakistan Army, and the construction of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border fence and new Border Management System have all contributed immensely to a positive change in the security and development dynamics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan as a nation and will continue unabated.
Enduring peace after so many years of conflict does not come easily as many countries have found to their cost over the centuries of wars around the globe. For Afghanistan, this is certainly the case and true peace and stability still seems a long way off. Although controlling Kabul and some parts of the country, many areas remain outside the current control of the IEA. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), Daesh, and other groups active within Afghanistan, have conducted attacks on Kabul and other cities taking many lives, and continue to threaten Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)–the terrorist group formed in the ex-FATA areas in 2007 to carry out terrorist activities against Pakistan and its LEAs–continues to take refuge in Afghanistan.
Despite the TTP being defeated during multiple military operations by the Pakistan Army, some combatants managed to escape across what was then an un-fenced and porous border into Afghanistan. Since the Taliban regained power in Kabul, the TTP appears to have become emboldened and there appears to be little effort by the IEA to reign in their activities, despite their commitments in the Doha negotiations about not allowing Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists.
Pakistan continues to use all diplomatic means to press the IEA not to provide TTP with safe havens. Pakistan has made it clear, without specifically naming any specific country that “no country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists and Pakistan reserves all rights in that respect to safeguard her people.”
Of deep concern is that, emboldened by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, local Taliban sympathisers who share the same hard-line ideology, have become active in Pakistan again.
In 2021, TTP was given a chance to lay down arms and accept the writ of the state, but the talks collapsed completely after the process could not move forward when TTP demands–believed to also include withdrawal of all Pakistan Army troops from former tribal areas, release of all prisoners, permission to keep their weapons, and a reversal of the FATA merger of 2018 and a return to the old ways of the tribal areas–became increasingly unpalatable. The current civil and military leadership disengaged from further talks with the TTP. It is not prudent to negotiate with any group that refuses to disarm and accept the writ of the state.
Following a recent spate of attacks on military, police and civilians in Pakistan, and an attack on Pakistan’s Ambassador in Kabul, Pakistan’s National Security Committee made it clear, “Pakistan’s security is uncompromisable, and the full writ of the state will be maintained on every inch of Pakistan’s territory”. This stance has been reinforced strongly not only by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but also the new Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Syed Asim Munir on his recent visits to troops in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakistan-Afghan border with XI Corps. COAS said, “The State’s writ has been established through innumerable sacrifices by tribal people and security forces. Our fight against terrorism will continue with the support of the nation till we achieve enduring peace and stability”. Paying tribute to the sacrifices of both military and civilians, he stated, “Defense of the motherland will be ensured at all costs and there won’t be any space for peace’s spoilers. No one will be allowed to disrupt the hard-earned gains of war against terror made thus far.”
Local communities are also making it clear that they will never accept a return to violence and lawlessness that consumed their lives for so long. They do not want a return of the dangerous spoilers in their midst. The peace rallies seen in the former tribal areas and Swat in 2022 and January 2023 are an indication of courage and confidence amongst the local population that they can stand up against militancy. This did not and could not have happened pre-2014 when militancy had become an all too familiar part of their daily lives. The outcome of speaking out against the threat of terrorists in their midst would have been unbearably tragic. Anyone who spoke out suffered fatal consequences at the hands of the militants.
It is a positive sign that despite certain issues, there has been significant hard-won change in Swat and the former tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the recent years. When the militant groups infiltrated these areas while fleeing the war in Afghanistan, they unleashed a reign of terror on the locals and ultimately, across Pakistan. Hundreds of tribal elders were murdered to remove any form of local resistance. Community members lived in the fear of being singled out for execution for any reason. In many instances, family and tribal loyalties became divided.
Between 2008 and 2015, several million people were displaced for periods of time from both Swat and the tribal areas until the areas were cleared. Moving and hosting millions of Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDP) and helping them eventually return home was a colossal logistic and financial undertaking for government, Pakistan Army, and the many multilateral and bilateral donors, and UN agencies that played a role over several years to support the displaced families and their return. Before families were allowed to return, apart from the area having to be notified, checks were also done to ensure that terrorists were not slipping through.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into reconstruction and rehabilitation to provide better facilities and new development of roads, schools and cadet colleges, health facilities, agricultural and water projects, and vocational training institutes, far superior to many other parts of Pakistan. Areas that were once totally ‘no-go’ became accessible. New industries were established, livelihood opportunities increased, and new markets opened. Swat’s tourism industry boomed once again. The future finally looked brighter and more peaceful.
The military operations, subsequent peacebuilding, reconstruction, and a myriad of socioeconomic projects developed through the Pakistan Army, and the construction of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border fence and new Border Management System have all contributed immensely to a positive change in the security and development dynamics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan as a nation and will continue unabated.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is not the only province falling victim to terrorism in recent years. Balochistan too has a rising number of attacks within the province from multiple miscreant/militant groups. Attacks have been claimed by multiple such terrorist groups including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Baloch Republic Army (BLA), Baloch Republican Guard, Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), and United Baloch Army (UBA). Mostly hiding over the border in Afghanistan or Iran, but with local sympathisers in Balochistan, they have become increasingly dangerous. There have long been suspicions that some of these groups receive funding from other countries including India as a way of destabilizing Pakistan. The possibility of new supportive links between these groups and TTP is also alarming.
On a visit to Balochistan in January, COAS, General Syed Asim Munir vowed that the military would thwart all attempts by foreign-sponsored and supported hostile elements to destabilise Balochistan. While addressing the troops of XII Corps he said, “We are aware of the nefarious designs of external enemies of Pakistan to disturb the hard-earned peaceful environment in Balochistan.” He went on to say that the army’s deployment and operations are being focused on the south-western province to “provide an enabling environment for benevolent people-centric socioeconomic development".
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have sacrificed their lives in the struggle for enduring peace and they will never be forgotten. There will be no backing off in protecting Pakistan from any group that seeks to inflict harm or disrupt the continuation of socioeconomic development, peace, and progress. To again echo the words of the COAS, “No one will be allowed to disrupt the hard-earned gains of war against terror made thus far.” As has been made clear by both civil and military leadership, diplomatic initiatives with neighboring countries will continue and support given on humanitarian needs, but any attempts to destabilise peace in Pakistan by any anti-state actor, be they local or foreign, clearly will be prevented in the strongest possible way.
The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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