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Pakistan's Afghan problem

B. Muralidhar Reddy

The over three million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan pose a variety of challenges for the host nation.

IT IS official now. The latest census carried out by the Pakistan Government in association with United Nations agencies has revealed that over three million Afghan refugees remain in the country.

The preliminary data of the census are an eye-opener on more than one count. In the wake of developments in Afghanistan post-9/11 and the much-trumpeted repatriation programme, the Pakistani authorities could hardly have thought that there was such a large number of Afghans in the country. Prior to the census, the guesstimates varied between 1.5 million and 2.5 million.

Jehad encouraged

The Afghan influx into Pakistan began in the late 1970s. Following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan opened its borders to people from Afghanistan and actively encouraged a jehad (holy war) against the Soviet Union. It was state policy under the regime of the then military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq.

The war ended in 1989 but most of the refugees refused to return home as the situation in the war-torn country remained chaotic. There is a consensus among watchers of Afghanistan within and outside Pakistan that the open border policy practised by the military has enormously damaged the country's social and political fabric. The current culture of Kalashnikovs, drugs and sectarianism in Pakistan is directly attributed to the Afghan policy and the free flow of refugees.

Jehad as a legitimate weapon by non-state actors took root thanks to the state patronage first in Afghanistan, and subsequently in Kashmir. And yet strangely, none of the successive governments in Islamabad bothered to take a re-look at the Afghan policy. For a variety of reasons they did not even deem it necessary to order a head count of millions of foreigners on Pakistani soil.

Impact of 9/11

The September 11, 2001 attacks and their impact on the region, with Washington declaring Afghanistan the epicentre of international terrorism, jolted Pakistan out of its complacence. With the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and Taliban to the United States and its allies, Islamabad is now keen on accounting for all Afghan refugees on its soil. Hence the census.

That is not to suggest that the Afghan refugees are involved in acts of terrorism. But as long as they remain in Pakistan, unaccounted, it is not possible for Islamabad to prevent the rebels operating from its soil. Thanks to the emergence of Pakistan as a global recruitment centre for jehad during the Afghan war, it became easy for people from different nationalities to move in and out of the country.

It is certainly not a coincidence that Pakistan in the last three years has apprehended and killed over 1,000 alleged activists of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban from various parts of the world. Fleeing from Afghanistan they had hoped to find shelter in Pakistan only because of the past connection.

Pakistan has been home to the single largest refugee population anywhere in the world for over 25 years now. According to Guenet Guebre-Christos, United Nations High Commission for Refugees Representative in Pakistan, the census found that 1,861,412 Afghans live in the North West Frontier Province, 783,545 in Balochistan, 136,780 in Sindh, 207,754 in Punjab, 44,637 in Islamabad and 13,097 in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas.

Details by May-end

A more detailed report on the data gathered by the 3,000 census workers is being prepared and will be available by the end of May. This will include the precise place of residence, source of livelihood, place of origin in Afghanistan, intention to return this year and much other information.

The data will be vital as the Government of Pakistan and UNHCR discuss ways to manage the Afghan population that might remain in Pakistan after the expiry of the current Tripartite Agreement. The UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme, which assists Afghans wishing to return home, is conducted under a Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan that expires next March.

The Government of Pakistan intends to follow up the present census with a registration next year of all Afghans recorded in the first stage. According to Jahangir Khan, Chief Commissioner of Pakistan's Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees: "After the census, proper registration and issuance of identity documents are essential that could be used by local and international agencies for security, immigration cross-checking and anti-terrorist initiatives."

The U.N. agencies claim that more than 2.3 million Afghans have returned home under the repatriation programme since 2002. Some 400,000 Afghans are expected to repatriate this year, with the UNHCR assisting more than 45,000 to return since the start of the 2005 programme in early March.

Pakistan is keen on repatriation and rehabilitation of all the refugees and has been urging the international community to create necessary conditions and economic opportunities in Afghanistan as an incentive for people to return. The very fact that three million refugees continue to be in Pakistan is a telling commentary on the ground situation in Afghanistan since the American-led military intervention of October 2001.

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