The level of violence in Afghanistan has perceptibly increased as the date for the American troop withdrawal approaches. Hundreds of people have perished as September 11, 2021 comes closer. That is the day when President Joseph Biden has said his country’s armed forces would head home, leaving the Afghans to handle their affairs in the way they please. There is a pattern to the killing that is taking place. Whichever group is involved, it is very deliberately targeting girls from the Shiite community attending schools. The Hazaras who have their homes in the province of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, have buried hundreds of young girls — all students — who were the victims of meticulously planned suicide bombing near their schools. One incident alone on May 8 took the lives of 80 to 90 teenage girls. The Taliban, through their spokesman in Doha, their political office in Qatar, forcefully denied their involvement in this particular incident or those that occurred near the Tribal Belt bordering Pakistan. Should their denial be taken seriously since they have made no secret of their opposition to female education and demonstrated their hostility towards the Shiite community?
The Islamic State, or IS, is the other possible perpetrator of the attacks. This extremist Sunni group emerged as a powerful entity after the then US President Barak Obama ordered his country’s troops to leave Iraq. At one point the group ruled over an area as large as Britain. This domain was in Iraq and Syria and because of their presence in these two countries it came to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS. However, a concerted effort by the administration headed by President Donald Trump, America pushed the ISIS out of the Middle East. Since then, it has established itself in several Muslim countries in various parts of the world. The group looks for places that have weak governments and civil strife. The IS has been attracted to several countries in Africa and also to Afghanistan. Their ideology is not markedly different from that of the Taliban but their ultimate objective is much more ambitious. They would like to see the world of Islam come together as a vast caliphate that includes most if not all Muslim nations. Like the Taliban they oppose education of women or have women work outside their homes. Like the Taliban they also regard the Shiites as heretics. While the Taliban have denied their involvement in the acts of violence in recent weeks, the IS has not issued any statement distancing itself from these incidents.
These acts of violence indicate that the American departure from Afghanistan in September 2021 would result in the country plunging into serious turmoil. Civil strife displaces people who are not directly involved in the conflict but are afraid of becoming its victims. That happened in Syria when the civil war in that country resulted in a mass migration of people who headed towards the countries in the neighbourhood as well as in Western Europe, in particular to Germany.
Should Pakistan expect another Afghan refugee wave if the planned withdrawal of the American troops from the country results in the chaos most observers believe would follow? The Afghan refugee moves this time around will most likely take the form of several wavelets. The largest number would come to Pakistan, increasing the number of country’s Pashtuns by another couple of millions. A million or so Afghan Shiites would head to Iran. Those who have saleable skills would go to Europe (Germany in particular) and the United States. Both Germany and America already have sizeable Afghan communities. In the strife that followed the arrival of troops from the Soviet Union in 1979 and their failed effort to stay on in spite of stiff opposition, there were serious military operations launched by a number of Islamic groups to expel the invaders. The ensuing conflict between regular Soviet forces and irregular Muslim mujahideen groups created a confusing situation for the local populations. They chose to leave the battlefields and head towards safer lands.
Pakistan was the first preferred option of taking refuge on the part of the Pashtuns who lived on the Afghanistan side of the Durand Line. Many had relatives on the other side who, given the deep Afghan custom of accommodating those who were seeking refuge, welcomed the refugees. Millions arrived; some went deep into the country to take advantage of the presence of the Pashtun communities. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, was one place to which a million or so refugees headed. Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore also accommodated those who were faced with danger in their homeland. In spite of the efforts by Pakistan that were aided by the United Nations, the Pashtun refugee communities have not shown any sign of going back to their country of origin. The members of the Shiite community headed to Iran where the population was mostly Shiite. They too have stayed on preferring life in Iran to the risks in their homeland.
The pattern this time around is likely to be different. With the promise made by President Biden that his country will take in more refugees than was intended by his predecessor Donald Trump, we are likely to see more Afghans entering the United States. Biden has indicated that his administration is prepared to take in 65,000 refugees between now and September 30, 2021, the end of the American fiscal year. Twice that number may be allowed in the year 2021-22. A significant number of these will likely be Afghans. There is a precedence for the United States letting in people who had worked with its forces in the areas of serious conflict. Hundreds of thousands of refugees came in from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after Washington admitted that it had failed to keep these nations out of Communist hands. Thousands of Afghans who had worked for the Americans during the latter’s involvement in their country for two decades have already gone through extensive vetting. They will now be heading towards the United States.
More recently other countries in the neighborhood in addition to Pakistan and Iran have emerged as preferred refugee-destinations. Turkey is one such country since it is being treated as a point of transit between the homeland and Europe. According to Carlotta Gall, writing for The New York Times, “the number of Afghans arriving in Turkey has soared over the last seven years as the United States and NATO have wound down their military presence. More than 200,000 Afghans were caught entering Turkey illegally in 2019. Many were deported back to Afghanistan. But despite a reduction of overall numbers in the last year because of the pandemic, Afghans still represent by far the largest migrant group making the dangerous crossing by sea or land to Greece.” From Greece they move on to Germany or other countries in Western Europe.
The American withdrawal will affect Pakistan in two ways. It would further strengthen the Pashtun presence in the country, particularly on the outskirts of large cities. It is also likely to start a new wave of migration with the second generation of Pakistani-Afghans going to the United States and Europe for higher education and better-paying jobs.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2021.