Pakistan Mass Deports Afghan Refugees
Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban backfires.
By Uzay Bulut
Pakistan has started mass deportation of undocumented Afghans residing within its borders. While it claims the deportations are due to “increased terrorism” in the country, it was the government of Pakistan that supported the Taliban in Afghanistan for decades, which has become a safe haven for terrorist groups since the Taliban returned to power in 2021.
In September, Pakistan’s government announced it would carry out deportations of all “unregistered foreign nationals,” which is known under Pakistani law as an Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan. It demanded that all such individuals leave the country before November 1. Police also reportedly warned landlords to avoid renting homes for undocumented refugees and migrants. Pakistan’s decision affects some 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants.
AP reported on November 17 that at least 340,000 Afghans have left Pakistan. Authorities began arresting and deporting foreign nationals without papers after the November 1 deadline for migrants without legal status to leave the country voluntarily.
Meanwhile, Pakistan justifies this decision by citing its dire economic situation and accusing undocumented Afghans of involvement in terrorism and crime. Acting Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar said at a news conference on November 8 that in two and half years since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, the number of attacks by Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban or (TTP), has increased by 60 percent.
Pakistan’s excuse to expel Afghans due to “increased terrorism” is ironic at best given Pakistan’s decades-long support for the Afghan Taliban.
France 24 noted in a 2022 report:
“For decades, Pakistan pursued a policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban while cracking down on the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP). With the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, Islamabad may have won its ‘long game’. But its game of chicken may be backfiring with jihadists coming home to roost.
“On August 15, 2021, when the Taliban swept into Kabul and seized power in Afghanistan, there were exultations in neighbouring Pakistan. Afghans had ‘broken the shackles of slavery,’ said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan a day after the takeover, even as waves of desperate people scrambled to board departing flights at Kabul’s international airport in a bid to flee their ‘liberty’.
“The Pakistani prime minister – dubbed ‘Taliban Khan’ by his critics – is known for his anti-West tirades. But the gaffe-prone Khan’s position on the Taliban has always been in-synch with the geostrategic objectives of Pakistan’s military and vast intelligence network headed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“Despite Islamabad’s repeated denials, a Taliban victory remained an ISI goal during the 20-year US mission in Afghanistan, making Pakistan a duplicitous ally in Washington’s ‘war on terror’ as the country continued to provide the Islamist group safe havens until the departure of coalition forces.
“The Taliban are separate groups in both countries, but they share a common ideology and allegiances, which the TTP renewed following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Pakistan though follows a ‘good Taliban-bad Taliban’ strategy that seeks a pliant, Islamist power across its western border in Afghanistan as a counterweight to its eastern neighbour and arch enemy, India. The ‘bad Taliban’ – the TTP, with its stated goal of overthrowing the Pakistani state and establishing Sharia law – is considered a terrorist threat.”
According to the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) of Stanford University,
“The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is the largest and deadliest militant umbrella organization in Pakistan. The TTP formed under Baitullah Mehsud in 2007. It is a subset of the Pakistani Taliban, which includes most, but not all, of the Pakistani Taliban groups. The organization is closely linked to Al Qaeda, and is also associated with the Afghan Taliban. However, unlike the Afghan Taliban, which focuses on combatting U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, the TTP focuses on combatting Pakistani security forces. The TTP is based in South Waziristan and has three central goals: to enforce Shariah law in Pakistan; to support the Afghan Taliban’s control in Kabul after the U.S. withdrawal of forces; and to conduct defensive jihad against Pakistani security forces. Ultimately, the group also seeks to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan.”
The group “has seen increased support and stability stemming from the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021.”
In February 2022, five Pakistani troops were killed when militants from across the Afghan border opened fire. Islamabad then condemned the use of Afghan soil for attacks against Pakistan, warning that it “expects that the interim Afghan government will not allow conduct of such activities against Pakistan in the future.”
“Some experts were quick to note that the Pakistani accusation marked the first time since the Taliban takeover that a country publicly declared Afghan territory was being used for cross-border international terrorism. The irony that Pakistan was the first country to complain was not lost on Afghans who have long accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban and other jihadist groups.”
Meanwhile, a 2022 report by the UN Security Council’s monitoring team for al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and their affiliates, noted that “Terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there [in Afghanistan] than at any time in recent history.” The panel of experts found “there are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country.”
Furthermore, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) notes:
“The Pakistani state itself has also used Islamic extremism as a strategic tool to further its interests in the region… Extremist groups that Pakistan has tolerated or supported in the past include Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Hizb-il-Mujahideen (HM), the Mullah Nazir Group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani network. Pakistan has instead focused most of its counterterrorism operations against groups that seek to challenge and overthrow the Pakistani state.”
As for Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban, The Counter Extremism Project adds:
“Regional scholars have noted that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) held considerable sway with the Taliban. In the late 1990s, the ISI even provided the Taliban with a small team of military advisers and facilitated the training of Pakistani volunteers to join the Taliban’s ranks. Following the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001, some of the group’s leadership sought safe haven in Pakistan. Pakistan’s support during the crucial period of 2001 and 2004 allowed the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan remained a critical benefactor of the Taliban as they waged an insurgency against the U.S. and the former Afghan government. Following the Taliban’s second takeover of Kabul in August 2021, relations between the two camps began to sour due to disagreements over the status of the Afghan-Pakistan border as well as increased attacks within Pakistan from the TTP that reportedly operates with impunity in Afghanistan.”
In parallel, a 2023 report by the UN Security Council said that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has “emboldened” Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP], resulting in an increase in cross-border attacks in Pakistan.
The leader of the TTP has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s so-called emir [head] and says his group is part of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Political analyst Arjun Sengupta refers to the growth of the Taliban as “a problem that Pakistan created.”
“Smarting from the loss of East Pakistan [Bangladesh] in 1971, the Pakistani state became increasingly paranoid about further separatism in the country. Of particular concern was Pashtun nationalism in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Baluchistan, both bordering Afghanistan. This was not a new phenomenon — the demand for a unified Pashtun nation predated the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
“To counter Pashtun nationalism, the Pakistani state chose to encourage Islamic fundamentalism. It set up numerous Deobandi madrasas, teaching a particularly strict brand of Islam, in Pashtun territories. The Taliban leadership would emerge from these madrasas — ‘Taliban’ being the Pashto word for ‘student’. Pakistan happily supported the rise of Taliban in its neighbouring country, hoping that their hardline Islam would suppress the Pashtun identity, both at home and in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“When the TTP was formed in 2007, the organization claimed to be an extension of the Afghan Taliban, with designs to eventually establish a strict Islamic state, free of American influence, in Pakistan.”
As Human Rights Watch further reported: “Pakistan has a history of military support for different factions within Afghanistan, extending at least as far back as the early 1970s. During the 1980s, Pakistan, which was host to more than two million Afghan refugees, was the most significant front-line state serving as a secure base for the mujahidin [jihadists] fighting against the Soviet intervention.”
What Pakistan has for decades done is to counter terrorists that challenge its own authority while actively supporting other terrorists that challenge other governments – particularly the West and India. War against Islamist terrorism or jihad, however, must be a whole struggle. Pakistan’s “selective” approach to terrorists is now backfiring. There are no “good jihadist terrorists.” Jihadist terrorism of all sorts must be neutralized and never be exploited by governments for some misled agendas. Jihad always destroys lives, liberties, security, and stability.
After supporting the Taliban’s militancy in Afghanistan for decades, Pakistan is now collectively punishing hundreds of thousands of Afghans that took shelter in Pakistan from the Taliban’s tyranny. What has caused an increase in terrorism in Pakistan, however, is not Afghan people trying to survive in Pakistan, but Pakistan’s own policies that have empowered jihadist terrorists in and outside of the country for decades.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara. She is a research fellow at the Philos Project.