From the euphoria of former ISI Chief Lt Gen Faiz Hamid landing at Serena Hotel in Kabul in August 2021 to a dire warning to unregistered Afghan refugees in the country, Pakistan-Afghan relations seem to have turned a full circle. In an interesting aside Faiz Hamid has been sidelined while his then protégé Taliban is also facing innumerable challenges in Afghanistan.
Counter-terrorism wisdom denoted that a fallout between the Taliban and Pakistan was inevitable given Pakistan’s two-decade Afghan policy where it reared the ‘snake,’ of the Taliban in the pits of the tribal area while ostensibly supporting US and NATO forces in Operation Enduring Freedom beyond.
The snake in the pit, as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned Pakistan had come to bite where it hurt the most, security forces of the country. Way back in October 2011, Clinton after a visit to Pakistan seeking their cooperation in neutralizing the Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network had warned, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
The Taliban defacto authorities in Kabul calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have also been naïve enough to believe that tacitly supporting the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan or TTP will result in a revolution of sorts providing them control of the tribal areas in Pakistan. Several leverages that Pakistan has over its western neighbours including the refugee factor and trade were ignored believing that they had a winning hand in the Mehsud tribal insurgents.
TTP on a Terror Rampage
While organic factors such as coagulation of various factions may also have helped in consolidating the TTP’s operational capability in carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the support and sanctuaries in Pakistan remains the most significant factor. Armed with assault rifles and night vision devices the TTP has been able to carry out massed attacks on Pakistani posts such as in Chitral last month where 200 of its cadres are reported to have launched a strike on a Pakistan police outpost. The data on terrorist violence is ominous.
As per Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, despite 34 per cent fewer incidents in September 2023, there were more fatalities in terrorist attacks. There were 65 militant attacks in September in which 136 civilians, military and law enforcement agencies personnel lost their lives, while 144 were injured. The civilian death toll was, up by 87pc from 45 in August and even as number of attacks declined by 34pc. This indicates the increasing effectiveness of the TTP as the months go by.
For the year 2023, 271 militant attacks took place in the first half resulting in the loss of 389 lives and injuring 656 individuals. Pakistan’s interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti claimed that 14 of 24 suicide bombings in the country this year were carried out by Afghan nationals. On September 29, 59 people, including a police officer, were killed and dozens injured in a suicide blast near a 12th Rabiul Awwal procession in Balochistan’s Mastung district. The TTP as well as other groups have not claimed the attack.
The TTP has not even spared one of the allies of the Afghan Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF). In July this year the TTP targeted a rally of the JUI F in Bajaur in Khyber Pakhtoonwa killing 54 with several injured. The Taliban reprimanded the TTP which in turn blamed a local commander for the attack and a narrative was spun that this was the handiwork of the Islamic State of Khorasan.
Pakistan has been reasonable enough initially to send several delegations to Afghanistan at the ministerial level while official contacts have been persistent where reining in the TTP has been one of the main issues for interactions. From threats of bombing terrorist hideouts to carrying out surreptitious operations for targeting some of the TTP top brass, the offensive option has been exercised. However, the constant rebuff by the Taliban in Pakistan which has been consistently in a denial mode has possibly pushed the Establishment – Pakistan Army and the ISI which is now in effective control of the Government in Islamabad given the caretaker administration in the run up to the polls has decided to considerably up the ante.
Thus, the caretaker government guided by the Army ordered that ordered all illegal immigrants, including 1.73 million Afghan nationals, to leave the country or face expulsion. The decision was taken at a meeting headed by Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and attended by the army chief, among others. The committee also decided that movement across the border would be subject to passports and visas, while electronic Afghan identity cards (or e-tazkiras) would only be accepted until Oct 31.
While the order states that all illegal immigrants irrespective of nationality will be evicted, the intent is clearly targeted at the Afghans. According to the UNHCR, there are 2.18m documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes the 1.3m refugees holding Proof of Registration (POR) cards as per the census done in 2006-07, as well as an additional 880,000 refugees granted Afghan Citizens Cards (ACCs) in 2017 following a registration drive in 2017. These will not be affected by the eviction order.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul more than 700,000 Afghans moved to Pakistan but there is no certainty of numbers – it is this group who will be impacted by the order. Many of them came with valid visas and are overstaying while others just crossed over without any travel documents.
Implementation of Eviction
Practical implementation of the eviction order is likely to prove extremely challenging if not impossible to execute. “This is a huge undertaking,” an official acknowledged as per the Dawn News. “Cracking down on and rounding up over a million or two illegal immigrants, holding them in detention facilities, feeding them and transporting them to the border or arranging for them to fly out of Pakistan would require a logistical plan and resources, human as well as financial,” the official was reported by the Dawn.
Human rights groups have called for a review of the decision, Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement on its social media platform X, “The government’s decision to expel over a million undocumented migrants within 30 days, because they have links with terrorist and criminal groups, reflects not only a lack of compassion but also a narrow and short-sighted focus on national security.”
Afghan Taliban Reaction
Afghan reaction expectedly has been very fierce. Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid termed the decision as, “unacceptable”. Mullah Yaqoob, the Taliban’s defence minister, was even more rabid calling Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan immigrants “horror and barbaric,” and warning that expulsion of Afghan immigrants strains and damages the relations between the two countries. Yet the true test of impact on the Afghan Taliban will be demonstrative action to rein in the TTP. In all probability the Afghan Taliban will ask the TTP to restrict terror attacks in Pakistan for some time but it is unlikely that the group will be told to wind up its bases in the country.
How the situation manifests between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains to be seen particularly as practical implementation of the decision to evict the refugees by October 31 is difficult. Some reports indicate that some of the illegal migrants are voluntarily trudging back to Afghanistan though the numbers are low at present.
It could well be that Pakistan is adopting a brinkmanship approach to force the Taliban to act against the TTP, using refugees as a leverage. Whatever be the outcome, a serious rift in Taliban and Pakistan relations has been exposed, will this be a transitory phase or could result in a more lasting reset in the approach by the two remains to be seen?