Two Kabul-based dailies, Afghanistan Times and Daily Outlook Afghanistan, prominently placed two news items out of Peshawar and Islamabad on Tuesday: ‘Afghan return deadline may be extended’. It referred to a decision taken at the parliamentary party conference in Islamabad. Additionally, Pajhwok news agency reported that Islamabad is telling the provinces not to harass Afghan refugees and not to take any legal action against undocumented Afghans.
These two pieces of information must have come as a relief for scores of families currently divided across the Durand Line. There is hardly anyone in Afghanistan who doesn’t have a family member or has never been to Pakistan. And hence they have legitimate concerns for their safety and possible harassment by the police and other agencies.
Around the same time this news surfaced, the Ministry for Refugees and Repatriations issued a statement saying that the number of returnees from Pakistan this year had touched 600,000 and 300,000 Afghans had returned from Iran since January.
Concerns about the well-being of the Afghans resonated a day earlier also during interactions with nearly 200 students of the state Balkh University and the private Mawlana University in Mazar-e-Sharif. This bustling town is home to the mausoleum of Hazrat Ali (AS), the fourth caliph. And only three days earlier a massive suicide attack on the German consulate there had shaken the city centre. But you could hardly tell because most of the students appeared to welcome to the delegates of the Pak-Afghan Track II Beyond Boundaries.
600,000 is the number of people who have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan this year, says the Ministry for Refugees and Repatriations. An additional 300,000 Afghans returned home from Iran since January
While greeting Pakistani guests, former ambassadors Qazi Hamayun and Mian Sanaullah and the young men and women were curious why Pakistan was forcibly sending its refugees back; How would this benefit Pakistan? Was Pakistan not aware of the young people born there, who don’t know Afghanistan at all? Are the Pakistani authorities cognizant of the goodwill the country is losing by enforcing repatriation in a manner that is giving rise to more bad blood, and destroying the goodwill among Afghans? What vision does Pakistan have for political peace and economic stabilization or development of Afghanistan?
And the most important question came from an economics student who asked whether the expulsion of Afghans made economic sense. Student Suraya asked what might happen if she chose to study in Pakistan? What was the guarantee that she would not be brainwashed there, she asked with a cheeky smile, referring to the narrative on Pakistani madrassas.
Overall, the tone and tenor of the questions was fairly friendly and not toxic like the one emanating in Kabul. Most students were worried about the future and kept asking about the implications of Islamabad’s policies on the Taliban and refugees. Some of their questions did, of course, reflect what the authorities in Kabul told them through the media.
We tried to explain to the students what Pakistan has done as part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. This includes a university at Mazar-e-Sharif, a hospital in Kabul, a kidney center in Jalalabad, nearly 3,000 scholarships for the best Afghan students and a recent commitment for another 3,000 scholarships and another $500 million for reconstruction.
Unfortunately, the Kabul hospital and the kidney centre are running delays, partially due to Pakistan’s cumbersome auditing systems and partially over the reported lack of cooperation from Kabul authorities, who, for instance, appear to be reluctant to exempt custom duties on the equipment meant for these hospitals. Pakistanis are also waiting for official security to complete a 25km section of the Torkham-Jalalabad-Kabul highway. And we wondered why we could not hire private security to pull it off on our own?
The federal government’s instructions to the provinces and parliament’s deliberations on the refugees’ stay in Pakistan could not have come at a better time. The hasty implementation of the voluntary return has already poisoned the perspective on Pakistan but it is probably still not too late to address concerns.
During the deliberations, members of the Track II exhorted both governments to take concrete measures against cross-border movement of terrorists and address the root causes of terrorism. Both sides agreed that the Sharbat Gula episode made it necessary to create a legal mechanism to protect vulnerable Afghan refugees, especially women, and children born in Pakistan. They agreed also that their properties and movable assets need to be protected according to the per law.
Pakistani delegates informed their Afghan counterparts that, following active advocacy and lobbying by civil society, the Pakistani government was already addressing these issues and that it was trying to develop a national political consensus to ensure the repatriation of Afghan refugees took place with dignity and honour. The government is also considering long-term visas for Afghan investors, students, medical cases and other deserving people.
The entire course of such bilateral discussions underscores one bitter reality; political motives, partisan approaches, skepticism and so-called national interests infect narratives. But the farther you move away from the power centres i.e. capitals, the less toxic the narrative becomes. And that creates space for a more dispassionate, objective discourse that might help moderate and neutralize some of the clichéed, negative thinking about the Other.
Mazar-e-Sharif, which is known historically for anti-Pakistan sentiment, did offer us a chance to explain our side of the story at two universities. We were also able to gauge the economic transformation this city has undergone in the last two decades. There has been exemplary expansion and development under Governor Noor Ata and this level of development seems to also have positively influenced the thinking among students. This represents a good chance for Pakistan to reach out both to Pashtun and non-Pashtun Afghans and invest in their future.
The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).