Pakistan has started the mass deportation of "unregistered" Afghans in the country. The move sends back hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Taliban when they took over in 2021 after American troops withdrew, and violates principles of refugee non-refoulement. If forcibly returned, these refugees are at risk of persecution.
Pakistan claims its mass deportations of these Afghans is due to "increased terrorism" in the country -- but it was the government of Pakistan that for decades supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ever since they took over the country in 2021, Afghanistan has just become a safe haven for terrorist groups.
In September, Pakistan's government announced that it would carry out mass deportations of all "unregistered foreign nationals," labeled under Pakistani law as the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan. The plan demands that all such individuals leave the country before November 1, 2023. Police also reportedly warned landlords to avoid renting homes to undocumented refugees and migrants.
The Associated Press reported on November 13 that in recent weeks since Pakistani authorities started arresting and deporting foreign nationals without documentation, after the November 1 deadline for migrants without legal status to leave the country voluntarily, nearly 300,000 Afghans have left Pakistan.
The Crisis Group reported:
"Although the plan purported to apply to all foreigners residing in the country illegally, it appears designed to target Afghans, millions of whom have sought refuge in Pakistan over the years. Pakistan hosts an estimated three to four million Afghan refugees and migrants, including at least 600,000 who have crossed the border since August 2021, when the Taliban seized power for a second time in Afghanistan. Of these, 1.3 million are registered as legal refugees, holding Proof of Registration cards, while an additional 850,000 have received Afghan Citizen Cards from the Pakistani authorities, giving them some protections but not all of those afforded to registered refugees. Some 1.7 million more Afghans are believed to be residing in the country without any documentation at all. This last figure could be a significant underestimate, as people living on the mountainous frontier are accustomed to moving back and forth across the border, often without travel papers from either state."
United Nations officials said in October they were "extremely alarmed by Pakistan's announcement that it plans to deport 'undocumented" foreign nationals' as winter approaches. The UN further expressed concerns over the rights violations of those at risk.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said:
"We believe many of those facing deportation will be at grave risk of human rights violations if returned to Afghanistan, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, cruel and other inhuman treatment.
"Those at particular risk are civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders, former government officials and security force members, and of course women and girls as a whole, who, as a result of the abhorrent policies currently in place in Afghanistan, are banned from secondary and tertiary education, working in many sectors and other aspects of daily and public life."
Many Afghans have either been decades-long residents of Pakistan or were born in Pakistan. At least 600,000 left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, according to the UN. These Afghans, especially women and girls, face an uncertain future in Afghanistan under the Taliban's rule.
"The Ministry of Interior has set up 49 holding area points across the country to help these people respectfully cross the border after thorough screening," state-run Radio Pakistan reported.
According to Amnesty International, however,
"Since the expiry of the 1 November deadline imposed by the Government of Pakistan, the police have moved from registering cases under the Foreigners Act, 1946 which among other things criminalizes illegal entry into Pakistan, to directly detaining refugees deemed 'illegal' at deportation centers.
"Amnesty International has concerns about the complete lack of transparency, due process and accountability in the detentions and deportations over the last week. This has been exacerbated by increased incidents of harassment and hostility against Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
"Pakistan gave foreigners without documents or registration until Nov. 1 to leave or face deportation and arrest. The government has set up deportation centers for undocumented migrants, including an estimated 1.7 million Afghans, and anyone found staying in the country without authorization from would be arrested and sent to one of the centers, the interior ministry has said.
"Amnesty International has verified that in at least seven detention centers, no legal rights are extended to detainees such as the right to a lawyer or communication with family members. Such centers are in violation of right to liberty and a fair trial. Also, no information is made public, making it hard for families to trace their loved ones.
"Since the announcement of the deadline, warnings have been communicated through leaflets, loudspeakers at local mosques and statements that anyone found to be providing accommodation to Afghan refugees without documentation will be fined or arrested.
"There are approximately 200 Afghan journalists at risk in Pakistan according to the Pakistan-Afghan International Forum of Journalists. Asad an Afghan journalist hiding in Pakistan since the Taliban takeover in 2021, said: Even though I entered Pakistan on a valid visa and have applied for renewal, I do not have anything to show the authorities if they turn up at my doorstep. I have stopped sending my children to school for the past two weeks...'
"Asad and his family fled Afghanistan in 2021 when his friends and colleagues were murdered after the Taliban came to power. 'I am on several lists maintained by the Taliban and I am certain I will be killed if I go back,' he said."
Meanwhile, Pakistan justifies this decision by citing its dire economic situation and accusing undocumented Afghans of involvement in terrorism and crime.
Pakistan's caretaker prime minister linked the government's move to expel Afghan refugees and asylum seekers from Pakistan to the inability of Afghanistan's Taliban government to stop extremists, which he claims has led to an "increase in terrorism in Pakistan".
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 (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has increased by 60 percent. The attacks have killed 2,267 people in the country.
Pakistan has shared a list of TTP members with the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as other information, but they have not taken any serious action, he said.
Pakistan's pretext for expelling Afghans due to "increased terrorism" is ironic at best, given Pakistan's decades-long support for the Afghan Taliban.
The government of Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan from its emergence in the 1990s until its return to power in 2021. The Taliban has turned Afghanistan into a hideout for many Islamist terrorist groups, thereby posing a security risk to the entire region, Pakistan included. The terrorism that Pakistan complains about comes from the Taliban in Afghanistan -- that Pakistan supported for decades -- not from the Afghan asylum seekers in Pakistan.
France24 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 terrorists 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) group and their affiliates, noted that "Terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there [in Afghanistan] than at any time in recent history." The panel of experts said, "there are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country."
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 November 2022, the Pakistani Taliban ended a months-long cease-fire with the government of Pakistan, ordering its fighters to resume attacks across the country, where scores of deadly attacks have been blamed on the terror group.
PBS NewsHour reported on November 28, 2022:
"In a statement, the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan said it decided to end the 5-month-old cease-fire after Pakistan's army stepped up operations against them in former northwestern tribal areas and elsewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan."
A 2023 report by the United Nations Security Council said that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has "emboldened" Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, 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 (leader) 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 Balochistan, 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 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 done for decades is to counter terrorists that challenge its own authority while actively supporting other terrorists who challenge other governments – particularly in India and the West. War against radical Islamism or jihad, however, must be a whole struggle. Pakistan's "selective" approach to terrorists is now backfiring. There are no "good jihadist terrorists." Radical Islam and jihadist terrorism of all sorts needs to be neutralized, not exploited by governments for hegemonic agendas. Jihad always destroys liberty, stability, security and lives.
After supporting the Taliban's militancy in Afghanistan for decades, Pakistan is now inflicting collective punishment on hundreds of thousands of Afghans who took shelter in Pakistan from the Taliban's tyranny.
What has caused an increase in terrorism in Pakistan is not Afghan refugees trying to survive there, but Pakistan's own policies that, for decades, have empowered jihadist terrorists both domestically and abroad.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, a research fellow for the Philos Project, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.