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Afghans and Pakistanis; friends turned foes?

Updated Apr 02, 2014 12:09pm

Man mekhahum dar aidna raees-e daulat-e Afghanistan Shawam
[I want to be the president of Afghanistan in the future]’, says Nogreh in front of her class at a girl’s school built of mud walls in Kabul, Afghanistan. This proclamation follows a debate among the girls of the school on why or why not a woman can be the elected head of an Islamic state. To bolster her argument, Nograh says, ‘I was in Pakistan for several years, where Benazir Bhutto, a woman, was once the prime minister’. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a point of no return for Nograh – a point from where she almost loses the argument. One of her classmate retorts, ‘Why do you give the example of Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan? Although she was a woman, she unleashed the Taliban on the women of Afghanistan’.

The above narrative is borrowed from an actual scene from a 2004 Dari movie titled, ‘Panj-e-asar’, [At five in the afternoon]; the first movie to be shot by an Iranian director, Samira Makhmalbaf, in post-Taliban controlled Kabul.

 Movie still from Panj-e-asar.
Movie still from Panj-e-asar.

The anger expressed by the school girls in the movie points towards the events of 1996, when Pakistan, under the premiership of Benazir Bhutto, became the first country to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan – barely a day after it had captured Kabul.

Since the making of this movie, especially so in the past decade, the anger of the Afghan people against Pakistan has increased exponentially. Today, Pakistan is the most negatively viewed country in Afghanistan. While the tit-for-tat exchanges made by the political leaderships of both the countries receive significant media attention, what is rarely canvassed, are the sentiments of the Afghan people and their increasingly negative, rather hostile, perception of Pakistan.

Recently, Asia Foundation, a reputed international development organisation, released the key findings of its ninth and longest running public opinion poll in the country, titled ‘Afghanistan in 2013: A Survey of the Afghan People’. The survey which was released in Washington DC on December 11, 2013, highlighted Afghan public opinion on various critical issues. The report, a highly-telling document, is a must-read for anyone remotely connected to Pakistan’s foreign policy road-map vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

 Afghan protest. -Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Afghan protest. -Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Not surprisingly, Pakistan has been brought up by the respondents at several points over the course of the survey – almost always in an unflattering light. For example, when asked why Afghans might disagree with the goals of the Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs), the third most commonly cited reason was the perception that ‘they work for Pakistan’. This was above more expected reasons like ‘they carry-out suicide bombings’. Similarly, when participants were asked what the two biggest problems facing Afghanistan were, a sizable number of them cited ‘interference from Pakistan’ as one of the key reasons. Alarmingly, this was equal to the percentage of respondents who cited the obvious ‘presence of Taliban’ as a key problem facing Afghanistan. For Pakistan to be bracketed alongside the Taliban as amongst the central disorders plaguing Afghanistan speaks volumes about the evolving Afghan perception.

Over the course of the survey, the field supervisors were asked to note down any newsworthy events or notable observations that they came across during their fieldwork. In the Nooristan province, one of the field supervisors reported, ‘the security conditions were perilous in the Waygal and Bargi Matal of Kamdesh - there were Pakistani Taliban and Arabs in the area who had made lives difficult and dangerous for the local residents.’

Pakistan also fared the lowest in donor recognition. In central Kabul, only 2 per cent of respondents recognised Pakistan’s work as a donor in the areas of educational development and rebuilding of infrastructure and provision of civic amenities. The figure fares even more poorly when compared with the other international players in Afghanistan. For example, the top most recognised donor country was the United States (46 per cent), Japan (24 per cent) as the second-most, and the third spot was shared evenly between India and Germany (both at 16 per cent). Pakistan occupies almost negligible space when it comes to foreign benevolence in the minds of the Afghans.

Another evidence of the rising Afghan anger against Pakistan can be seen on various social media platforms. Despite a low internet penetration rate, with only 2.4 million Afghans (7.7 per cent) out of 31 million having access to the internet through computers or smartphone devices, there still is a sizable population (in absolute terms) that is making its political opinions known online. In fact, of those having internet connectivity, over 74 per cent of them are regular users of social media websites. The Afghan anger on social media can be seen through the content posted on various Facebook pages managed out of Afghanistan, as well as through the comments made by young Afghans. One Afghan social media page that has over 125,000 ‘likes’ and regularly posts articles promoting solidarity among Afghans, recently uploaded a video of former Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. The video titled, ‘That’s how they brainwash you: Pervaiz Musharraf, Pakistani leader, trying to break Afghanistan’ shows Musharraf talking about Afghanistan’s demographics and the high presence of non-Pashtuns in the government. The footage is followed by a sermon in ‘Dari’ which calls upon the Afghans to rise above ethnic lines and focus on national solidarity and unity.

The anger has not just been limited to survey responses and social media posts. On 16 May 2007, after a series of border clashes, hundreds of Afghans took to the streets chanting anti-Pakistan slogans. In October 2011, many Afghans protested against the Pakistan army’s shelling of border towns and on the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The protesters openly accused Pakistan’s intelligence outfit, of plotting Burhanuddin’s murder. More recently, on 8 May 2013, 11 Afghans were killed during an anti-Pakistan protest in Kandahar that turned violent. The protesters, consisting entirely of Afghan youth, held placards with anti-Pakistan slogans.

 Refugee registration in Pakistan. -Photo courtesy of UNHCR
Refugee registration in Pakistan. -Photo courtesy of UNHCR

It is also pertinent to remember that a large number of young Afghans residing in Afghanistan have once lived in Pakistan as refugees (during the Najibullah-era civil war and then when the country went under Taliban rule).Today, 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan. While many in Pakistan view this as an extension of their country’s hospitality, with an implicit expectation from the Afghans to be grateful for their accommodation, the Afghan sentiment is far from one of indebtedness. Aalya, a female civil society leader in Afghanistan says,

‘We lived in Pakistan in Peshawar from 1991 to 2002. My feelings and views about Pakistan have changed drastically in the past few years. While living in Pakistan, and even a few years after moving back, I felt thankful for the hospitality that my family and I received. Increasingly, however, with Pakistan’s interference in our internal politics, I have a sour feeling towards the Pakistani government that is coloring my memories from Pakistan.

'The younger generation has the ability to ultimately distinguish between the Pakistani people and the state. However, the prevalent political narrative in Afghanistan can hardly be described as Pakistan-friendly and this naturally impacts the views of the youth who see the country as directly responsible for most of the ills they we are plagued by today.’

 Afghan refugee boys play on a homemade swing on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. -Photo by AP
Afghan refugee boys play on a homemade swing on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. -Photo by AP

Other Afghans describe the constant discrimination they faced and the fear they felt when stopped or interrogated by security forces. Many claim they were referred to as “Maajara” by the police and often harassed based on their wafer-thin legal status in the country. Najib, an Afghan who lived in Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as a refugee, says:

I could not study beyond grade 10 as a refugee in Pakistan. As refugees, we were not allowed to attend public universities. Only those who were able to bribe the officials or find clever ways of making their identity cards could study further.

Despite bitter personal experiences, many Afghans, like Aalya and Najib, say that their disdain for Pakistan has got little to do with their marginalisation as refugees and far more to do with the fallout from what they call Pakistan’s flawed ‘Strategic Depth’ policy framework. The policy, they say, has nurtured extremist elements as non-state assets, including the Taliban.

Back in the 70’s the Afghans were seen by Pakistanis as sufferers of strife and hailed as ‘the fighters that ousted the Soviets’. Thirty years on, that sentiment no longer perseveres. Pakistanis today view the influx of Afghan refugees with mixed-feelings. In a 2012 interview given to Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN-Asia), Ameer Arif, a local transport company owner, admits that, ‘Afghans worked hard and helped the economy’, but quickly goes onto add, ‘it has been 30 years since they came, and perhaps they should [now] return, given the contest for jobs is tough and many local people need them’.

The 2009 report on Afghan Refugee, issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, also states that ‘official and popular perceptions of (Afghan) refugees have changed in response to altered geo-political realities’. The report goes onto claim that many Pakistanis today associate Afghans with the spate of terrorist attacks happening in their country.

 An Afghan refugee girl in Pakistan. -Photo by AP
An Afghan refugee girl in Pakistan. -Photo by AP

‘Many [Pakistanis] believe Afghans are involved in terrorism or crime’, said Asif Khan, a worker with the NGO Afghan Friends whilst speaking to IRIN in 2012. What Asif was alluding to is actually the general perception that prevails amongst Pakistanis today - that a number of Afghan refugees were largely responsible for the massive importation of illegal arms and narcotics into their country. Pakistanis today feel that the socio-cultural and political turmoil plaguing their country is a direct fall-out of the Afghan-run heroin and Kalashnikov trade.

Last year, whilst delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Dr. Sanaa Alimia, a teaching fellow at the School of Advanced and Oriental Studies (SOAS), summed-up the Pakistani perception of Afghan refugees the best when she described the Afghan refugee image transforming over the decades from one of ‘victims of conflict’ to that of ‘liabilities’. Acknowledging Pakistan’s tremendous support for the Afghans and the hospitality extended to them, Dr. Sanaa Alimia went onto explain that ‘the lack of economic opportunities and education has meant that many Afghan refugees have been forced to become a part of the informal sector, thus resulting in further regional instability’.

Interestingly, many Afghans are also uncomfortable with the return of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s premier. One of Nawaz Sharif’s 1993 election campaign slogans (targeting the Pakistan People’s Party at the time) was ‘you gave up Dhaka, we took Kabul’. Till today, these words are recalled with equal dismay and aghast by Afghans.

Today, the verdict from Afghanistan is loud and clear - the Afghans want to be left alone. They do not want international and regional powers to once again turn their country into a battle ground for their short-lived tactical gains. Their steaming anger, the highest it has ever been, should caution Pakistan as the scenario today is starkly different to what it was in the 90s.

Similarly, the Pakistani public seems to have run out of the love and sympathy it once espoused for Afghan refugees. From their perspective, the Afghan fall-out has been detrimental to Pakistan’s socio-cultural and political landscape – with drugs, weaponry and terrorism as its nagging legacy. Pakistanis feel that the undue criticism hurled at it from across the Durand line reeks of ungratefulness and only further maligns them at the global stage.

With multiple countries laying claim to their heroic contribution in Afghanistan’s progress, including the US and India, Pakistanis feel that they have been overlooked despite playing host to the single-largest refugee population in the world. With the US and Nato troops withdrawal eminent, many Pakistanis harbour an unspoken desire to see the Afghans out of their borders and to put an end to this uncomfortable and long-expired relationship. They would rather remain as cordial neighbors – like they once were. How realistic and possible that desire is ultimately rests on the shoulders of both the country’s political and military leadership.