AS Afghanistan slips back into chaos with a rapid Taliban advance, the possibility of refugees spilling over into neighbouring states is becoming stronger. Pakistan, which has hosted millions of Afghans over the past four decades and counting, is rightfully concerned at the prospect of having to accommodate a new wave of displaced Afghans as its western neighbour descends into fully fledged warfare. According to reports, due to fighting over the past month, more than 22,000 families have fled Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold. As the deputy governor of Kandahar province put it, “the negligence of some security forces, especially the police, has made way for the Taliban”. This basically sums up the dilemma of Afghanistan; as the Western-backed Afghan government’s security forces are unable to defend their country, the Taliban are scoring victory after victory, with Kabul’s foreign friends having lost interest in the Afghanistan theatre. While earlier, Afghans had fled to Tajikistan to escape violence, considering Kandahar’s closeness to Pakistan, this country may well be faced with a new influx. This is despite the fact that the state has made clear that it cannot host more Afghan refugees. The foreign minister has indicated this more than once. However, the truth is that as unready and unwilling as Pakistan is for a new wave, it may have to face one anyway if things get worse in Afghanistan. The state has said it will not refer to fresh arrivals as ‘refugees’ but as ‘externally displaced Afghans’.
The fact is that beyond changing the nomenclature of Afghan refuge-seekers, the state must be ready for the worst-case scenario. Some media reports quote Pakistani diplomats in Afghanistan as saying that around 1m people may be affected by the post-US exit violence, while a government committee has estimated that between 500,000 to 700,000 people may be headed to Pakistan in case of conflict. In such a scenario, keeping the new arrivals in camps near the border seems to be the best option, as allowing more refugees into the cities will cause major security and economic problems. If such an eventuality occurs, the international community must work with Pakistan to help feed and house displaced Afghans. Meanwhile, the Americans should stop their bombing campaign and instead push the Kabul government to hammer out a peace deal with the Taliban. In the absence of such an arrangement, the fallout for Afghans as well as neighbouring states will be grim.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021