Afghans Are No Outsiders To The Lands Of Modern-Day Pakistan

Afghans are not the foreign ‘other’ and have been part of the life of this region for centuries. Islam developed in South Asia largely at the hands of Afghan incomers

Afghans Are No Outsiders To The Lands Of Modern-Day Pakistan

As Pakistan’s economy has spiralled ever downwards, more and more Pakistanis have abandoned their country. In 2022, 832,339 Pakistanis voted with their feet and left their country. This year things are not much better: as of September 2023 633,108 Pakistanis had emigrated abroad. Pakistan is suffering a brain drain. It appears to be odd that in such a situation when the Pakistani government is experiencing a net outflow of people, the authorities are overly concerned about deporting people. Nearly one and half million Pakistanis have left their country since 2022, yet interim interior minister Mr Sarfraz Bugti and Mr Kakar interim Prime Minister have nothing better to do than deport people. Perhaps we should not blame Bugti Sahib since numbers may not be a strong point for him, since he did confess in a 2018 interview that his least favourite subjects at school were maths and chemistry. 

The expulsion of Afghan refugees by the interim government of Pakistan is a highly contentious human rights issue. As we watch on our TV screens Israel bombing and massacring Palestinians with a view to forcible expulsion, we find Pakistan expelling longstanding Afghan residents of Pakistan. Such foolish behaviour by a country stands out, even among other such cases. Indeed one case was the Ugandan regime of Idi Amin that ousted the East African Asians from Uganda. The Ugandan economy subsequently took a nose dive. As to what the implications of the removal of enterprising Afghans from Pakistan will be, remains to be seen. 

Afghans have been a feature of Pakistani life since long before the mass of refugees started to arrive after the April 1978 communist coup in Afghanistan. The fact remains that many of Pakistan’s Afghan guests have been with the country for more than 40 years. They are no longer refugees but part and parcel of Pakistani society. Yet, before their very eyes, Afghans have watched as the Pakistani authorities demolish their homes. The Pakistani interim government of Prime Minister Kakar and Interior Minister Bugti seeks to eject Afghans from Pakistan en masse to an Afghanistan – a place where the deportees in many cases have never even set foot. The reasoning given by Mr Bugti, the interior minister, is that most terrorism in Pakistan has been committed by Afghans. Therefore, it appears Mr Bugti wishes to engage in collective punishment of 1.7 million Afghans for the misdeeds of a few people who allegedly came from Afghanistan and committed a crime. This is a fundamental violation of international humanitarian law and relies on a similar logic to Israel’s collective abuse of the Palestinian people for their acts of resistance. 

The terrorism that Pakistan experiences is a legacy of the Musharaf-era policies of violence by supporting the ‘war on terror,’ attacking the Lal Masjid and the killing of Akbar Bugti. The consequence was that armed terror groups like the TTP began to fight the state. The sad truth is that when terrorists of the TTP are captured, they are interviewed on Pakistani TV like celebrities. That certainly was the case with the spokesperson of the TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who subsequently escaped justice in mysterious circumstances. The fact that Ehsanullah Ehsan was not brought to justice reflected poorly on the Pakistani state. The continuing failure of the rule of law and accessible justice are other factors that lead people to be disillusioned with the Pakistani state. 

Just as Musharaf committed human rights abuses, we now have Bugti and Kakar running the show and jeopardising our longstanding relations with our Afghan neighbours. We need constructive relations with our neighbours and the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ policies of the present Government are going to poison matters for many years to come. 

To look through the Orientalist perspective at Afghans by turning Afghan people into the Oriental ‘other’ is a folly. Afghans are not the foreign ‘other’ and have been part of the life of this region for centuries. Islam developed in South Asia largely at the hands of Afghan incomers from the Ghaznavid period onwards. Hazrat Ali Hujwiri or Data Ganj Baksh as he is more famously known, came with the Ghaznavid forces to Punjab. Afghan Sufis helped spread Islam with the famous shrine at Hassan Abdal of the Kandahari Sufi named Abdal, better known as Baba Wali in his native Afghanistan. In historic Multan reposes Shah Yousuf Gardez, yet another Afghan Sufi who brought Islam to the masses at Multan. Today fortunately Shah Yousuf Gardezi cannot be deported from Multan since that would desecrate his splendid tomb and break Multani hearts.

In 1761 Ahmed Shah Durrani came down to Peshawar valley to answer the call of jihad at the request of Shah Waliullah to save the Mughal Empire and Islam in India from the Mahrattas. The Mahrattas met their defeat at Panipat, from the pearl of pearls, Ahmed Shah Durrani. The Durrani Empire, which encompassed all of modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan including Kashmir, stretched out into Meshed in Iran and across the Amu Darya into Central Asia. The Durrani Empire was the second largest Muslim Empire after the Ottomans. Later as the Durrani Empire went into decline and Runjeet Singh’s empire arose to displace the Afghans from Punjab and Peshawar, an Indian named Syed Ahmed Shahid Barelvi raised the standard of jihad. Many Kandahari Mujahideen joined him as Syed Ahmed Shahid Barelvi travelled through Afghanistan to raise Afghan support before entering the Peshawar valley. In fact, the Afghans have always looked out for their South Asian Muslim kin. 

Zahir Shah was King of Afghanistan at Pakistani independence and he voiced his concern about the fate of South Asian Muslims during the bloody partition violence, when he stated at the August Afghan independence day parade in 1947, “Every country is looking after national interests. The Indonesians, the Dutch, the Arabs; and when we see India in its present state we feel for our co-religionists. I have sent messages of greetings to both Pakistan and India. Our brothers are Pakistanis and we will help them even with our blood and with the sword.” In 1947 as the Pakhtun tribes stormed Kashmir to try and save the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir from the pogroms that the Hindu Raja was inflicting on the majority Muslims – many Afghan Pashtuns joined their Pakistani Pashtun brothers to struggle against the Hindu forces. 

In the 1950s, Pakistani diplomat Mohammed Aslam Khan Khattak states that the Afghan monarch was ready to form a union with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khattak was the leading mover on the Pakistani side liaising with the Afghan monarch to forge unification. However, with the usurpation of political power by General Mohammed Ayub Khan, things stalled. The General, had served in the British Indian army and had a thoroughly British colonial mentality towards Afghans. During the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars the Pakistani military did not need to station troops on the Afghan border because the Afghan monarchy was a trusted neighbour. This is despite the dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the issue of Pashtunistan, an independent Pashtun state for Pakistan’s Pashtuns.

As each day passes, Pakistan becomes more and more like its nemesis India. We witnessed horrific attacks this year on Christian communities in the Punjab, and now Pakistan turns on the Afghans, the infamous ‘Northern invaders’ of the subcontinent. Similarly, the Indians followed the same pattern in Assam against alleged ‘illegal’ Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. Pakistan orders these ‘illegal’ people out of the country and holds the Afghan ‘illegals’ in ‘collection centres.’ The Indian Government by comparison excluded nearly 2 million Muslims from the citizenship list and families were split with one spouse being detained whilst the other was free. At the same time the Indian High Court in Bihar in 2021 requested that the Government set up a reporting mechanism for ‘illegals’. Mr Bugti, good fellow that he is, has had the insight to ask for public reporting of Afghan residents to the authorities, for Imams to report members of their congregation who are Afghans and landlords are denied permission to rent properties to Afghan people. 

In 1920 many people from what is now Pakistan joined the Hijrat movement. Certain religious figures like Maulana Azad had given the call supporting Hijrat. The nearest Muslim country was of course Afghanistan. Many from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, sold their homes at low prices and travelled to the land of Islam to avoid living under British rule. The Afghan ruler at the time, King Amanullah had even toyed with the idea of declaring himself Caliph. However, Afghanistan did not have the resources to shoulder the burden of thousands upon thousands of Muslims from South Asia. Therefore the Hijrat movement ended with failure and people returning to their regions of origin. The scenes we see today of trucks laden with departing Afghans laden with their worldly goods, are reminiscent of that hijrat movement, when people went with high hopes to Afghanistan. Today those who successfully made hijrat to Pakistan are now sent to Afghanistan. 

Bugti and Kakar callously eject people who have lived peaceably as constructive citizens in Pakistan. The Afghans in Pakistan are people who have had two generations of their family born and bred in Pakistan. Pakistan demolishes Afghan homes, as Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and livelihoods. Pakistan still perversely offers a promise of support to the oppressed Palestinians in the form of educational scholarships and accommodation. However, given the fate of the Afghan refugees, which refugee would now want to put their trust in the Pakistani state. 

The tide is turning against refugees globally. In other parts of the Muslim world there are attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey. Elements in the Turkish public are showing outright public hostility to Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis. These three nationalities are depicted in the popular Turkish imagination as lusting after young Turkish women. Nationalism in the face of the ‘ummah and Islamic empathy’ is growing. We no longer recognise our universal humanity. For that we are so much the poorer. We are not unlike the brothers of Prophet Yusuf who cast Yusuf into a deep well, for we have destroyed peoples’ homes and ejected them into the cold of an Afghan winter. People in our region have been Muslim for over a thousand years yet do not grasp the simple concept idea that Allah did not make us into tribes and nations to be hostile to one another, but to befriend each other. We befriended our Afghan neighbours and they became our brothers, then along came a man with some misguided bugbear, Mr Bugti and his accomplice Mr Kakar, who in a cack handed discriminatory gesture threw our compatriots out across the Durand line. It is indeed odd that we are so hung up over a line, an uncouth invader drew for us and behave as though migration is forbidden. In so doing Pakistan is behaving in a manner worse than European countries with respect to refugees. In most European countries refugees were able to become citizens. While Pakistani citizenship law allows for nationality to be given by birth to those born in Pakistan, the Pakistani government has failed to issue passports to those Afghans with Pakistani birth certificates. 

Umer Ijaz Gilani, partner at Law and Policy Chambers. is a Pakistani lawyer who fought a case before the High Court for an Afghan client named Fazl Haq who was born in Pakistan. Fazl Haq is entitled to Pakistani nationality by virtue of birth. Mr Gilani has stated that “The Court has clarified the law, which is in our favour. And directed the government to decide our citizenship case accordingly.” However implementation remains outstanding. Gilani Sahib adds that the Government has not sought to appeal the decision “which shows that even the government doesn't deny the legal correctness of our position. The rest is power play.” One can only wonder how many Afghans entitled to Pakistani nationality by virtue of birth have been removed from Pakistan by the interim Government. Worryingly Mr Gillani tweeted a few days ago: 

“Just got a phone call from a second generation Pakistani Pashtun businessman from Karachi. He's raising kids there, third generation citizens. Says he feels unsafe in his neighbourhood. What if he got picked up and shipped to Afghanistan without getting a hearing? Almost cried.”

Pakistani Barrister Maqsooma Bokhari who appears in the Supreme Court, questioned what basis the interim Government had to remove Afghans from Pakistan. The function of an interim Government is simply to hold the fort until the new Government is elected. Deportation policy or any other policy is, according to Barrister Bokhari, not usually within the remit of an interim Government. 

Given the path chosen by Bugti and Kakar, all that remains for us now is to fully expunge ourselves of our Afghan neighbours by returning the bones of Data Ganj Baksh and those of Abdal from Hassan Abdal to the Afghans. Then we can decide what Mr Bugti and Mr Kakar want us to do with our Islamic beliefs which the Afghans imparted to our forefathers. Our large neighbour to the South tells us that we were all Hindus before the ‘Northern invaders’ disturbed the Hindu Raj and its pantheon of Gods with the idea of the one God. Following the logic of Messrs Bugti and Kakar, let us do away with this Afghan import of Islam and lead us to embracing the faith of our ancestors. 

Choudhry Rehmat Ali coined the phrase Pakistan. The ‘P’ in Pakistan stands for Punjab, the ‘A’ for Afghan, and ‘K’ for Kashmir. Today Bugti and Kakar have rubbed out the ‘A’ for Afghan. What would Choudhry Rehmat Ali think about this state of affairs? In fact he would not be turning in his grave with surprise, because the promise of Pakistan was still born. Choudhry Rehmat Ali experienced the disappointment of Pakistan first hand. Pakistan’s PM Liaquat Ali had Choudhry Rehmat Ali expelled from Pakistan shortly after he arrived in Pakistan.

Afghans are a dynamic multilingual people speaking Persian, Pashto, Urdu and English and in quite a few cases, some other European language. These are people who fled Soviet massacres, escaping attacks by troops or helicopter gunships as they made their way to the relative safety of Pakistan. In many respects, hearing the accounts of Afghan flight to Pakistan reminded me of the tragic Partition stories from 1947, of the refugee caravans attacked and slaughtered as they attempted to make it to the elusive land of the pure. We need to build bridges with neighbours rather than walls or fences. Walls and fences are for those with an exclusionary Trump mentality and have never prevented ‘terrorism’. To prevent terrorism, you need to tackle the root causes. The daring outbreak from the Gaza concentration camp shows that fences, walls, tanks and automated machine guns triggered by motion sensors are no guarantor of safety. 

The costly fence built by Islamabad along the Pakistan and Afghan frontier now divides tribesman from fellow tribesman on the Durand Line - Shinwari and Mohmand exist on both sides of the line. In 2001 on the Afghan side of the border as I waited for the Frontier Corps to open the gates to Pakistan I read a quote ascribed to Jinnah above a panel atop the twin blue gates to Pakistan, “No power on earth can divide us” the quote was dated July 1948. It was an ironic message indeed when you stand in Afghanistan looking at the closed gates to Pakistan, which do very much ‘divide us’.

Three young beautiful Afghan girls of about 3-6 years old peered with childhood curiosity towards the blue gates which stood dividing the road between two nations. I guessed they were sisters, since they were together and had similar white complexions and brown hair. The red dress of the oldest girl added a touch of colour to an otherwise drab scene. From time to time the girl in red would walk up to the blue border gates and peer between the gap in the middle of the gates at the land of the pure beyond. The girl in red mainly stood obediently besides a woman in a brown chador who squatted to the side of the road. They were a small female group among hundreds of waiting Afghan males. My Pakistan-born Afghan companion remarked looking at the crowds on the road, “It is like they are in a prison and want to escape”. As the blue painted gates to Pakistan opened, the crowd of Afghans surged forward with high hopes. I wondered what happened to that little girl in red with her two younger sisters waiting so patiently to enter the land of the pure. However, along with her sisters and her mother, that little girl in red shalwar kameez had been swallowed up by the immense sea of humanity surging forwards towards those lacklustre blue gates symbolising entry to Pakistan.

On that sunny day, the crowd was to be met with an ungracious reception as vicious blows rained down upon them from the Frontier Corp troops. The Frontier Corps men wielded plastic hose pipes which had been chopped up into short segments to use as whips. The Afghan, was the unwelcome other in Musharaf’s Pakistan. Jinnah took the overly optimistic view about Pak-Afghan relations that “no power on earth can divide us” – but Jinnah had not met Mr Bugti and Mr Kakar who are all set to destroy the little chemistry that exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The writer is the author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires