Afghan refugees - the face of Pakistan's troubled future
No need to go to the Malakand Agency or Maulana Samiul Haq's famed redoubt in Akora Khattak to look at the future. The future is all around us, with poisoned fangs pressing its claims on the decaying present. Parts of Chakwal are turning slowly but surely into Afghan localities. The outskirts of the town are pockmarked by Afghan tents. The richer Afghans dominate sections of the main bazaar. The poorer sort push streetcarts or work as day labourers. It is a common sight seeing their children pick rags.
From which of Afghanistan's provinces have these people come? How many are they? No one knows, least of all the administration which has not the measure of this insidious diaspora.Nor is Chakwal an exception. A vast Afghan refugee influx is changing the colour of the entire north Punjab plain.
These Kabuliwallahs are not seasonal migrants or 'Powindahs' driving their flocks south for the winter and then returning to their upland homes when the weather turns warm. They are here to stay, their urge to do so strengthened by the memory of the misery they have fled and the relative plenty they have found here.
Is Pakistan a poor country? Few Afghans, or Bangladeshis for that matter, would agree. Beginning with the great Mahmud of Gazna, Afghans have come to these parts as conquering dynasts. For the first time in history they have entered as termites, infiltrating the woodwork and spreading not by open conquest but relentless encroachment.
And just as tired wood is helpless before an onslaught of termites, the weak structure of the Pakistani state is helpless before this unheralded invasion. The Durand Line is a thing of the past. As before the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Afghanistan has entered the heartland of Punjab. Is this a call to xenophobia? It could be read like one although it is more a despairing cry over the debilitating cancer that has laid Pakistan low. Today we are in no position to count our own people much less make an accurate count of the Afghans who have pitched tent in our towns and villages.
There is a Pakistani diaspora in the Gulf and much further afield. But it is not running loose because the countries wherein it is to be found are better at keeping count of foreigners and of enforcing their own laws. Pakistan by contrast has become an open sieve which anyone can enter and leave at will. Worse, it's also become open territory for anyone to settle in.
Iran kept its Afghan refugees under control. General Zia, the source of so many of our sorrows, let them have the freedom of the country. The consequences are now upon us in the form of an Afghan invasion more permanent than any before it. It is also an ongoing invasion with Afghanistan's ongoing troubles sweeping fresh waves of refugees into Pakistan.
The Afghan invasion whose ravages we are witnessing rests on an unspoken alliance with the clerical forces of Pakistan. How this equation benefits the Afghans is obvious: it provides them with a congenial and friendly environment. But it also benefits the holy fathers of Pakistani fundamentalism who get a ready-made constituency for their cause. Let's hope the barricades never rise in Pakistan. If they do, be not surprised if the holy fathers and the Afghans who have made Pakistan their home make common cause. Nor is this all. The bedrock of this alliance is formed by elements within the Pakistani establishment which espouse the Taliban cause in Afghanistan and that of jehad in Kashmir.
If only what was at stake was the future of Afghanistan or Kashmir. It is not. At stake is the future of Pakistan itself. And the question is: can Pakistan get over the hangover induced by the Afghan jehad and begin concentrating on essentials? The administrative form of the state is in ruins. The state can neither maintain law and order nor collect adequate revenue. It also is unable to reverse the Afghan refugee tide.
The ability to distinguish between the essential and non-essential seems beyond us. Which is why for the sake of secondary or even chimerical goals we are imperilling our national well-being. We fought the Afghan war as a U.S. lackey. The consequence of that is upon us in the form of the Afghan invasion entrenched on our soil. What will be the consequence of the jehadi line in Kashmir? It has already led to the growing voice of the religious parties within the country.
With what credibility then can Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, talk of asking the religious parties to remain within the law when their jehadi pursuits endow them with a mythical status which no sheriff of the law dare touch? Unregistered human beings the state is unable to count or control. How can the state get hold of unregistered weapons? Pakistan's problem is not democracy vs dictatorship. It is to restore the state's vitality.
Only when the state's moorings are thus secured can it tackle the problems of health, education and development. How will democracy, of the kind we have had, aid this endeavour? The problems of Pakistan have gone beyond democracy, beyond Benazir Bhutto or the return of Nawaz Sharif. The country is in deep crisis and the times call for stern action. It is here that the army's deepest failure lies.
Democracy? The very word makes the stomach queasy. No Pakistani variant of democracy can meet the challenge of the Afghan suburbs which spread before me as I go for my evening walks along the Thaneel road. But strongman rule? All we seem to get are tinpot variations of it. Which makes it uncertain how we'll tackle the future.
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