Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations: Making Sense of The Tension, Origins of The Taliban and Why Afghan Refugees Are Being Sent Home

The diplomatic relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has diminished significantly in the recent years, as each country accuses the other of harbouring armed opposition. Pakistan has chosen to expel hundreds of thousands Afghan refugees back to their home nation, labelled as the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times. Many of these refugees found solace on Pakistani soil during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan rallied support for the anti-communist Mujahideen forces with the ambition of overthrowing the communist regime in Kabul, while continuing to accept refugees. The aftermath had resulted with over two million refugees moving to the North-Western province of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as the Federally Approved Tribal Areas between the two nations. While their roots originate in Afghanistan, the cultural identity of East Afghans and North Western Pakistani’s largely remains the same.


Alas, the once prosperous relations have deteriorated after Pakistan chose to support the Afghan Talibans who overtook the Afghan government in 1997. They were widely believed to have received extensive support by Pakistan’s military and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) as an attempt to establish a regime that would be favourable to Pakistan. However, Pakistan states that it dropped all support for the Taliban after the September 11 attacks. In modern day, the countries still are on heated terms over the multiple Islamic insurgencies that inhabit the mountainous, Pashtun land between Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Islamabad argues that Kabul has not done enough to stop armed militants coming over to Pakistan, resulting in mass deportation, followed by closing of two borders between the nations. Currently, Pakistan demands that Afghanistan takes action against the 76 members of the Taliban that reside in Afghan territory, with many linked to the multiple bombings around Pakistan.  Pakistan has seen one of the most violent weeks in recent memory, with more than 100 people have been killed in a series of attacks around the country. Organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a faction of the Pakistani Taliban known as Jamaat ul-Ahrar continue to terrorize both nations – with the most recent bombings taking place  inside of a Sufi Shrine in Southern Pakistan that killed 88 people. Ayaaz Wazir, the former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, argues that the reason why Afghani authorities are purposely turning a blind eye, is to create more leverage over Pakistan. He greatly implied this was, in fact, a retort to the support the Afghani Taliban received from Pakistan in the late 90s.


Two decades on, there are two distinguishable Taliban presences in the region. One labelled as Afghan Taliban, and the other Pakistan Taliban. Davood Moradian, the Director-General of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, has largely refuted Wazir’s claim. He believes that the dispute originates from Pakistan understanding the clear distinction between the two Taliban, yet only allowing their government to attempt to deal with the domestic variation. “Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have found themselves victim to acts of terrorism – yet their disjointed approach only hampers any hope of a resolution toward the growing insurgencies. The military of Pakistan is only concerned at the domestic front.” The policies in place by the Pakistani government currently do not effectively deal with the growing concern of both Pakistani and Afghan talibans. Pakistan hopes that closing borders will seal some of the leaks pouring over into either country in the short run.


After NATO’s relations with Pakistan worsened in 2011 due to a unfriendly attack near the border, Pakistan responded by suspending all NATO operations, even evicting the US air force from the Shamsi air force base. The squabble was resolved peacefully when the United States formally apologized to Pakistan. However, in 2013, the joint military relations between NATO and Pakistan were strengthened following NATO’s recognition of Pakistan’s important role in the region as an enabler to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. NATO’s occupation in Afghanistan dates to 2003, while a new operation that trains Afghan soldiers to hold against extremists in the East began in January of 2015. In an attempt to fight the extremists, many drone attacks now take place across the border, and often on Pakistani soil. Drone missions are secretive and have been widely criticized in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where locals and officials have blamed them for unnecessary loss of civilian life. Wazir urges both governments that in this instance, fire will not beat fire.


“Through the barrel of a gun, there is no foreseeable solution to our problem. There needs to be a joint action, even with the help of international forces. The only thing that is stopping is the lack of political will on both sides to target militant groups that target the other side of the border.” While Kabul points fingers at Islamabad and vice-versa, the terrorism will continue with no end in sight. The level of threat perception internally and externally between the two nations has grown to be so hostile that a coalition is desperately needed to bring an end to the violence that has been present in the region since the mid-90s. The Pakistani government needs to instill policies that will hamper both Afghan and Pakistan Talibans to finally break free of the stigma that they are against the government of Afghanistan. The current mindset and policies do not allow Pakistan to tackle both set of insurgencies. Whereas the Afghan government needs to remain accountable for the militants that illegally cross the border into Pakistan to wreak havoc around the country. Many Taliban leaders have snuck into the country and are consolidating power in Pakistan, hence leading to the massive deportation for the safety of the home nation.


To extent on the mass forced return, reports say there are 750,000 undocumented refugees currently present in Pakistan, many of whom have been treated with abuse and coercion in order to leave the country. Human Rights Watch criticized the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), accusing it of complicity in the alleged abuse. The UNHCR points to political situation between the two nations as drivers behind the complex situation, as well as the changing attitude of the Afghan refugees that fuel the abuse. Many of them do not have any ties to the Taliban, and have made Pakistan their home for over a generation. The harsh nature is reflected by the quick decision by Pakistan to close the borders down and to return refugees to Afghanistan due to the security threat they potentially pose.The deportation seems to have come without much planning nor with a warning, though the roots had been in place for several years. At least 1.5 Million people have been internally displaced since 2009.


The impact also affects the business community of Pakistan, with businessmen in the region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa worrying about an estimated 80% loss of skilled manpower in industry on the Pakistani side of the border. The infrastructure clearly was not ready for the loss of skilled workers, further implying that the deportation was not well thought out. There is a lack of effort and support for peace and security before the deportation takes place, which further jeopardizes the livelihood of the refugees. The health and education infrastructure as well as the job and economic opportunities within both nations are extremely broken and very limited. Reintegration into Afghan society is also a major concern, with refugees unwilling to return back to Afghanistan without guarantee of land, shelter, and basic services, which is still being processed by the Afghan government.


 It will require severe dialogue between the political leaders of the two nations to come to a conclusion to the many issues of refugees and extremists that have halted the growth of the region since the 90s.  For now, Pakistan continues to forcibly deport refugees as a means to halt Taliban activity within their nation, while the situation grows increasingly bleak for the Afghans who have made Pakistan their home for over 40 years.

S.M. Murtasim Shah

An Economics and Political Science Student at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Special interest in cases of Refugee Crises, War and Conflict: notably around the Middle East and the Indian Sub-continent.
S.M. Murtasim Shah

About S.M. Murtasim Shah

An Economics and Political Science Student at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Special interest in cases of Refugee Crises, War and Conflict: notably around the Middle East and the Indian Sub-continent.