Posted by: Christian | April 10, 2007

Afghanistan’s Nightmare Scenario: Pakistani Civil War Refugees

April 11, 2007.

While Afghanistan may be making tentative (and problematic) progress in rebuilding society and governance, much still hinges on events in neighbouring Pakistan. This issue has been discussed ad nauseum by pretty much everybody. But imagine, if you will, the absolute worst for Pakistan: state disintegration, internecine warfare, Sunni-Shia fighting, Baluchi versus whoever tries to retain their territory, death squads, total chaos, etc…

Obviously, this would have extremely negative consequences for Afghanistan, both economically and politically (although it may deflect Pakistani-based Jihadis into a more inward direction towards domestic rivals than they are at the moment). But the most serious consequence would be the flow of refugees into Afghanistan. Think I’m joking? Do you think it is completely implausible that refugees would think of Afghanistan as any sort of safe haven? Well, believe it or not, there is a recent precedent: I present to you the Tajikistan Civil War.

Photo: Things going downhill in early 1990s Tajikistan. When you think you may be killed tomorrow with your family you will go anywhere tonight. Even Afghanistan.

Tajik Civil War

According to the UNHCR approximately 100,000 refugees fled into northern Afghanistan in an exodus that started in late 1992. As late as the end of 1995 nearly 20,000 refugees remained in three main camps across northern Afghanistan. Though it should be noted that the northern parts of Afghanistan were relatively stable until the Taliban showed up.

What would make the theoretical Pakistan civil war so much worse is the huge population difference. Tajikistan has about 7 million people. Pakistan has about 165 million. Furthermore, many refugees from Tajikistan were able to go to Russia and Uzbekistan. Where exactly would the Pakistani refugees go? Going to India has some obvious problems, though international pressure would likely compel India to let in a certain amount. But don’t expect many old Muhajir Pakistanis to be enthusiastic about that exit strategy. Of course, wealthy Pakistanis and those with British or European passports would be gone in quick order. And the Arab countries? How many Pakistani refugees would they take? The recent Syrian and Jordanian hospitality towards Iraqi Arabs would probably not be the model. How about Iran? I don’t think that they would be enthusiastic about Sunnis and Baluchis pouring across the border. And could Pakistan’s Shias (Shiites) even make it that far? Iran is already quite refugee-weary. It has recently expressed the wish for the Afghan refugees there to return within a year.

So that leaves Afghanistan as an option for a panicked flight from Pakistan, especially for those in the north. I would expect many in the 15% of the Pakistani population that are Pashtun would look towards Afghanistan. It’s safe to assume that many people in Afghanistan would have some serious reservations about hosting refugees from Pakistan. There are some obvious reasons for this and some not so obvious:

#1.  A drain on already strained resources in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is barely coping at the moment. How can a “post-conflict” country of 30 million host refugees from a country of 165 million?

#2.  International humanitarian fatigue. Is there really any willingness on the part of the donor countries to give any more? Any aid given would likely cut into what little the people of Afghanistan are getting at the moment. 

#3. Changing of the ethnic balance. With Pashtuns being maybe 40% of the population, a candidate for president must also appeal to non-Pashtuns. With an influx of Pashtuns from Pakistan a candidate could be free to ignore non-Pashtuns (of course assuming the refugees stay).

#4.  Refugee camp militancy. The refugees would likely bring some militant political/Jihadi party affiliations with them.    

     Look at this ethnic map and try to imagine who might go where.

ethnic map

Hopefully this scenario never occurs. But there should be a contingency plan for what could be one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since WWII. And as unlikely as this is, there is no harm in formulating a plan to deal with refugees from a Pakistani civil war. There were no contingency plans for the collapse of the Soviet Union nor for the Rwandan genocide nor for the collapse of the levies in New Orleans. It wouldn’t hurt for some money to be spent mapping out an international response plan to this scenario. International assistance would be needed. Afghanistan would not be able to effectively seal its border as Switzerland did in WWII.

Once again, hopefully this scenario will never occur. It’s just that Pakistan looks like it has such a bleak political future. Neither over-optimism nor ignoring the possibilities should rule the day.  


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