How can Pakistan conquer Afghanistan

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Sanaa Alimia

Dr. Sanaa Alimia is a postdoctoral fellow at the Leibniz Center Moderner Orient, Berlin. Her research focuses on Afghan refugees and urban poor in Pakistan.

About three million Afghans live in Pakistan. What events triggered your migration to Pakistan? How does Pakistan deal with these migrants and what is known about their living conditions? An overview.

Islamabad, Pakistan: Refugee men from Afghanistan perform a traditional dance at a UNHCR event on World Refugee Day 2018. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The media and politics speak of a refugee crisis in Europe. Most of the refugees in the world do not live in Europe, but in Asia, Africa, the Arab region and South America. They are either internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their home countries or live as refugees in neighboring countries. Most of these host countries are among the poorer countries in the world. The presence of internally displaced persons and refugees strains their state resources and local infrastructures and can contribute to social and political tensions.

Afghans are one of the largest groups of asylum seekers in Europe today, but most of them have lived in neighboring Pakistan and Iran since the 1970s [1]. This post gives an overview of the history of Afghans in Pakistan. It provides a historical account of cross-border migrations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and outlines Pakistani policies and laws regarding Afghan refugees. He also sheds light on the demographics of the Afghan population in Pakistan and gives insights into their current living conditions.

The history of Afghan migration to Pakistan

Historically, there have always been movements of individuals and groups across today's border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is because groups like Pashtuns, Hazara, and Gujjar can be found on both sides of the border who belong to one ethnic group and speak a common language. When the border between Afghanistan and British India (known as the "Durand Line") was negotiated under British colonial rule in 1893, a flowing, semi-autonomous geographic "buffer zone", the so-called Tribal Areas, arose on the British Indian side. [2] In 1947, after independence and the division of British India into the two new nation states India and Pakistan, Pakistan took over this flowing border and buffer zone. It was renamed FATA (Federally Administred Tribal Areas). Until March 2018, the FATA region remained outside the control of the Pakistani Constitution (Article 247). In practice, this meant that it was difficult to regulate cross-border population movements. Between 1947 and the 1970s, most population movements included only a few thousand nomads, traders and families with historical connections on both sides of the border. It was not until the 1970s, when the political conditions in Afghanistan changed, especially with the invasion of the Soviet Union, that tens of thousands and later millions of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan.

The political situation in Afghanistan: more than 40 years of conflict

1973-1978: Daoud Khan's government
In 1973, the Afghan monarch Zahir Shah Shah, who ruled from 1933-1973, was overthrown in a coup by his cousin and military leader Daoud Khan (in power 1973-1978). The coup was followed by aggressive, socialist-inspired state centralization. In response, several thousand Afghans emigrated to Pakistan and a smaller group with sufficient resources to Western Europe and North America.

1978-1979: The rise of the DVPA
In the 1970s, the Communist Democratic People's Party of Afghanistan (DVPA) developed into a major player in Afghanistan. In April 1978 she overthrew Daoud Khan in the Saur Revolution. The DVPA pursued an even more radical and violently enforced program of state centralization and land reforms. This met with considerable opposition across the country. More people migrated to Pakistan, so that by the end of 1979 there were already 400,000 Afghans living there. [3]

1979-1988: The Soviet-Afghan War
In December 1979 the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan and started a war. The DVPA had previously asked the Soviet Union for support to put down resistance within the country. A massive humanitarian crisis followed. By the end of the war in 1988, around four to five million Afghans had sought refuge in Pakistan. In addition, around three million Afghans fled to Iran. More than half of the pre-war 13 million Afghan population was now in exile. [4]

The Pakistani government welcomed both Afghans and the porous border as it sought political influence in Afghanistan. This interest was driven by a desire to overcome the tensions between the two states that had developed since the founding of Pakistan in 1947. The Afghan government consistently rejected the legitimacy of the border established at that time (Durand Line). The Afghan state apparatus and the ruling elite were dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group. Against this background, Pakistan looked with concern at its own Pashtun population in the north-west of the country. Some of its members had historical ties to the Afghan state and wanted to advance their own political agenda with a view to establishing an autonomous nation state "Pashtunistan". In addition, Pakistan was closely allied with the United States, for whom the victory over the Soviet Union had been a priority since the beginning of the Cold War. Therefore, Pakistan, the USA and their allies supported the Afghan mujahideen ("holy warriors"): political Islamists who lived in exile in Pakistan and fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

Source text

Excerpt from an interview by the author with a former Mujahideen fighter who lives in a refugee camp in Peshawar (2014)

"During the jihad [Soviet-Afghan war] we had so much attention from the world. There was so much money in the refugee camps and so much support from the US, [West] Germany, Pakistan and the Arab [Gulf] countries . But now we have been left alone and are told to return to Afghanistan. "
1989-1992: End of the Soviet-Afghan war and beginning of the civil war
In 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. However, this did not mean the end of the conflict. When the various groups of the mujahideen returned to Afghanistan and asserted competing claims to power, a bitter civil war broke out. In 1992 the Mujahideen overthrew the DVPA regime and persecuted former civil servants. This resulted in new migrations to Pakistan and Iran.

1992-2001: Civil War and Rise of the Taliban
During the civil war, the Taliban managed to conquer parts of the country. The Taliban had a firm grip on Afghanistan between 1995 and 1998. Their rise led to the brutal persecution of the Ismaili Shiite Hazara Afghans ethnic minority. Many of them therefore emigrated to Iran and Pakistan. Heavy periods of drought and the deterioration of the infrastructure in the wake of the protracted conflict displaced more people.

Source text

Excerpt from an interview by the author with a 24-year-old Hazara woman (2013)

"I saw my father being killed. They shot him in front of our house. Some men [known Taliban fighters] came into our village and followed our men. My brother was absent at the time, but when he returned they killed they shot him too. They shot him. He was only 23 years old. My mother has not been the same since then. You and I traveled to Karachi with my sisters when others were leaving the village. We are better here. I work than Beautician in town. But things are changing here too ... The men are once again the target of [denominational] killings. "

2001 until today: The "War on Terror"

As of 2001, anyone from Afghanistan seeking refuge in Pakistan has been an undocumented migrant rather than a refugee. The main goal of the Pakistani government is to get Afghans to leave the country. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after blaming the Taliban government for enabling the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 attacks. There were clear links between the Pakistani state and the Afghan Taliban, many of whom were stationed in Pakistan. Nevertheless, under President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan allied itself with the United States and tried to distance itself from the Taliban.

Within a few years, the war spread to Pakistan, particularly in the northwest of the country including the FATA region. Due to the war in Afghanistan and the armed conflict between the military and the Taliban in Pakistan, the Pakistani government was under pressure to better secure the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The aim was to improve border management techniques in order to better control cross-border population movements. The flowing border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has not been seen as an advantage since then.


Facts at a glance

  • Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed approximately 120,000 Afghans. *
  • Both the Taliban and the "Islamic State" (IS) are active in Afghanistan.
  • Bomb attacks are part of everyday life and have a major psychological impact on the Afghan population.
  • Accusations of state corruption are the order of the day.
  • There is still patriarchal violence.
  • As part of new waves of migration, families, men, women and unaccompanied minors (mostly boys) are fleeing to Pakistan, Turkey, Europe, Australia and North America. **
* 111,442 people were killed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2016. At least 5,000 other Afghans have been killed since then. N. C. Crawford (2016): War-Related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to mid-2016. In: Costs of War Project. Brown University. (accessed: January 17, 2019); United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2017): Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Annual Report 2017. (accessed: August 21, 2018).
** S. Alimia (2015): Afghan (Re) Migration from Pakistan to Turkey: Transnational Norms and the ‘Pull’ of Pax-Ottomanica. Insight Turkey., Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 159-186.

Relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan

The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically been shaped by disputes over the demarcation of borders, which the Afghan state has repeatedly rejected. Another conflict is the Afghan state's support for breakaway Pakistani Pashtuns and its close ties with Pakistan's arch-rival India. In the 1970s and 1980s, during the Cold War, Pakistan took in Afghan refugees and, in particular, welcomed transnational Islamists in order to gain political influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s followed the same logic. With the beginning of the "war on terror" against the Taliban and the rebuilding of the Afghan state apparatus in the 2000s, the relationship between the two neighbors fell back into old patterns: the changing Afghan governments have again questioned the legitimacy of the Afghan-Pakistani border and tries to build close ties with India. Thus, regional geopolitics is key to understanding the position of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Pakistan's laws and policies in dealing with Afghan refugees

Pakistan did not sign the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention or the 1967 Supplementary Protocol on the Status of Refugees. The country also has no official refugee law.

Paragraph four of the Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1951 states that persons born in Pakistan after 1951 and whose parents are not from a hostile state (only Israel and India have this status) are entitled to Pakistani citizenship. However, this provision has rarely been implemented and never for Afghans. In 2018, the new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan of the "Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf" party promised citizenship to all Afghans born in Pakistan. However, the backlash was so great that he had to withdraw this offer. The only path to citizenship for a person of Afghan origin is through marriage to a male Pakistani citizen. In practice, only Afghan women can acquire Pakistani citizenship through marriage (Section 10, Citizenship Act 1951).


Facts at a glance

  • Afghan refugees were never limited to living in refugee camps in Pakistan. They are allowed to settle in different parts of the country and are free to look for work.
  • A small number of Afghans have become Pakistani nationals through document falsification, bribery and corruption.
  • Most Afghans in Pakistan are not citizens and have no chance of becoming naturalized at some point.

Afghans receive institutional support in Pakistan, most of which was set up during the Soviet-Afghan war. In 1979, the Pakistani government established a government department, the Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR), under the Ministry of State and Border Regions (SAFRON) and charged with administering all Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes refugees who live in and outside of refugee camps. Its main tasks include providing land for refugee camps, coordinating relief efforts with international organizations, providing education and health care in refugee camps, and advising Afghans living outside of refugee camps on a variety of issues, including access to education and employment .