Refugee crisis, radicalisation and worries for tribal districts
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will most certainly have an impact on Pakistan. The dizzying speed of developments over the weekend have been hard to keep up with and it almost feels to early to draw any conclusions of what Pakistanis should expect.
SAMAA Digital spoke to Usman Zafar, a journalist and communications specialist, based in Islamabad, at length about these questions. His area is media communications and militancy and he worked for eight years on a government initiative on counter extremism communications, extremism in Pakistan with regards to conflict mitigation and understanding the trends that take people to radicalized paths.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of misunderstanding,” says Usman Zafar. Half of people think of the Afghan Taliban as a militant group that has grown too big, and started occupying areas and has now taken over Afghanistan. The other half of people look at the Afghan Taliban as some kind of rightful ruler of Afghanistan that wants to secure the country from the last 20 years of a forced imperialist ISAF-controlled occupation.
“The truth is somewhere in between.”
Our imagination of the Afghan Taliban is related to what happen in the Soviet-Afghan conflict in the 1980s, he says. There is a misunderstanding because the Mujahideen who were fighting at that time are very different from the Taliban of the 1990s that took over Afghanistan and that Taliban is very different from the current one.
There is an assumption that they have taken over by surprise and all these armchair intellectuals thought that the Afghan Taliban would not take over, Zafar says. “The problem is that people outside Afghanistan don’t understand that the Taliban have actual political legitimacy within Afghanistan as well. A lot of the Pashtun population support them.”
Zafar argues that Pakistan is in a tricky situation because of this. “If you support the Taliban you risk the ire of the international community. If you don’t support them then you risk terrorism,” he says. “It is more than likely to opt for some kind of resolution that the Afghan Taliban are somewhat legitimised as a viable political entity.”
The Pakistan government usually responds to crises rather than having a proactive approach, Zafar argues. “It was going to happen, once Biden decided they would pull out. Right now the only policy we’ve seen from Pakistan is that we can’t take any more refugees. But that is not taking in consideration is that there will be a refugee crisis whether you like it or not.”
Are you going to push them back by force, which will be a humanitarian conflict, he asks. “The international community will see you as part of the problem then because you will be pushing back people who are trying to escape the Afghan Taliban. On the other hand if you set up refugee camps that puts pressure on your economy.”
Many people think that the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan Taliban are two different entities. “This is a big understanding even among policymakers.” A UNSC June 2021 report clarifies this: Despite growing distrust, TTP and the Taliban carry on with relations mainly as before. A reunification took place in Afghanistan between TTP and certain splinter groups in the period from December 2019 to August 2020. This included the Shehryar Mehsud group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), Hizb-ul-Ahrar, the Amjad Farooqi group and the Usman Saifullah group (formerly known as Lashkar-e Jhangvi). Al Qaida was reportedly involved in the moderation between the groups. The return of splinter groups to the TTP fold has increased its strength, of which current Member State estimates range between 2,500 and 6,000 armed fighters … The group has distinctive anti-Pakistan objectives but also supports the Afghan Taliban militarily inside Afghanistan against Afghan Forces. The group is traditionally located in the eastern districts of Nangarhar Province, near the border with Pakistan.”
There are two ways in which the emboldening happens. Groups see and think violence is the way to achieve political legitimacy. If it worked for the Afghan Taliban, why won’t it work for us. It isn’t just that they will be encouraged by what happened, there is a serious possibility that they will actively seek support via the Afghan Taliban, and if they do set up a political government then you might see them using diplomacy and violence against Pakistan to pressure policymakers into legitimizing them as a serious political stakeholder. “We made this mistake in 2008 with Swat, with the TLP in 2017 and you let them grow bigger…”
The Pakistan government has traditionally either negotiated with these groups or try and somehow ideologically go ahead of these radical groups to somehow neutralise their appeal. “In your eagerness to get ahead of them you are actually pushing yourself ideologically further towards their agenda and that in turn is pseudo radicalising your own policymaking apparatus. And that is dangerous because by trying to co-opt them ideologically there is always the fear that you might not oppose them when they are operationally against you.”
Post-2008 Usman Zafar and some friends started a personal eco-tourism project in Swat to help locals and local livelihoods through responsible tourism. The idea was the bring tourism back to Swat as its people deserved a second chance. But today, given the developments in Afghanistan, they are worried.
People have been trying to come back to normalisation after a decade of being ravaged economically and socially. One hopes that chance is not taken away from them now. There is a worry how this crisis will affect the people of the tribal districts, the north.
Stop having schadenfreude about the US failing, advises Zafar.
There is a narrative that the last 20 years the international forces tried their best to dominate the Taliban but they couldn’t. And now they are finally back. People are relishing that the US failed, comparing it to Vietnam. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. It is an exciting narrative that an imperialist force has been crushed. That’s is not going to last.
It’s not that the US is the only casualty of this conflict. Pakistan is too.
Stop romanticising the Mujahideen. Do research on the 1990s. Look at reports of forced marriages happening in Afghanistan, which is by the way a new tendency that the Taliban have picked from IS. You need to stop looking at everything as international propaganda to malign Pakistan and its institutions. This is not a case of an enemy being defeated and us being victorious. How are we victorious?