Yet another flight across the Durand Line

Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghan refugees is a ghastly new development in relations between the two countries.

Afghan refugees wait to register in a camp near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Afghan refugees wait to register in a camp near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

It is winter, now, on the Durand Line. Mud and snow, crumbling mountains, bare trees, raw wool blankets, pakol hats with rolled rims, goats, carts, motorbikes and bicycles. At the Torkham crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan the road sneaks through the Khyber Pass, jammed with trucks. Since the start of November those trucks are full of people again, heading back from Pakistan to Afghanistan, following an announcement by the interim government of Pakistan that the 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan should leave voluntarily by 1 November or be forcibly repatriated. ‘As you sow, so shall you reap,’ said Mullah Muhammed Yaqoob, Afghanistan’s defence minister, in response. The problem is, there has been so much sowing and reaping across the Durand line that it is no longer clear who is planting and who is harvesting. For Afghans, the nightmare continues.

Explaining what is happening is not straightforward, not least because world attention is focused elsewhere and this is not getting the coverage it deserves. Every element is complicated: why is the Pakistan government interim? How many refugees, who and where are they? Why now? And what is to become of them?

The geography alone is complex: the 1,640 mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan stretches from the hard deserts of Baluchistan to the high peaks of the Hindu Kush. Since 2005 the government of Pakistan has been talking about fencing the entire distance; construction began in 2017 and it is now almost complete. There are eight border crossings and 12 border markets. Fencing the border is controversial, not least because the exact location of the border is still disputed: it marches through the tribal lands of ethnic Pashtun and Baluch. In January 2022 tensions flared when the Afghan Taliban removed some of the fencing; its government does not recognise the international boundary and asserts free movement of people across it. That border – the Durand Line – was set in 1893 in an agreement between British India and the Emir of Afghanistan. It has been porous ever since, a place where arms, narcotics, terrorists and refugees move, and trouble stirs.

Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, a Pashtun from Baluchistan, has been caretaker prime minister of Pakistan since 14 August 2023, following the dissolution of the National Assembly. At a press conference on 9 November he gave his reasoning for the Pakistani government’s decision: that there had been a 60 per cent increase in terrorism and a 500 per cent spike in suicide bombings in Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban came to power in August 2021, with 2,867 innocent civilians killed. He held the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) responsible, saying that 15 Afghan citizens had been among those involved in suicide attacks. Interestingly, and (for those who follow Afghanistan/Pakistan affairs), ironically, Kakar went on to say that Pakistan had repeatedly informed the Afghan government about this problem to no avail: ‘After the establishment of the interim Afghan government in August 2021, we had a strong hope that there would be long-term peace in Afghanistan… Strict action would be taken against Pakistan-opposing groups, especially the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, and they would not be allowed to use Afghan soil against Pakistan.’ He not only accused the Afghan government of taking no action against anti-Pakistan groups, but said there were also some instances of ‘clear evidence of enabling terrorism’.

Thus the tables appear to have turned. For the past few decades, Pakistan been a long-term home for members of the Afghan Taliban, as well as terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and Lashkar e-Tayiba. The Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura was one of the main centres of power and decision-making. Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban and now interior minister of Afghanistan, moved between Peshawar and Waziristan, using Pakistan as a base to plan attacks in Afghanistan. Some of this arose naturally, a historic consequence of the formation of the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet army, and of Kashmiri militant groups to fight India. But these groups became crucial geopolitical actors as Pakistan sought to balance its interests in Afghanistan against those of India. How they acted was driven by long-term calculations of the Pakistani military and intelligence services, whose role in these affairs is always easier to assert than to prove. It is also important to recognise a distinction between the Pakistani Taliban, who have always been at odds with the government of Pakistan (and who waged a ferocious terrorist campaign within Pakistan during the Presidency of General Musharraf), and the Afghan Taliban. They are not the same. Perhaps the outlier is the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which sets itself against both governments.

Pakistani political life seethes with the consequences of all this. Imran Khan (prime minister 2018-2022) came to power with a strong support base among the Pashtun tribes of the North West, which includes many Afghans who were long-term residents in Pakistan. He was ousted by no-confidence vote in April 2022, and the leader of the opposition, Shehbaz Sharif, became prime minister until the expiry of parliament at the end of its five-year tenure in August 2023. (Shehbaz himself had assumed the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML(N)) when his brother Nawaz, who had been prime minister three times, was ousted for corruption). Meanwhile, on 5 August 2023 Imran Khan was arrested for ‘corrupt practices’ and is now jailed awaiting trial for leaking state secrets.

In theory the role of the caretaker prime minister is to see through the implementation of free and fair elections no later than 90 days after the dissolution of the assembly. In practice, these elections are now set for 8 February 2024. One reason suggested for the action against Afghan refugees is that it will dismantle the voter base for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The other main electoral contenders are former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N), and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. On 21 October 2023 Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan after four years self-imposed exile in London, following his conviction in two corruption cases in 2017, for which he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. A part of those convictions has now been overturned and the rest are in train.

And what of the refugees? Afghans of all ethnicities, including Hazara and Turkmen, have been crossing the border since 1979 to escape political developments in their own country. First, they fled the Russians, then the Taliban. Children who followed their parents in 1979 are now middle aged and remember their desperate flight to Pakistan and their lives in refugee camps. There have been earlier waves of returns, particularly after the fall of the Taliban from 2002 when there was a little more optimism. In 2005 the Pakistani government started registering Afghan refugees and worked with the then Afghan government to facilitate returns. At the start of November there were estimated to be still about four million Afghans in Pakistan, of which many have long established lives and businesses. The Pakistan government states that there are still 2.3 million documented Afghan nationals, including 1.4 million legal refugees, living in the country, and 1.7 undocumented. All the numbers are suspiciously rounded, but the estimates are that 700,000 Afghans took refuge in Pakistan after the US and NATO troops left in August 2001. Of these, many are undocumented and afraid to go home, particularly members of the Hazara community, who are Shia, and those who had worked for NATO or international organisations or the former Afghan government.

This brings a challenge for Western governments who had offered resettlement schemes to Afghans forced to flee in 2021. Two years on, many are still stuck in undocumented limbo in Pakistan since their temporary refugee visas expired before they were provided with new documentation. This is now a matter of serious bureaucratic wrangling with the administration in Islamabad, which has urged Western governments to expedite the visa and approval process, including approximately 25,000 who could be eligible for resettlement in the US.

Assif Durrani, Pakistan’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said on 6 December that, so far, 450,000 Afghans have returned home. They are arriving in a country which already cannot afford to feed and care for its people. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated at the start of 2023 that 28.3 million people in Afghanistan (of a population of 40 million) would need humanitarian assistance. The World Food Programme estimates that there are already six million internally displaced people. The Taliban has set up two main returner – refugee temporary tented camps at the largest crossing points at Torkham (the Khyber Pass) and Chaman (at Spin Boldak crossing between Quetta and Kandahar) to facilitate the transfer of refugees to towns and villages which they may or may not consider their hometowns. Human rights groups have filed petitions with the Supreme Court in Islamabad to halt the deportations, but it is already too late for many. Largely unwatched and under-reported, the forcible expulsion of refugees, in winter, to a future of such great uncertainty, does not reflect well on anybody.


Suzanne Raine