KARACHI, PAKISTAN AUGUST 18, 2021
When the Taliban first waved the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan over Kabul in 1996, Syed Nasir’s parents — worried about imminent violence — hastily fled to neighboring Pakistan, where they settled in the port city of Karachi. Like many Afghans, they expected to return home once the instability ebbed.
But, the Taliban’s brutal rule, followed by the instability of the U.S. invasion and ongoing insurgency meant that Nasir’s family — and many others — stayed in Pakistan. Now, 25 years later, these refugees have found themselves experiencing renewed panic and fear — and a growing sense of déjà vu — watching a reinvigorated Taliban assert control over their war-battered country.
Nasir, 18, who was born in Pakistan, regularly scans Afghan TV channels and social media for the latest news while checking on his sister, who is still stuck in Kabul. She had been working at a multinational company, but found herself unemployed when the company shut down as the Taliban began ramping up attacks across the country. “We told her to come to Karachi in July, but she said that the country’s capital would be safe,” he says.
There are officially 1.4 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, the third-largest refugee population in the world, though the U.N. estimates that the real number is much higher, up to three million.
Many were shocked, along with the rest of the world, with the speed at which the Taliban captured Kabul and took over the government. “In my life, I have seen the arrival and withdrawal of Soviet troops, the arrival and withdrawal of U.S. troops, and now the re-emergence of the Taliban,” says Safiullah Noori, 66, an Afghan refugee in Karachi.
A refugee crisis looms
Pakistan is fearful of an impending refugee crisis amid the tumult in Afghanistan. Officials are expecting that up to 700,000 could flee to Pakistan if the situation in Afghanistan worsens now that the Taliban is back in control. It’s a crisis that the government said it is unprepared to handle without international assistance and financial support.
“This is the biggest worry for us right now,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tells TIME. “We are already hosting three million Afghan refugees. Our economy is not stable enough to take more, and at the same time, the COVID-19 situation doesn’t allow us to open borders.”
Generations of Afghans have made their home in Pakistan, but their experience shows there is no guarantee that life will improve for refugees who flee over the border. Those who fled the Taliban’s first reign grapple with the constant threat of deportation, police harassment, and discrimination.
In recent weeks, Pakistani politicians have resuscitated a discussion on Pakistan’s larger responsibility toward refugees. Many critics feel that Pakistan has historically extended a munificent hand by hosting waves of refugees since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, only to be greeted with refugees who they claim are linked to criminality or terrorism.
Pakistan is not alone in worrying about a flood of migration from Afghanistan. European officials have voiced concerns about the prospect of refugees traveling to the European Union. And neighboring countries like Uzbekistan are limiting the number of refugees allowed in.
If Pakistan faces another Afghan refugee crisis, Chaudhry says his government is preparing a “comprehensive strategy” to isolate refugees in temporary camps near the border. “We would like them not to enter the cities, as happened in the ‘90s,” he says.
However, some human rights experts say that crowding refugees in temporary border camps runs the risk of creating a public health crisis in a country where COVID-19 cases are still high. “This is a humanitarian problem,” says Kaleem Durrani, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Karachi coordinator. “The federal government has not been serious about following COVID-19 [prevention protocols], so it is unlikely that the measures would be followed in the camps.”
In order to reduce the number of militants and refugees crossing over, the Pakistani military is continuing to fence its long and porous 1,622-mile land border with Afghanistan, 90% of which has been completed. However, the Pakistan-Afghan border has never been easy to seal, with ethnic Pashtuns split between Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly traveling to Pakistan for education, medical care or family visits.
For refugees like Nasir, the restoration of Taliban rule has changed his ability to be with his family still living in Afghanistan, introducing a new sense of uncertainty. “Now, we do not know what will happen in Kabul,” he says.
However, scenes of chaos at Kabul airport on Monday offered little solace for refugees. Abdullah Khan, a spokesperson for the state-run Pakistan International Airlines, tells TIME that before the Taliban takeover, Pakistan had arranged a deal with then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government to increase the number of flights to Kabul. “The challenge was the government fell much quicker than expected, and [on Sunday] all the airport staff left their post in Kabul [and there was no check-in or security staff],” Khan says. “We understand the situation, there is a panic and need for people to get out.”
Pakistan’s balancing act with the Taliban
The Taliban takeover presents a tricky balancing act for Pakistan. While the government has not publicly expressed support for the Taliban, many observers say it tacitly approves of the takeover. “The military leadership [in Pakistan] appear to see this as a net win, gaining leverage in Kabul and displacing India in Afghanistan,” Aqil Shah, author of The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, says. “Pakistan will continue to provide political and diplomatic support to the Taliban regime in Kabul.”
On Tuesday, Chaudhry said that the country would not unilaterally recognize the Taliban government, and instead wait for a “regional decision.” In March, Pakistan signed a joint statement with the U.S. pledging that it would not support a Taliban in government. It remains to be seen whether Islamabad will renege on this pledge, or if it will gradually move toward recognition, in a gesture hearkening back to Pakistan’s embrace of the Taliban in the 1990s — when Pakistan was one of the few states to formally recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban government.
For refugees like Noori in Karachi, however, concerns are more focused on the safety of relatives, who are unable to safely flee to Pakistan. “It used to be easy to cross the border — just give 25,000 to 30,000 rupees [$120-$180] to border guards at Chaman,” he said. “But it seems this time, Pakistan will make it difficult for refugees to enter.”
Like many Afghans, Noori has prayed for the day he could return to his country. With the Taliban’s resurgence, there is little doubt in his mind that this dream will not materialize. “Even after 40 years, nothing has changed in Afghanistan. Fear, hunger, displacement, and uncertainty are our destiny,” he says.
Nasir says his sister is filled with trepidation about the Taliban government she lives under in Kabul, and regrets not coming by road to Pakistan earlier this year. Now it may be too late, but the family has not given up hope: “If God wills it, she will be with us soon,” Nasir said.
Sitting in Karachi, Nasir says he had been playing an audio message that was circulating of a senior Taliban commander who promised not to target or harm civilians.
“People are saying that the Taliban has changed,” Nasir said, “but this is only the beginning.”