Afghan refugee girls pull a trolley laden with water bottles on the outskirts of Lahore. Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

PESHAWAR – A major refugee crisis is looming as the Afghan civil war rages in the wake of America’s sudden troop withdrawal. Neighboring countries are now in crisis control mode to cope with an imminent exodus of refugees fleeing possible Taliban retribution.

Analysts believe that Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkey will be hard-pressed to host millions of refugees if the civil strife does not end soon. Tajikistan and Turkey have already seen an exodus of Afghan refugees amid the Taliban’s current offensive to seize control of northern territory.

Media reports quoting Turkish refugee officials suggested that Turkey is now sheltering an estimated 200,000 Afghan refugees. The number has been growing daily since the US announced in early April a full withdrawal of its troops by September 11.

Tajikistan, which shares a 1,206-kilometer northeastern border with Afghanistan’s Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Balkh provinces, has recently taken in about a thousand civilian refugees fleeing violence in Badakhshan in particular.

Tajikistan has also temporarily sheltered hundreds of Afghan national troops who retreated from their positions in northern provinces where the Taliban has seized control.  

An Afghan Sunni refugee collects zakat al-Fitr (Fitr tax) after the Eid al-Fitr mass prayer ceremonies in Nematabad neighborhood in the south of Tehran. Photo: AFP / Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto

Badakhshan, where the Taliban have reportedly pushed back the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and captured large swaths of territory, is strategically important.

The 76-kilometer frontier begins at the tripoint of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan and ends at the tripoint with Tajikistan. This short border is at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, far from much of the country’s urban areas. It is from here that the fighters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) could infiltrate China’s volatile Xinjiang region.

In Pakistan, authorities are assessing plans to restrict displaced persons in camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border to limit their access to the mainland and minimize mingling with the local population.

Shahid Raza, an Islamabad-based strategic affairs analyst, told Asia Times a major refugee crisis was likely if the situation does not quickly improve in Afghanistan.

“The government and the policymakers already acknowledged and predicted that there is going to be an influx of refugees from Afghanistan especially if there is no improvement on the peaceful transition and warring factions continued to use force for political gains,” he said.

Pakistan Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary said on Wednesday that a Cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan agreed that an influx of millions of Afghan refugees was expected.

“We are doing our utmost to resolve the Afghan imbroglio peacefully. But, if the situation deteriorates, we would have to bear the (refugees) burden and we are working on it,” he said.

“It is very difficult for Pakistan to contain the refugees on the border area but it is a good strategy and Turkey has already executed this technique effectively by holding Syrian refugees at the Syrian borders,” Shahid said.

Afghan, Turkmen and Uzbek refugees living in single-room earthen houses wait for aid, food, medicine and other essentials on the outskirts of Quetta in Pakistan. Photo: AFP / Recep Bilek / Anadolu Agency

However, the strategy did not produce the desired results during the refugee crises Pakistan faced in the 1980s and 90s from Afghanistan. Government attempts to contain Afghan refugees on the borders failed as the refugees melted into society.

“It is quite uncertain whether the refugees could be camped temporarily at the border areas because you cannot predict the turnabout in the Afghan situation,” he said.

The border camp plan is a retreat from media reports last month, attributed to Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, that said Pakistan would shut its borders with Afghanistan if people start fleeing for sanctuary.

“We will have to shut our border to safeguard our national interest. Pakistan has sheltered 3.5 million Afghan refugees over the years as the Taliban ravaged Afghanistan but we can’t take more,” media quoted Qureshi as saying.

Half of these refugees were registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) while more than 1.6 million unregistered Afghans have since been fully integrated into Pakistani society by intermarriage, obtaining illegal citizenship or purchasing properties.

People gather with their heavy weapons to support Afghanistan’s security forces against the Taliban in Guzara district, Herat province, on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

Iran is also hosting about 780,000 Afghan refugees. One million Afghans returned to their homeland under UNHCR’s Voluntarily Repatriation Scheme of 2002. However, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates again, few refugees will now want to return.

Given Iran’s security and refugee concerns, Tehran on Wednesday hosted a meeting between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government representatives.

The Tehran talks followed the Doha peace process that is in diplomatic deadlock amid the mounting violence in Afghanistan. Fighting surged in western Badghis province as officials faced each other on the negotiation table and Tehran vowed to end the crisis.

The Tehran talks, attended by Taliban chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and Afghan government representatives including former vice president Younus Qanooni and others from the High Council for National Reconciliation, pledged not to attack the civilian population, mosques, religious seminaries and individual properties.

The warring sides also agreed to honor decisions made at the Tehran meeting and vowed to punish those found violating the agreement. But that’s cold comfort to Afghan civilians who have or fear they will soon be caught in the political crossfire and are making a beeline for the border.