Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Afghans caught up in conflict face uncertain future

Nazir Khan, a 40-year-old Afghan refugee, recently began working as a watchman at a private house in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. “I am lucky I found work; now I can support my family at least,” he told IRIN.

Khan, who has lived in Pakistan for 25 years, fled Buner district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) when fighting broke out there between Taliban militants and Pakistan army forces in early May.

According to a situation report on 29 May by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), just over 2.5 million people have been displaced since 2 May.

There is uncertainty over how many Afghan refugees may be included among those.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of January 2007 Pakistan hosted about 1 million Afghan refugees in camps assisted by UNHCR. However, a 2005 Pakistan government census suggests a further 1.5 million Afghans were living outside camps.

Since 2005, the Pakistan government has stepped up pressure on these people to return to their country.

Nader Farhad, UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, said rates of return to Afghanistan had been slower this year than in previous years, with only 20,000 returning so far.

As fierce fighting broke out in areas of NWFP earlier in May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, expressed deep concern over the well-being of some 20,000 registered Afghan refugees living in the conflict-affected districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Upper Dir.

“We have reports that many have fled together with the local population. Some have chosen to return to Afghanistan with UNHCR assistance and others have chosen to relocate to existing refugee sites in Pakistan,” Guterres said.

Farhad said that 114,000 Afghans had been living in conflict-affected areas of NWFP and had been forced to relocate to other parts of Pakistan or live with friends and relatives.

Afghan refugees harassed

According to watchman Khan, the Afghans he knows have shunned displacement camps and opted to move in with relatives, often in cities such as Peshawar or Lahore. “I had no idea what the situation would be like at camps. There are so many reports of harassment of Afghans that we were scared of any dealings with officials in case we faced persecution,” he said.

The arrest of Afghans in Pakistan, often after terrorist attacks, has been regularly reported in the local media and drawn calls from the Afghan government on Pakistan to avoid “mistreating” Afghan nationals.

For the Afghans forced to move from places they have called ‘home’ for decades, the new conflict is giving rise to growing anxiety over their future.

“I have lived in Buner since I was 20. I worked as a carpenter there,” said Khan. “I am now considering returning to Afghanistan, but people say the economic situation there is very bad. But then things are tough here too.”

Ahmed Gul, a cousin of Khan, moved in with relatives in Peshawar after leaving the Bajaur tribal area late last year following conflict there. “The future for Afghans is uncertain. Since 2005, when camps were closed in most parts of NWFP for security reasons, we have been treated like criminals. I just don’t know what to do or where to go. The fighting has made our lives very difficult.”

LAHORE,  (IRIN)

A necessary catastrophe

To fight militancy, Pakistan needs to conquer its radicalised north-west, then govern it

A CATASTROPHE is unfolding in Swat, a picturesque region of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) once loved by honeymooners. Nearly 2.4m people are reported to have fled an army offensive against Taliban militants, launched early this month at America’s behest. Thousands of civilians are trapped, with dwindling supplies of clean water and food. Hundreds are alleged to have been killed or maimed. On the evidence of two previous offensives in Swat, this may achieve nothing good. It risks leaving Swatis even angrier with their government and more vengeful than before, hardening the Taliban’s hold over the region. In a country as unstable as Pakistan, it is tempting to fear, America’s new foreign-policy chiefs should be more careful what they ask for.

For all that, the government was right to take military action to drive the Taliban from Swat. The most economically developed area of Pakistan in militant hands, it has long been prime evidence for those who accuse the government of scarcely trying to quell the militancy sweeping the north-west of the country. Unlike the semi-autonomous tribal areas adjoining NWFP, many of whose Pushtun inhabitants fight for the Taliban on both sides of the border with Afghanistan, Swat has a semblance of a functioning state. Its better-educated people have no love for the Islamist hooligans in their midst. Yet the army’s stuttering campaigns, and a recent effort to appease the militants by offering to institute Islamic law in Swat and other parts of NWFP, have strengthened their control over it.

One reason for optimism is that, on early signs, this offensive is more serious than its forebears in Swat and elsewhere (see article). During the army’s last fight in Swat, which ended in February, a small force tried to drive the Taliban from Mingora, the district’s biggest city, with shellfire. This resulted in many civilian deaths and local fury. With a bigger force, including 6,000 soldiers reportedly shifted from the Indian border, the army now seems to be fighting more carefully.

Another hopeful sign is that many Pakistanis claim to support this offensive. Hitherto, most have considered the army’s war against the militants as a regrettable service to America. But recent Taliban excesses, including their well-publicised flogging of a teenage girl, have convinced many that the Islamists need pegging back. The Urdu media, which are roundly anti-American, back this offensive, and the main political parties have declared their support. To keep that consensus and confound the Islamic parties which remain outside it, the army must redouble its efforts to minimise civilian casualties and the government must do more to care for the displaced.

After the battle, prove you’re a state

But if the offensive is to mark a real turning-point in Pakistan’s flailing war against the Taliban, the government needs above all to train and equip NWFP’s police and local administration to control the ground its soldiers have cleared, and to oversee the economic development that must follow. The government’s failure to plan for this in the past, far less achieve it, has been the main reason for the Taliban’s recent successes.

Given the weakness of Pakistan’s civil institutions, this is a daunting task. In the tribal areas, where the army is expected to resume campaigning after it finishes in Swat, and where the state is currently a figment, addressing it will require serious thought. Unless it attends to these basics, Pakistan will neither turn back the Taliban tide nor retain popular support for its effort. Even now, few Pakistanis may consider the Taliban to be the existential threat to their country America says it is. But all Pakistanis can appreciate the merits of having better government. Pakistan has to show it can provide one.

Source: Economist.com