As a complete pull-out of NATO troops from Afghanistan drew near, there was apprehension in Pakistan – now proven false – that there would be another deluge of Afghan immigrants to this country. Contemplating that impending security threat, this scribe wondered about history of Afghan migrations into Pakistan.
For much of known history till the rise of the Sikhs in the late 18th century, the Indus Valley – from the mountains ranges in the north to the Thar desert in the south – and Afghanistan – from the Hindukush in the north to the Sistan desert in the south – have remained under Turko-Persian political influence. From the Achaemenid Empire till the end of the Mughal period, regions on both sides of the Suleiman Range that are linked by the Khyber, Teri Mangal/Peiwar, Bolan, Khojak and numerous other passes, remained one political unit.
More specifically, these regions were together part of the following polities: Achaemenid (550 BC – 330 BC), Seleucid (312 BC – 63 BC), Kushan (3 AD – 375 AD), Mauryan (322 BC – 184 BC), Bactrian Greek (256 BC – 125 BC), Indo-Bactrian (100BC – 10AD), Indo-Scythian (150 BC – 400 AD), Parthian (247 BC – 224 AD), Kushan (30 AD – 375AD), Seleucid (224 AD – 643 AD), Turk Shahi (665 AD – 870 AD, but with formal Abbasid suzerainty) and Hindu Shahi (850 – 1000 AD). Mahmud of Ghazni raided and captured Kabul, Peshawar and the entire length of India along the River Indus between 1009 and 1026. These lands then remained part of Muslim Sultanates/Empires of India down to Aurangzeb. In the Mughal period, the province of Kabul-wa-Peshawar was governed by one subedar. After the death of Nadir Shah, the lands of Pakistan and Afghanistan comprised the newly emerging state of Afghanistan under Ahmad Shah Abdali.
During the Sikh rule in the first half of the 19th century, Ranjit Singh captured Peshawar from the Abdali dynasty but was thwarted from recreating the old Mughal-ruled polity that united Peshawar and Kabul in one administrative zone. By failing to march past the Khyber Pass but by retaining Peshawar, Attock, Kashmir and Multan, he annulled the political union of these lands with what is today Afghanistan.
Similar attempts by the British to unify Kabul and Peshawar were unsuccessful, though they were able to create an enduring and internationally accepted border in the shape of Durand Line, cutting right through the tribal belt; thus leaving families and tribes stranded on either side of the Line. The tribes, though, continued to enjoy free movement across the Line till the Soviet invasion and restricted movement during US occupation of Afghanistan. But they have now been completely cut off from each other by a steel and barbed-wire fence erected by Pakistan to put a stop to cross-border raids.
The centuries-long unity of Indus Valley with Afghanistan has facilitated movement of Afghans from their arid and relatively resource-deficient areas to the fertile and prosperous Subcontinent. This movement has been seasonal as well as perennial. In the case of seasonal migration, the Afghans have been coming for the winter months with their livestock and work tools, into lands comprising the modern-day Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces. These peaceful seasonal forays were duplicated by the marauding Ghazni and Abdali hordes who also timed their plundering raids into India to avoid the punishing heat and humidity of Indo-Gangetic summers.
By failing to march past the Khyber Pass but by retaining Peshawar, Attock, Kashmir and Multan, Ranjit Singh annulled the political union of these lands with what is today Afghanistan
In the case of permanent migration, there have been numerous cases of Afghans making Punjab and north India their permanent home. These include hundreds of thousands of Urdu-speaking ‘Khans’, and people with sir-names like Tareen, Afandi, Andrabi, Ghauri, Ghazni, Gardezi, Termezi, Suri, Sadozai etc. All Bollywood Khans fall in this category. All Suri and Lodhi sultans were born in India as was Ahmad Shah Abdali and many of his descendents. The grandchildren of Ayub Khan, the victor of Maiwand in 1879, as well as of Shah Shujah and Shah Zaman, the last of the ruling Popalzais, made Pakistan their homeland. In addition, the tribes of erstwhile FATA and Pashtun tribes of Balochistan including Achakzais, Kakar, Tarin, Kansi, Shirani, Ghilzai, etc are divided tribes with their members living on both side of Pak-Afghan border.
The Hazara community, who were frequently persecuted in Afghanistan, also migrated in sizeable numbers to Baluchistan and did well here in the military, civil services, sports and business. Their current difficulties are of recent developments that have engulfed not only them but the entire Pakistani nation.
This political and social history of the region is a testimony to the symbiotic relationship between the two nations. Afghans are linked to the Indus people by religious, linguistic and familial relationships. They live in the same population centers and after a generation or two, are indistinguishable from their hosts – whose customs and language they adopt easily. Many of the millions of Afghans who migrated to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation have also become an identical part of Pakistani society.
Where does this historical narrative leave Pakistan in the current scenario, when it is already struggling to deal with 3 million Afghan refugees of a more recent exodus?
An overwhelming educated section of the Afghan population has worked either for the US-sponsored Karzai/Ghani governments or directly for occupying NATO forces – for the last two decades. They rightly feel threatened and would prefer to leave the country to save their lives. The Western nations have taken out about 100,000 of these. That still leaves hundreds of thousands who are genuinely concerned for their well-being and would like to leave if sanity doesn’t prevail in Afghanistan.
There are already reports of thousands of internally displaced people who are living in makeshift camps in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and some other towns in the north. If the Taliban are not able to provide peace and order to their people, these numbers would grow exponentially and ultimately many would attempt to leave their country. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are relatively far from large population centers of Afghanistan. That leaves Iran and Pakistan as the places of choice for Afghan migration. To expect Pakistan to accept more migrants for an unspecified period – and to house, feed and educate them – is a burden beyond its financial or administrative capacity. That the world at large and the Western world in particular would not help these refugees for long is a foregone conclusion. Pakistan has received scant help in accommodating the Afghan refugees already in the country.
One possible source of hope are the regional powers that are encouraging the Taliban to display maturity and magnanimity in running the affairs of their unfortunate land. That would stem the outward flow of its people. This region has known war and militancy for the last four decades, and desperately needs peace to allow its people to lead a settled productive life.
Group Captain Parvez Mahmood (retd) served in the PAF for three decades in the ATC and Administration branch. He writes on a wide range of subjects including technology, medieval Indian history, the Islamic Golden Age, the Pakistan movement, music and poetry. He resides in Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com