Delayed by Tragedy, A New Refugee Flight

by Joshua Foust on 1/3/2008

Everyone knew the election in Pakistan would be changed in some way by Bhutto’s assassination. That so far it’s amounted to a six week delay is, contra my friend Megan Carpentier, not evidence of HITLER, but actually good news: it means the reaction to Bhutto’s murder might not be as atrocious as we’ve feared.

Meanwhile, Steve LeVine notes a possibly ominous parallel between Bhutto’s bungled murder investigation and the many (from his perspective, credible) cries of a coverup in the fatal plane crash that killed Zia ul-Haq—the very general who hanged Bhutto’s father Zulfikar for political executions and election fraud.

All of this makes me unsurprised that the Bhutto murder scene was compromised. As with the Zia case, it could be a simple matter of incompetence. Otherwise, the issues appear different — there ought to be no reason why officialdom wouldn’t want to identify the culprits. Unless of course they themselves suspect the possibility of perhaps low-level inside connivance.

The latter is entirely likely, given what little we white people in the West know of factionalism within ISI and the Army—though it remains speculation. Meanwhile, Afghanistanica returns from his much-lamented hiatus to note the sudden swarm of refugees in Afghanistan—from Pakistan, the Kurram Agency, just north of North Waziristan. Says Afghanistanica:

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this first significant, and hopefully last, wave of refugees from Pakistan. Pashtuns on either side of the Afghan-Pak border don’t see the Durand Line as an absolute obstacle to their movement. But these refugees from the Kurram Agency wouldn’t leave their homes in the middle of winter unless they felt that their lives were at risk.

Indeed. In Paktia, the refugees are reportedly on barren land, with no access to services or clean water, or even appropriate shelter from the cold. The Kurram Agency has been restless ever since the latest round of maybe-phantom fighting in Waziristan this past year (reignited most recently in October, and then again just last week).

But there are apparently Pakistani refugees in Khost, as well, and at least according to the U.S. military, these refugees were placed with host families. A big reason the refugees can be considered relatively safe there, under the guard of the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, is actually the controversial Human Terrain System: a few months ago Noah Shachtman detailed the ways HTS has accomplished a significant reduction in violence in the province by redirecting outreach efforts there. The result is that a previously hyper-violent province in eastern Afghanistan has become a safe haven for people fleeing the hyper-violent tribal areas of wester Pakistan. Which is pretty remarkable.

However: the instability throughout the FATA may well be a contributing factor to the delay in the eventual election in Pakistan. This is very unlikely—Islamabad hasn’t shown itself to care much about the border region unless heavily leaned on by the U.S.—but at the least yet more fighting there will have a major impact on how they play out.

And what of a continued exodus, into Afghanistan? It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility—when Tajikistan collapsed into misery in 1992, nearly a hundred thousand Tajiks fled into the northern provinces of Afghanistan to escape the fighting—even as the mujahideen descended upon Kabul for the post-Najibullah years-long murder-fest of the early-to-mid 90s.

Such an exodus would create tremendous headaches for all involved, starting with the very salient fact that millions upon millions of Pashtuns do not functionally recognize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That alone will make a delicate situation dire, and if the timing is really bad it could destabilize whatever post-election regime winds up in Islamabad come February 18 (or whatever the eventual date of the election). And as happens in all refugee flows (and especially there), there exists the possibility of brutal exploitation, and worse still, the inculcation of militarism—precisely what contributed to the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

For exploitation of a wholly different sort, dig the way Timothy Noah cleverly throws sand in the face of all the shallow name-dropping pundits trying to ride Bhutto’s death toward greener pastures. Don’t expect any guiding beacons of truth from the soiled halls of American punditry—at least until Bhutto is ascended to the gilded halls of democratic hagiography.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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