Fri, 24 May 2024 Article

Refugees as Geopolitical Tools: The Pakistani and Iranian Use of Afghan Refugees

By Tasnim Jahan Saborno
Refugees as Geopolitical Tools: The Pakistani and Iranian Use of Afghan Refugees

The issue of refugees constitutes one of the most pressing problems in the current world. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” At present, approximately 36.4 million people are living as refugees throughout the world, often in dire humanitarian conditions. Meanwhile, the countries which host large numbers of refugees are confronted with a host of political, economic, social, security and environmental problems.

However, while refugee crises can present host states with numerous problems, sometimes states use refugee crises to their own advantage. In particular, states can use refugees to advance their geopolitical interests beyond their borders. For instance, during and after the Russian Civil War, tens of thousands of “White” Russians, opposed to Communism, took shelter in Germany. During the German-led Axis invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1941–1945, Germany recruited thousands of White Russian refugees as soldiers, law enforcement personnel and interpreters to fight against the USSR. Similarly, during the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971, more than 90 million Bengalis took shelter in India. India supported the formation of a Bangladeshi government-in-exile, allowed the recruitment of tens of thousands of Bengalis into the Mukti Bahini, and trained and equipped them to fight against Pakistan. Moreover, India used the refugee crisis on its territory as one of its core justifications for intervening in the war, and the war resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan.

Thus, states can use refugees as geopolitical tools to further their national interests. In this article, the use of Afghan refugees as geopolitical tools by Pakistan and Iran is revisited and explored.

Afghan Refugee Crisis
Afghanistan has effectively been in a state of war since 1978. In April 1978, the Afghan government was overthrown in a coup d’état organized by the Communist officers of the Afghan Armed Forces, and a Communist government under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was installed in Kabul. However, conflict between the Communist government and the Islamist oppositionists soon erupted into a full-scale civil war, and the USSR intervened in Afghanistan to aid the beleaguered Afghan government. But the USSR’s geopolitical rivals, including the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, intensified their military-political support for the Afghan insurgents, and the war dragged on until the fall of the Afghan government in April 1992. During the war, between 3.3 and 4.5 million Afghans took shelter in Pakistan, and some 2 million Afghans fled to Iran.

The fall of the Communist government in 1992 did not terminate the conflict in Afghanistan, rather initiated a new war among the numerous factions of the victorious insurgent groups. In September 1996, the newly formed Taliban emerged as the predominant faction, but other factions continued to fight against the Taliban-controlled government. A number of external actors, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, India, and Uzbekistan, supported their favoured factions, and this further prolonged the war. This blocked the possibility of the complete repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran.

In October 2001, a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan as part of the Global War on Terror, and installed a new government in Kabul after overthrowing the Taliban-controlled government. However, the Taliban and other insurgent groups waged a two-decades-long insurgency against the Afghan government and the US-led forces. Ultimately, the Afghan government collapsed in August 2021 after the withdrawal of US-led forces, and while a Taliban-controlled government has governed the country since then, it is still confronted with other insurgent groups. This prolonged war has resulted in the continuation of the Afghan refugee crisis. At present, between 3.7 and 4.4 million Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan, while approximately 3 million Afghan refugees live in Iran.

The presence of millions of Afghan refugees has been a source of serious and constant political, social, economic and security problems for Pakistan and Iran. Yet, both Islamabad and Tehran have used the Afghan refugees as tools to realize their geopolitical objectives.

Pakistan’s Use of Afghan Refugees

Pakistan has extensively used Afghan refugees to advance its geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan and other states. Pakistan has pursued several long-term and short-term objectives vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In the long run, Pakistan has sought to turn Afghanistan into some sort of ‘satellite’ or at least a ‘friendly state’ and to use its territory to enhance its ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India. In the short term, Pakistan has, at different times, sought to undermine Soviet, US and Indian influence in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the Pakistanis used Afghan refugees to realize these objectives.

First, in the 1980s, Pakistan served as a conduit for the USSR’s rivals to supply military and financial support to the Peshawar Seven, a coalition of seven Sunni Afghan insurgent groups. Pakistan allowed the Afghan insurgent groups to recruit tens of thousands of fighters from the Afghan refugee camps, indoctrinated, trained and equipped the Afghan insurgents, and let them use these camps as rear-line bases. The ensuing war killed tens of thousands of Afghan insurgents and thousands of Pakistanis, but the continuation of the war destabilized Afghanistan, led to the Soviet withdrawal from the country, and engineered the collapse of the Afghan government.

Second, the influx of millions of Afghan refugees served Pakistan well economically. The use of cheap Afghan labour contributed to Pakistan’s massive economic growth in the 1980s, the influx of millions of Afghans helped in the urbanization of Pakistan, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the presence of Afghan refugees allowed Pakistan to procure billions of dollars in international aid. These factors directly contributed to the Pakistani economy and indirectly assisted Pakistan to enhance its military might. This improved Pakistan’s geopolitical position in the 1980s.

Third, tens of thousands of Afghan children in the refugee camps in Pakistan were indoctrinated in Saudi-financed madrassahs, and Pakistan allowed them almost complete freedom of action. In the 1990s, these children served as the core of the Taliban, and the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 1996 was viewed as a major Pakistani geopolitical success.

Finally, while Pakistan actively facilitated the military operations of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan in the 2000s and 2010s, it covertly supported the Taliban. Afghan refugees in Pakistan served as a pool of manpower for the Taliban, and Afghan refugee camps served as training and logistics bases for the insurgents. This ensured the continued destabilization of Afghanistan, the failure of the US-led coalition to root out the Taliban insurgency, and the fall of the Afghan government. Also, the victory of the Taliban has ensured the elimination of Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Iran’s Use of Afghan Refugees
Iran has made substantial use of Afghan refugees to fulfil its geopolitical objectives in Afghanistan and beyond. In this regard, Iran’s long-term objective has been to make use of Afghan refugees to strengthen its position in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran’s short-term objective has been to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan and to use the massive Afghan refugee population as a source of additional manpower for its internal and external military endeavours.

First, in the 1980s, Iran supported the Tehran Eight, a coalition of eight Shia Afghan insurgent groups, against the Afghan government and the USSR. Accordingly, Iran allowed Afghan insurgent groups to recruit thousands of fighters from the Afghan refugees in Iran and to use the refugee camps as bases of operations for the insurgents. This contributed to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Second, during the Iraqi–Iranian War (1980–1988), hundreds of thousands of Iranian troops were killed or wounded, and in the final stages of the war, Iran had problems in finding enough volunteers. Accordingly, Iran tapped into an additional pool of manpower – the Afghan refugees in Iran. The Iranians organized thousands of Shia Afghan refugees into militias and used them in their war against Iraq. Similarly, Iran opposed the Taliban in the 1990s, and formed militias, composed of Shia Afghan refugees in Iran, to fight the Taliban.

Finally, Iran is currently supporting the Syrian government in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Throughout the war, the Syrian government has lost tens of thousands of troops, and accordingly, Iran had to provide Syria with additional manpower. So, using promises of financial incentives and legal residency, the Iranians recruited thousands of Afghan refugees to form the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a militia under the command of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This has contributed to the preservation of the Syrian government.

While the protracted Afghan refugee crisis has created numerous problems for the host states (Pakistan and Iran), these states have used the refugees in a calculative manner to further their military-political goals. Hence, the case of the Afghan refugees demonstrates that states can make use of the plight of refugees to protect and promote their geopolitical interests. However, while this practice is understandable in terms of realpolitik, refugees should, first and foremost, be viewed through the prism of humanitarianism and international law, not through the lens of geopolitical benefits.

[Tasnim Jahan Saborno is an undergraduate student at the Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, and an independent analyst on international politics. Her research interests include geopolitics, international history, foreign policy analysis, and regional studies.]