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Local Resources Becoming Strained : Pakistan's Welcome Mat Is Wearing Thin for Afghan Refugees

November 29, 1987|MICHAEL GETLER | The Washington Post

SADDA, Pakistan — Eight years after millions of Afghans fled a Soviet invasion of their country, those refugees face the prospect of another upheaval not of their own making and out of their control.

An estimated 3 million Afghans--the largest refugee population in the world--have been settled in more than 350 barren, mud-colored and sun-baked refugee camps such as the Tindo camp here in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a few miles from the border with their homeland.

Another estimated half a million "unregistered" refugees, who live outside the camps, jam the streets, bazaars and outskirts of Peshawar, the provincial capital, and a handful of other towns.

'People Getting Fed Up'

Aid officials from western and Islamic countries praise Pakistan's role in absorbing such a huge influx of people over the years and add that the assistance programs being run here--with the help of more than 50 relief agencies from a score of countries and the United Nations--also are probably the best, aside from being the biggest, in the world.

Yet there are signs that the welcome mat is wearing thin.

"The people are getting fed up now with looking after the refugees," said Ghulam Jatoi, the head of the National Peoples' Party, a Pakistani opposition group. The traditional welcome and giving of shelter to Islamic brothers from across the border is disappearing. "Remember," he said, "the Prophet Mohammed also said to make sure that you were not a guest for more than three days. So we have given them eight years."

This view, which seems to be shared by a growing number of Pakistanis, is explained in part by several factors: the size of the refugee population, the duration of their stay, the strain on scarce local resources and the entrepreneurial instincts of many Afghans who cut in on Pakistani businesses and land, especially here in the North West.

Frustration Deepens

It is also in part the result of war-related increases in gunrunning and drug smuggling that have made this country's traditionally wild North West tribal areas even wilder. There are now an estimated 650,000 heroin addicts in Pakistan compared to perhaps only hundreds five years ago.

Moreover, the sense of frustration is deepened by the lack of any solution to the stalemated war in Afghanistan between the the Afghan resistance fighters known as the moujahedeen , and Soviet and Afghan government forces.

In the last year, an even more explosive ingredient has been added to this mixture.

Senior Pakistani officials and western diplomats here say they are convinced that a clever and seemingly effective new strategy of subversion and terrorist bombings aimed at the Pakistani population and easily blamed on the presence of the refugees is being directed by the secret police arm of the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

Bombings Increase

This year, said a top Pakistani official familiar with detailed intelligence reports, more than 300 people have been killed and perhaps 1,000 injured in bomb blasts that have spread from the Peshawar area to the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. The blasts almost always touch off demonstrations against the refugees, whose presence, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, is causing the bombings.

The strategy, the official explained, is to drive the wedge even deeper between the Pakistani population and the refugees. The apparent goal is to bring enough pressure on the government, through the threat of destabilization, to force it to accept terms more favorable to Moscow and Kabul in U.N.-mediated talks aimed at finding a settlement.

Pakistan's role in the war is crucial.

Aside from absorbing the refugees, this country has allowed its territory to become the principal funnel for secret aid, money and weapons--primarily from the United States but with some from China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia--to the guerrilla forces inside Afghanistan.

Domestic Pressure

So far, there is no sign that the government of President Zia ul-Haq is wavering from the U.S.- and Pakistan-supported call for a Soviet troop withdrawal and a freely chosen new government for Afghanistan. But by all accounts, the domestic pressure is greatly intensifying for a settlement to the war, with less concern for the postwar details.

The stakes also are high for U.S. policy.

Growing resentment toward the refugees spills over onto the government and, in turn, toward Washington, since it is widely perceived here that Pakistan's key role in supporting the Afghan resistance is linked to the $4-billion multiyear U.S. economic and military aid program for Pakistan. Actually, Pakistan began helping the refugees before the U.S. aid program went into effect.

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