Escape Into Pashtunistan

1979 Population

A map of the distribution of population in Afghanistan circa 1979, using modern GIS software to approximate: one dot equals 1,000 people. Note, however, that the dots are placed randomly within Afghan provinces. This means that the overall picture generated for more sparsely-populated provinecs, such as those in the southwest, may be misleading.

While the PDPA had inflicted considerable violence on the population of Afghanistan and generated no small amount of refugees - 386,000 according to recent Pakistani scholarly work (more than the number of people turned into refugees by Hurricane Katrina in 2009, to take an American reference point) - it was the Soviet invasion of the country that transformed Afghanistan into the premier refugee crisis of the late 20th century.

In order to understand just how, however, it may be useful to recall the approximate distribution of population in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion, appreciating how this distribution of souls fit in (or not) with Afghan elites visions of "Pashtunistan." Looking at the map to the right, we can see that Afghanistan's population was fundamentally concentrated in the east, and to a lesser extent, the north of the country. Kabul in particular, but also the provinces tracking the USSR-to-Pakistan route (Balkh, Baghlan, Parwan, Kabul, Laghman, Nangarhar) and many of the border provinces next to Pakistan (Nangarhar, Paktika, and Paktia) were particularly densely settled.

1985 Depopulation

1985 depopulation rates of various provinces in Afghanistan; darker colors indicate higher rates of depopulation. As the chart shows, the Soviet invasion essentially obliterated the demographic base that Afghan rulers had always taken for granted in their visions of Afghanistan.

As we saw earlier, this demographic fact was of crucial importance for the politican project of Pashtunistan: it was by employing foreign aid to modernize specifically these densely-populated regions of the country that Kabul could render itself invincible to domestic insurrections from the east (as happened in the late 1920s, and as the Musahibans were keen to remember) and present a picture of flourishing Pashtun modernity to border populations in Pakistani Pashtunistan: areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which were under-developed and suffered under anachronistic colonial legal regimes, and the Pashtun-dominated Northwest Frontier Province, where (as in more developed Punjab) key economic and political institutions were controlled by high-caste Pashtuns and, to a lesser-extent, high-caste Punjabis.

As the next chart to the right - depicting the percentage of depopulation in various provinces by 1985 - shows, the Soviet invasion radically altered the demographics of these and other key regions of the Afghan polity. (Darker colors indicate higher rates of depopulation; lighter colors indicate that the 1985 population was more stable relative to its 1985 population). Not surprisingly, it was precisely those borderland areas of Afghanistan - from whence it was easier to escape into Pakistani Pashtunistan or Baluchistan - that saw the greatest rates of depopulation.

1985 Migration

Migration of refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan circa 1985. Note, however, that the dots are placed randomly within Afghan and Pakistani provinces. This means that the overall picture generated for more sparsely-populated provinces, such as those in the southwest of Afghanistan or Baluchistan in Pakistan, may be misleading.

While the numbers - generated by combining data from 1985 surveys of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the 1979 census from Afghanistan - are only approximate, they are still startling. More than half of the population of borderland provinces like Nangarhar, Kunar, and Qandahar (in the south of the country) left. When teams of researchers and doctors from Medecins sans Frontieres visited Helmand Province (the middle of the three southern provinces in the map, from which roughly a third of the population fled) in the late 1980s, they discovered that many families had left their farming properties entirely, leaving only an elder son behind to prevent theft or land re-appropriation. 

This had massive implications for the political project of Pashtunistan, so cherished by Amin and Taraki (if less so by the Parchamists that were the nominal rulers of the country after the Soviet invasion). While it was always a vague idea, "Pashtunistanism" always assumed that the Pakistani-Afghan border was illegitimate, just one more example of how Pakistan was, in the words of novelist Salman Rushdie, "a failure of the dreaming mind." More than deny Pakistan's right to exist, however, those in favor of Pashtunistan argued that there was an underlying socio-linguistic, and, just as important, demographic reality that straddled the Durand Line. This is what an author like Rushdie meant when he described Pakistan as "a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed. It is the true desire of every artist to impose his or her vision on the world; and Pakistan, the peeling, fragmenting palimpsest." Such ideological arguments, however, only had force as long as there was an obviously flourishing bi-national Pashtun World on both sides of the border, as was more or less the case from 1947 to 1980.

Migration Graphic

Graphic showing the fate of the population of Afghanistan in 1979 as it transpired over the 1980s. Obviously, for Afghanistan, statistics are imprecise - some estimates state the country's 1979 population as 15 million - and the chart to the right does not account for population growth during the decade, which was high. Still, we can see how roughly two-thirds of the country's 1979 population was killed or turned into refugees. Given the greater availability of data for Pakistan, we can break down the migration temporally and geographically, too.

While plenty of Pashtuns remained in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, to be sure, the next graphic - using similarly scaled dots (one dot represents a thousand people) to show the provinces of departure for Afghan refugees (in green) and the provinces of arrival in Pakistan (in violet) - shows the dramatic change that had taken place. The old arguments of the Pashtun nationalists were right, in a sense: there was one Pashtun World that straddled Baluchistan, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Pakistani Tribal Areas, and eastern and southeastern Afghanistan. Most of the refugees from Afghanistan - who came from areas assumed to be part of "Pashtunistan" like Paktia, Paktika, and Logar - traveled relatively short distances into those areas of Pakistan west of the Jhelum and Indus Rivers (rivers occassionally mooted as potential eastern boundaries for a re-constituted "Pashtunistan").

Yet the Soviet invasion had the unintended effect of shifting the gravity of thise world to the east, transforming many Afghan Pashtuns from citizens of a Pashtun nationalist Afghan state into refugees hanging in the limbo between a weak Pakistani state and international non-governmental organizations. Having spent most of the twentieth century trying to create a dynamic, administratively disciplined Pashtun state, Afghan elites unintentionally accelerated processes that turned Pashtunistan into an anomic space largely factually controlled by generals and spymasters in Islamabad. 

We can get another view of the migratory processes that the Soviet invasion caused by shifting our focus from the Pashtunistan question to the fate of the Afghan population more broadly. As the chart to the right shows, the damage inflicted on the population of Afghanistan by the Soviet invasion was massive: almost two-thirds of the country's populated was killed or turned into refugees. What becomes more obvious in the chart, particularly the excerpted area (reproduced at greater resolution below) is what a spur to refugee outflows the Soviet invasion was, and the geographic distribution of refugees in Pakistan. As we can see, most Afghans who left for Pakistan did so in 1980 and 1981. By 1983, most of those who would eventually have left had left. 

Further, of those who left earlier rather than later, we can see that the NWFP was far and away the preferred province to head to. (Of course, this chart simplifies what was in fact a diverse collection of refugee camps and other sites scattered around the province.) A considerable chunk of those who left Afghanistan in the two decisive years (1980 and 1981) went to Baluchistan and the NWFP. Interestingly, by the mid-1980s, even as a majority of refugees still settled in the NWFP, the Punjab became a more popular destination.

The "Pashtunistan" that Afghan elites had imagined had been dissolved, replaced by one staged on Pakistani terms (even as the refugee influx was a disaster in its own right for Pakistanis, as Afghan refugees strained the Pakistani state, overflowed cities, and brought with them large herds of animals that devastated scarce pasture land in the frontier). There were, it turned out, more configurations of Pashtun modernity than were dreamt of in the brain of mid-century Afghan Pashtun nationalists.


Pakistani Sub-Graphic

A zoomed-in section of the above chart, showing the timing and destinations of Afghan refugees who went to Pakistan in the early 1980s.

Having seen these charts dealing with the first half of the 1980s, we should move the narrative forward to look at the demographic situation in Afghanistan by the end of the decade, by which time the Soviet Army began its withdrawl from the country. What had changed? How had populations - and the imagined political configurations that went along with them - shifted?

Days of Flight
Escape Into Pashtunistan