Surveying the Damage
As scholarly work like Artemy Kalinovsky's A Long Goodbye, which focuses on the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, has shown, Soviet leaders as early as Yuri Andropov had begun to think about how to leave Afghanistan while avoiding a so-called porazheniie - Russian for "humiliation." By the spring of 1988, talks between the major actors - Moscow, Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad - had progressed to the point where the Soviet Union was essentially able to force leaders in Afghanistan to sign the Geneva Accords, an April 1988 agreement establishing the principles of non-interference between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the framework for a two-stage withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. By February 15, 1989, nearly all Soviet forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan (some military and intelligence advisers remained, and Moscow still supplied Kabul with currency and lethal military supplies). One nightmare was over.
Just as importantly, however, the Geneva Accords also established the principle of voluntary return for Afghan refugees, many of whom had spent nearly a decade in poor conditions in refugee camps in Pakistan. Yet because the Geneva Accords also essentially served as a fig leaf for the United States and Pakistan to continue a military campaign against the (admittedly undemocratic and brutal) Watan regime of Najibullah, whether Afghans in Pakistan would have a homeland to return to remained in doubt. From Jalalabad to Khost, military battles raged between the Soviet-equipped Afghan National Army and American-, Chinese-, Egyptian-, and Pakistani-equipped mujahideen forces. How had the land they were fighting for been transformed, and what kind of country would the refugees return to - if they did indeed return?
We can get some sense of what had changed by firstly looking at some maps of the percentage depopulation of the provinces of Afghanistan. In the late as in the early 1980s, the picture with respect to the dream of Pashtunistan remained the same: the core territories of any such imaginary state in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan had been devastated. The figures are only rough, but eastern, formerly densely-populated provinces like Paktia and Nangarhar had lost grievous amounts of population: more than 530,000 from the former and 540,000 from the latter.
Because the map to the side was collected from data taken solely in Pakistan, it also constitutes - if untentionally - a cardiograph of the effective divide - whether logistical, infrastructural, or cultural and religious (Persian-speaking and Shi'a) - between Iran and Pakistan. While, unsurprisingly, borderland Pashto-speaking provinces like Nangarhar, Paktia, and Helmand saw large outflows of people into also Pashto-speaking western and northwestern Pakistan, we can see how, more or less, the drainage basin of the Hari River corresponds to the provinces where the population tended to go to Iran.
Many of the same dynamics come out in this map, depicting the same features for one year later, in 1990 (note that this map accounts for both emigration to Pakistan and Iran). Here we can see that in spite of the supposed peace deal of Geneva, little has changed. Tellingly, even those provinces closest to the Pakistan and Iranian border remain heavily depopulated.
Think of the broader context and this should not be surprising: in March 1990, Afghan Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai attempted to carry out a coup against Najibullah, resulting in the Watan Party leader launching intense bombing attacks on military installations in Afghanistan. Najib had managed to beat back the palace revolution, but with Pakistani- and American-equipped armies trying to march in from the east, the Soviet Union conducting military drawbacks elsewhere along its military periphery, and Moscow's economic might clearly fraying, Afghanistan hardly beckoned to refugees.
Thanks to some other data sources, we can look at the pattern of refugees as compared between Iran and Pakistan. Thanks to a survey that UNIDATA - a UN-mandated data service active in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1988 to 1992 - conducted in Peshawar in 1990, we can see what provinces supplied the majority of refugees into Pakistan.
Here the pattern was again clear: precisely those areas that were supposed to have been the test sites for Pashtun modernity - Helmand in the south, Paktia in the east, and the gas fields and industrial centers of the north - had been emptied out by the Soviet invasion, sending millions of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. Having intervened to save Afghanistan, the Soviet Union ironically ended up both destroying the developmental "hardware" and the demographic base Afghan leaders had relied on in their quest to construct Pashtunistan.
We can see this pattern on a more granular level using a different data source: the information on "encashments" of refugee ration cards in Pakistan from 1989. (Encashment refers to the process of refugees turning in their ration cards to leave camps and return to their homeland.) Officials in numerous refugee camps in Afghanistan kept track of the districts of origin (not the districts to which refugees were returning) of those who turned in their refugee cards; this data was also maintained alongside available information on the districts of origins for all refugees. Thanks to this data, we can see the real "spine" of population that accounted for the migration to Pakistan (this map accounts for all refugees in Pakistan, not just those who were encashing their ration cards in 1989).
What we find is more discrete confirmation of the ironic result of the Soviet invasion: in addition to the densely populated areas of Afghanistan's east that were depopulated by the invasion, we can see how many of the developmental "nodes" built up in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were depopulated, too: the upper reaches of the Helmand River Valley in the south; Paktia Province in the east; and the urban centers of Pul-i Khumri, Mazar-i Sharif, and Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. Pashtunistan, once a developmental, territorial proposition, had been gutted.
Turning the focus to the provinces that had the greatest number of refugees who headed to Iran - this time relying on sources from Iran - we get a glimpse into a less studied geography of Afghanistan, namely its connection with its western neighbor. In addition to the above remarks about the connections between the Hari Rud basin, Herat (part of Iran until the collapse of Nadir Shah's empire), the relative prominence of Kabul (in spite of its population) is interesting. One suspects that many of those who left were Hazara denizens of the capital who may have viewed their chances in Iran with more optimism than those in Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan. While both states were illiberal by Western standards, in an age of war in Afghanistan and radical Shi'a expansionist and militaristic Sunni dictatorships on both sides, religious affiliations mattered - or so it would seem.