Hunched on plastic chairs outside a cafe and enjoying traditional green tea after iftar, a fast-breaking meal, at a refugee camp in southern Pakistan, a group of Afghan elders debate on the proposed pullout of the foreign forces from their war-raked homeland.
Nestled on the northern outskirts of Pakistan’s most populous city of Karachi, this run-down locality with limited access to healthcare and basic sanitation is home to nearly 250,000 Afghan refugees who were forced to flee their country due to a lingering conflict.
US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement is nowadays the main topic of discussions at shops, cafes and markets at the sprawling camp, commonly known as Afghan basti (town), where extended families jam into small mud and concrete houses and even in tarpaulin shelters.
Declaring that it is time “to end America’s longest war,” Biden said 2,500 US troops plus a further 7,000 from NATO allies would gradually leave the country starting on May 1.
The administration led by former President Donald Trump had agreed to withdraw all US forces by May after striking a peace deal with the Taliban under which the group was to stop attacking international troops, and engage in peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Many see the pullout plan as an opportunity to seize the long-lost peace. However, some fear that without putting up a credible governance structure in Kabul, the US troop departure may descend Afghanistan into a new civil war, similar to the one happened after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989.
"It is more than a good news that my homeland will be free from foreign troops," Haji Ubaidullah, a leader of Afghan refugees, told Anadolu Agency.
Ubaidullah had migrated from southeastern Ghazni province to Pakistan and made Karachi his second home months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Karachi is home to more than 300,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom work as laborers or own small shops mainly in Pashtun-dominated areas.
Terming the withdrawal plan a "ray of hope", he said, "No one can wish for peace more than Afghans, who have lived under the shadows of fear and homelessness."
"It has been over 40 years, I am away from my soil. I wish I could live the rest of my life in my homeland. I want to be buried in my own soil," said Ubaidullah, who owns a small construction business.
"I want to take my grandchildren to their homeland in my lifetime," an emotional Ubaidullah went on to say.
Civil war worries
Syed Mustafa, who runs a school for refugees' children in Sohrab Ghot, a Pashtun-dominated locality in Karachi's eastern district, appeared to be unsure if the US would actually leave Afghanistan.
"The pullout deadline is pretty far. Anything can happen during this period," Mustafa, who had migrated from the central Parwan province following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, told Anadolu Agency.
"Even if the US follows the deadline, and withdraws its troops without an internationally-ensured power-sharing structure, it will not bring an end to decades-long war but further exacerbate it," he feared.
"I foresee another civil war in the country [after the US pullout]," he said, recalling the chaos after withdrawal of the Soviet troops that ended the nine-year-long occupation in line with the Geneva Accord of 1988.
In Pakistan, a chain of events followed the Geneva agreement starting with the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo’s government in May 1988 and then the death of military ruler Ziaul Haq in an air accident in August 1988 along with top military commanders and US Ambassador Arnold Lewis Raphel.
Echoing Mustafa's apprehensions, Abdul Wahid, another Afghan refugee, opined that the warring Taliban and the Kabul government do not seem to be in a "compromising mood."
"Both sides will do everything to capture more and more area as there will be no bulwark between them," observed Wahid, who had left Afghanistan's eastern Laghman province in 1981.
According to the Long War Journal, the Kabul government and the Taliban control 133 and 75 districts respectively, while 189 districts are "contested."
The population in areas under the Taliban control is 4.5 million, whereas 15.1 million people inhabit the government-controlled districts. The population in the contested areas is 13.2 million.
No early chance of repatriation
The proposed pullout of the foreign forces is unlikely to propel the Afghan refugees to repatriate.
There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, making it the second-largest refugee population in the world after the Syrians in Turkey.
Only around half of the refugees are registered, with the rest living without documents, mostly in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces which border war-infested Afghanistan.
Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, also hosts 500,000 Afghan refugees.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3.8 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many returned to Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment and a lack of education and medical facilities.
"I do not think the [repatriation] idea will attract more than 10% of the refugees," said Mustafa, who himself had no plans to return.
"What is [left] there for us. We have no homes and no business in there. Who will provide these things to us," he argued, adding: "Here, at least, we have shelter and livelihood."
Wahid, who runs a shop in Sohrab Ghot, said: "It has been 40 years, I have been living here. I studied and got married here. I have got nothing there."
"My children even do not look like Afghans," he said in a lighter tone, noting that many Afghan children born in Pakistan can only speak the country’s national language, Urdu.
"For them, Pakistan is their only home," he added.
Some of Wahid's relatives had moved back to Afghanistan in 2003, but soon returned to Pakistan due to the surging violence and unemployment.
Zahir Pashtun, a refugee residing in the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, said he will "wait and see."
"This is welcoming news that the foreign forces are leaving Afghanistan. If the Taliban and the Afghan government manage to reach an agreement and bring peace to the country, nothing is better than that," Pashtun, 32, who works for a non-governmental organization dedicated to refugees' welfare, told Anadolu Agency.
"But, we will see how this all works. We have no immediate plans to repatriate even the foreign forces leave Afghanistan in time," said Pashtun, who was born in Quetta.