Sharbat Gula: Lessons for Pakistan

President Ashraf Ghani and Afghanistan's first lady meet Sharbat Gula after her return to Afghanistan. (Photo via video stream)
President Ashraf Ghani and Afghanistan’s first lady meet Sharbat Gula after her return to Afghanistan. (Photo via video stream)

For nearly 15 days, the world media rang with the ‘injustice’ that Pakistan was meting out to the National Geographic famed ‘Afghan Girl’ Sharbat Gula. Most of media pounced upon the news of her arrest, the subsequent imprisonment for 15 days and the imminent deportation. Once again, they had found a reason to run down Pakistan’s image.

The entire reporting was premised on emotions — not on the rule of law — and the fame that the ‘green-eyed Afghan Girl’ had won when she made it to the title of National Geographic in 1985. Nobody was interested in the ‘illegality’ involved in her registration documents. Neither did most of the foreign media mention that relatives present at the given address had refused to recognize two persons listed as her sons in the form. Nor did she avail the first 2006 census of the Afghan refugees that culminated in the issuance of a Proof of Registration (PoR) cards to all Afghans, enabling them to stay in Pakistan legitimately.

Even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official refused to help Ms Gula, saying they could have helped had she been arrested under the Foreign Act and if she was a registered refugee. But digging into the truth did not make a good story. True, with so many years spent in Pakistan and with at least one kid, she deserved compassion and consideration, and the permission to stay on in Pakistan. That is why we — as members of the civil society — lobbied against her deportation. We requested Imran Khan for intervention. He instantly responded and requested the K-P government via twitter and then in personal meetings to request the federal government to deal with Sharbat Gula’s — a patient of hepatitis C — case on humanitarian and medical grounds. The advocate general, too, approached the federal government with suggestions on how to prevent Gula’s deportation.

But, on November 7, in an application to the K-P government, Sharbat Gula pleaded she would like to return to Afghanistan, turning down K-P government’s offer. Now, regardless whether and when she leaves, let us admit; this case exemplifies the dither-delay-deflect attitude of the state of Pakistan, an attitude that often entails punishing implications for the country’s perception. It reflects the tardy policy and decision-making within the Pakistani institutions. It was not just about an illegally acquired ID. Nor about spurious information the lady passed on to the National Database and Registration Authority over the issuance of CNICs to Ms Gula and two other Afghans shown as her sons.

Of late this dither-delay-deflect attitude became evident in the deferment of decisions on recommendations for dealing with the Afghans sheltering in Pakistan. The reason; the government wants to develop political consensus for the Afghans’ stay beyond the March 2017 deadline. Recommendations included allowing certain categories of Afghan nationals to live on temporarily even after the passage of the deadline, grant of multiple entry visas to Afghan students, investors and those with Pakistani spouses or those entering the country for medical check-ups. These measures have also been part of the official and unofficial Track 11 Pak Afghan dialogues and are meant to ease the burden of bureaucracy.

Ironic, indeed, that the issue has been subject to annual reviews for years, without any medium-to-long term remedy for those Afghans born or raised here for decades. The consequence of the witch-hunt that ensued the government’s decision not to extend their stay beyond March 2017 has been horrendous; nearly 360,000 Afghans have returned but they have also taken along countless stories of harassment and extortion by police with them, adding to the already negative image of Pakistan.

Although Pakistan has offered 300kg wheat per head/year, in addition to the $400 per head by the UNHCR, yet what will do the rounds in Afghanistan will be the stories of injustice and maltreatment meted out to many Afghans in the past few months.

An additional note to the visas for Afghans saying “not valid for cantonment areas and restricted areas” is another handiwork of our short-sighted bureaucrats. This too has created another embarrassment for Pakistan.

Sharbat Gula’s case is the latest addition to those stories. We, at the civil society level, tried to fight her case but she has ostensibly decided to leave — regardless whether lured by the cash/kind incentives or aggrieved by the treatment here — Sharbat Gula will now make an extremely interesting story across the border. Nobody will speak of the forgery, fraud she and many other Afghans may have committed. I would say much more than those Afghans, it is our leadership responsible for the negative story. Unfortunately they have priorities that are more important than the image of this country.

The writer heads the independent Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate

This article was first published in The Express Tribune. Click here to go to the original.

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