The military operation in Punjab has barely started and there is already controversy surrounding the move. Door to door searches of residential areas, registration of undocumented tenants and general security checks – usually considered preliminary and not part of operations proper – have stirred up a storm in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Parliamentarians, business groups and citizens claim that members of Pakhtun and Afghan communities are being unfairly targeted, leading to an angry undercurrent that is threatening to derail the process before it has even begun.

In such emotionally and potentially racially charged times, it is important to carefully sift the warranted from the exaggerated and the sincere from the disingenuous; peace and stability takes precedence over party politics.

It is true to a certain extent that the Afghan refugee population has been made to collectively shoulder the blame for continuing militancy in Pakistan. While several facts and instances – such as the lingering cross border ties, continued facilitation of illicit trade and presence of militant groups in the tribal belt – make increased scrutiny of them as a group necessary, a large part of the blame has been simply shifted on them as “the others”. Many of them are Pakistani citizens through naturalisation and any such prejudice is clearly discriminatory.

But are the current search operations an act of “racial profiling”? The answer is clearly no. It is not in the interest of the military to be only searching for Pakhtuns in Punjab when the stated objective is to dismantle Punjabi groups. Furthermore, these operations go door to door, through neighbourhoods of all ethnicities and wealth brackets, and are carried out by constables and soldiers drawn from every ethnicity in Pakistan. According to the numbers presented by Interior Ministry, Punjabis are the most arrested group, followed by Sindhis. These are standard operating procedures but portrayed by the KP assembly as an ethnic war of sorts. This is irresponsible and inflammatory, and must stop.

However, this does not mean their concerns should be ignored. The government is not racially profiling the Pakhtuns or Afghans, but a perception exists among the community that they are. This perception needs to be dispelled, not only because it is untrue and inflammatory, but because its existence damages the success rate of the operation. If the Pakhtun and Afghan community feels targeted, their ranks will close up and vital cooperation that we need would vanish.