The Pakhtun region straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has a complex and confusing history, able to disorient many outside observers. That, however, serves as a poor excuse for Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who managed to cause a furore on both sides of the border with a few misplaced words – seeing as he is no outside observer but a resident politician of the land.

The head of Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) has since retracted his statements, saying he never meant to imply that the province of Khyber Pakhtukhwa (KP) belonged to Afghanistan. Perhaps he can be cut some slack, as the Afghan publication to which he gave an interview did seem to quote him out of context – in bold scarlet letters no less – to gain the maximum leverage it can. What is more, willfully making such a statement is political suicide in the present toxic environment created by Pak-Afghan tension – as the bitter criticism against him can testify. It is highly doubtful that he meant what is being implied.

However, what the slip of tongue and the collateral criticism ignores is the underlying argument that Mr Achakzai is making. Ethnic Pakhtuns have called the mountainous land of KP and eastern Afghanistan their home for hundreds of years before the modern states and their borders were drawn up. Even after the formal division, many Pakhtun families continue to have relatives on both sides of the border and use the porous border to make unofficial visits across the land. An arrangement that was tolerated by both states until the terrorism problem sprang up.

Mr Achakzai is quoted to have said that “KP belongs to the Afghans”, while he really should have said: “KP belongs to the Pakhtuns, many of whom are Afghans and many of whom are Pakistanis.”

This feeds into the larger – and an exigent – debate on the fate of Afghan refuges in the province and the government’s efforts to repatriate them. Incidentally, it is for this reason that he met Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Dr Omar Zakhilwal – not to underscore “seditious” messages.

Pakistan needs to have an open debate on this matter. There is a rising and dangerous trend of racially profiling all Afghan refugees as militant sympathisers and an economic burden – which feeds into discrimination against them and harsher government policies. Mr Achakzai is right; Afghan Pakhtuns have considered KP as “their home” for centuries, kicking them out would be an injustice. We need to realise that after decades of residence in Pakistan, many Afghans have become a part of the country; Islamabad and KP are entrenched with Afghan Pakhtuns; removing them forcibly would only cause damage to the economy and the society.