THE PHOTOGRAPHS are coming through now: a little girl, a look of confusion and doubt on her face, carrying a barefoot infant on her back; another youngster lying twisted in a bed with wounds said to have been caused by napalm. The pictures come from the camps in Pakistan where masses of refugees from Afghanistan are gathering. Hundreds of thousands have arrived in the month since the Soviet invasion, and up to a million are expected -- out of a population of some 14 million. They arrive sick, homeless, generally at the mercy of what few resources can be mustered for them in a cold place far from home. Whatever the political and military meanings of Soviet aggression, what it comes down to for a large number of Afghans is the pitiful life of a refugee.
In good times, life in the provinces of Pakistan bordering the mountains of Afghanistan is difficult enough to make the tribesmen there feel alienated and deprived. Now the pressure on resources is harshly aggravated. The Pakistani government, even with the most generous international assistance, will be hard pressed to care for the flow of refugees. In this way, the urgent humanitarian reasons for relief shade into substantial political considerations. The arriving refugees are almost certain to add to the ethnic awareness and militancy in provinces that the Punjabi-led Pakistani government already regards as excessively ethnically aware and militant. Though it may not have been begun for that end, the flow of refugees amounts to a Soviet-sponsored campaign of destabilization against Pakistan.
One particular fact promises special complications. Many of the arriving Afghans belong to families or tribes whose men either stayed in the mountains to fight the Soviets or intend to acquire arms and return. This will invariably tend to politicize questions of relief. Pakistan is being asked by its own tribesmen at least to wink at the arming of Afghan guerrillas. Yet Pakistani authorities clearly do not wish to give undue provocation to the Soviets on the Afghan side of the border or to allow the accumulation of arms that could be diverted to use by disaffected tribesmen on their own side of the border.
The first priority remains to offer adequate care to the civilian victims of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and to prevent the frail economic and social structure of Pakistan from buckling under the refugee burden. Through United Nations channels and directly to Pakistan, generous aid must be forthcoming.