ANALYSIS: Afghanistan: the fire needs to be put out —Musa Khan Jalalzai - Thursday, March 24, 2011

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Warlords remain the most virulent obstacle to Afghanistan’s future. Without the writ of the government beyond Kabul, the new state is bound to continue weak and troubled

Civil war in Afghanistan vastly changed the traditional political process and created an imbalance in power sharing among various ethnic players. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country, a new phase of civil war began among various factions, which proved more destructive than the Soviet military intervention. The power shift from Pashtuns to non-Pashtuns and the post-Taliban democratic and political transformation tilted in favour of the Persian ethnic groups, who never had legitimate representation during a century-long Durrani rule. As they gained political power, they resolved to institutionalise ethnicity and adopt a unified strategy against Pashtun domination.

This is the saga of ethnic strife, sectarianism and brutal civil war of 21st century Afghanistan, which resulted in massive population displacement, torture and humiliation. Keeping in view the brutality of the war, finally, Afghan mothers raised their voices for peace and harmony and demanded no more killings, bloodshed, torture and suicide attacks. Now they have tired weeping over the dead bodies of their loved sons. These tired and frightened voices of Afghan mothers need to be heard.

One of the most destructive dimensions of this war is the internal rivalry among factions organised around tribal, ethnic, religious and ideological lines. The current wave of ethno-civil war and Taliban imposed jihad on the country is a protracted conflict where the focus of NATO and US forces has tended to fluctuate, depending on their interests. In Afghanistan, ethnic war symbolises two warring groups: Pashtuns and Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen. The emergence of the Taliban movement added to its complexity. The Afghan defence and interior ministries present a picture of appointments on ethnic and ideological bases. The officers in these ministries are of four ethnic and ideological backgrounds, busy sidelining each other.

In the 1964 constitution, the right of forming political parties of ethnic minorities remained uncertain. Ethnic rivalries and superiority complexes were promoted. Hazaras had no right to raise their voices. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns were embroiled in various protracted conflicts. After 9/11, the balance of power shifted in favour of Tajiks and Hazaras while Pashtuns believe they are being sidelined.

Such attitudes empowered elements who say that Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns and Tajiks belong to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan and Hazaras to Iran. These wrong perceptions of both majority and minority groups have increased incidents of ethnic violence in northern Afghanistan. Pashtuns have been connected to the ISI, al Qaeda and Pakistan to provide solid reasons for the killing of their children. Uzbeks specified their destiny. In northern Afghanistan, they once had autonomy in 1998. They introduced their own currency and their own administration. During the Taliban capture of Mazar-e-Sharif and the brutal killing of the Uzbek and Hazara populations, the perception was strongly reinforced that Pashtuns do not tolerate other communities. However, the killing of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan and their humiliation by the Tajik and Uzbek militias changed the whole political scenario. A heartbreaking story of a Tajik criminal police officer, Azizullah, exemplifies how the clefts of ethnic conflict are being widened by US forces. Azizullah is alleged to have remained on the payroll of the US military intelligence to target Pashtun civilians in the southern part of the country. The UN office in Kabul raised the issue of Azizullah’s brutality with NATO Command in February 2010. There are many ethnic Pashtun warlords who often target Tajiks and Hazaras. These painful acts by Afghan warlords have increased ethnic tension and wrong perceptions of Pashtun domination and Pashto-Persian conflict have further widened the clefts of communal violence.

Pakistan supported the Taliban movement and recognised their government in Kabul. The arrival of warring factions in Kabul was accompanied by violent ethnic cleansing and massacres carried out with the aim of homogenising whole areas of the city.

In Kabul, between 1992 and 1994, and the north of the country in 1996, 1998 and 2001, ethnic cleansing occurred in which thousands of innocent citizens were killed. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, in many parts of the country, land disputes are still playing out with an ethnic dimension. The incidents of ethnically motivated crime, rape, humiliation and abuse increased. In the 1990s and between 2001 and 2010, land disputes assumed an ethnic shape. Pashtuns were driven from their lands in villages in the north and the Hazaras reclaimed land from Kuchis in Hazarajat, Behsood and Ghazni provinces.

Returnees from Pakistan and Iran face a threatening situation when ethnic commanders refuse to leave houses they have occupied. The Panjsheri mafia has been playing its own ethnic card. The Pashtun and Uzbek mafias are playing their own. In Kabul and the northern parts of the country, their ethnic and political dominance has also altered inter-ethnic relations at the grassroots level. Petty discrimination against non-Tajiks has many faces.

The Kuch invasion of Behsood and the killing of children and women from the Hazara population is another problem that needs to be addressed. The Afghan government and its machinery supported the Kuch invasion against the Hazara population. The main reason behind the growing ethnic violence in the north is that Kabul is not fully in control of some northern provinces like Balkh, Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamyan. The governors there do not accept any advice from Kabul. They run the provinces like independent states, not sharing even revenue with the central government. The residents of Balkh say its relative peace is largely due to the strong hand of Governor Atta Muhammad Noor.

Atta Muhammad Noor has been deeply involved in the killing of the Pashtun minority in the province. He does not recognise the authority of the central government and never shares his provincial revenue with Kabul. Consequently, another hot debate in the Afghan media often appears about the issue of ethno-federalism. Discussions concerning the creation of a decentralised state in Afghanistan are of more importance. Now this discussion has adopted a practical shape. The debate of the ethnic partition of the state has intensified, specifically in the north. Debates on the dismemberment of the country have become important both in political and intellectual circles.

This newly raised issue has increased hurdles for the Afghan government. All the above-mentioned forms of ethnic violence, criminal culture and warlordism need to be addressed. A strong, legitimate Afghan state can be the only solution to all these grievances. But turning Afghanistan into an effective functioning state with the present administration is a difficult task. Warlords remain the most virulent obstacle to Afghanistan’s future. Without the writ of the government beyond Kabul, the new state is bound to continue weak and troubled. If its writ fails to run very far and if it is unable to protect its citizens, it will be difficult for the government to establish its authority. In the absence of an effective and strong central government and counter-terror strategy, the Taliban will further threaten the national security and stability of Afghanistan. As increasing ethnic tension, warlordism and social polarisation have threatened the territorial integrity of the country, it is mandatory for Afghan rulers to begin addressing the issue of institutionalised factionalism, ethnicity and political alienation.

The writer is the author of Britain’s National Security Challenges and can be reached at

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