The crisis and politics of ethnicity in Afghanistan

The troubled central Asian country needs to develop a political system based on a pan-Afghan vision.

Pashtun boys
Despite numbering 35 million in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pashtun have no state of their own [Getty Images]

Kabul, Afghanistan –
The fall of the Taliban presented opportunities for the country’s elite – of any region or ethnicity – to contribute to the foundations of a nation-state and heal the country’s political fragmentation. 

Afghanistan today has some institutions that can claim to be national, but a pan-Afghan, national politics is still missing. The ethnic divide is increasing, ethnopolitics is on the rise, and both the literature of hate and demagogic politicians are gaining traction. Politicians, intellectuals and opinion leaders talk of ethnic politics openly when addressing audiences made up of their kin, but resort to vague rhetoric while on the national stage.

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The fragmented state of the more than 35 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a key factor in this crisis. Perceiving them as a formidable ethnic group, the Pakistani establishment has savvily played a role in keeping them divided. Pashtuns in Pakistan can broadly be categorised as the integrated, the Islamists, and the nationalists.

Many Pashtuns hailing from the Khatak, Niazi, Yusufzai, and Tarin tribes are integrated in Pakistan. For them, the sense of belonging to a nation is far stronger than their ethnic affiliation. Based on merit and loyalty to the system, they have enjoyed prestigious positions in Pakistan – president, army chief of staff, and various ministerial positions. As of yet, however, no Pashtun has become prime minister.

The Islamist Pashtuns of Pakistan have largely been a tool in the hands of the country’s military and intelligence agencies to use against the ethno-nationalists in the regions of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Two predominantly Pashtun Islamist parties, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, have been used to manipulate politics among the Pashtuns in Pakistan and to implement the Pakistani agenda in Afghanistan.

The ethno-nationalist Pashtuns of Pakistan have advocated for the rights of their ethnic group within the country. Led by Wali Khan’s family in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Mahmood Khan Achakzai in Balochistan, these two parties maintain good ties with Afghanistan and India as a strategic fallback when pushed into the margins by the Pakistani establishment.

However, they could be co-opted as they ascend to power. Their biggest gain so far has been the change of the name of the North-West Frontier Province to Khyber Pukhtunkha (which means “Pashtun quarter”). Yet their influence among the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is patchy at best. FATA represents a miserable case of a large ethnic group fallen into the traps of a colonial-minded Pakistani establishment. By playing with the ego of the tribes and calling them “free” and “autonomous”, the people of FATA have in reality been deprived of the basic rights and progress other societies have enjoyed. The divided Pashtuns of Pakistan are unable to gain what they deserve in accordance to their population size. The Punjabi-dominated establishment has deflected their attention to focus on Afghanistan, a place where Pashtuns are perceived to be victimised. 

“FATA represents a miserable case of a large ethnic group fallen into the traps of a colonial-minded Pakistani establishment … deprived of the basic rights and progress other societies have enjoyed.

Afghanistan has never been able to provide truly strategic support to the Pashtuns of Pakistan. But on a psychological level, Afghanistan remains the cradle of Pashtun pride, which hearkens back to the glory of Kandahar, the seat of an empire ruled by unified Pashtun tribes. 

Though a significant ethnic group, Pashtuns lack a government of their own. Their language is under threat from English, Urdu, Punjbai and Farsi. Education in Pashto in Pakistan brings no reward. Ethnic politics in Afghanistan has put it in competition with Farsi, and yet the language lacks a deep source of intellectual support in or outside the region. The language of strategic communication largely remains English for Pakistanis and Farsi for Afghans. 

The many Pashtuns in Karachi are in conflict with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement over land and job opportunities. The Pashtuns of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa are in dispute with the Punjab region over water, resources, higher education, political participation, language and other issues. And Pashtuns in Afghanistan are challenged by the rise of non-Pashtun groups. The struggles of other ethnic groups for political power in Afghanistan – such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – challenges the dominant umbrella role the Pashtuns have played in the past. 

The reactions

Afghans favour a pluralistic state ensuring fair access to justice, resources, and political participation. Pluralism today is challenged by the second rise of the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s accommodating stance towards them. The Taliban’s repression and brutality alienates many Afghans. The question is what, apart from ethnic politics and a sense of kinship, causes Karzai to try to compromise with them.

Many northern leaders of Afghanistan have been killed by the Taliban, and certain parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan have seen school closings, the killings of tribal chiefs, and lawlessness.

“Afghans of all ethnic groups have stood together for a common cause but they have failed to share a common platform.

The fear of the Taliban’s return is another reason for the rise of ethnic politics. Pan-Afghan parties don’t exist. Afghans of all ethnic groups have stood together for a common cause but they have failed to share a common platform. The fragmentation of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan along ethnic lines in the 1960s-1980s – in spite of support and pressure from the Soviet Union – is a prime example.

With the rise of the Uzbek political party, Junbish Milli Islami, under General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Islamic party Jamiat-e Islami – led by the late Burhanuddin Rabbani – lost its Uzbek base and many Jamiat-e commanders of Pashtun origin didn’t want to fight the Taliban. That said, Ahmad Shah Massoud did manage to create a pan-Afghan resistance alliance against them in 1998 when it became clear the Taliban lacked a vision beyond war and intimidation. 

Now with Massoud and Rabbani gone, there are no northern leaders with the required standing to exert influence in the south. Similarly, there are no leaders of Pashtun origin to regain the trust of the north. Patronage politics should not count as genuine political intrusion and influence.

When General Dostum supported President Karzai in the 2009 elections, he was branded a national figure by both the president and his slain brother Ahmad Wali Karzai. Yet when the same General Dostum – an ethnic Uzbek – switched sides, he was labelled a separatist leader and national traitor. This rhetoric reduces nationalism to a Pashtun-centric system and further alienates others from the system. 

The Islamist Shia parties of Afghanistan are comprised almost wholly of Hazara people. Although these parties do not mention Shia or Hazara in their logos or names, they recognise that their appeal is limited, and do not try to influence other parts of the country.

Afghanistan’s northern neighbours lack the resources, infrastructure, political will and strength to provoke ethnic divides in Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan, kept at bay from religious fanatics and providing them access to an alternative trade and sea route, is desirable to them, no matter who rules in Kabul.

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Iran is pursuing a policy of its own, shaped by its national security interests. For Iran, having good relations with Kabul is important, yet a central part of Iran’s strategy also includes support for non-state actors that can help shape the political landscape and provide a counterweight.

Iran’s strategy of watching Americans bleed in Afghanistan and the wider region is contributing to the failure of the NATO mission as a whole. Language, ethnicity, trade, sectarian politics and cultural ties are all tools used by Iran for the promotion of its interest, not for the common good of people in the region. 

All of Afghanistan’s neighbours are guilty to some extent of provoking ethnic divides in the country, but Pakistan especially so. Although its strategy has failed to benefit Pakistan or strengthen its position vis-a-vis its regional rivals, there are no signs that Pakistan will abandon this strategy either.

Pakistan believes that the policy of reconciliation will pay off to some extent for what it has invested in the Taliban. They are also observing the ethnic divide in Afghanistan and will obviously try to exploit it for their benefit. 

Ethnicity will continue to play a dominant role in the politics of Afghanistan. The restoration of national consensus over the democratic process and the political system is key to the country’s stability. Solidifying a national identity is very important to avoid tensions between ethnic groups. The politics of co-option and patronage will not help Afghanistan reduce its security expenditures or increase its development. There needs to be a visible measure of accountability and a fair distribution of national resources. Reconciliation should not be based on narrow ethnic politics or fear but on a pan-Afghan vision.

Otherwise, the subsidies that NATO countries are giving to the Afghan National Security Forces will mean keeping afloat a state that is at war with itself and unable to focus on the enemy. And this won’t be sustainable, either.

Amrullah Saleh served as head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security between 2004 and 2010, and is now leading the Afghan pro-democracy movement, Basej-i Milli.