Kunduz did not happen overnight

Pakistan and some Afghan politicians have foolishly played the ethnic card with deadly consequences.

Afghan policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in the Deh Sabz district of Kabul, Afghanistan [REUTERS]
Afghan policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in the Deh Sabz district of Kabul, Afghanistan [REUTERS]

Drapsaka was the site from which Alexander the Great launched his military campaign into Central Asia in 329 BC. By the 16th century, the Hellenistic garrison came to be known as Kuhandijh, the Ancient Citadel. Today, Kunduz encapsulates all that has gone wrong in Washington’s Afghanistan war.

The world acted surprised when the Taliban stormed Kunduz city on September 27. So did the Afghan government. Even the Taliban’s sponsors, Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence Directorate (ISI), did not expect such an easy success.

The insurgents, however, did not appear at the gates of Kunduz city at once. For at least nine years – and under the watch of US and international security forces – they infiltrated the province village-by-village and district-by-district.

Ripple effect in Afghanistan as Kunduz economy plummets

Still, it was not their might or strategic prowess that made Kunduz an easy victory. Rather, it was a complex and sustained set of faux pas made by the Afghan government and the US-led international forces that facilitated the event.

Foolish games

Whatever the causes, in the aftermath, harsh accusations of ethnic games are circulating. In reality, Kunduz and other northern provinces have fallen victim to Kabul politicians’ need to raise their leverage, and local strongmen’s lust for greater influence.

For a while now, the ethnic card has been played cunningly by the ISI and foolishly by Afghan statesmen and politicians.

Also read: Is an ‘Afghan Awakening’ the solution?

The stage for this game was set in the mid-1980s when the Pakistani government became the conduit for distributing US aid to the Afghan mujahideen. Pakistan had presented a simplified and neatly compartmentalised ethnic landscape of the Afghan resistance groups to their US benefactors. In this picture, the Pashtuns and the Tajiks were set in an historic and perpetual opposition. 

Ethnic rivalries and grievances did exist in prewar Afghanistan, as in many multiethnic developing nations. But the 1960s and 1970s had set the course for a more egalitarian state...


Ethnic rivalries and grievances did exist in prewar Afghanistan, as in many multiethnic developing nations. But the 1960s and 1970s had set the course for a more egalitarian state, where the concept of national unity began to solidify.

The Islamist political parties that later morphed into jihadist organisations were formed in the 1960s as national outfits drawing membership from all ethnic groups and modelled after the pan-Islamic ideology of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Among them, Jamiat-e-Islami, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, received the bulk of US funds and developed the largest networks in Afghanistan.

During the resistance, and especially after their victory in 1992, ideological struggle gave way to a raw fight for supremacy and control of resources. By then, mujahideen leaders and commanders had mastered the skills of playing the ethnic game to mobilise their constituencies.

Warrior mentality

In Kunduz, like in most other parts of the country, power shifted from the traditional elite to foreign-funded commanders who led armed militias. But, the new elite’s warrior mentality and lack of governance knowledge made control of resources and expansion of influence their only goals.

Kunduz is one of the truly multiethnic Afghan provinces, with the Pashtuns constituting the largest group, followed by Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Hazara, as well as smaller numbers of other ethnicities. 

Also read: Afghans are ready but is Pakistan willing?

Prior to the Soviet war, a number of Pashtun landowners were at the top of the province’s power structure. Kunduz prospered through pioneering efforts in agro-industry, and influential families of other ethnic groups also benefited from its prosperity. 

Afghan security forces prepare to transport an injured civilian after a battle with the Taliban in the city of Kunduz [Reuters]
Afghan security forces prepare to transport an injured civilian after a battle with the Taliban in the city of Kunduz [Reuters]

The mujahideen victory in the 90s struck the first chord of factionalism in Kunduz. The local commanders of Jamiat and Hizb and other jihadist groups were now vying for control of the province’s districts.

This was an extension of the infighting over the “throne of Kabul” mainly between Hekmatyar and Rabbani. The latter’s mostly Tajik commanders finally achieved a slight edge before they were routed by Taliban forces in 1997. With Jamiat dislodged, Hizb commanders either integrated into the Taliban forces or remained neutral. 

Many local commanders returned to prominence after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. While some Hizb members received official appointments, greater security posts were given to Jamiat commanders.

The Jamiat commanders and sub-commanders felt entitled to claim the lion’s share of power as they served as ground forces during the 2001 US military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Ghani's vision and strategies for improving sub-national governance would have a better chance of success sans Byzantine politics of the previous administration.


Pashtuns of the province felt sidelined and saw it as Tajik powerbrokers’ revenge for the atrocities that the Taliban had committed when they had conquered Kunduz.

Land became another point of contention. As the refugees returned from exile, they found their properties confiscated by commanders and their cronies. The Pashtuns particularly were left without recourse, while others were accommodated or absorbed in the power elite’s patronage system.

Several former Taliban sub-commanders who were no longer a part of the insurgent group tried to secure the support of international players (particularly the German military that was in Kunduz as the Provincial Reconstruction Team) on land ownership issues and on acquiring contracts for development projects. They were refused in favour of the militia commanders.

‘Legalised thugs’

With the resurgence of the Taliban, which arguably was aided by some disgruntled locals, in 2009 the US and the Afghan government launched programmes to create local militia forces as an auxiliary to the developing Afghan National Security Forces.

This supplied a perfect occasion for many political players in Kabul to fortify their influence in the provinces. The programme essentially legalised existing militiamen whose loyalties were with their local commanders.

Also read: The Arbaki can secure Afghanistan better than the US

While a more discrete militia programme had been running by the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence service, the Ministry of Interior launched the US funded Afghan Local Police (ALP) programme. 


The bulk of the initial 1,125 ALP positions for Kunduz went to pro-Jamiat commanders and a handful of others who were little more than thugs and allegedly involved in narcotics and arms trade.

Several national and international organisations have documented a summary of killings, tortures, beatings, looting, kidnapping and even sexual violations committed by the militias, especially those in northern provinces.

Prior to the attack, the new governor, handpicked by President Ashraf Ghani to implement his reforms, had faced fierce opposition from militia commanders. Having failed to deliver on the reform program since his appointment last December, the governor insisted on disbanding mercenary forces.

Ironically, the ALP and other militia forces were among the first units that fled Kunduz city when the Taliban attacks began last month.

Some non-Pashtun politicians now claim that as part of a top-secret programme, the National Security Council, the president’s advisory body, has armed Pashtun commanders in northern provinces to check both the Jamiat’s and the Taliban’s influence in the region.

If there is any truth to this allegation, Kunduz demonstrated that the NSA had overestimated its skills in Machiavellian games. Moreover, Ghani’s vision and strategies for improving subnational governance would have a better chance of success sans the kind of Byzantine politics that became the hallmark of Hamed Karzai’s administration.

Spinning the domination games of Kabul politicians or Rawalpindi generals as ethnic tensions will not benefit Afghanistan nor its international partners. At the grassroots level, Afghans don’t buy into it. Kunduz is no longer Drapsaka and Afghanistan must never again serve as a springboard for domestic or foreign greed.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.