In Afghanistan’s “theme park of challenges”, ethnic politics is becoming a key contested debate, alongside the usual and known issues.
From harsh exchanges among growing Afghan social media users (PDF) to the controversy over how to name universities, the disputed 2014 presidential election to the stalled electoral reforms, ethnic politics is polarising political elites and the state bureaucracy.
While most Afghan political actors engage in one way or other in ethnic politics, they are hesitant to publicly and openly articulate their ethnic views – particularly to their external interlocutors.
Such a polarisation and, more importantly, its collective denial, could take the country into unchartered territory.
The land of a thousand cities
Afghanistan is a wonderfully diverse nation. The ancient Bactria – in today’s northern Afghanistan – was known as the “land of a thousand cities“ in 4th century BC.
The diversity is visible in every corner of the country. Apart from traditional Islam as the religion of the majority of the country and Dari/Persian as the lingua franca of the nation, Afghanistan is a nation of minorities with overlapping, duplicating and parallel interactions.
The nation-state of Afghanistan is a hybrid polity, partly historical-natural and partly colonial and elite-constructed.
Since its consolidation in the late 19th century, it has struggled to settle its territorial space, build institutions and define its national identity.
Despite Afghans' proven records in ethnic harmony, the growing ethnic polarisation among the elites and state machinery can easily spread to other sectors of society.
The struggle over national identity has been between “civic nationalism” and “tribal nationalism”.
One perspective construes Afghanistan as the land of the Pashtuns and hence Pashtuns’ political mastery.
Their opponent discourse describes the country as the heartland of ancient Khorasan and ensuing political-cultural prominence of non-Pashtuns.
However, the majority of Afghans believe in the pluralistic nature of Afghan society and the need for an inclusive and representative state.
Furthermore, in the absence of any national census, the claim and counter-claim of being the largest ethnic group remain political, rather than factual.
Elites’ ethnic politics has been a key driver of Afghan state weakness and its decades-old hybrid conflict.
This includes the controversy over the Durand Line, the collapse of the Afghan constitutional monarchy in the mid-1970s, the disintegration of leftist and Islamist parties, the inter-factional wars of the 1990s and the post-2001 elite factionalism.
Moreover, the absence of any separatist movement, organised or widespread sectarian violence, communal violence, and Afghans’ legendary determination for national independence show the resilience and strength of their national unity.
Post-2001 and lost opportunities
The collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 heralded Afghanistan’s third democratisation endeavour and laying the foundation of a functioning democratic state.
The process of drafting a new constitution and the eventual outcome became once again a struggle between competing visions and constituencies, including the century-old tribal nationalism versus civic nationalism.
While it had successfully codified some impressive civic and political rights, gender equality and participatory politics, the new Afghan constitution has unfortunately also institutionalised tribal nationalism and ethnic hierarchy.
It adopted a strong presidential system to be accompanied by two symbolic vice presidents and almost no role for political parties.
The drafters’ assumption and ensuing implementation was the allocation of presidency to a Pashtun and two slots of vice presidency to be given to the remaining ethnic groups – Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and others. Such a strong presidential distribution of power has become a “winner-takes-all system”.
The main advocates of a strong presidential system were expat technocrats, while the Mujahedeen groups were mainly in favour of a parliamentary system.
The former’s choice became aligned with Washington’s preference to deal with a strongman and London’s historical ethnic prejudice and its Pakistan-oriented policy.
The concentration of power in Kabul had further widened the gap between the centre and remote provinces, particularly in Taliban-infested areas.
The controversial 2014 presidential election has significantly exacerbated and deepened ethnic politics; an election that was characterised by the European Union observers as “a North Korea situation”.
The arrangement in the aftermath with the formation of the National Unity Government brokered by the United States Secretary of State John Kerry helped a peaceful transfer of power, but not a legal and constitutional one.
President Ashraf Ghani’s refusal to implement political and electoral reforms, and growing accusation against his ethnic and exclusionary politics have exacerbated the 2014 disputed presidential election.
The way forward
Ethnic identity and occasional ethnic tension are the features of every multi-ethnic society – involving power, interest, identity, grievances, fear, envy and hatred.
However, the failure to manage ethnic politics is one of the drivers of socioeconomic underdevelopment, ethnic and civil wars, state collapse, ethnic cleansing and even genocide.
Despite Afghans’ proven records in ethnic harmony, the growing ethnic polarisation among the elites and state machinery can easily spread to other sectors of society.
There are vivid and recent examples that show no country is immune from the poisonous politics of hatred and division.
A transparent, rational, emancipatory, ethical and political intra-Afghan dialogue is the way forward in transforming tribal nationalism into a fully rooted civic nationalism, with ensuing institutional and constitutional reforms.
Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.