Saturday’s suicide attack on a crowd of demonstrators belonging to the Hazara community in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, which left 80 dead and several hundreds wounded, is symptomatic of a deep seated and long standing problem plaguing the country, the problem of weaving into a single nation a country which is sharply divided on ethnic and religious lines.
Though claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Saturday’s attack could be seen as an attempt by the dominant Pashtuns to curb the minority Hazaras and also as an attempt by the majority Sunnis to quell the minority Hazaras who are Shias. In deeply divided Afghanistan, the minority Hazara Shias have no guaranteed right to demonstrate for getting electricity for the province which was what the demonstrators were seeking.
Afghanistan is a multi ethnic country. Pashtuns or Pakhtuns are the largest ethnic group followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimak, Turkmen, Baluch, Nuristani and other small groups, in that order. To be more precise, Pashtuns are 38%, Tajiks 25%, Hazara 19% Dari, ad Uzbek 6%.
But apart from ethnic differences there are religious, ideological, economic, geographic and linguistic differences which reinforce ethnic distinctions.
The Pashtuns have dominated Afghan governments. Though the Tajiks have lived in Afghanistan for centuries, they have never ruled Afghanistan — with the exception of the Kart dynasty and the short 10-month rule of Habibullah Kalakani in 1929. However, in modern Afghanistan, Tajiks have a place as bureaucrats, educators, and successful merchants and entrepreneurs.
Ethnic Discrimination Key Factor
Afghanistan has been plagued by civil wars. But all these wars have stemmed from ethnic “discrimination”. Ethnic groups discriminate against each other brazenly both in the public and the private sector. Such discrimination has been encouraged by both internal and foreign forces. Ethnic groups cynically use civil wars to capture power.
All through his reign, King Abdur Rahman Khan (1880–1901,) a Pashtun, attempted to build a strong, modern state, less dependent on shifting tribal alliances. But in trying to establish authority throughout the country, particularly where ethnic minorities were dominant, the King took harsh steps especially against Hazaras and Nuristanis.
Whereas Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority is Sunni, the Hazara are Shia, and the Nuristani practice their own religion. Thus, religion has been used to legitimize warfare and ethnic persecution, says Nahid Suleman, an Afghan journalist in his comprehensive paper on discrimination in Afghanistan.
“Abdur Rahman Khan forcibly moved large numbers of non-complying Pashtuns to minority-dominated areas in the North, thus turning people who were formerly a threat to him into an effective instrument for strengthening his rule in non-Pashtun areas,” Suleman notes.
Pashtun nomads were granted privileges such as access to pastures in the Hazara-inhabited central region. Habibullah (1901–1919) and Amanullah (1919–1929) introduced constitutional reforms and outlawed slavery and other discriminatory practices but this affected the ethnic minorities, primarily.
King Amanullah fell in 1929, replaced by the non-Pashtun Bacha-e-Saqao—”son of the water-carrier” , a Tajik from the Kohistan region north of Kabul. Nadir Shah (1929–1933), a representative of a tribal Pashtun confederation, deposed Bacha-e Saqao in just nine months.
After Zahir Shah (1933– 1973) inherited the throne, the country was relatively calm for several decades. But Daud Khan, the Prime Minister, was a strong proponent of Pashtun nationalism. He wanted to expand Afghanistan to include the Pashtun areas and population in Pakistan. This led to tense relations between the two countries and to the eventual ouster of Daud in 1963, Suleman recalls.
Some Pashtuns Turn Leftist
The constitution of 1964 allowed freedom of the press, and political parties were established. The pro-Soviet communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was predominantly Pashtun. Later it split into the Parcham faction, composed of urban intellectuals with a tendency toward ethnic accommodation, and the Khalq faction, composed of rural, authoritarian, and nationalistic folk. The Maoist Shula-e Jawid, arose in 1967 as a result of a split in the PDPA.
Faced with a variety of parties pushing ethnic agendas, the King Zahir Shah responded by unofficially ensuring that minorities were represented in the cabinet. The basic attitude toward ethnic differences was that economic modernization would lead to their gradual erosion.
However in 1973, former Prime Minister Daud Khan regained power and established authoritarian rule. But this was replaced through a PDPA coup in 1978. The PDPA immediately announced a Soviet-style nationalities policy that covered four areas, namely, government participation, education, newspapers, and culture.
But the PDPA’s credibility was severely undermined by Pashtun dominance of the party and by its attempts to get Pashtun support by making ethnic-oriented appeals.
Soviet Invasion Trigger Political Islam
With the 1978 coup and the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghan resistance parties were established in Pakistan and Iran. Pashtuns, with the exception of Jamat-i Islami, dominated the Pakistan-based parties. And all of them were Sunni. And Iran became the major backer of the groups active among the Hazaras which were Shia. The anti-Soviet resistant movements were based on ethnicity as well as political Islam, with Islam being the dominant factor, Suleman notes.
Nonetheless, the fact that the resistance leadership was overwhelmingly Pashtun was problematic from the perspective of the non-Pashtun population. Resistance-based shadow cabinets were notoriously weak and fragmented, mainly because the resistance leaders could not accommodate Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity.
Once in power, the PDPA went on to announce a Soviet-style nationalities policy. But in practice, the will to implement such reforms was limited, and PDPA’s credibility was severely undermined by Pashtun dominance.
Najib Era Brings About Change
However, when President Najib took power in 1986, there was a change of approach. Najib’s government took on a massive project in political accommodation. But the government was also aware that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan was on the wane, and ethnic and tribal loyalties were being exploited to establish local militias to fill the gap. The Uzbek militia of General Dostum, and the Ismaili militia of Sayyed Mansoor, developed into major military units.
The ethnic dimension came into the limelight when the resistance groups took power in Kabul in April 1992. The Jamat-i Islami and its key commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, were the dominant force. However, different groups in the resistance soon split Kabul into separate sections. The divisions were on ethnic lines.
Alliances between resistance groups and sections of the old government army that shared an ethnic identity emerged. Political and military leaders used ethnic arguments to build support among the people, and the common people were left with no option but to seek protection from their own ethnic group.
Rise of Sunni Cum Pashtun Taliban
The Taliban emerged in late 1994 in reaction to the strife in Kabul and the lawlessness in the rest of the country. Based on traditionalist networks of Islamic scholars and village mullahs, the Taliban found supporters mainly in the Pashtun population.
At first, the organization avoided ethnic rhetoric, but gradually it began using pro-Pashtun as well as anti-Shia arguments. In the aftermath of armed confrontations with other groups, the Taliban often arrested and harassed people only for ethnic reasons.
The democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai extended only weakly beyond the outskirts of Kabul. With the result, ethnic fragmentation continued, especially in east and south Afghanistan. A sophisticated insurgency was on and large areas of Afghanistan were ruled by warlords and drug lords. The country had become a narco-state.
Ethnic politics and consciousness permeated every sector of Afghan life including the bureaucracy. Even in the state sector, salaries and perks varied with ethnicity, depending upon which ethnic group was dominant in the department. Recruitment was based on ethnicity. Salary differences for the same job could vary widely. Hamid Karzai, was well meaning and modern, and his cabinet was ethnically balanced, but he could not change the orientations and practices of the Afghans. Afghanistan has not changed till date.
Role of Foreign Forces
The gradual withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan had exacerbated the situation in Afghanistan, said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a report dated 2014.
The overall trend was one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Withdrawal of international soldiers had generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents had failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas had experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops, yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduced the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks.
A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – revealed underlying factors that had aggravated the conflict, ICG said. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances were worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these were largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar mostly tribal.
The situation in Kandahar also illustrated the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, bred resentment that fed the insurgency.
Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan had not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risked worsening cross-border relations.
But none of these trends meant that Afghanistan was doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, ICG said.
Afghanistan had no shortage of young men joining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), offsetting the rising number of those who opted to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remained capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centers.
ANSF’s cohesiveness, or lack of it, might prove decisive in the coming years. But as long as donors remained willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – would be a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents, ICG said.
But that would not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for gains, ICG warned. They were blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centers. With less risk of attack from international forces, they were massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks.
The rising attacks showed that the insurgents were able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government.
“Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment,” ICG said.(NIA)