Afghanistan's complex ethnic patchwork

March 10, 2011 - 0:0

Efforts are now well under way to establish a broad-based government for post-Taliban Afghanistan. As an initial step, a conference is currently being held in Bonn, under United Nations auspices. But what are its chances of success? No one familiar with Afghan politics can have any illusion about the difficulty of forming a government of national unity to replace the Taliban. Afghanistan simply isn't a readily unifiable kind of place.

In its present form, it owes its existence to the 19th Century ""Great Game"" played out between the British and Russian Empires. Essentially, the great Hindu Kush Range, together with an even more inaccessible section of the Pamir Mountains, were designated as an all-but-impassable barrier between Russian and British spheres of influence. An unlikely panhandle of land, the Wakhan Corridor, extended this divide eastward to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, completing a geographical cordon sanitaire between Central and Southern Asia.
As a consequence of this imperial diplomacy, Afghanistan has remained a peripheral land, a nation without a real centre. Various peoples of Turkic, and South Asian origins surround the central Hindu Kush massif, but no single group absolutely dominates the land. A further complication is that all the major ethnic groups represented in Afghanistan spill over into neighboring countries, with the result that no genuine sense of national cohesion has ever emerged.
To the south and east of the Hindu Kush, dominating the capital Kabul and major cities like Jalalabad, Khost and Kandahar, live the Pashtun. This major group numbers about 6.5 million within Afghanistan, while a similar number live across the frontier in Pakistan. Almost exclusively Sunni Hanafi Muslims, they speak various Pashto dialects. Pashtuns form around 50-55% of the population of Afghanistan, and have been its traditional (though rarely undisputed) rulers.
Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan in the mid-18th century, was a Pashtun. So is Mohammed Zahir Shah, the former king ousted in 1973 and now in exile in Rome. So are virtually all the Taliban, especially the leadership including Mullah Omar, now believed to be in charge of the defense of Kandahar, and Mullah Dadullah, surrounded and holding out at Kunduz, Taliban's last stronghold in hostile tribal territories north of the Hindu Kush.
Not all Pashtuns support Taliban, however. Pashtun support for Taliban seems to have melted away over several years and, more specifically, in recent weeks. The moderate Pashtun leader Abdul Haq who was captured and killed by Taliban in early November, 2001, was desperately seeking to put together an anti-Taliban Pashtun tribal alliance. Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun leader and official representative of former King Zahir Shah, is currently pursuing the same complex goal in the hills of Uruzgan Province, north of Kandahar.
Pashtuns may not agree on everything, but they do agree on the absolute necessity of maintaining their tribal primacy in any Afghan government. One reason for this is their hostility towards, and fear of, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. This diverse band of mutually suspicious ethnic groups dominates the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, and looks more towards Central Asia than to Pakistan for cultural inspiration and military backing.
The most powerful group in the Northern Alliance are the Tajiks, numbering around 3.5 million within Afghanistan and dominating the mountainous northeast of the country, especially Badakshan Province. Mostly speakers of Dari, a language related to Persian, they are nearly all Sunni Hanafi Muslims, though there are a small number of ""Mountain Tajiks"" in the remote Pamir region who are Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan.
The nominal head of the Northern Alliance and leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is a Tajik, as was the ""Lion of the Panjshir"", Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers in early September. Other prominent Tajiks include Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance's foreign minister, and the new military strongman, Mohammed Fahim, who has replaced Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Tajik group around Rabbani draw much of their support from the Russians, who regard them as a bastion against the spread of Taliban-style Sunni fundamentalism into the countries of former Soviet Central Asia.
Immediately to the west of the Tajik heartland, centering on the dusty plains around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, live the alliance's second largest contingent, the Uzbeks. This Turkic people, numbering around one million within Afghanistan, are uniformly Sunni Hanafi Muslims with strong links to neighboring Uzbekistan. Their strongman, Abdul Rashid Dostum, heads the Uzbek-dominated Jombesh-e-Melli Islami or National Islamic Party, and has a reputation both for brutality and as a political chameleon. Dostum draws much of his support from Turkey, and has indicated that he is prepared to allow the forces of Tajik General Mohammed Fahim to take the lead in Kabul--provided that the predominantly Uzbek city of Mazar-i-Sharif remains his personal fiefdom.
The third constituent in the disparate group that make up the Northern Alliance are the Hazara, a predominantly Mongol people numbering around 900,000 who inhabit the central Hindu Kush, especially the area known as Hazarajat centered on the remote town of Chakcharan. Amongst the poorest people in Afghanistan, the Hazara speak a dialect of Dari and are nearly all Shia' Muslims. This brought them into particularly bitter conflict with the Sunni ideologues of Taliban, and some of the hardest fighting of recent years was around the largely Hazara settlement of Bamiyan--until last February home to the largest standing Buddha figures in the world. The Hazara strongman, and head of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-i-Wahdat or Unity Party, is Karim Khalili. He mistrusts his Tajik and Uzbek allies almost as much as he does the Pashtuns.
There are numerous other ethnic groups in Afghanistan--notably the Turkmen and Kyrgyz of the north, the Baluch of the southwest, and the Nuristanis of the east. None have any serious military or political clout, however. The only real player outside Taliban and the Northern Alliance is Ismail Khan. This Tajik warrior liberated the western Afghan city of Herat from the communists and became its governor before being overthrown and locked up by the Taliban. Now he's back in Herat at the head of a predominantly Tajik militia.
So where does this complex ethnic patch work leave the negotiators who will try to put together a broad-based national government for Afghanistan? Clearly, significant Pashtun involvement is a sine qua non for such an enterprise to succeed. Probably the best hope for the disparate peoples of Afghanistan, as well as for the West, is that Taliban will withdraw from Kandahar in the next few days, allowing power to pass to a respected and internationally acceptable Pashtun leader, most probably Hamid Karzai.
This would place one of the four main Afghan cities, Kandahar, squarely where it belongs--under Pashtun authority. Meanwhile Afghan real politik has already reasserted itself in Persian-leaning Herat where Ismail Khan is clearly in charge, as well as in Mazar-i-Sharif where General Dostum's Uzbeks once again rule the roost.
But what of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital and largest city? Kabul is predominantly a Pashtun city, though with substantial Tajik and Hazara representation. The destruction of Kabul between 1992 and 1996 was largely the result of fighting between the predominantly Pashtun forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the mainly Tajik supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The best bet for avoiding a replay of this struggle would probably be the return of former King Zahir Shah to Kabul--not as a monarch, but as a national figure held in respect by most Afghans (except the Taliban). In a best case scenario, the former king would then preside over a loya jirga, or gathering of tribal elders and leading politicians which would decide the ethnic composition of any future government, as well as the future status (if any) of the monarchy.
The expulsion or withdrawal of Taliban from Kandahar and the establishment of the former king's representative, Hamid Karzai, in that battered city would be of major help in bringing this about. The problem is that Afghanistan is a country where events can move fast and political alliances unravel overnight. At present it looks as though the power of Taliban has finally been broken, but while the political and military struggle for Kandahar remains unresolved, things could quickly go wrong in Kabul.
The clearest sign of this so far has been the dispatch of one thousand heavily armed Hezb-i-Wahdat soldiers by Karim Khalili to ""support Hazara interests"" in Kabul. In a sense, the writing is already on the wall. With Ismail Khan controlling Herat, Abdul Rashid Dostum once again ensconced in Mazar-i-Sharif, and the very real possibility of conflict between Hazara and Tajik militiamen in Kabul, the recent history of Afghanistan is -- almost--on replay.
Only a satisfactory solution to the question of Pashtun leadership is likely to avert such a disaster -- and that will mean finding a solution acceptable, first of all, to the Pashtun people themselves.
(Source: The Asian Wall Street Journal)