Can Afghanistan Avoid the History of Ethnic Subjugation?

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By Ali Reza Sarwar

There is serious evidence indicating that Afghanistan may return to a chaotic past where severe inter-ethnic clashes could define the country’s future. The recent developments, particularly after President Ashraf Ghani came to power in a disputed election last December, support this gloomy prediction.

On January 12, 2015, Ghani announced the names of his 25 cabinet nominees, including the head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and the governor of the Central Bank, after more than three months of excruciating talks, which clearly speak to the fragility of ethnic consensus in this heterogeneous country with a history of ethnic clashes and denial. Contrary to what public expected and what Ghani articulated during his election campaign, the structure of the new cabinet has created serious doubts if the president is fulfilling his promise of forming a competent, yet ethnically inclusive government- one that could distinguish him from previous Afghan rulers that governed the country through coercive measures.

Shortly after the announcement, the nominee for ministry of agriculture and livestock, Mohammad Yaqub Haidari, was found on Interpol’s most wanted list for money laundering and tax evasion in Estonia. Although the cabinet nomination was subsequently dropped, the fact that he was able to make it to Ghani’s list can seriously challenge the merit of the selection process and the president’s political will. Nominating qualified individuals for top government positions is something that Afghanistan’s unity government needs to do immediately to retain the support of its increasingly war-weary partners, including the U.S and NATO.

At the domestic level, the new cabinet is widely criticized for failing to equally represent all ethnicities, particularly the non-Pashtun groups- Tajik, Hazaras and Uzbeks- who played active roles in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. According to the current arrangement, the key sectors of economy and security are unilaterally controlled by Pashtuns, igniting frustration and concern if Ghani and his team are excluding political foes to reverse a Pashtun nationalism to Afghan politics. This could dramatically change the balance of power and potentially push Afghanistan to pugnacious ethnic clashes and civil wars, similar to what happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Aside from the cabinet structure, a recent government document leaked to Afghan media and published by the Afghan  Newspaper, Etilaat Roz, shows that of the 28 senior officials Ghani appointed in his office, the presidential palace, 25 are Pashtuns. Meanwhile, only one employee each represents Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks- the three main ethnic groups that account for more than 60 percent of the population. Moreover, the President’s Chief of Staff, Spokesman, National Security Advisor and Senior Economic Advisor are all Pashtuns. The presidential palace in Afghanistan is regarded as the highest office to reflect the political participation of all Afghans. Therefore, the structure of this office is closely monitored by pubic and the media to make conclusions about the government’s policies.

To further exacerbate the situation, Afghanistan’s parliament did not approve any ministers from ethnics Hazara and Uzbeks, a decision widely interpreted as ethno-centric with potential to drag the country to political impasse and fomenting pressure against Ghani’s uneasy coalition.

The Shadow of Ethnic Politics

The political history of Afghanistan is marked by protracted ethnic tensions from the very formation of the state in 1747. As of now, an independently reliable census has not been conducted to verify the exact demographic structure of Afghan society to allocating political and economic powers to ethnic groups according to their relative presence and populations. The absence of such a census permitted Afghan rulers to manipulate ethnic identity for ethnic cleansing and perpetuating the dominance of one ethnic group at the cost of others. This is a pervasive practice in Afghanistan’s history and one that blocked the formation of a strong national identity that could accommodate and be acceptable to Afghanistan’s heterogeneous populations.

For instance, in 1897 Afghan King Amir Abdurrahman, an ethnic Pashtun, massacred 60 percent of its 20 percent Hazara. The civil wars of 1990 claimed more than 10, 0000 lives and were fought along ethnic lines.

The US and NATO’s war in Afghanistan since 2001 changed the dynamics of ethnic politics by empowering diverse ethnic identities to participate and be represented in the political and decision-making process. It was the first time in the history of Afghanistan that Afghanistan’s constitutionrecognized all inhabitants as “equal” with the equal rights to education, employment and political participation. Although little has been achieved to institutionalize equality and ethnic tolerance in the face of institutional building, and reforming the government units and structures seem to be fairly receptive, the consolidation of equality and national unity as integral parts of Afghanistan’s politics are tremendous achievements that should be preserved. To overcome the current state of political turbulence and insecurity, Afghan politicians and elites must break from historical stereotypes. The war is becoming increasingly difficult to win, costly to continue and tragic to leave. The US and NATO are shifting their military and financial resources to other parts of the world where plausible threats created by ISIS, Russia and a crisis-ridden Middle East are endangering the global peace.  

Given the urgency of the situation, President Ashraf Ghani’s leadership decides Afghanistan’s future. The failure to fairly manage Afghanistan’s sensitive ethnic politics may have serious consequences. Ghani’s government has already inherited a rentier state that has yet to fight with Al-Qaida and the Taliban for its survival. Under this tense circumstance, expanding the warfare among ethnicities will be a miscalculated disaster. Afghanistan has to break from the notorious political culture of ethnic subjugation, denial and cleansing to build a future on a pluralistic culture of tolerance and acceptance. The US and NATO member states should also keep this issue in mind when negotiating any deal for Afghanistan’s future. The relative balance of power between Pashtun and non-Pashtun was the primary reason that saved Afghanistan since 2001. The breakdown of ethnic consensus and balance will definitely lead to consequential crises that will be hard to contain inside Afghanistan’s territory.

Ali Reza Sarwar is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service where he completes a master on Intelligence and National Security. Reza graduated from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) where he was also in charge of the university’s enrollment management plan.


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