National Identities

Afghanistan: Escalation of Ethnic Tensions While the US Prepares to Evacuate its Troops

While the negotiations between Afghans aimed at setting up a government which would include the Talibans are in a stalemate and the United States has announced the withdrawal of its troops for 11 September, the “Pashtun issue” has popped up again.

Kabul seen from the Ghoriq mountain
© Diane Villemin

The latest street protests in Kabul have revealed the atmosphere of anxiety that has descended on the Afghan capital since US President Biden’s announcement that the departure of US troops was pushed back from May Ist 2021 to 11 September. The apprehension caused by the imminent departure of the international military coalition has been added to the worrying postponement of the “peace negotiations” and the national, regional and international concertation in view of the formation of a new government.

Everybody wants their slice of the cake. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former warlord and leader of the Hezb-e-Islami called out his followers to protest the government’s failure to consult his party in the peace process.

On Friday 2 April, On Friday 2 April, Kabul’s main roads were blocked and the capital came to a standstill. As for Alipoor, the leader of the Hazara (Shi’ite) militia, he has been severely criticised since March 17 attack on a helicopter carrying government officials, which resulted in nine casualties. A street protest denouncing this “commander of an illegal militia” was held in Kabul on 2 April.

The government countered via the social networks that it would “take its revenge”, an expression pregnant with meaning insofar as it has never before been used against the Talibans, who are nonetheless regarded as terrorists. Mohammad Karim Khalili, former vice-president and head of the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan roundly condemned the government’s irresponsibility and lack of professionalism in issuing such a threat.

Nilofar Ibrahimi, an MP from Badakhshan recently deplored the composition of the delegation meant to represent the Afghan people at the forthcoming peace talks, originally scheduled to begin in Istanbul on 16 April but postponed (temporarily?) by the Talibans until 4 May. In her view that delegation, made up of 90% Pashtuns for the Talibans and over 50% Pashtuns for the government is not a fair image of the country’s diversity.

The rising tension between the different ethnic groups over the power-sharing within the upcoming “peacetime government” is generating shifts in the balance of power between the political factions. Like the factionalism of Lebanese politics, Afghan parties are organised on an ethnic basis and led by former warlords marked by over four decades of bloody fighting. Since that period, their militias control certain parts of the national territory—the centre with its Hazara majority, the North predominantly Tajik and the South predominantly Pashtun.

Would a decentralised state provide a solution to the political stagnation? This is the recommendation put forth by Ahmad Massoud, son of the “lion of the Panjshir”, during his visit to Paris on 27 March for the inauguration of a street bearing the name of his father, a national hero in Afghanistan, whose portrait is to be seen at practically every street corner. However, Fahimeh Robiolle, vice-president of the Club France-Afghanistan - an association seeking to promote cooperation between French and Afghan firms and organisations - and who is also a schoolteacher, recently warned1 that a decentralised state would be fraught with dangers, likely to favour a resurgence of the warlords’ power, producing a political fragmentation with major implications in a country which is already cut up along ethnic, linguistic and tribal particularities. Her scenario is pessimistic but realistic as well.

The essential issue, now that negotiations are imminent, is the difficult search for a consensus over such primordial questions as the rights of women and minorities, the observance of human rights, the nature of the future regime, but also the more effective inclusion of women, young people and minorities in a nation at peace.

The legacy of history and wars

The rivalry between Ashraf Ghani, current President of the Republic, of Pachtun origin, and the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, is more ethnic than it is political. The terms of the constitution of the Durani Empire (1747–1826) made it possible for the Pashtun tribes to run the country. The British occupation also contributed to the present division by laying down an arbitrary border which separates the tribes of Pachtunistan, a territory straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the end of the 19th century, when the Pachtun King, Abdur Rahman Khan, conquered the Hazaradjat, ethnic cleansing took place under the complacent eye of the British. As for the Taliban period (1996–2001), it was particularly harsh for the Hazara of Shi’ite allegiance. During that period their numbers shrank dramatically from being the largest share of the country’s population to the third largest, after 60% of them were massacred.2

In all 34 Afghan provinces, the sense of community is very strong. Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, all are keen to advertise their identity “We Hazaras have respect for women, we are more open-minded on subjects like education and women’s rights, unlike the Pashtuns” says Mustafa, a journalist in Dashte-Barcthi, a Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul. In this context of identity-based demands, the recent polemics over the designation of a person’s nationality on their ID papers raised an issue rooted in Afghan history itself. The controversy lies in the definition of the word “Afghan,” regarded as synonymous with “Pashtun” and which many find unacceptable when it comes to designating their national identity.

Some Afghans wish to see their ethnic affiliation—Tajik Hazara, Pashtun, etc.—either in addition to or instead of Afghan as their “nationality”. Others, like MPs Ibdallullah Mohammad and Fatima Kohastani deplore this demand which they feel would only enhance inter-ethnic divisions. This self-absorption as a community became especially pronounced in the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation when political rivalries gave way to ethnic ones. Community served as the template of conflicts. Alessandro Monsitti, a specialist of Hazara ethnicity and professor of anthropology at Geneva University explains how “the ethnicisation of the Afghan political arena must be explained historically and thus is seen to be the result rather than the cause of the war” and henceforth “ethnic affiliations take on political significance and become a way of expressing a conflict.”

Insecurity, a double punishment for the Hazaras

The new political elites tie their personal ambitions to the specific demands of their ethnic group, maintaining an environment of permanent insecurity which in turn is responsible for the lack of national cohesion. “The government is Pashtun and when all is said and done it can’t keep from protecting its brethren”3 Mustafa explains bitterly. The Hazaras feel betrayed by a government which had promised to reduce the insecurity from which they suffer and the discriminations against them. For many of them, the insecurity is most important.

“Not only are we afraid for our lives every day because of the bombings, but we avoid travelling to certain provinces which are dangerous places for a Hazara like myself.” As he speaks, Ruholla points at the snow-covered range of mountains surrounding Kabul. “the last time I went up there, towards Paghman, I was insulted and shaken down,” he says, “I won”t go back.” While the Talibans represent an undeniable threat all over the country, organised crime, banditry and extortion are also of great concern to Afghans—and especially to sh’ite Hazaras, the favourite targets of these abuses.

The massacre of 9 May, which, according to the authorities, left “more than fifty dead and a hundred injured,” the majority of whom were Hazara high school girls, once again illustrated the extent to which this community is paying a high price for the state’s inability to protect it against terrorist violence. President Ashraf Ghani was quick to accuse the Taliban, who denied being behind this new tragedy. Observers of the Afghan reality are thinking more along the lines of an action by the Islamic State (IS), whose murderous vindictiveness towards the Shiites has never ceased to be expressed—one year ago, almost to the date, the attack claimed by the IS killed two babies as well as 15 mothers and nurses in a maternity hospital in the Shiite district of Kabul.

Impunity of the warlords

Yet article 4 of the Constitution contains a complete list of all ethnicities present in the country and article 22 stipulates that every form of discrimination against a fellow citizen is strictly forbidden. Shi’ite Islam is formally recognized, as is the equality between all the citizens of Afghanistan, which means in theory equal access to health care, education and professional opportunities. In practice, however, and according to a person’s ethno-religious affiliation, situations differ and there is undeniable favouritism. Torek Farhadi, a former advisor to the Afghan government, tells us that inter-ethnic tensions have got worse during Ashraf Ghani’s term of office. All the more so as the government seems to turn its back on the massacres perpetrated against Afghan citizens at the porous frontier with Iran where all kinds of trafficking abound (human beings, drugs, guns, etc.).

The members of the civil society are very active on the Net and sharply criticise foreign interference, especially from Pakistan and Iran. For many years now, these two countries have exploited the inter-ethnic tensions in the conflict. Afghan refugees in Iran, especially Hazaras, suffer from discriminations, ill treatments and xenophobic behaviour, which has prompted a wave of indignation and street protests in Afghanistan and among the Afghan diaspora abroad. Some of these refugees, including many children, have been sent to fight in Syria with the Fatemiyoun brigade. If the government fails to react to such blatant violations of human rights, it is because Iran (who benefits from the water supplied by its neighbour) is Afghanistan’s second trade partner after Pakistan. At the end of the day, the relations between the two countries are determined by opportunistic and unstable alliances, as illustrated by Iran’s support for the Talibans.

While tension between Pashtuns and Hazaras is running high, the same is true between Pashtuns and Tajiks, though slightly less so. In June 2018, Atta Mohammad Noor, the influential governor of Mazar-e-Sharif—joined with the former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rachid Dostum intending to form a coalition bringing together prominent Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek figures. To justify this initiative, Atta Mohammad Noor, accused Ashraf Ghani of trying to eliminate a potential rival and dividing the Jamiat-e-Islami party in view of the forthcoming elections which will highlight the ethnic splits that are a constant feature of the country’s politics—especially between Pashtuns and Persian-speaking Tajiks. A photograph showing the two men by the side of Mohammad Mohaqiq, Hazara leader of Hezb-e-Wahdat, supposedly demonstrating their symbolic and fraternal alliance, actually conceals a coalition of militia chiefs guilty of war crimes and accused of corruption.

Like most oppressed minorities—such as the Lebanese Shi’ites—the Hazaras have managed to find a unified and durable way to organise, relying most particularly on the education of the young, thus contributing to the emergence of a political and intellectual elite, exemplified by Habiba Sarabi, the first woman to be elected governor of a province. Most political leaders, from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani have understood that to win the favours of the Hazara electorate they will need to be flanked by influential politicians of that stripe.

In a country largely devoted to farming, most people’s concerns deal with their access to land, which can result in often violent brawls, especially between Kuchis, a nomadic Pashtun ethnicity, and Hazaras. In Kabul, on the other hand, educated youths are more concerned about what the future will hold in store, in terms of professional opportunities, peace and security. Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns and Uzbeks hang out in the same cafés, unconcerned about their ethnic affiliations and are mainly fed up with social and traditional constraints. “I’m supposed to get back some land in my village, in the province of Helmand, but I don’t want it, I don’t want to go there. That would just cause tension in the family and hurt the reputation of the Nourzai tribe to which I belong,” says Ahmed. In the words of Asma, a master’s student in finance at Kardan University in Kabul, “education is essential. The difference can be felt within a family. When our parents rehash the same racist rhetoric from a war most of their children never even knew, the next generation is bound to be influenced and more inclined to imitate the same behaviour.”

In the meantime, the USA is preparing to withdraw its troops beginning on 11 September, a symbolic date. “History repeats itself” Marjane Kamal asserts in her latest book.4 “The present conflict is basically due to the desire of the urban population and the non-dominant tribes to keep their autonomy, their laws and their faith, in the face of an urban, centralising government based in Kabul,” she writes. Indeed, at the end of 1995, just before the Talibans came to power, Mahmoud Mestiri, former Tunisian foreign minister and secretary of the UN office for Afghanistan and Pakistan, created in 1990, admitted at the Stockholm Conference of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that the Afghan peace mission had failed. In his view, the dreaded ethnic war was about to break out at any moment.

“Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras are all at daggers drawn. There is either a national solution in which all the sections of society share freely or else the conflict continues and leads to an ethnic war and to the inevitable implosion of the country,” was his alarming prediction at that early date.5

1A conference organised by L’Institut d’études de géopolitique appliquée on 15 April 2021 ! “Afghanistan: les négociations de paix, et après ?”

2Ishaq Ali, “Afghanistan: The growing ethnic tension has its roots in history,” Global Village Space, 23 December 2018.

3EDITOR’S NOTE: The Talibans are predominantly Pashtun.

4Afghanistan. Les tribus contre l’État du XVIIe siècle à nos jours, Centre de recherches et d’études documentaires sur l’Afghanistan, Paris, March 2021.

5Michael Griffin, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan, Pluto, 2001; p. 91.