Ethnic Factor in Afghanistan



The ulus zaur, the Khuday zaur (The Peoples power is God’s power). A Pushtu proverb

The Pandora box of Afghanistan has been opened again in 2001 when United States (US) decided to eliminate Osama bin Ladin, his organization Al-Qaeda and his Taliban supporters with the military might. A deja vu of 1980s occurred again when a large number of experts of Afghanistan affairs started to write about Afghanistan and Afghan people. When intense negotiations between US, Europe and various Afghan groups were going on, there was a lot of talk about importance of ‘broad based’ government and representation of all ethnic groups of the country. This has caused some confusion about the ethnic factor in the geo-political situation of Afghanistan. Ethnic groups of Afghanistan do not fit into the model of an organized unified body, which is working for a set political goal or organized as a military entity controlled in a hierarchical way.

In the last two centuries, Afghanistan has been involved in a low level perennial struggle between the central government based in Kabul and large cities and the local influence of village, ethnic, tribal and clan authority. The ten-year intense war during Soviet occupation and later more than a decade of constant strife resulted in initial gradual erosion and then total collapse of the institutions, which are the hallmark of a nation state. In this process, several state and non-state actors emerged on the scene totally changing the ground realities. Sharpening of ethnic boundaries is the result of the long and devastating civil war. ‘Ethnicity is not the cause of the conflict, but the consequence of political and military mobilization’.[1] The result of this dramatic change is that classic and generally accepted models of conflict resolution and various definitions are very hard to apply in present day Afghanistan. Understanding of this change is critically important for all those who are involved in any way in present day Afghanistan. Wrong assumptions will lead to wrong conclusions and faulty decisions. Ethnic factor is only one of many complex factors operating in Afghanistan, which include social, economic, strategic, religious and off course vested. This article will look at the ethnic factor in Afghanistan in its historic context. The article will describe various ethnic groups of Afghanistan in detail to show the sub-division in each group based on historic, social, economic and geographic factors. This work will highlight the difficulty and complexity, which is associated with applying neat modern definitions to a region, which is totally different.

Historical Context

Afghanistan as a nation in modern sense emerged on the world scene when Ahmad Shah Durrani was elected the head of a Pushtun confederacy in 1747. He is called the father of modern Afghanistan and Pushtuns call him ‘Ahmad Shah Baba’. In 1747, he stabilized the chaotic region and established roughly the present day boundary of Afghanistan. Although boundaries of Afghanistan have been stable for more than a century with no dramatic changes, the internal structure of the country was not a true national. Eighty five percent of the population with very low literacy rate was scattered in diverse geography of different mountains ranges, valleys, plains and deserts. This arrangement necessitated a wide range of autonomy of small communities. A central government with significant autonomy to smaller sub-units was the modus operandi for a long time. Due to poor social and political development of the area, till the middle of the twentieth century, rulers of Afghanistan have used traditional, tribal, inter-marriage and other conciliatory measures to keep various interest groups on board. This does not mean that the periphery was a pacified one. There were inter-tribal conflicts all over the country along with clash with central authority, which resulted in many expeditions against rebellious segments. Despite these internal low-level conflicts, the people of Afghanistan in general have been very tolerant of ethnic diversity. Similarly, on religious grounds, the tolerance was exemplary compared to other societies. One critically important factor, which has been usually ignored by most analysts, is the foreign support. Afghanistan’s past, present and possibly future is linked with the foreign economic resources, which play an important role in the internal dynamics of the country. Shifting alliances of all groups can be directly linked to this financial aspect.

The basic Afghan identification is not a national one but a sub-national one which is more local. This is based on tribe, clan, ethnic or linguistic group or area of residence. The basic unit of this identity is Qaum. Various ethnic groups of Afghanistan cannot be seen as monolithic entities, which act collectively in a coordinated fashion. None of the ethnic group is homogenous economically, socially or politically. This is the main reason that there has been no ethnic separatist movement despite bitter infighting between different groups in the last two decades. The ethnic configuration up to 1978 is summarized in the next section.[2] Pushtuns are the largest group in the country. Majority of them are concentrated in east and south of the country. During late nineteenth century, with encouragement from Amir Abdur Rahman, Pushtuns settled in northern and western interior regions of the country. Socially, there is a mosaic of Pushtuns in Afghan society. The Pushtuns striding the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have tribal structure and economically they depend on smuggling of luxury goods and drugs between two countries. Pushtuns in Kandahar area are involved in different trades while Pushtun settlers in northern areas are sedentary farmers. The two Pushtuns tribal confederacies, Durrani and Ghilzai have mutual hostilities going back centuries. In addition, other tribes like Afridi, Mohmand, Shinwari, Mangal and Kakar are scattered on the landscape of Afghanistan especially near eastern and southern borders. The ruling Durrani elite residing in Kabul speaks Dari (a dialect of Persian) and more urbanized and educated. After pacification of the north in late nineteenth century, the Pushtun settlements were established in northern areas especially Badakshan, Kunduz, Jauzjan, Faryab and Badghis provinces. Amir Abdur Rahman cleverly used his rival Ghilzai Pushtuns in the east and settled them in north thus cutting them off from their base and diminishing their ability to threaten his rule. The Durranis were settled there to utilize the fertile lands of the north and act as guardians of northern frontiers. In the Pushtun social structure the basic element is the sub-unit of Qaum, which is based on clan rather than a larger Pushtun nation. Though a Pushtun is proud of his historic and linguistic heritage, his immediate allegiance is to the clan. Certain tribes and clans are more represented in north. Ishaqzai (various clans), Barakzai, Popalzai, Alizai and Nurzai of Durrani stock and Hotaki, Tukhi, Taraki of Ghilzai stock as well as some Mohmand and Wardak are the main groups settled in north. The great majority of nomads are Pushtuns, which have been on the move both inside the country and in adjacent Pakistani areas. In the power structure in Kabul, the newly educated Pushtun youth were influenced by Communist ideology and were the nidus of the nascent socialist minority. Pushtuns dominated the two factions of the communist party, Khalq and Parcham. At social level, Pushtuns are divided into two strata; Nang (Honour bound) and Qalang (Tax bound). Nang Pushtuns are members of tribes who are relatively free of domination by others. Most of these Pushtuns belong to tribes residing in mountainous areas on both sides of the Durand Line (boundary line between Afghanistan and Pakistan). Qalang Pushtuns are subjects or rulers of state and either they pay or collect taxes. In any one region, one group may be at different social level. In Kandahar area, both local landlords and tenants are mostly Durrani. In contrast, in the northern plains, due to direct government patronage, Pushtun landlords had non-Pushtun tenants and labourers, and ‘landlordism constituted a form of ethnic rule over conquered non-Pushtun populations’.[3] After the Soviet invasion in 1979, the tribal Pushtuns fighting to protect their autonomy against an expanding central government influenced by an alien ideology became staunch antagonists of their ethnic kin who were ruling from Kabul. The overwhelming majority of the refugee population of Afghanistan is Pushtun. In addition, in the civil war in 1990s and ethnic massacres resulted in migration of large number of Pushtuns from northern Afghanistan to east and south.

The group called Tajiks is also not a homogeneous one. They have no specific social structure of their own and Tajik of one region may be quite different from the one residing in another region. Majority of them speak Dari and most of them are Sunni Muslims. The educated elite was concentrated in Kabul, therefore a large number of them were working in different government departments. In Kabul, Parwan and Herat, Tajiks are mainly skilled artisans and traders. In contrast, Tajiks living in northeastern mountains and adjacent valleys are farmers and economically poor. Majority of Tajiks are Sunni but some are Imami Shia. Some Tajiks especially those living in mountainous areas like Shughni, Zibaki and Wakhi are Ismaili Shia. Farsiwan, a Dari speaking Imami Shia group live near Iranian border in Herat and southern and western towns. They are mainly agriculturists. Another Persian speaking Imami Shia group is Qazilbash. They are literate, urban and were professionals and government bureaucrats. Not all Shias are Persian speaking. Pushtu speaking Khalilis live in Kandahar area. Hazaras have mongoloid features and live in the inhospitable central mountainous area of Afghanistan, where they are involved in herding and some agriculture. Some Hazaras moved to Kabul and were performing menial jobs with lower socio-economic status. Most of them are Shia (mostly Imami but some Ismaili) and speak a dialect of Dari. Hazara have been sufficiently alienated from the Pushtun dominated central government due to widespread discrimination and were one of the first groups to fight the central government in 1978-79. They liberated their area in early part of the struggle and later used their success in negotiating better deal with governments in Kabul. There is a small concentration of Ismaili Shias in Bamiyan (Kayan & Shughnan areas).

The Turkic group consists of Uzbeks, Turkeman and Kirghiz. Uzbeks are concentrated in areas north of Hindu Kush mountains. The ancestors of many Uzbeks migrated to Afghanistan in 1920s when Soviet Union expanded into Central Asia and there was widespread suppression of local communities of Central Asia. They are divided into many tribes such as Haraki, Kamaki, Mangit and Ming but their tribal structure is not as rigid as of Pushtuns. Turkemans are at the southern bank of Amu Darya and involved in agriculture and trade. They are mainly involved in husbandry raising famous Karakul sheep and horses. Kirghiz are nomads residing in the Wakhan corridor where they share the land with another group of mountain farmers called Pamiri. The major Pamiri groups are Wakhi (Ismaili Shia), Parachi and Ormuri.

Nuristanis (the name is reflective of a regional group rather than a distinct ethnic group) live in the mountainous region in northeast, which constitutes areas of Kunar and Laghman provinces. This area was inhabited by pagan tribes and was called Kafiristan, which had their own language. It was conquered in 1896 and the region was Islamized and re-named Nuristan. Afghan rulers have encouraged these mountain warriors to enlist in army and many Nuristanis rose up in the ranks. Nuristanis share their land with other diverse groups such as Pashai, Kohistani, Gujar and Safi tribe of Pushtuns. Aimaqs live in the area bordered by Bamiyan, Herat and Mazar Sharif. They speak a dialect of Dari with strong Turkic influence. Firozkohi, Taimuri and Jamshedi are sub-groups of Aimaqs. Baluchs are nomads and semi-nomads residing in the southern desert areas of Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz and Farah. Baluch are divided into many sub-groups such as Rakhshani, Sanjarani, Miangul, Salarzai and Sumarzai.

Just like ethnic mosaic, similar trend in religious attitude is evident in Afghanistan. More than ninety percent of Afghans are Muslims, majority of them Sunnis. The traditional role of Mullah was limited to leading prayers and educating young boys in Islamic teachings. While the advice of a more learned scholar may be asked occasionally but majority of decisions about social life were dealt according to the traditional norms and values. This was the general trend in Pushtun and non-Pushtun areas and among Sunnis and Shias. Historically, one exception to the role of Mullah was to utilize him to legitimize a struggle against a foreign invader or rally a tribal lashkar (tribal force consisting of able body males gathered for a specific expedition) under the banner of Jihad. There are two major Sufi Tariqas (orders) in Afghanistan. Gilani family heads the Qadiriyya order and current leader is Syed Ahmad Gilani. Gilani family has followers in many Pushtun tribes and is linked by marriage to ruling Muhammadzai clan. Hazrat of Shor Bazar based in Kabul has headed Naqshbandiya order. The last Hazrat along with almost all male members was executed in February 1979. Now Sibghatullah Mujaddadi, the nephew of last Hazrat, heads the order.

Saur Revolution& Soviet Occupation 1978-89

Junior military officers in support of Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) launched the April 1978 coup. In the next few years, the military structure was destroyed by purges, desertions and mutinies. Any group seen as threat to the regime regardless of its ethnic or social origin was brutally suppressed. The list included Islamists, army officers, religious families (Mujaddadi), Hazara, Nuristanis and even rival communists (Parchamis). PDPA was divided into two main factions, Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner). The close look at the social makeup of these two groups gives an interesting insight into how the power dynamics worked in Afghanistan. The members of Parcham faction were more urban based and belonged to middle and upper middle class. Pushtuns mainly Persian speaking, educated and urban were the dominant group in Parcham but non-Pushtuns were also represented in cadres. Its leader Babrak Karmal was Persian speaking Pushtun of Kakar tribe. His father General Muhammad Hussain Khan has served as governor of Paktia province. Like the old royal court, in Parcham different groups were linked through marriage. Anahita Ratibzad’s (the most prominent female communist member) daughter was married to Babrak Karmal’s brother Mahmud Baryalai. Sulaiman Laiq’s one sister was married to Mir Akbar Khaiber (a leading Parchami idealogue whose murder in 1978 started the coup) while other sister was married to Sibghatullah Mujaddadi. Dr. Muhammad Najibullah, an Ahmadzai was married to a Muhammadzai. Parchami officers had helped Daud in his 1973 coup but later sidelined by Daud. The Khalq faction was more tribal in structure and dominated by Pushtu speaking Pushtuns. Most of them were Ghilzai or Paktia Pushtuns. Most Khalqis married women from their own tribes and within the party, there were networks of tribes and clans. Their appeal was to lower and lower middle class of Pushtuns with tones of tribal resentments. Seeing the success of Parchamis in infiltrating the armed forces, Khalqis under Amin made inroads in the army. Despite the ideological rhetoric, the two groups acted more like tribal rivals full with some times party meetings ending in shootouts.

The first large-scale rebellion against the central government occurred in early October 1978 in Nuristan. A large tribal force (composed of three main tribes, Kom, Muno & Ksto) belonging to Landay Sin Valley overran the government post. The Kati tribesmen joined them and the area became effectively independent.[4] The central government enlisted the support of other tribes hostile to Nuristanis. Kunar Kohistanis, Gujars and Mishwanis formed tribal militias, which were led by Gul Muhammad. Nuristanis fought the government forces and these rival militias. After widespread looting, the tribal irregulars retreated and government forces were kept in check.[5] In November 1979, Brigadier Abdul Rauf stationed at Asmar garrison revolted. Nuristanis made a loose alliance with their neighbours, which were led by Syed Shamsuddin Majrooh. There was much internal conflict between different groups. After the Soviet invasion, the Nuristanis crossed over the mountains and entered the Chitral district of Pakistan. In Peshawar, the Nuristani leadership operated an office of their organization called Jabha-e-Nuristan. Their small numbers despite their location in a strategic area resulted in no significant support from outside governments.

In March 1979, a revolt broke out in Herat. The large bulk of 17th Infantry Division stationed there joined the rebels. Captain Ismail Khan and Captain Alauddin led the rebel troops. The government forces took control of the city after heavy bombing of the city, which resulted in the death of more than 5,000 people. In winter of 1979, the whole of Hazarajat was in revolt and government lost all control. Persian speaking Shias, which were concentrated in this area saw this effort an independence from the century old rule of Pushtuns. The traditional leadership of Hazara (Syeds and Mirs) established a council led by Syed Bahishti to administer the territory. Later, Iranian supported Shia parties (Nasr and Sipah-e-Pasdaran) wrested control from the traditional elite. In the northeastern province of Badakhshan, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kirghiz and Pushtuns were not evenly distributed and had complex inter-ethnic relationships. Among Tajiks and Uzbeks, many have roots in Soviet Central Asia when during Soviet expansion, they moved to Afghanistan. These groups had strong negative feelings about Soviets. Kirghiz were concentrated in Wakhan corridor. Pushtuns consisted of nomads who would bring their herds to graze in the province and rich land owning and government officials. Pushtun concentrations were in Faizabad and Darwaz. The small Kirghiz population took refuge first in Pakistan and later moved to Turkey. The trouble in Badakhshan started in April 1979, the main cause of which was purging of Parchami and Maoists (Sitami Milli) by Khalqis. Sitami Milli youth attacked and captured Baharak post. The government responded by appointing Mansur Hashimi who started a widespread reign of terror liquidating all opposition especially religious groups. The killing of large number of religious personalities resulted in backlash from religious groups. Jamiat-e-Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani became vanguard of new offensive and took control of large areas.[6] Large-scale repression by government after Saur revolution resulted in total alienation of different groups especially Tajiks and Uzbeks. Compared to other provinces, there was no large-scale exodus of civilian population except the leadership, which settled in Peshawar.

The major Sunni Islamist parties were based in Peshawar. The Islamist parties evolved in the years 1979-81 during a race to get more supporters inside Afghanistan and more importantly to secure foreign support for money and weapons. Hizb-e-Islami led by Hikmatyar (Kharruti Pushtun from northern settlement in Kunduz) split in 1979 when Maulvi Yunas Khalis (from Khugiani clan of Durranis from eastern Afghanistan) led his own faction. Khalis was a Durrani living among eastern Ghilzais in area between Jalalabad and Kabul. It was quite natural that he would have to make alliance with his Ghilzai neighbours. He found the trio of Arsala brothers (belonging to Jabbarkhel clan of Ahmadzai tribe). Din Muhammad became his deputy, Abdul Qadeer commander of Jalalabad and Abdul Haq commander of Kabul. Hikmatyar had most of his followers among Pushtuns mainly those who were de-tribalized and among new generation growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan. Maulvi Nabi Muhammadi was representative of the traditional religious scholars (Ulemas) who led his party Harkat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami. His influence was in Logar, where he was head of a Madrassah and in Helmand, where he held landholdings. In Paktia, a traditional religious scholar Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani led the resistance. After taking over the leadership of Jadran tribe from Barakzais, Haqqani joined Harkat. Jamiat-e-Islami of Burhanuddin Rabbani had large number of Tajiks and other northern groups. Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf established his own party Ittihad-e-Islami in 1981 with the help of Saudi money. He had pockets of Salafi supporters in Paghman and Kunar. The leaders of two Sufi orders set up their own parties. Syed Ahmad Gilani set up National Islamic Front for Afghanistan (NIFA) while Sibghatullah Mujaddadi, Afghan National Liberation Front (ANLF) in Peshawar.

The alignment of various groups with different parties was a complex affair. Ethnic, clan, economic and personal factors were at play in various shifting alliances. Most of the money and weapons supplied by US, Saudi Arabia were channelled to Afghan resistance through Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan armed forces. The major condition demanded by ISI was that every local commander inside Afghanistan has to join one of the seven parties in Peshawar to become eligible for weapons and money. This meant that the local commander was joining a party not because he agreed with political or ideological stand of the party but because it was the only way to get the money and weapons. The leader of Barakzais Haji Abdul Latif joined Gilani’s NIFA. His rivals, the Karzais who were leaders of Popalzais joined Mujaddadi’s ANLF. Mullah Nasim Akhunzada in Helmand was involved in opium trade. He joined Muhammadi’s Harkat as this party was influential in Helmand. Many commanders changed parties frequently to get a better deal. Muhammad Amin Wardak built himself as an independent commander. First, he joined NIFA but later joined Khalis to get more weapons. Two commanders of Harkat, Nasrullah Mansur and Rafiullah Moezzan left the party along with fighters and joined other parties, which were dishing out more weapons. In 1980, when Gilani of NIFA tried to introduce some modern military command structure on his fighters who were mainly tribal Pushtuns, it ended in a disaster.[7]

The early attempts by more educated and nationalist Afghans to organize a coordinated resistance front were sabotaged both by Afghans who saw this effort as undermining of their power and by foreign supporters (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) which saw this as loss of control over the whole operation. Two such attempts of Loya Jirga in 1980 (Muhammad Umar Babrakzai’s efforts) in Peshawar and in September 1981 (Muhammad Yusuf’s efforts) in Pishin ended up in chaos.[8] During the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the ISI’s operational strategy included maximum damage to Soviet troops and complete control of operations inside Afghanistan. There was no political or long-term strategic programme of how to win the war with minimum damage. There were two reasons for that. First, most of the Pakistani officers involved in the Afghan operation had limited knowledge about Afghan society and history. Second, as long as the casualties were Afghans, there was no pressing concern or fear of public pressure from Pakistan on ISI. Human cost of the conflict was simply shoved under the carpet of Jihad and martyrdom by Pakistani policy-makers. ISI’s obsession with control forced them to take decisions, which would result in further fragmentation of the resistance groups. If any commander tried to show independence, ISI would support its rivals, which in some cases were of different tribe or clan or one of his subordinates. This resulted in numerous factions who were competing with each other to get greater share of weapons and money from ISI. One example will show how these machinations worked. One commander of Harkat, Haqqani in Paktia was supported to the extent that a large base was built for him at Zhawar. Another commander of the same organization, Abdul Haq who operated in Kabul area was seen as too independent, therefore giving weapons directly to his subordinates who would take ISI’s dictation undermined him. Many commanders, who resented such manipulations, would try whenever they get a chance to show their independence The local commanders who were resentful of ISI dominance and manipulations attempted to organize themselves. In July 1987, Ismail Khan gathered about 1,200 commanders and formed the Allied Commander’s Council to decrease Pakistani role.[9] In Eastern Afghanistan, Pushtun commanders organized a conference of commanders in Kunar where ISI policy was denounced.

Nazif Shahrani’s observation about resistance in Badakhshan province that the response against central government cannot be explained solely on the basis of current events or in regional context but in essential to consider the national political development in its historical context [10] is correct and can be applied to all areas of Afghanistan.

Civil War 1989-2001

After the Soviet withdrawal, there was a new realignment of political actors in Afghanistan. The local and regional groups increased their strength by cleverly utilizing multiple sources of foreign support to strengthen itself. Their strength was based on the qaum-based militias and the power of leaders of these militias grew significantly. Now some officials of the regime to ensure their own survival opened channels with different resistance groups. Generally, this linkage was more based on ethnic lines. Direct linkage of various groups inside Afghanistan with different foreign economic sources and interests helped Afghanistan turn into a mess of enormous proportion.

In view of the nature of the resistance against the government, which was small-scale guerrilla operations spread all around the country with no higher national organization, the resistance essentially remained qaum based. Various resistance groups inside Afghanistan remained close ethnic, clan or sectarian based. In addition, after 1985, the increasing use of local militias by Afghan government to tackle resistance further entrenched this phenomenon. Government used these qaum-based militias to keep the lines of communications open. In return, they were given money and weapons and control in their own territory, which meant more authority to the leaders of these militias. Four such militias played a unique role in different parts of the country.[11] The Jauzjani Militia was mainly composed of ethnic Uzbeks and led by Abdur Rashid Dostum. Dostum evolved into a shrewd and ruthless warlord who had survived all upheavals. He recruited other ethnic groups to his militia and attempted to make it a disciplined force. He married the daughter of a Popalzai (Durrani) Pushtun. Jauzjani militia served as mobile reserve unit for the government and was used in different parts of the country. Dostum has the rare distinction of working closely with a mind-boggling array of actors on the Afghanistan stage. The list includes Soviets, Najibullah regime, interim Mujahideen government, Masud, Hikmatyar, Taliban, northern alliance and Americans. This militia protected the vital areas around Mazar Sharif, which included gas reserves. The Achakzai militia was a tribal militia led by former army Major Ismatullah Muslim. He controlled the area from Pakistan border near Chaman to Kandahar. Muslim was fighting the government and running a lucrative smuggling ring. In 1984, he developed differences with ISI and defected to Afghan government. After Soviet withdrawal, Muslim tried to patch up with ISI but they decided to bump him off. At Spin Boldak, Achakzai militia was decimated and Muslim died in 1991 in Soviet Union. In Baghlan province, the Ismaili Shia militia led by Syed Mansur Nadiri protected the area north of Salang tunnel. Ismailis, the weakest group in the area, used government weapons and patronage to strengthen their position to protect themselves against their neighbours. The Andarabi militia led by Juma Khan controlled the strategic Andarab Valley, a vital link with Panjsher Valley. Juma Khan joined Hikmatyar as the main aim of both was to keep Masud boxed in his own area. In 1983, Masud made a truce with Soviets and kicked Juma Khan out of Andarab. When in 1984, Soviets started operation against Masud, Juma Khan joined government, expanded his militia and took control of his area.

At the departure of Soviet troops, the Afghan regime fearful of an outright victory of the resistance mended fences with the hardliners inside the regime as well as intensified the efforts to co-opt tribes. Najibullah was faced with the daunting task of keeping all his rivals at bay. He opened dialogue with some resistance leaders, paid huge sums of money to local commanders of resistance inside Afghanistan and made non-Pushtun militias responsible to him to counter any coup attempt by Interior and Defence Ministers (both Khalqis). The dilemma of Najibullah was that one act would result in aggravation at other front. By strengthening non-Pushtun militias, he alienated the Khalqis who were in control of Defence and Interior Ministry militias. Khalqis got connected with Hikmatyar. Many Khalqis in central and provincial political leadership (Ghilzai and Paktia Pushtuns) joined Hikmatyar. In December 1989, 127 Khalqi military officers were arrested for an attempted coup. Twenty-seven officers escaped and later showed up at a press conference with Hikmatyar in Peshawar. Former minister of tribal affairs, Bacha Gul Wafadar and minister of civil aviation Hasan Sharq were among the conspirators. Defence Minister Shahnawaz Tanai pressured Najibullah to release them. Wafadar after his release fled to Peshawar and disclosed that he had been working with Hikmatyar since 1980.[12] In March 1990, when the trial of accused officers was about to start, Tanai with the support of Hizb-e-Islami of Hikmatyar and ISI tried to pull a coup against Najibullah. The attempt was bound to fail as the ground was not ready for any such attempt. ISI once again failed to comprehend the dynamics of Afghan scene. Tanai had no direct control of troops inside Kabul. He ordered air strikes against government buildings (Air Force Commander Abdul Qadir Aqa was accomplice who also later fled to Pakistan). The Parchami militias including elite Special Guard defended Najibullah. Seeing the strong position of Najibullah, the Interior Minister, which had his own militia (Sarandoy) remained neutral. Tanai fled to Pakistan and made an open alliance with Hikmatyar. This failed coup forced Najibullah to depend more on the non-Pushtun militias from northern Afghanistan. When the Soviet aid dried up, the northern militias turned against Najibullah, which resulted in his fall in April 1992.[13] Fahim Khan, a former officer in Afghan intelligence was deputy of Najibullah. He joined Masud in 1992 when later took control of Kabul and became the chief of security of the city. The Pushtun allies of Najibullah also jumped the ship in 1992 when the end of regime was near. Among them was a close confidant of Najibullah Manokai Mangal (a Pushtun from Paktia who had served as political director of Sarandoy militia) who joined Hikmatyar.

The deterioration of Soviet Union’s economic condition after withdrawal resulted in gradual decrease in resources available to Najibullah regime. In the opposition camp, while the US money pipeline gradually dried up but Saudis continued several million dollar per annum through ISI tilted the balance in their favour. Afghan government’s influence eroded in all areas and only Kabul remained their area of influence. Masud established a Shura-e-Nazar (Supervisory Council of North) and was effectively independent. Dostum, Hazaras, Ismailis and tribal alliances in east were also independent. The garrisons in Herat and Kandahar struck deals with Mujahideen groups when the dark clouds started to appear on the horizon of Kabul. In Kandahar, Jamiat commander Ismail Khan co-opted commanders of Hikmatyar’s and Gilani’s NIFA and worked independently by working closely with Iran. The Peshawar-based leadership of various organizations also started to lose control as local commanders feeling their power started to operate independently. ISI’s contradictory policy helped this situation. Politically, they wanted to strengthen the Interim Islamic Government of Afghanistan (IIGA), a conglomerate of diverse parties based in Peshawar but after the failure of Jalalabad offensive in early 1989, they changed their policy and instead of giving weapons and money to Peshawar based leadership, they started to distribute it directly to pliant commanders in the field.[14] By this ISI hoped to gain better command and control of operations on ground. Local commanders now getting direct handouts from ISI had no compulsion to follow the leaders based in Peshawar. In addition, local commanders who were left out of ISI loop felt betrayed and they organized themselves to compete for foreign aid. In 1990, National Commanders Shura was set up and Masud opened a direct channel with US for aid to compete with commanders who were getting Saudi money through ISI. At the end of 1991, the attempts by ISI to renew military offensives on Jalalabad and Gardez were thwarted by local commanders. The rapidly changing course adopted by ISI for short-term goals further widened the gap between Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns.

With Najibullah regime taking its final breaths in 1992, everyone re-aligned itself to new realities. Dostum joined hands with some Tajik and Ismaili commanders and formed a new militia Jumbish-e-Milli-e-Islami. This alliance took control of Mazar. Mahmud Baryali (Karmal’s brother) with the help of northern militias took control of Kabul airport. Parchamis led by Abdul Wakil and Kabul garrison commander General Nabi Azimi secretly opened negotiations with Masud and invited him to take control of Kabul. The Pushtuns got worried with this gathering storm of northerners. Khalqis, Parchamis loyal to Najib and Hikmatyar joined hands to turn the tables on northern groups. Masud had fairly organized forces along with Uzbek warlord Dostum sitting outside Kabul and he took control of Kabul. This made Masud’s mortal enemy Hikmatyar furious. Hikmatyar who was appointed Prime Minister in the interim government preferred to shell his capital with rockets rather than coming to Kabul to take his seat. From 1992 to 1996, Afghanistan saw the classic medieval model of intrigue, treachery and bloodshed. In April 1992, the interim government headed by Mujjaddadi came to Kabul, a city, which was full of armed militias who were ready to cut each other’s throats. Even the well-publicized visits of Pakistani Prime Minister, army chief and head of ISI did not have any sobering effect. The line was drawn between Pushtun and non-Pushtun for the battle of Kabul. The interim government depended on northern militias, which were non-Pushtun. On the other hand, the main nemesis of government Hikmatyar had former Khalqi ministers and communist militias on his side. Some prominent former Khalqis who joined Hikmatyar included General Shanawaz Tanai (former Chief of Staff and Defence Minister), Muhammad Aslam Watanjar (former interior and defence minister), Muhammad Nazar (former defence minister), Muhammad Raz Paktin (former interior minister), Bacha Gul Wafadar (former minister of frontiers and civil aviation).[15] What happened in the next few years was simple butchery and free for all looting. Masud fought Shias who made temporary alignment with Hikmatyar. Shia groups had running armed battles with Sayyaf’s Wahhabi fighters including Arabs. In January 1994, Hikmatyar joined Dostum and their forces launched a ferocious attack on Kabul. In Herat, Ismail Khan wrested Shindand airbase from Hikmatyar fighters. The eastern Pushtun tribes remained fractious and many local pockets of authority emerged on the scene, as their interests were mainly local. There was a Kunar shura, Nangarhar shura and Paktia shura. These were not unified entities and power struggle among various groups was constant. When Governor of Jalalabad Commander Shamali (an Ahmadzai belonging to NIFA) was assassinated along with forty of his men, his tribe demanded revenge. Hikmatyar supported this call for revenge and using this argument sent his fighters to occupy Sarobi.[16] Pakistan frustrated by the failure of its protegee Hikmatyar to take Kabul, decided to dump him and bet on a new emerging contender in the race, Taliban. In September 1994, the arms and ammunition depot of Hikmatyar at Spin Boldak on Pakistan border was handed over to Taliban and in November Taliban were in Kandahar. Now ISI officers helped their new proteges Taliban to beat the old one Hikmatyar in Ghazni, Maidan Shahar, and Chaharasyab. In September 1995, several commanders of Nangarhar shura are assassinated in an ambush, Haji Abdul Qadeer accepts handsome cash (by some estimates few million dollars) from Saudis via Pakistan and goes to Pakistan and Taliban are masters of Jalalabad. A year later they are in control of Kabul. The anarchy of the country created a situation where those Afghans who still remained in Afghanistan saw rise of Taliban with a sigh of relief. The backers and sympathizers of Taliban (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia through their intelligence apparatus and some religio-political parties of Pakistan) unleashed the puritanical propaganda to make this new entity acceptable. Some western commentators tried to explain the Taliban in a larger religious and political context.[17] The gradual control of Afghanistan was made possible by traditional Afghan method. This was buying the rivals rather than killing them. Money came from Saudi Arabia (the key player was Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki) and Pakistan helped deliver many former communist military personnel who were manning Taliban’s artillery and air force. There were many complex factors at interplay, which resulted in the rise of Taliban.[18] Their initial rise in Pushtun heartland was partly due to the Pushtun frustration at the dominance of non-Pushtuns in Kabul government. From 1994-96, many tribal levies helped Taliban to consolidate their initial gains.[19] Who joined Taliban also depended on how much spoils one was getting. After fall of Najibullah, every group got hold of some big city or area and was able to generate resources both from external backers and from levying tolls. Jamiat’s Ismail Khan in Herat was getting money from Iran and custom duties from Islam Qala crossing at Iranian border, Nangarhar Shura of Khalis getting money from Pakistan and custom duties from border crossing at Landi Kotal, Dostum getting money from Iran, Central Asian Republics, Russia and custom duties at Hairitan border crossing and Rabbani and Masud settled in Kabul. The only group left behind in this race was Nabi Muhammadi’s Harkat. It is no wonder that a large number of commanders and fighters of this group joined Taliban quite early. When Masud’s forces evicted Shia Hazaras from some areas of Kabul in 1995, they made a temporary alliance with Taliban sitting outside Kabul. In May 1997, Taliban defeated Dostum and took control of Mazar Sharif when one of Dostum’s commanders Abdul Malik Pahalwan betrayed Dostum. Pahalwan within days turned against Taliban and killed many of them. It will take a year before the Taliban would return to Mazar with vengeance. In defending Herat in 1995, Taliban found Dostum and Karim Khalili of Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat as their allies. When Taliban marched toward his fiefdom, Dostum joined hands with Masud to fight Taliban. In 1996, Mujaddadi, Hikmatyar, Dostum and Karim Khalili joined hands to oust Rabbani and Masud from Kabul. When Kabul was finally lost to Taliban, Dostum and Khalili found themselves in bed with Masud to protect their northern fiefdoms from the onslaught of Taliban. In February 1997, when Taliban threatened the livelihood of two timber smugglers of Kunar (Malik Zarin of Mujaddadi’s ANLF and Haji Kashmir Khan of Hikmatyar’s Hizb), they unleashed their tribal followers on Taliban resulting in many casualties.[20] When Taliban were marching towards Mazar, their comrades were General Malik (an Uzbek) who had betrayed Dostum and Jumma Khan Hamdard of Hikmatyar’s Hizb. Within days, Malik was killing trapped Taliban with impunity. In November 1998, after Taliban had overran the Shia heartland, a leader of Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat Ustad Akbari defected to Taliban as there was more to gain from winners rather than losers. When Taliban took over most of the country, Rabbani and Hikmatyar mended fences in Tehran. The firebrand exponent of orthodox strict Salafi brand of Sharia, Sayyaf after a firefight with Shias joined Northern Alliance (which included Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat) to fight Taliban to prevent them from putting in place their version of Sharia. When American bombers knocked the daylights from Taliban and they simply deserted the capital, Sayyaf brought in few hundred fighters to get his share of the spoils. He is currently teaching Afghan culture at Kabul University under the protection of American soldiers. What a journey for the Holy warriors of an unholy war? Outside players especially neighbours of Afghanistan kept pouring adequate fuel into the fire of civil war according to their abilities and delusions. In July 1999, Pakistani delegation participating in talks about Afghanistan at Tashkent professed non-interference in Afghan affairs and within few days in a fresh Taliban offensive in July about five to eight thousand Pakistani volunteers joined Taliban.[21] Iran supported with money, training and weapons non-Pushtun groups. US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Central Asian republics put in their share to add to the miseries of Afghans. This is the real story of the web of intrigue, treachery and personal and group interests which has been sold to the outside world wrapped in ideological, religious and other sophisticated themes.

After Soviet withdrawal, a new trend appeared on Afghan scene. Large number of influential commanders were assassinated in addition to indiscriminate killing of non-combatant civilians. The list includes Haji Abul Latif (leader of Barakzai tribe active in Kandahar, assassinated in 1990), Mullah Nasim Akhunzada (active in Helmand area, assassinated in 1990), Zabiullah (Jamiat commander in Balkh assassinated in 1984), Saifullah Afzali (Jamiat commander in Herat, assassinated in 1988), Syed Bahauddin Majruh (Director of Afghan Information centre assassinated in 1988), ten local commanders of Massoud in 1989, Juma Khan (commander of his own faction in Andarab, assassinated in 1986), Abdul Ahad Karzai (chief of Popalzais), Commander Shamali (governor of Nangarhar), Mahmud (acting governor of Nangarhar) and many others.

The civil war in Afghanistan context was a bit bizarre and was different from civil wars in other parts of the world. In Afghanistan, ‘countless commanders and combat units changing their allegiance several times out of political opportunism and economic incentive – independent of their ethnic affiliation’.[22] Part of this phenomenon is due to the tribal nature of the conflict. Olivier Roy describes this tribal war as occurring in a ‘solidarity space’ of the group and ‘in private’. ‘It is neither ideological nor political: the state being outside of the tribal space, a group does not hesitate to form an alliance with it against a rival’.[23] Due to lack of understanding of the Afghan society, senior ISI officers tried to shift from the guerrilla war to a conventional war after the departure of Soviets. This exercise not only proved to be a failure but also alienated a number of Afghans. Those groups who opposed Pakistan found other sources of money and weapons. Iran, newly independent Central Asian States and Russia became the new sponsors for these groups. This started a ‘Mini Game’ on the board of Afghanistan by small regional players who were trying to ape the superpowers ‘Great Game’. To add to this mess, Muslim extremists from all over the world, drug mafia, smuggling mafia and transport mafia made Afghanistan a very lethal cocktail.


The social structure of Afghanistan with strong local identity had the positive aspect that after take over of the central government by Soviets, the resistance not only survived but also ultimately triumphed against the foreign force. The negative aspect was that with unprecedented amount of weapons pumped into Afghanistan and large sums of money from foreign sources widened the fault lines of Afghan society making a national effort almost impossible. This has prompted some commentators like John Griffiths to assume that it is futile to try to bring together ‘such volatile and contentious elements’. He suggests that long term solution of Afghanistan may be to allow it to break up.[24] Despite prolonged civil war and sharpening of ethnic boundaries, still a large number of Afghans call themselves Afghans (although not giving up their Qaum identity) and no group is vying for a separate entity. This is a major strong point from which a start can be made. This is in contrast to many states with violent ethnic conflicts where minority ethnic groups are fighting for independent entities. Recognition of ethnic factor in Afghanistan is important for understanding the complex problems facing the nation and for possible solutions. Acknowledgement and accommodation of various ethnic concerns can help in getting the country back on tract. This will help to harness the qualities of various groups in re-building of the shattered country. However, seeing ethnic boundaries as permanent wedges and trying to overplay the ethnic card to make the things work can have opposite effects.

Large scale external migration to Pakistan, Iran and other countries and internal migration due to drought and ethnic massacres has changed the Afghan demography. This changed landscape has added challenges for Afghans for the transition to a peaceful Afghanistan. The dilemma, which the Afghans are facing is not only theirs but also of their neighbours. All neighbours of Afghanistan have to understand the historical fact that “Afghanistan as a closed buffer state was a stabilizing factor for its neighbours; Afghanistan as an open failed state undermines the statehood of its neighbours”.[25] This is critically important especially for Pakistan, a multi-ethnic state to learn from the failed state of Afghanistan. Stability of Afghanistan, which does not necessarily translate into a client regime in Kabul is in the best national interest of Pakistan. Another round of misguided policy options on part of Pakistan based on naive and unrealistic ideas can seriously jeopardize the existence of Pakistan in the present geographic form.

The rapidity with which the goat sometimes changes masters is very laughable; but the poor animal is occasionally torn to pieces in the scuffle. Sir Alexander Burns commenting about Buzkashi, Cabool 1834.[26]