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’.[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’.[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.[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.[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.[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.[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.[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).[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.[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.[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.[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’.[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”.[26]