Ehsan Azari (Sydney-based Afghan Academic and Commentator)
In his two-day meeting with President George W. Bush in Camp David, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan tried to make mixed impressions: In a news conference in Mr Bush’s presence, in an upbeat mood, he declared that the Taliban had been defeated and that they no longer posed a threat to his government. While on the eve of the meeting, he set a downbeat mood in an interview with the CNN, saying the security situation in his country was deteriorating and the war on terrorism was nowhere close to Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
Mr Karzai’s mixed metaphors signal an unsavoury progress in the current Western strategy in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. It also shows that the political conditions for peace in Afghanistan that the US was seeking after the overthrow of the Taliban hasn’t been reached. At the heart of the current roadblock lies a perceptual astigmatism about local realities that has traditionally shaped politics in Afghanistan.
Right from day one of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration hasn’t taken a blind bit of notice to the local political and power culture. Such a misapprehension has been an outcome of negligence towards local political dynamics, especially bypassing the Afghan tribal system with its driving force within the Pashtun majority in the country. This has been the apotheosis of governance in Afghanistan, at least for the past three centuries.
Moreover, it seems that the present course of war in this country is fostering causes for the rise of insurgency. Despite being himself a Pashtun, Karzai’s government ostracised the Pashtun majority and instead offered a tantalising prospect for the Afghan ethnic minorities who now bite off more than they can chew. The growing resentment among the Pashtun tribes elicits popular sympathy for the Taliban in the restive and proverbially religious and conservative Pashtun tribes straddled on both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as the Durand line.
The optimism over the Taliban’s lightning demise soon diminished when the Taliban reconstructed themselves, since 2002, into a well positioned insurgency, and al-Qaida shifted its sanctuary from Afghanistan to Pakistan. It became an exchange of short term pleasure for long term pain. With the fall of the Taliban, neoconservatives came up with a new theory that the only way to crush the Taliban insurgency was to write off the traditional Pashtun-centred tribal power structure in Afghanistan. This self-destructive oversight of the local ground realities was reminiscent of the mistake the US made in Iraq—the disbanding and exclusion of the former Iraqi army and entire state-bureaucracy.
The US-led coalition leapfrogged its march on Afghanistan by hiring and enriching warlords and local militia, many of them private and remnants of the former communist militia who gradually turned into a major headache for NATO, in Afghanistan and a major triggering element in the rise of the Taliban insurgency. The fall of the Taliban left behind a power vacuum, which has never been filled by the militia leaders and warlords who controlled barely 5 percent of the Afghan territory in the run-up to the US-led invasion of the country.
The parasitic new elite has drawn on the Western military presence as the fixative for its privileged position in the country. The warlords use the Western support as immunity against the International Criminal Court for which Afghanistan still remains practically a no-go zone.
Such a haunting sectarian divide has set off a perilous chain reaction. Feeling oppressed and humiliated from losing their traditional status as the rulers of Afghanistan, the Pashtuns had no option other than uniting under the umbrella of the medieval Taliban. The unemployment among the Pashtun educated young people is staggering. Within the pro-Western elite the Pashtun share is a nominal and symbolic one. Recently, in the Afghan parliament a debate was raised on the ethnic imbalance in Mr. Karzai’s government. One example was the lucrative foreign ministry. A survey indicated that in the Foreign Ministry fifty percent of positions were taken by ethnic Tajiks, 30 percent by Pashtuns, and the rest by other ethnic groups. Another disturbing example is the state-run Afghan National Television in Kabul where only 100 employees out of 1800 employees belong to the Pashtun ethnic group.
Ramification of this ethnic imbalance have reached to Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. The first beneficiary appears to have been Pakistani generals and their mullah supporters. By using a vast manoeuvring space, Pakistan is shedding crocodile tears over the predicament of the Pashtuns. Every time Pakistani top officials are having a temper tantrum on the Pashtun’s political and social marginalisation in Afghanistan, they, in fact, try to appease the Taliban. Al-Qaida is playing off the Pashtun rage and frustration to its own benefit. It continues to radicalise the Taliban in line with Wahabi fanaticism that justifies suicide bombings and mass murder of the non-Muslim people.
Upbeat over the fall of the Taliban, another beneficiary is Iran. By manipulating its old proxy the warlords of the Northern Alliance, and anti-Pashtun sentiment within some of the coalition forces, Iran is successfully trying to transform the Afghan cultural institution, media, and educational establishment into a pro-Iranian network. Religion is another aspect of Iranian influence. By sending weapon, despite Karzai’s denial, Iran is also a destabilising source for his country.
During the British colonial days, against all the odds, the Afghan tribal system remained intact. Russians too left untouched the Pashtun base power-structure in Afghanistan in the 1980s. There were 120,000 Russian combat troops and tens of thousands of communist party members, local mercenary militia, defence force and police in the country, but the Russians never showed a willingness to upset the Afghan traditional power structure. Afghanistan’s sensitive power ministries were never given to the Afghan ethnic minorities, despite the fact that most Russian casualties were inflicted by the Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The Pashtun political exclusion in Afghanistan is rapidly becoming a stumbling block, and Mr Karzai is failing to pull the Pashtun weight behind him. A Pashtun share of power in the Afghan political game on fair basis could help turn the current situation in the benefit of the war on al-Qaida terrorism and offer the best hope of reversing the rise of the Taliban.
Courtesy of the Altantic Free Press