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Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation


Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. A key obstacle is the perception of many ethnic Pashtuns that they lack meaningful representation in the central government, particularly in its security institutions. Other factors contributing to growing alienation from the Bonn political process include continued violence against Pashtuns in parts of the north and west, heavy-handed search operations and collaboration with abusive commanders by the U.S.-led Coalition, and impediments to trade in the southern and eastern provinces. Unless measures are taken to address these grievances and ensure that a more representative government emerges from the forthcoming election, there will be a greater likelihood of the political process ending in failure.

Although headed by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, the Interim Administration created in Bonn in December 2001 was dominated by a mainly Panjshiri Tajik armed faction, the Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali (Supervisory Council of the North). The “power ministries” of defence, interior and foreign affairs were held respectively by Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Younus Qanuni, and Abdullah Abdullah, all members of Shura-yi Nazar. The Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, which was expected to install a more broadly representative and hence more legitimate government, ended up reinforcing the Panjshiri monopoly over the central government’s security institutions, though it included Pashtuns in key positions in financial institutions.

President Karzai is widely seen as having been unable to limit either the power of the Shura-yi Nazar at the centre or of commanders, irrespective of ethnicity, who wield power in other parts of the country. Unless the national security institutions are perceived as representing the population as a whole, their efforts at disarmament and demobilisation are unlikely to find popular support. At the same time, the authority of local commanders will be legitimated as a vehicle for resisting ethnic domination.

Alienation from the centre is compounded by the displacement of large numbers of Pashtuns in the north, amid a wave of ethnically targeted violence following the collapse of Taliban rule by factions of the United Front that helped the U.S.-led Coalition. UNHCR, the Karzai administration, and some regional authorities have taken steps to facilitate the return of displaced northern Pashtuns. The critical issue will be ensuring security and access to land for those communities that were displaced. The international community should also support continued monitoring of violence against Pashtuns in the north and west by non-Pashtun militias, which remains acute in the provinces of Herat and Badghis, and call on regional authorities to remove and hold accountable commanders responsible for these abuses.

To date, the south and east have had only a modest stake in the political and economic reconstruction processes outlined in the Bonn agreement. International assistance has been slow to materialise in areas outside of Kandahar and other major towns, while poppy cultivation has boomed. Commanders with little or no popular legitimacy remain the principle military partners of the Coalition, and have used their power to consolidate control over regional administrations and economies. In Pashtun areas, this has led to the growth of patronage systems along sub-ethnic lines and fuelled tensions within communities; those Pashtun tribes that lack kinship ties to local authorities are marginalised politically and economically.

The Coalition, whose entry into the Pashtun provinces was welcomed by a population that had grown disenchanted with the Taliban’s increasingly arbitrary and autocratic rule, has failed to capitalise on this reservoir of goodwill. Collaboration with local commanders has drawn the Coalition into their factional and personal rivalries, compromising its non-partisanship in disputes unrelated to the war on terrorism. Heavy-handed tactics in search operations and inadequate responses to reports of civilian deaths from air strikes have also fuelled discontent with the Coalition presence.

The risks posed by the growing disaffection among Pashtuns in Afghanistan should be self-evident. The Taliban came to power not only because of the military assistance provided by Pakistan, but also because local commanders had become notorious for their abusive conduct toward civilians and extortion of traders. The Taliban’s initial success in disarming the south and restoring a modicum of security was welcomed as a respite by large segments of the local population. Today, insecurity in the south and east, impediments to trade, and continued competition for influence by the neighbouring states present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban’s emergence. The risk of destabilisation has been given added weight by the re-emergence of senior Taliban commanders who are ready to capitalise on popular discontent and whose long-time allies now govern the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan.

The elections scheduled for June 2004 will be a critical barometer of the credibility of the Bonn process among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Reform of the central government’s security institutions should be prioritised in advance of the elections. The removal of abusive regional authorities, and their replacement by educated professionals who are perceived as neutral actors will go a long way toward reclaiming support for the central government. Suitable individuals are not hard to find: there are a large number of Pashtun professionals with management and technical expertise gained through work with international agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan and among refugee communities in the neighbouring states. The international community should also work to ensure that non-militarised political parties have the necessary security space and legal authorisation to campaign freely in advance of the election.


To the Transitional Administration:

  1. Ensure that cabinet level appointments and military command assignments are made with a view to reflecting Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity and are linked to the development of professional criteria.
  1. Revise the draft political parties law now before the cabinet so that it does not provide pretexts for the dissolution of parties or limits on political expression, in particular by removing Articles 3 and 9 and minimum membership thresholds for registration.
  1. Continue to monitor the treatment of ethnic Pashtuns in northern and western Afghanistan, and especially:
(a)    broaden the mandate of the Return Commission for the North to include the provinces of Herat, Badghis, Baghlan, Takhar, and Badakhshan; and
(b)    direct regional authorities to ensure that commanders whose forces are identified as having been responsible for violence against Pashtun communities, including illegal seizure and occupation of land, are removed from their posts and held accountable under international standards of due process and fair trials.
  1. Appoint a non-partisan panel with powers to receive complaints and investigate allegations to carry out, in cooperation with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, a comprehensive and time-bound review of the performance of provincial administrations, with a view to identifying cases of gross abuse of power including, inter alia, illegal taxation and mistreatment of ethnic, tribal, or sectarian minorities, and then remove from office governors whose administrations are found to have systematically abused their authority.

To the International Community:

  1. Extend ISAF or an equivalent mission to additional areas of the country, beyond Kabul, including the major regional centres.
  1. Ensure that regional minorities, including Pashtuns in the north and west, receive humanitarian assistance and that reconstruction aid is promptly directed to areas where Coalition military operations continue.
  1. Provide increased support for the reconstruction of judicial institutions in the provinces, with particular attention to developing their capacity to impartially review and resolve competing claims to land.
  1. Initiate a dialogue with civil society and legitimate community leaders in Pashtun areas as part of the broader consultative processes on the constitution, preparations for the election, and other elements of the Bonn process and develop parallel mechanisms, where necessary, to ensure that women are included in all of these consultative processes.
  1. Ensure the early dissemination of information in the provinces, and in refugee communities in Iran and Pakistan, about the 2004 elections through support for voter education, registration, and mobilisation, and support efforts in these areas by Afghan NGOs, independent media and women’s associations.
  1. Support the development of civil society institutions initiated by local actors in southern and eastern Afghanistan and take steps in so doing to ensure the independence of these institutions from influence by military and governmental institutions.

To the United States and its Coalition partners:

  1. Progressively direct military and financial support away from regional and local commanders, as part of the broader national framework for disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration.
  1. Consult with provincial authorities and legitimate community leaders prior to carrying out military operations and ensure that intelligence reports have been independently verified to the fullest extent possible before conducting searches of private homes or other military operations.
  1. Promptly investigate, in consultation with provincial authorities and local community leaders, all reports of civilian deaths in the course of military operations.
  1. Sensitise Coalition forces to respect, as far as possible, local norms of conduct while carrying out search operations.

Kabul/Brussels, 5 August 2003


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