Power Politics of ethnic groups and the future of Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan | 08-Jul-11 | Author: Ahmad Noor

Power politics means the use of force or threat to use force by political parties, nations, groups, subgroups or individuals to protect, preserve or to promote their national, personal or party interests. It can also be defined as diplomacy in which nations threat to use force in order to obtain their goals and objectives. Power politics is a universal phenomenon and can neither be confined to underdeveloped societies, nor to a particular political arrangement nor to developed societies. Power politics is abundant in every country and society in one form or another; it depends upon the nature of the environment that people and states are dealing with.

Power politics played an important role in shaping the destiny of Afghanistan through ages. Afghanistan has gone through periods of brutal anarchies, invasions, occupations, revolutions and civil wars. Power politics in Afghanistan’s history is dotted with revolts, rebellions assassinations and forced exile. Through the early ages power in Afghanistan was hereditary in nature and was in the hands of Kings and Amirs. Those Amirs ruled Afghanistan with iron fists and brutality.

The Afghan society is a tribal society and is divided into tribes, sub tribes, clans, and families - each of them considering its genealogy equal or superior to the others. Loyalties in a tribal society are not confined to the state, but to the tribal chief, elders, clans, families and common ethnicity. Throughout the history, these tribes and sub tribes have been at odds with each other, competing for power, often in a hostile nature. This is the reason why throughout the history, Afghans have been at war and few times of peace can be found.

The last thirty years of wars had a profound effect on Afghanistan. It changed the balance of power, which had previously favored Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Traditionally, the Pashtuns dominated Afghanistan’s armed forces and as a community too, they were well armed. In the recent past other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazaras armed themselves and developed well-organized groups. At the same time the Pashtuns became politically fragmented following the emergence of several Pashtun resistance groups to fight against the Soviets. It was the formation of the Taliban that united the Pashtuns to some extent under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Umar.

The events of September 9/11, 2001 are a turning point in the recent history of Afghanistan. The Taliban failed to deliver on the demands of the United States and United Nations to surrender Osama Bin Laden. This provided an excuse to the US and International community to invade and topple the Taliban regime and install Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan.

Power Politics of Karzai

Hamid Karzai came to power through the support of United States and other major powers. The Afghan peace process had started with Bonn conference in late 2001. The United States and International community supported Karzai to remain in power as he was considered to be liberal and moderate and against the ultra-conservative beliefs of the Taliban. He is an experienced and well-educated diplomat. He is a Pashtun from the province of Urozgan. In the 2004 Presidential election he obtained over 50% of the ballot while his closest rival Younis Qanooni got 16%, but the 2009 Presidential elections were controversial and most experts considered the election process to be manipulated by the government machinery in a way that results were made in favor of Karzai.

Initially, Karzai did well in balancing the ethnic divide amongst his cabinet ministers to some extent, but not much was to be achieved as the majority of communities did not receive their due share in the government. Karzai vowed to root out the warlords. “Save Afghanistan not fiefdom”, he announced a long time ago, but failed to take practical steps. In the 1990’s the warlords had military strength but now they also have financial power and control over the political system as well as the resources of Afghanistan; they are now more powerfull and dominant than before.

The strategy of Karzai to disarm and reconstruct Afghanistan has failed miserably; the country is sliding ever faster into chaos and disorder, particularly in the Southern and Eastern provinces. If other parts of the country are calmer, it is not because the central government has extended its writ, but because the state has surrendered its authority to powerful warlords.

Karzai failed to tackle corruption in the Afghan government. Some of his ministers are involved in corruption. He also failed to take appropriate action against them.

Karzai’s government failed to create job opportunities for a young generation of Afghans.

Moreover, the government also failed to support the vibrant society of Afghanistan. If there is any appointment in a ministry, qualifications are not the basis of decision making, instead nepotism, tribal and ethnic affiliations are kept in view. The number of unemployed in the country has risen and that is why most of the young generation prefer to go to Iran or Pakistan and some have joined Taliban ranks. There is general despondency, disappointment and frustration among the ordinary population.

After staying in power for 10 years, Karzai failed to organize and establish an organized army and police. He is still depending upon ISAF and American forces to protect and safeguard Afghanistan.

Power politics of the Northern Alliance

During the Taliban rule the opposition forces were pushed towards the north of the country, where they mobilized against the Pashtun dominated Taliban force. The Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras formed the Northern Alliance in 1996 to counter the supremacy of the Taliban; main leaders of the Northern alliance were Ahmad Shah Masood (Tajik), Abdul Rashid Dostom (Uzbek), Abdul Karim Khalili (Hazara) and Rabbani (Tajik).

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Pashtuns of the tribal areas supported the Taliban. On the other hand Russia, Iran and India were in favor of the Northern Alliance. The combined efforts of the Persian speaking groups failed to defeat the Pashtu speaking Taliban who were united under the leadership of Mulla Mohammad Umar. After 9/11 the United States used the Northern Alliance to provide ground troops to capture Kabul. The Americans used the Northern Alliance to defeat Taliban; the US allowed them to take control of Kabul after the ousting of the Taliban. It was at this moment that the Panjshiries began to dominate the political scene of Afghanistan as they did during the Burhanuddin Rabbani period in 1992-96. General Abdul Rashid Dostom came from Turkey and started campaigning for American support in the north of Afghanistan and soon became the king maker after capturing key provinces in the north. Abdul Karim Khalili and the Hazaras entered Kabul with ardent zeal and zest for power. The Bonn Conference gave them full control and authority in the political set up. Marshal Fahim became the defense minister of Karzai, Qannoni the interior minister, Abdullah Abdullah foreign minister, Ahmad Zia and Abdul Karim Khalili vice president, and Abdul Rashid Dostom’s men were given important posts in the set up. After the Bonn Conference the Northern Alliance supporters’ presence was evident in every department, especially the Tajiks and the Panjsheris. The US rehabilitated and empowered them with money, weapons, and dignified space in the new political structure by co-opting the Northern Alliance as allies against the Taliban

After the last Presidential elections held in 2009, the Panjsheris are now once again a powerful and dominate force in the political set up - Marshal Qasim Fahim Vice President, Bismillah Khan Defense Minister, Abdullah Abdullah opposition leader. Their presence is felt and seen in every department, especially in the Afghan intelligence, as most of the top officials are Panjsheris.

The Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras consider the presence of the international community as a golden opportunity to grab the power and resources of Afghanistan; they aggressively exercise their authority over the domain they hold, even if it were at cross-purposes with the government. Most of the skyscrapers and business centers in Kabul and other major cities of Afghanistan belong to the commanders and warlords. In the last ten years they have been trying to keep Karzai at a distance from the opposition forces. They are not in favor of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan because they think if there is some kind conciliation with the opposition forces, they will lose their importance. That is why they are not in favor of a dialogue with Taliban. Although Professor Rabbani is the head of the peace process, he is more interested in his personal gain rather in the interests of Afghanistan and strengthening his own party and supporters.

Power Politics of opposition forces

Despite the defeat in 2001 the Taliban reemerged and continued to wage a war against the United Sates and coalition forces. Initially, their hub was the Pak-Afghan border area. When the United States started the war in Iraq the Taliban began to extend their influence in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban have grown steadily and fast over the years. After the failure of Anaconda operation in 2003 and operation Mushtarik at Majra (Helmand Province) by the US led coalition and Afghan forces the Taliban became more optimistic and confident in victory. The recent great escape from Kandahar jail shows how skilled and determined they are as well as the vulnerabilities of the new Afghan National Army. The US led coalition forces held the cities and highways, but faced vigorous resistance in large parts of the countryside and remote areas. The Taliban consider the US and allied forces as occupying forces and demand complete withdrawal of NATO and allied forces from Afghanistan. They seek to establish the Islamic Sharia as ultimate code of conduct and law of the land. They are attacking the allied forces and Afghan army and at times they are also targeting innocent people. In this way they are trying to create panic in main cities. Recently, they have killed important political and military figures, their actions show their importance.

Gulbudin Hekmetyar is another opposition leader who is opposing Karzai’s administration and considers him to be a puppet of the Americans. His group is active in some parts of the country, especially in Taghab district of the Kapisa province where his supporters have been continuously targeting the allied forces. Although Hezb-e-Islami’s spokesman Baheer claimed that Hekmetyar still has large group of followers in Afghanistan, it is doubtful because most of his famous commanders and supporters joined Karzai’s government a long time ago.

The future

Afghanistan’s problem is to find an acceptable balance between the interests of all competitive ethnic and tribal communities. Internal ethnic power politics will continue in future and will never end, but a balanced approach is required for all stakeholders. The government and the allied forces have to engage the Taliban and other opposition forces in a peace process. The role and participation of Tajiks, Uzbacks, Hazaras and Pashtuns has to be decided in a balanced way.

NATO and US forces first and foremost need to address the issue of Pashtun alienation from the system. After 9/11, the perception of a power shift in favor of the Tajiks and other groups persists amongst the Pashtuns, and this is not a good political sign for war ravaged Afghanistan. They must concentrate with more zeal and zest on reconstruction programs and revival of the economy of Afghanistan, especially the legal economy. Unfortunately, illegal drug trafficking is still a major problem keeps providing the Taliban and warlords with resources and local support of drug cultivators and exporters.

The demise of Osama Bin Laden opened a window of opportunity for both the Taliban and the United States. The President of the United States, Barak Obama, announced that some US troops would leave Afghanistan by July 2011. This presents a great opportunity to start political dialogue with the Taliban and other opposition forces. The United States and the Afghan government are now in a better position to negotiate with the Taliban, because the US achieved one of its goals to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. Since the events of 9/11, there have been two missions in Afghanistan, to counter terrorism and promote efforts of peace making. The Taliban were punished in 2001 for harboring Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Now it is the time for dialogue and peacemaking. The Abbottabad operation has certainly changed the mindset of the Taliban leadership to some extent.

The allied forces and the Afghan government should seize the opportunity by starting a direct political dialogue and engagement with the Taliban with the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This way, the conspirators and the enemies of Afghanistan will fail to achieve their objectives of destabilizing Afghanistan any further.

If the United States and NATO forces leave Afghanistan without solving the Afghan issue it will be another fatal mistake and the consequence a deadly civil and ethnic war. The neighbors will once again be plunged into Afghanistan and there will be death and destruction of the Afghan State and Afghan people. The United States and NATO forces must not abandon Afghanistan in a hurry; the handover of security to Afghan forces in 2014 must start after a peace deal with the Taliban and other opposition forces.