As the debate intensifies within the Obama administration over how to stabilize Afghanistan, one major problem is conspicuously missing from the discussion: The growing alienation of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun tribes, who make up an estimated 42% of the population. One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government.
Tajiks constitute only about 24% of the population, yet they largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns. Little wonder that in the run-up to Thursday’s presidential election, much of the Taliban propaganda has focused on the fact that President Hamid Karzai’s top running mate is a hated symbol of Tajik power: former defence minister Muhammad Fahim.
Fahim and his allies have been entrenched in Kabul since the US overthrew the Taliban with the help of his Tajik militia, the Northern Alliance, which was based in the Panjshir valley. A clique of these Tajik officers, known as the Panjshiris, took control of the key security posts with US backing, and they have been there ever since. Washington pushed Karzai for the presidency to give a Pashtun face to the regime, but he has been derided from the start by fellow Pashtuns.
“They get the dollars, and we get the bullets,” is the common refrain among Pashtuns critical of the government. “Dollars” refers to the economic enrichment of Tajiks through an inside track on aid contracts. The “bullets” are the anti-Taliban air strikes and ground operations in Pashtun areas in the south and east of the country.
Michael Semple, a former adviser to the EU representative in Kabul, told me that “the intelligence services are still basically seen as anti-Pashtun and pro-Northern Alliance because the power structure in the directorate is still clearly dominated by the original Northern Alliance group”, and above all because “they also have control of the prosecution, judicial and detention branches of the security services”.
The Obama administration is pinning its hopes for an eventual exit from Afghanistan on building an Afghan National Army (ANA) capable of defeating the insurgency. But a recent study by the Rand Corporation for the Pentagon, noting a “surplus of Tajiks in the ANA officer and NCO corps”, warned of the “challenge of achieving ethnic balance, given the difficulty of recruiting in the Pashtun area”. The main reasons it is difficult to recruit Pashtuns, one UN official recently said, are that “70% of the army’s battalion commanders are Tajiks” and that the Taliban intimidate the families of recruits.
Pashtun nationalism alone does not explain the Taliban’s strength, which is fuelled by drug money, Islamist fervour, corrupt warlords, hatred of the US occupation and the hidden hand of Pakistani intelligence agencies. But the psychological cement that holds the disparate Taliban factions together is opposition to Tajik dominance in Kabul. Until the power of the Panjshiris is curbed, no amount of US money or manpower will bring the insurgency to an end.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Edited excerpts. Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org