The South Asia Channel

Enmity Breeds Violence in Afghanistan

Ethnic disdain in Afghanistan makes the country susceptible to violence. A national dialogue to reconcile ethnic differences is needed.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JULY 8:  Afghan men shout during a demonstration against Pakistan July 8, 2003 near the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Recent incursions by Pakistan into Afghan territory in the east have spurred 2 days of anti-Pakistan demonstrations in Kabul. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JULY 8: Afghan men shout during a demonstration against Pakistan July 8, 2003 near the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Recent incursions by Pakistan into Afghan territory in the east have spurred 2 days of anti-Pakistan demonstrations in Kabul. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

For Afghans to effectively combat the violent insurgency in their country, they desperately need to engage in a national dialogue about acceptance. This dialogue must have one primary goal: reconcile ethnic differences at a national level. Religious intolerance, economic deprivation and absolute poverty, geographical vulnerability, and social susceptibility to violence are the main drivers of protracted conflict in the modern day Afghanistan. I argue that at the heart of all these causes lives the problem of ethnic mistrust. Most political conflicts in Afghanistan have turned into full-scale wars, including the current one, due to direct foreign intrusion. Nothing makes Afghanistan more susceptible to foreign intrusion than the problem of ethnic mistrust that has engulfed its population. When outsiders fail to promote their political agendas through the central government in Afghanistan, they hire short-sighted leaders from certain ethnic groups to work for them.

While Pashtuns constitute the majority of the Taliban — the big drivers of the violent insurgency — Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks too are playing a vital role in emboldening and sustaining it, especially in the non-Pashtun speaking communities. Since the main insurgency in Afghanistan is conducted by multi-ethnic groups, Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds must first settle the problem of ethnic mistrust. Therefore, the public and government must engage in an open reconciliation process that focuses on acceptance. The main objective of this dialogue must be to understand why the problem of ethnic mistrust is subjecting the nation to the tyranny of terror. This link between insurgency and ethnic mistrust must be understood and contextualized.

Once the national dialogue addresses this link, then an effective national counter to the violent insurgency, that claims the lives of many Afghans daily, is possible. Afghan insurgency cannot be fought in isolated efforts at the village, district, provincial, or zone level. It has to be fought at the national level. Insurgents must be denied shelter or protection by their own ethnic groups, otherwise, in such a multi-ethnic society like Afghanistan, insurgents will always find a way to enjoy some basic protection. While the most notable ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, there are also other sizable ethnic groups like Turkmen, Aimaqs, Nuristanis, Balochis, and others. Pashtun insurgents typically find their first line of support mainly in the Pashtun speaking communities in the south and east of the country. Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek insurgents find their initial roots in the communities that share their ethnicities mainly in provinces like Badakhshan, Jawzjan, Faryab, and more.

The problem of ethnic mistrust is undisputedly reflected in the very formation of the unity government. In the last year’s presidential election, it was clear that candidates secured the most votes in geographies where they had stronger ethnic appeal. For example, between the two leading candidates, Abdullah Abdullah came out as a clear winner in the predominantly Tajik communities based on the initial results, while Ashraf Ghani secured three quarters of the vote in the Pashtun neighborhoods. In everyday conversation among the citizens, in the media space, in the market place, in government departments, and in academic institutions the focal point of discussion is not on how to work towards the creation of a pluralistic and democratic society, or how to hold corrupt leaders responsible in the government, or how to combat poverty, social injustice, terrorism, and air pollution. Rather, it is on how a certain ethnic group is justified in gaining more national and political power than others.

Members of each ethnic group feel betrayed by members of other groups, and for emotional validation, social support, and moral recognition, they turn to the members of their own group. Even though members of various ethnic groups share communities, neighborhoods, businesses, friendships, and even family relationships, as a nation, Afghans still have not risen above the societal turmoil that began with the 1979-1989 Soviet war. In that conflict, more than 870,000 Afghans were killed, three million were wounded, one million were internally displaced, and over five million were forced to flee the country. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a long and a brutal civil war saw all major ethnic groups fighting each other over power and control with retaliatory violence, torture, imprisonment, and rape becoming part of everyday life. While in some respect it is explainable why Afghans are suspicious of other ethnic groups in their country, maintaining such mistrust and suspicion is equally damaging to their national stability.

The Afghan people must rise above the problem of ethnic mistrust and accept one another as members of one nation otherwise as a divided nation they will continue to suffer at the hands of domestic insurgents and international terrorists. They must look a bit further outside their borders and use their neighbors as examples. Other nations like China, India, and Pakistan are more culturally, linguistically, religiously, and ethnically diverse than Afghanistan yet their diversity is not a carte blanche source of demonization. While these nations and other ethnically diverse ones are not completely immune from ethnic mistrust, they do not experience mistrust at a level that threatens their national stability and security, like Afghanistan does.

In the national dialogue, ethnic reconciliation, forgiveness, and national unity must be the desired outcome. For this to be achieved, the organizers and the managers of this initiative must ask some core questions both from themselves and from those with whom they engage in the dialogue. Did members of any ethnic group have any choice in choosing their ethnicity? How then can one not defend, protect, and love one’s countrymen based on a difference that they have no say in choosing? In this dialogue, Afghans must promote a new national narrative embedding this knowledge that no one had any say in their ethnicity. With any hope, the dialogue will show Afghans the link between ethnic mistrust and the current insurgency, making it impossible for them to remain watchmen as members of their nation — not just their ethnic group — are killed defenselessly. Once Afghans rise above the problem of ethnic mistrust, they will emerge as a formidable force fully capable of defeating terrorism and enjoying their civil liberties.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Nabi Sahak is a Rotary peace scholar at the University of Queensland's School of Political Science and International Studies and worked as a reporter for BBC Radio in Afghanistan.

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