Afghanistan's Dim Hopes for Peace

In ancient Rome there was a famous saying Solitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, -- "they create desolation and call it peace." This saying seems to fit the kind of "peace" the US and its allies until rccently sought to establish in Afghanistan.

The idea was not to let the Afghans decide their future, their rulers, and manage their affairs. It instead was to establish peace by destroying those forces which were not sensitive enough to US interests. The idea of "dismantling the terrorist networks'" was thought to be the way to establish that peace, but contrarily it has led to more destruction, dislocation, and disruption of common people, not only in Afghanistan but also in the bordering Pakistni regions, resulting in the spread of insurgency even in those areas of Northern Afghanistan which hitherto had remained immune for a long time.

Now after more than a decade of warfare, the US is apparently left with no other option but to negotiate with the Taliban. Events are fast turning at both the global level and inside Afghanistan as the time for withdrawal approaches. But where the US is trying to retain some politico-military influence by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, different ethnic communities in Afghanistan are increasingly becoming apprehensive of such developments.

The opening of Taliban's political office in Doha, and Hamid Karzai's subsequent statement calling off security talks with the US that would allow it a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan, followed by suspension of the US-Taliban round of talks reflect a much more complex set of problems which the US is yet to grapple with. While, although the Taliban appear to be somewhat flexible, division among Afghans themselves has still to be bridged. This is major hurdle not only for the US but also for the Taliban as well.

The majority of the Taliban belong to the Pashtun community, Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group - almost 40 percent of the population, Their main opponents, the Northern Alliance and all of its political wings, are from other communities such as Tajiks (23 percent) and Uzbeks (10 percent). The biggest challenge for the US and its allies is therefore to broker a pact among Afghans themselves before brokering a deal with the Taliban for the withdrawal of the bulk of its fighting force lest the post-2014 Afghanistan again fall prey to a prolonged civil war triggered by ethnic sentiment and hatred.

The current events not only reflect the ethnic lava brewing inside Afghanistan, but also show broader disagreement over the country's future political structure. The Taliban's calling Afghanistan an "Islamic Emirate" and its staunch rejection by the main opposition groups such as the National Front, show how differently these groups perceive Afghanistan's socio-political identity and future. The Front is composed of different political groups and anti-Taliban leaders such as Abdul Rasheed Dostam and Muhammad Muhaqia, and led by Ahmad Zia Massoud, younger brother of former Mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, and by the High Peace Council.

A member of the High Peace Council, Amending Mozafari, even went to the extent of calling the Taliban "a group of insurgents with no legal status," having no right of "calling themselves Islamic Emirates." Significantly, both of these groups are dominated by the Tajik community, and their vote bank is also ethnic. These political clashes at the higher level tend to trickle down when they turn into crisis and obliterate all processes of peace and reconciliation.

This division along ethnic lines may lead Afghanistan to yet another period of protracted warfare because the country appears to be a sort of demographic casualty given its particular composition of population, uneven spread of ethnic groups and patterns of inter-ethnic relations.

The Pashtun community exists in the upper and the lower classes. Where the Afghan elite (king, royal family, top government officials, top religious leaders, wealthy merchants etc) has always been overwhelmingly Pashtun, the majority of rural cultivators as well as nomads, both constituting almost 80 percent of the population, are also Pashtun, while the rest are Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen. On the other hand, Tajiks, the second biggest ethnic group, dominate the urban upper middle and lower middle class. This is the most educated class and is poised to play a significant role provided it could be dexterously handled.

The Tajiks fought well against the Soviet Union under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud but failed to translate victory into a political force. However, this community is again re-emerging under the leadership of Ahmad Zia Massoud, also a prospective candidate for the presidency. He supports the US military presence in the post-2014 scenario and is a staunch opponent of sharing power with the Taliban.

On the other hand, the Taliban are trying to stage a publicity coup by establishing a political office, giving the impression that they are a government in exile, and talking about negotiations to end conflict —hence an ensuing struggle for political power and ascendency.

The fear of the return of the Taliban is helping the elite of the non-Pashtun groups to consolidate their respective communities. This ethnic polarization at the lower level and ethno-politics at the elite level is thus likely to impede any reconciliation however necessary and inevitable for the Afghans and the entire region.

This division between Pashtun and non-Pashtun communities is increasingly becoming a north-south divide, with both northern and southern Afghanistan lacking any leader capable of exerting the kind of influence at the national level as Ahmad Shah Massoud did until the Taliban's emergence under Mullah Umar in the mid-1990s with their control over almost 90 percent of the country. Lack of national leadership is thus indirectly igniting ethnic solidarity and ethnocentricism between the Pashtun minority and the non-Pashtun majority.

If this division persists, it can be expected to inflict numerous hardships and again put Afghanistan on the path to civil war. And if civil war breaks out, it is going to engulf the whole of Afghanistan. Traditionally and in placid times, the Pashtun community has always held dominant positions at the policy making and implementation level, while the Tajiks hold the key to middle level politics and related activity through their more numerous urban middle classes.

The balance however tilts again in favor of the Pashtun community during times of turmoil. When the enormous Pashtun-dominated rural class joins hands with the more numerous Pashtun religious and local elites - the Taliban - the Tajik-dominated urban middle class are isolated in small urban pockets, as are the small Tajik cultivators in rural areas. If the rural class and nomads were to face an internal conflict, the fairly large number of Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen could also rise to eminence with their potential to significantly affect the balance between Pashtuns and Tajiks.

Even on the eve of the 1978 coup, the major mark of ethnic polarization was the Pashtun-Tajik cleavage. Otherwise too, throughout the history of modern Afghanistan, only the Tajik challenged Pashtun supremacy, while other communities long since learnt to adjust themselves, although with prejudice as in the case of Hazaras. But Tajiks have not settled psychologically and Tajik-Pashtun divisions continue to plague the future.

This division is now perpetuating itself in the National Army, which has a surplus of Tajiks and which also suffers from ethnic divisions. Although Pashtun also make a large portion of this army, most come from southern Afghanistan, basically a non-Pashtun region and doesn't enjoy officers' ranks. Since the establishment of the ANA, its leadership has been Tajik—hence problems of command and control and lack of national spirit. On the other hand, the Tajik grip is resented by the Pashtun who regard the Tajik majority, forming almost 40 percent of ANA troops trained, as a conspiracy to kill the Pashtun majority.

Under such circumstances, who will this army defend and how? First of all, it has to defend itself against itself; others might have to wait till a political reconciliation takes place. And, when the international forces leave—whether in 2014 or after a decade –it is unlikely that this army will be able to prevent Afghanistan from falling again into the hands of local militias.

With such socio-political divisions persisting, it is unlikely that the US can offer peace any more than it has been able to offer it to the Karzai-led Afghan government. And talks with the Taliban are fraught with such critical internal challenges that they could wreck the whole enterprise. This problem poses a serious threat to Afghanistan's security and economic stability.

Afghanistan also has a "youth bulge" - 68 percent of the population is below the age of 25, the most vulnerable section of the population and the easiest source of recruitment for local militias for insurgency and infighting. As a matter of fact, an unemployed youth is tempted to indulge in drug trafficking or join insurgent groups. Therefore, unless these internal conflicts are resolved, hope of establishing peace remains bleak and the danger of another war continues to loom large over every common Afghan. The US, therefore, must re-direct its policy towards bridging the gulf between Pashtun and Tajik communities. Without a prior agreement between them, the US might not be able to achieve its objective of withdrawing and then leaving a residual force in post-2014 Afghanistan.

(Salman Rafi Sheikh is a researcher in the field of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His main areas of interest are South and West Asian political affairs and foreign policy.)