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Beyond the Taliban: the roots of Pashtun resistance

Mohammad Asif looks at the real background to the resistance groups

May 24, 2009
5 min read

When two US and three Latvian soldiers were killed on 1 May as their outpost in Kunar province was overrun by insurgents, western news media attributed their killings to the Taliban. The Taliban, however, have only a small presence in Kunar, and are unlikely to have been responsible. In other words, the resistance to the Karzai government spreads far wider than the Taliban.

In the Pashtun heartlands, several distinct resistance groups have rapidly grown in popularity and strength. Tracing their roots back to the mujahideen struggle against the Soviets, factions such as Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network were formerly enemies of the Taliban, yet are now allied in opposition against the coalition forces and the Kabul government they see as their people’s oppressors. These groups adhere to a characteristically Afghan brand of intensely conservative Islam, yet Gareth Price, director of the Asia program at the influential research institute, Chatham House, believes that many of their fighters are motivated as much by nationalism as religious fervour.

As 25,000 more US troops prepare to enter Afghanistan to execute an Iraq-style ‘surge’, the Karzai government controls just 30 per cent of the country, and US president Barack Obama frankly admits that the US-led coalition is failing to meet its objectives.

Events leading to the current state of affairs can only be accurately understood in light of the civil war that exploded after the Soviets withdrew in 1988. The mujahideen fractured along tribal and ethnic lines, each faction vying to fill the resulting power vacuum. The Taliban – whose support comes from the largest tribe of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns (42 per cent of the Afghan population) emerged as eventual victors, yet they could never fully dominate the predominantly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara north. The stalemate was only broken when, in 2001, the coalition gave decisive military support to the warlord leaders of the northern ethnic and tribal groupings, allowing them to gain the offensive. Sweeping southwards, these warlords and their armies massacred thousands of captured Taliban fighters as American and British special forces looked on. In the months that followed, Northern Alliance soldiers went on to rob, rape and murder thousands of ethnic Pashtun civilians – effectively ‘cleansing’ the north of its Pashtun minority.

In April, Hamid Karzai nominated Mohammed Fahim as his vice presidential running mate in the forthcoming election. Many believe that Northern Alliance commanders such as Fahim, alongside Karzai’s army chief of staff Rashid Dostum, actively encouraged or at least condoned these massacres. Certainly, as a Northern Alliance commander in the early 1990s, Fahim indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas of Kabul, and is alleged to have strong ties to powerful criminal militias operating in the city today.

Pashtuns overwhelmingly see Fahim’s appointment as an attempt to secure the vote of the sizeable (27 per cent) Tajik minority. They see it as further evidence of their marginalisation and believe it will deepen the ethnic divide that is an important factor in the violence in Afghanistan today. Northern Alliance commanders now comprise the top echelons of the Kabul regime.

There are no reliable statistics of the death toll that has resulted from the 2001 invasion. Estimates range between 10,000 and 40,000. Indisputably, the overwhelming majority have been Pashtun. This includes large numbers of Pashtun civilians. Air raids often appear to be indiscriminate or based on fatally flawed intelligence. In several instances, the US Air Force is understood to have been effectively tricked into assassinating Pashtun tribal elders by rival tribes or warlords who had deliberately fed them false information.

Despite large scale opposition to the Taliban even from within Pashtun society, the Pashtun majority feel they are now being victimised in retaliation for the Taliban’s misdeeds. Perceived insults from occupying forces, a dearth of economic assistance to their regions, and the arming of neighbouring ethnic rivals through the ill-thought-out Arbakai militia scheme have further strengthened the perception that this is a war not just against the Taliban but against the entire Pashtun people.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN official who chaired the 2001 Bonn conference that led to the creation of the current government, has stated that the coalition’s current problems are directly related to the fact that the conference was not representative of Afghan society.

Ayub, a 46-year-old Pashtun and former army officer from Kabul, complains that despite comprising around two fifths of Afghanistan’s total population of 32 million, Pashtuns remain poorly represented at all levels of government. While a number of ministers are ethnic Pashtuns, they are mostly coalition-installed, pro-American foreign nationals. Hamid Karzai’s links to US business interests are well documented; the defence minister and former finance minister are American citizens; the foreign minister, German; and the interior minister, British.

‘We don’t believe they speak for us,’ says Ayub. ‘Pashtuns vote for Karzai only because they have no other option.’ Indeed, many prominent Pashtun parties have been outlawed, and Pashtun ministers are in office as independents. Even before the Taliban established their rule after the Soviet withdrawal, the Pashtun had dominated Afghanistan for centuries. This dominance was the foundation of numerous injustices for which their Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara neighbours understandably harbour deep resentment. Ayub believes, however, that the Pashtun’s current disenfranchisement is sowing the seeds of more bloody ethnic conflict for generations to come.

As Red Pepper was going to press, there were reports that the Karzai regime was in talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the militant Islamist insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami, about a possible power-sharing deal. A Pashtun warlord with an appalling human rights record dating back to the civil war, Hekmatyar is nonetheless popular among Pashtuns. Some believe that, despite Hezb-e-Islami’s fundamentalist politics, this could appear as a step towards more inclusive government and could lead to a significant decrease in violence.

Mohammad Asif is an Afghan journalist in exile

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