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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant