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Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Report 62 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001.

Executive Summary

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. A key obstacle is the perception of many ethnic Pashtuns that they lack meaningful representation in the central government, particularly in its security institutions. Other factors contributing to growing alienation from the Bonn political process include continued violence against Pashtuns in parts of the north and west, heavy-handed search operations and collaboration with abusive commanders by the U.S.-led Coalition, and impediments to trade in the southern and eastern provinces. Unless measures are taken to address these grievances and ensure that a more representative government emerges from the forthcoming election, there will be a greater likelihood of the political process ending in failure.

Although headed by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, the Interim Administration created in Bonn in December 2001 was dominated by a mainly Panjshiri Tajik armed faction, the Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali (Supervisory Council of the North). The “power ministries” of defence, interior and foreign affairs were held respectively by Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Younus Qanuni, and Abdullah Abdullah, all members of Shura-yi Nazar. The Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, which was expected to install a more broadly representative and hence more legitimate government, ended up reinforcing the Panjshiri monopoly over the central government’s security institutions, though it included Pashtuns in key positions in financial institutions.

President Karzai is widely seen as having been unable to limit either the power of the Shura-yi Nazar at the centre or of commanders, irrespective of ethnicity, who wield power in other parts of the country. Unless the national security institutions are perceived as representing the population as a whole, their efforts at disarmament and demobilisation are unlikely to find popular support. At the same time, the authority of local commanders will be legitimated as a vehicle for resisting ethnic domination.

Alienation from the centre is compounded by the displacement of large numbers of Pashtuns in the north, amid a wave of ethnically targeted violence following the collapse of Taliban rule by factions of the United Front that helped the U.S.-led Coalition. UNHCR, the Karzai administration, and some regional authorities have taken steps to facilitate the return of displaced northern Pashtuns. The critical issue will be ensuring security and access to land for those communities that were displaced. The international community should also support continued monitoring of violence against Pashtuns in the north and west by non-Pashtun militias, which remains acute in the provinces of Herat and Badghis, and call on regional authorities to remove and hold accountable commanders responsible for these abuses.

To date, the south and east have had only a modest stake in the political and economic reconstruction processes outlined in the Bonn agreement. International assistance has been slow to materialise in areas outside of Kandahar and other major towns, while poppy cultivation has boomed. Commanders with little or no popular legitimacy remain the principle military partners of the Coalition, and have used their power to consolidate control over regional administrations and economies. In Pashtun areas, this has led to the growth of patronage systems along sub-ethnic lines and fuelled tensions within communities; those Pashtun tribes that lack kinship ties to local authorities are marginalised politically and economically.

The Coalition, whose entry into the Pashtun provinces was welcomed by a population that had grown disenchanted with the Taliban’s increasingly arbitrary and autocratic rule, has failed to capitalise on this reservoir of goodwill. Collaboration with local commanders has drawn the Coalition into their factional and personal rivalries, compromising its non-partisanship in disputes unrelated to the war on terrorism. Heavy-handed tactics in search operations and inadequate responses to reports of civilian deaths from air strikes have also fuelled discontent with the Coalition presence.

The risks posed by the growing disaffection among Pashtuns in Afghanistan should be self-evident. The Taliban came to power not only because of the military assistance provided by Pakistan, but also because local commanders had become notorious for their abusive conduct toward civilians and extortion of traders. The Taliban’s initial success in disarming the south and restoring a modicum of security was welcomed as a respite by large segments of the local population. Today, insecurity in the south and east, impediments to trade, and continued competition for influence by the neighbouring states present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban’s emergence. The risk of destabilisation has been given added weight by the re-emergence of senior Taliban commanders who are ready to capitalise on popular discontent and whose long-time allies now govern the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan.

The elections scheduled for June 2004 will be a critical barometer of the credibility of the Bonn process among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Reform of the central government’s security institutions should be prioritised in advance of the elections. The removal of abusive regional authorities, and their replacement by educated professionals who are perceived as neutral actors will go a long way toward reclaiming support for the central government. Suitable individuals are not hard to find: there are a large number of Pashtun professionals with management and technical expertise gained through work with international agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan and among refugee communities in the neighbouring states. The international community should also work to ensure that non-militarised political parties have the necessary security space and legal authorisation to campaign freely in advance of the election.

Kabul/Brussels, 5 August 2003

Speech / Asia

Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator

Speech by Laurel Miller, Program Director for Asia, at the United Nations Security Council Arria Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan.

Distinguished speakers and participants, thank you for the opportunity to join you for this discussion today. 

As all the preceding speakers have emphasised, a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan would be the best way to advance peace and prosperity in that country and contribute to security beyond its borders. But it goes without explaining that peacemaking is hard, and more often than not it fails. As an independent observer, I can perhaps best contribute to this discussion by highlighting a few key risks and realities that are important for those supporting an Afghan peace process to reflect in their policies and diplomacy, if the process is to have the greatest possible chance of success.

First, if the peace process succeeds – in other words, in the most optimistic scenario – the process will result in a government of which the Taliban are a substantial part, and which is structurally different than what we see today. What exactly the Taliban share and the structural changes will be can only be determined through negotiations, but trade-offs have to be expected. To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that.

If and when the Afghan parties begin substantive negotiations, their starting positions are likely to be very far apart on the most fundamental questions of the political system and what kinds of democratic features it will and won’t have as compared to the existing system. Either there will be compromises on these questions or there will not be a negotiated settlement – in which case, the bloodshed will continue, with or without a foreign troop presence, and Afghanistan’s economic prospects will remain stunted.

One policy implication of this reality is that it is more important to focus support on the peace process than on specific outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that supporting countries abandon their own values. But it is to say that without placing an end to the bloodshed, to the human toll, at the apex of desired outcomes in the nearer term, other desired outcomes – rights, justice for victims, democratic features – are unlikely to be realised over the longer term. If the mantra “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” means anything, it should mean that members of the international community will support the outcomes of Afghan peace negotiations without imposing their own redlines.

Another policy implication is that, if a negotiated settlement materialises, promoting its implementation will require providing financial support to a government that includes the Taliban. This is a reality that may be difficult to absorb for some parliaments and publics of countries that have been at war with the Taliban for two decades.

A second reality I’ll highlight concerns timing constraints on the peace process. As I’m sure is well-known to this group, peace processes generally are lengthy, often years-long affairs. In Afghanistan’s case, the relatively straightforward U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February took nearly a year and a half to negotiate, after years of quiet preparatory steps. The more complex topics to be negotiated among Afghans will not easily be amenable to quick resolution. An incremental approach to negotiations, in which compromises are gradually accumulated, building toward the most difficult issues would offer the best chance for the parties to evolve their positions and acclimate their constituencies to compromises. This kind of approach takes time.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, however, has shortened the time horizon for talks. It’s not hard to imagine some flexibility on the agreement’s May 2021 deadline for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and other non-diplomatic personnel, particularly considering that none of the other deadlines in the text have held so far. And, it is theoretically possible that the Biden administration will revisit elements of the deal or interpret some of its requirements more stringently; such modifications could extend the withdrawal timeline. Regardless of any Taliban flexibility or stiffened American conditionality – or even U.S. abandonment of the deal, though I don’t expect that – the withdrawal provisions have undoubtedly shaped Taliban expectations. The withdrawal timeline was a big win for them, and they had insisted on that win up front, before commencing talks with other Afghans. It is unlikely Afghan talks can be sustained if that win is not sustained. And, unfortunately, it is also unlikely that talks would continue after a full withdrawal. The timeline may be somewhat elastic, but probably can’t be stretched very far.

I mention the timing issue in part because some have been understandably frustrated with the dramatic urgency of U.S. diplomacy over the last couple of years and may be hoping for that to change. I cannot predict what the Biden administration’s approach will be. But I can say that objective analysis of the options available will have to treat the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘fact on the ground,’ and will have to resolve the tension between the timing expectations that it created and the benefits of an incremental process. 

Finally, I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion for Security Council members’ consideration. A missing feature in the peace process so far is an empowered, impartial mediator. It is difficult to see how the parties will be able to bridge the substantial distance between their starting positions without such help. Several governments have informally played a mediation role in the process so far, but this ad hoc approach is less likely to be effective as the talks get more difficult.

A Security Council imprimatur for a mediator would be helpful. Such an imprimatur would reflect the common interests of council members in a stable Afghanistan that contributes to regional stability and provides no safe harbour for transnational terrorists. It would also signal the clear backing of key countries for the peace process – countries whose support will be needed not only to keep the process on track but also to create conditions for effective implementation of any results.

Over the next two months, while the future direction of U.S. policy cannot be certain, the crucial task will be to keep the Afghan talks, currently stalled, on life support. After that point, a push to put in place a mediator could help re-energise the process.

Thank you.