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Ethnic Tensions: the Emerging Challenge in Afghanistan

By: Abdullah Elham

Aljazeera English

Recently some unexpected positions over national interest issues have surprised Afghans and hence added fuel to the already sparked ethnic tensions in the war-torn country. However, ethnic tensions in Today’s Afghanistan have roots in history and contemporary ground realities of the Country where political parties cash their agendas based on ethnic lines.

A group of political activists led by a newly formed political party who advocate for federalism and decentralisation of power unexpectedly called for recognition of the Durand line, a line which divides Afghanistan and Pakistan and is said to be the main reason behind the shaky Kabul-Islamabad ties. Later the group organised demonstration in Kabul, which apparently denounced the latest deadly wave of terrorist attacks and sought Government accountability for perceived security lapses but in reality it was imposing itself on political scene of Afghanistan on ethnic lines. The ethnicity based catalysation of political workers was confirmed by their demands which were mostly ethnicity based. The movement continuously posted ethnicity based comments on social media. The media campaign of the group also targeted only the Pashtun officials of the National Unity Government (NUG). Moreover, the current political landscape, and the political agendas of some prominent players in Afghanistan have further provoked the fears of ethnic tensions in the country.

Discrepancies in Afghan Nation Building process

Despite the fact that throughout history the current Afghan geography is ruled under one central leadership, internally it has been heavily challenged in nation building process.  In the post-2001, attention was made to Afghan nation building effort after it suffered from the four-decade long-war. However, leadership of the government superficially treated Afghan nationalism and the nation building process and thus the nation was gradually exposed to ethnic tensions. Opposing to share the one and historically accepted identity “Afghan” by some groups is one of the examples of the diverged views regarding Afghan nationalism and discrepancies in Afghan Nation Building. This movement went further and even opposed the very prominent shared interests and values of Afghanistan like the name and even co-existence with other ethnic groups. Several reasons can be listed behind the historical fact of discrepancies in National Building process and the recent weak state approach towards the issue. Interference by regional and world rivals and enemies of the Afghan state making efforts for weakening the Afghan nation for the sake of their own interests were one of the main reasons behind failing the nation building efforts. It is mentionable that the serious need for nation building efforts by Afghan governments throughout the history has been ignored. Above all, lack of strong central governments in Afghanistan for following up nation building is another issue. Current situation warrants for government efforts to carve out a comprehensive strategy focused at creating sense of belonging among all ethnic groups.

Foreign interferes and proxy pressures

Afghanistan as a hub of civilization and regional connectivity throughout its history has also faced different threats to its integration and nation building process. Newly born Pakistan and the historical rival in western neighboured i.e. Iran are among the interfering countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Pakistan for different reasons, especially because of territorial disputes over Durand line and Afghanistan’s support for Pashtunistan has been the primary reason behind Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs. In addition, natural resources such as water from Afghan territory to Pakistan have also been reason behind eastern neighbour of Afghanistan’s interferences as they want to boss over the resoruces. Pakistan still backs fundamentalist terrorist groups like Taliban, Haqqani Network and other insurgents who operate in Afghanistan mainly to destabilise the country which will allow Pakistan has an upper hand over the country making the pursuance of geopolitical agenda easy. Iran, on the other hand, publicly backs Shia minority and in some cases Dari (Afghan version of Farsi) speaking tribes in Afghanistan. A number of factors are behind this intention of Iran, from preventing Afghanistan from self-resilience to be capable of managing its water and energy resources.  Turkey on the other hand backs Uzbek minority, especially one of the prominent warlords Rashid Dustum. Analysts presume that Turkey intend this for the sake of their pan-Turkism interests. All these interferences contribute to ethnic tensions and leave unrecoverable damages to nation building process in Afghanistan.

The recent brutal attacks of so called Islamic State (IS)-Khurasan branch on Shiite mosques during religious ceremonies in Kabul and provinces increased the fear that efforts were being made to fuel religious and ethnic disputes as it was new tactic employed for disintegration of Afghanistan by terrorists. Taliban in Afghanistan come from Pashtun dominant areas but slaughter mostly Pashtuns, while other ethnic groups blame the whole Pashtun tribe for giving birth to Taliban. IS, however targeted mostly Pashtuns in eastern parts where they first emerged, but Shia minorities particularly Hazara publicise their vulnerability and therefore receive more attention and by extension lead to ethnic disputes.

Politics with ethnic agendas

Since installation of the new regime in 2001, different parties and political movements have been formed. However, the new government itself backed tribal and traditional ways for distribution of power which laid the foundation of today’s ethnic tensions. Hamid Karzai is criticised for his approach towards advantages he was giving to different warlords on ethnic bases. The warlords and personalities that emerged in his term of government developed their networks and parties based on their tribal relations. For instance, parties who chant for federalism and decentralisation come from an ethnic minority who enjoyed high level support from Karzai government. They went further and even claimed for recognition of Durand line as international border, only and only for ethnic reasons as they believe that annexing of Duran line will further enhance majority of Pashtoon ethnic group. In reaction, some nationalist movements who stand for greater Afghanistan and oppose these movements have tried to form tribal alliances. All these provocations gave birth to more and more ethnic tensions in the country resulting in national disintegration.

During 2014 presidential election campaigns current president Ashraf Ghani announced a prominent warlord Rashid Dustum as his vice president. The reason behind this move was only to secure votes of Uzbek minority. Analysts referred to Dustum as vote-bank. Other leaders acted the same; even they were provoking people to cast their votes only to compete with other ethnicities. All parties relied on their ethnic bases and were promoting ethnicities and voted based on ethnic lines. After the election, when NUG was formed, the power was distributed based on ethnic and tribal affiliations. This move raised severe ethnic tensions and even started institutionalisation of the culture of distributing power among political rivals based on ethnicities.

International community role and future fears

International community, donors and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) first came to Afghanistan for backing up the government at a time when several groups, mostly from non-Pashtun ethnicities, were in power. The government of that time, particularly Afghanistan’s international relations and foreign policy, was dominated by these ethnicity based political groups. They misled donors and INGOs and even Afghanistan’s ambassadors to some of the countries conveyed misleading information about the ethnic groups in Afghanistan. All these affected international community, donors and INGOs agendas and programs causing long-term misunderstandings. This reality has especially challenged peace and harmony among the ethnicities living for long time in Afghanistan.

Most of the government’s important institutions are still manipulated by few groups who promote ethnic issues to strengthen their power base and continue to monopolize national political scene in their favour. These opportunist groups enjoy government privileges on one hand and form different alliances on the other. Continuation of these ethnicity based political agendas challenge peaceful and prosperous future of Afghanistan. As a result, as government remains weak, corrupt and incapable, the situation seems pretty dim for national consensus building leaving much fear for longer term ethnic tensions contributing to instability of Afghanistan.


Emergence of ethnic tensions in today’s Afghanistan are rooted both in historical facts about the nation and state building process in Afghanistan and today’s discrepancies in government and state approaches. Foreign interferences throughout the history, especially that of regional actors in Afghanistan’s internal affairs is another reason of the tensions. Another fact that the tensions remain emerging is the groups and parties presence in Afghanistan’s political stage with ethnic agendas. Even, this act of corrupt political players is covered under the government system and even backed by the international community and Afghan government’s allies and donors. NUG is one of its obvious examples. The actors in this corrupt system use ethnic tensions as a tool for their political activities and they are able to generate votes form it for being elected in higher positions in the system.

With saying all these, it is important for the government, different parties, political alliances, civil society and the tribal elders to realise that the escalation of ethnic tensions cannot be arrested without radical socio-economic and needed political reforms. Therefore, it’s needed that the agendas for gaining this goal should be pushed forward. However, it would be a dangerous mistake to presume that such reforms will totally put an end to the emerging ethnic tensions. Any further worsening of the social and ethnic situation in the country will render these reforms impossible. Therefore, there is a need for a comprehensive agenda for implementing the right strategy for addressing the tensions with use of practical instruments and institutional approaches. The process should also provide ground for various conflict management arrangements in order to bring the situation under control. By extension, widespread practical efforts for nation building, good governance and tackling corruption, lasting justice and promoting and supporting transparent democratic systems could heal the fractures left behind by these tensions.


Abdullah Elham (Twitter: @ElhamJamalzai) is an Afghan author and writer. Currently works with BBC world Service.

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