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Ethnic reconciliation should be a priority for Afghanistan’s new President

21 August 2009

By Jared Ferrie

MAZAR-E-SHARIF – When the votes are finally counted from Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial elections, Murtaza Zewari hopes to gain a seat on the provincial council in Balkh. If he does, reconciliation between the country’s ethnic minorities will be a priority for him.

‘We need unity between the different nationalities of Afghanistan,’ said the young candidate who was wearing a dark blue suit with the country’s flag pinned to his collar. ‘People aren’t united, they are against each other. That’s why we have conflict.’

Afghanistan is a country made up of minorities, ranging from the Pashtun who comprise about 42 percent of the population, to smaller groups such as Turkmen, who represent about 3 percent.

Over three decades of conflict, many communities have been pitted against each other. During the civil war in the mid-1990s, for example, the front lines in Kabul cut through neighbourhoods. Armed groups that were largely, if not exclusively, based on ethnicity battled for control, firing rockets and launching attacks from separate enclaves within the city.

They laid waste to the capital, and the atrocities committed against civilians have never been fully investigated. But the people remember. The commanders of those groups became known as ‘warlords’, a term many Afghans spit out derisively when they recall those years – and when they speak about today’s government, which includes many of the same men.

But one person’s warlord is another person’s warrior. Civilians were forced into allegiance with those who could protect them, their families, their ethnic group. Those loyalties still remain, and they have proved time and time again to be a decisive factor in Afghan politics.

On the last day of official campaigning for the 20 August 2009 elections, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum held a huge rally in his hometown of Shiberghan in support of the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai. He had just returned from self-imposed exile in Turkey, where he went more than a year ago after breaking into the home of a political opponent with about 50 armed men and physically assaulting him and his son. Allegations of war crimes were also leveled against Dostum at the time, with human rights groups accusing his soldiers of massacring hundreds, perhaps as many as 2,000, Taliban prisoners during the US invasion in 2001.

None of that seemed to matter to the rapturous crowd, which had gathered to welcome him home. They surged toward the stage when he arrived and he exhorted them to vote for Karzai, whom he previously opposed.

Dostum denied that he had cut a deal with Karzai, and nobody has suggested what may have been offered in return for his support. But the warlord’s backing may have brought a crucial voting block to the incumbent president. Karzai was facing a low turnout on election day from his fellow Pashtuns in the south, who were threatened by the Taliban not to participate in voting. He was also fighting a challenge in the north from Abdullah Abdullah, who enjoys strong support from Tajiks.

Dostum could deliver key votes in the north among Uzbeks, who make up 9 percent of the country’s population.

Many young Afghans are weary of this kind of ethnicity-based political maneuvering. In the last days of the campaign, a youth group released a statement to presidential candidates calling on the winner to stop exploiting ethnic divisions and instead to forge a national identity that recognizes and celebrates the country’s diversity.

‘Differences in Afghanistan can be a good thing, while they are being used as a bad thing,’ said Zubaida Akbar, a member of the group.

She and the other members of the group are trying to get more youth engaged in politics. They said young people are the best hope for Afghanistan to break the cycle of corrupt ethnicity-based politics, because youth can more easily see themselves as members of a minority but also as individuals capable of making their own political decisions.

Members of the groups said they didn’t expect much from this election, but they hoped to spark a youth movement that could influence the outcome of those in the future.

Jared Ferrie is a freelance journalist and MRG’s Regional Information Officer in Asia.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.