Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, have a disproportionately low level of representation in the country's governing bodies. Political analysts worry that the Pashtuns' ongoing exclusion may create an insurmountable barrier to Afghan stabilization hopes.
Afghanistan is bracing for a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, that will try to frame a new constitution and set the stage for elections in 2004. The Loya Jirga is now scheduled for December. Pashtuns comprise approximately half of Afghanistan's 28.7 million population. Despite their large demographic share, they are struggling to make their influence felt as the country enters a critical development phase. Though Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai, is a Pashtun, the bulk of top government officials come from other ethnic groups. Ethnic Tajiks, in particular, dominate defense and security structures. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"We have to eventually join the mainstream but the conditions for doing so are not just right," Babrak Shinwari, a Pashtun politician and former Afghan minister, told EurasiaNet in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. "Eventually democracy is the answer, but for now we have to struggle against the rule of the gun, and resurgent fundamentalism."
Shinwari is among many Pashtun leaders who are frustrated by the expansion of "warlordism" in Afghanistan's provinces. He represented the eastern province of Nangarhar in the 2002 Loya Jirga that established Karzai's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, Shinwari doubts that under existing circumstances he would be elected as a delegate to the upcoming Loya Jirga.
"The commanders and warlords have strengthened themselves in the countryside and it's increasingly difficult to counter them," he said.During the recent decades of conflict, Afghanistan's Pashtuns found themselves divided. Some supported the Soviet occupation of the country throughout the 1980s, while others backed the mujaheddin resistance movement. More recently, Pashtuns were often prominent among the Taliban leadership and rank-and-file in the late 1990s. But some observers contend the radical Islamic movement did not enjoy the unanimous support of Pashtuns, and it did not serve the specific interests of any ethnic group.
Moderate Pashtun leaders complain about a lingering international perception that all Pashtuns were Taliban supporters prior to the anti-terrorism campaign in late 2001. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Clearly the perception in the West that all Pashtuns were Taliban was never corrected and hampered their attempts to join the mainstream," a veteran Afghan observer, requesting anonymity, told EurasiaNet.
Many Pashtuns also are also disappointed with Karzai personally. The president is increasingly viewed among Pashtuns as indecisive. Some blame his soft approach towards Afghanistan's warlords as contributing to the political frustrations of Pashtuns. In a reflection of such disillusionment, some Pashtun leaders launched a new political movement in August, called National Unity, which advocates the restoration of constitutional monarchy. Karzai's deputy intelligence chief, Hakim Nurzai, resigned to join the new party.
In a recent report, Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that Pashtun perceptions about not being meaningfully represented in the central government, particularly its security institutions, could undermine hopes for enduring peace in Afghanistan.
"Unless measures are taken to address Pashtun grievances and ensure that a more representative government emerges from the 2004 election, the political process could end in failure," ICG senior analyst Vikram Parekh said. "Today's insecurity in the south and east, impediments to trade and competition, for influence by neighboring states such as Pakistan and Iran present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban's emergence."
Many senior Karzai aides have similar concerns. "The core issue is to have a proper structure within the key ministries. We are doing that by introducing new people to the Ministry of Defense to improve its ethnic balance," Hedayat Amin Arsala, Karzai's Vice President recently said.
"The issue for us is not Pashtun versus non-Pashtun," added Arsala, himself a Pashtun. "What is important for us is to move towards a political system where everyone has a share."
Abubaker Saddique has worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He reported this story from Peshawar.