The ethnic diversity and the peaceful coexistence of different communities is said to be a defining feature of the modern democratic nations of the twenty first century. But for some unfortunate landscapes, this very diversity endangers the disarmed and outnumbered communities and vis-a-vis, makes the majority tyrannical, in the absence of a strong state. Afghanistan is a nation that has preserved its territorial boundaries despite a history of warfare and foreign invasions encompassing centuries. Its national anthem acknowledges fourteen ethnicities. It is a nation, yes, but one for which, national integration has always been a challenge.
Many might be tempted to think that the problem of ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan and the thorns in the way of harmonious relationship between the communities is a Taliban-orchestrated problem. But to set the record straight, Afghanistan and its ethnic cleavages are not a recent phenomenon. From King Abdul Rahman’s targeting of minority ethnicities in the 19th century to the formation of Setam e Milli (anti-Pashtun organization) and Afghan Millat (Pashtun nationalist organisation) in the late 20th century to cancel each other’s domino effect, the roots of this tree and embedded in a history of at least two hundred years, dating back to the eighteenth century.
In contemporary Afghanistan, ethnic belonging plays a key role in the life and treatment of an individual. The largest ethnicity in Afghanistan are the Sunni Pashtuns. Around 45% of the entire population of Afghanistan is comprised of them and they have ruled it for over 270 years since the eighteenth century. Then come the Tajiks, which are 30% of the Afghan population. Their adherence to the Sunni Islam makes them ‘acceptable’ in Afghan life for the most part, along with the Uzbeks who constitute 10% of the Afghan population. Last but never the least, one of the most persecuted communities in history, the Hazaras, constitute approximately 15% of the population of Afghanistan. In the late nineteenth century, King Abdul Rahman Khan either wiped out in a genocidal move or enslaved 65% of the total Hazara population of Afghanistan. The rest had to cross the border, where they still aren’t safe – if we talk about the plight of Hazaras in Balochistan.
On the issue of ethnic divisions in Afghanistan and its possibility to add fuel to the ongoing fire in the country, we have to ponder upon the historical nuances to determine the dynamics. Ethnicity played the role of a critical juncture in the civil war fought after the downfall of the Najibullah regime in the 1990s, with the formation of alliances made on the basis of ethnicity. Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, facilitated the weakening of Pashtun influence on an unprecedented scale. Then came the Taliban in the late 1990s who were initially perceived to be an Afghan nationalist militia but they didn’t take long to refute this misconception after they hanged many Pashtun leaders like Najibullah on the pretext of religious duty, as well as their insurgency against Pashtun mujahideen – hence further complicating an ethnic explanation of unrest in Afghanistan.
Then comes the case of Pakistan. The Durand Line divided the Pashtun population to an extent that currently, Pakistan is home to 35 million Pashtuns, way more than Afghanistan, which is home to 15 million Pashtuns. Pakistani regimes have always been very sensitive to Pashtun rights movement emerging from its own tribal areas, hence it extended support to Pashtun Islamism since the 1990s in the form of Taliban in Kabul, and subsequently facing blowback in the form of terrorism.
The current Taliban regime governs Kabul with the juggernaut of their strict construction of religious code and they claim to see the ethnic division of Afghanistan only through the lens of Shariah. However, just like women’s rights, minority rights are also watched by the international community to substantiate the amount of truth in these claims of the Taliban regime. Ethnicity, in this regard, could be another hindrance in guaranteeing rights for the minority communities. Foreign intervention also has been a spoiler.
Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran took a potent interest in empowering Shia communities, both militarily and resource-wise. This Iranian project was in place to cancel the effect of the Saudi backing of militant groups in Afghanistan. Iran also filled a vacuum created by the US invasion after 9/11 which toppled the Taliban regime, hence giving Iran a way forward to enhance its influence.
Ethnicity, hence, is an unavoidable aspect of Afghan life. In the current Afghan regime, the guaranteeing of rights for these minority communities, along with their political representation and freedom of movement, should be synchronised with the foreign assistance, just to keep the current Afghan regime in check for its fair treatment of these communities.
These ethnic cleavages historically have always heightened violence in the region and it is still a potential threat to homogeneity and national integration for Afghanistan. In short, the genie of the tyranny of the majority will have to be tightly bottled.