Afghanistan: beyond ethnicity

The international community has addressed Afghanistan through an ethnic prism. As anxiety grows about the future after international forces leave in 2014, a trajectory needs to be established towards a post-ethnic society--and the dispersed diaspora can play a role.

Shabnam Nasimi
5 December 2013

The current situation in Afghanistan—as Winston Churchill once said of Russia—is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. While a legacy of proxy wars, the Afghan conflict has been sustained through exploitation of deep-rooted ethnic and social frictions.

Afghanistan is at the hub of ancient civilisations stretching back at least 5,000 years. Its richness and strategic importance have meant that across the centuries it has attracted many invaders and merchants. The country has witnessed decades of war since modern-day Afghanistan came into being in 1747, when the Pashtun tribe united to fight for independence from the Persian empire.

Today, the country is an ethnically diverse mix of many tribes and ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Tajiks. Via the Northern Alliance, Tajiks came to dominate the government installed by the west following the Bonn agreement of 2001. The president, Hamid Karzai—due to be replaced in elections in 2014—comes from the Pashhtun tribe, concentrated in the south of the country and from which the Taliban is principally drawn.

It is therefore no surprise that for the last 30 years Afghanistan has been in turmoil, leaving it one of the world’s least developed nations. Though 13 years have passed since the Nato invasion, the promised peace and democracy remain a receding horizon in an ambiguous socio-political scenario.


Although since the downfall of the Taliban there have been major contributions by the international community to help the country out of instability, big issues remain. The Afghan public, having endured the severest agony and the worst possible economic, social and political crisis, yearn for a stability which will provide opportunities for prosperity and progress. Yet after more than a decade of war, the institutions responsible for administration, development and security are still immature.

The purpose of a democratic system is to reach the common people of a society and provide facilities on their doorsteps. But the system in Afghanistan has not been able to represent the people as a whole: accommodating the diversity of Afghan society has not been compatible with a focus on strengthening the central government. A federal system, with authority delegated to the provinces, would provide better representation for members of all the ethnic groups in the country while favouring the general will.

Key institutions like the legislature, executive and judiciary have not been adequate to the task: instead of serving the country, they have tended to fan the flames of controversy. The government has focused on accruing authority, not facilitating democracy, and the parliament has not been given any priority.

There have been many improvements in security but a lot still needs to be done. The international forces that have been so predominant since 2001 are in the process of withdrawal, leaving a vacuum to be filled by their Afghan counterparts. Unless there are speedy developments in building the capacity and professionalism of Afghan forces, anxieties will remain as the transition looms.

Woman in Afghan police uniform

Facing an uncertain future: female officers attending an International Women's Day celebration outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul. Image: US Air Force / Larry E Reid Jnr. Creative commons

The gender agenda

Securing women’s rights has been one of the main goals particularly of the UK's intervention in Afghanistan. Over the past decade, the UK government has helped achieve much, including a new constitution which enshrines equal rights for women and men and a landmark Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. Just over 27 per cent of members of parliament are female and women fill a quarter of government jobs. Over two million girls are now in school—four in ten of all pupils—and many women are free to participate in public life and to work outside their homes, as doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs and lawyers.

Yet there is growing fear among Afghan women that the withdrawal of international forces at the end of 2014 may herald a rollback of the laws that have helped them slowly gain a more equal stake in Afghan society. Girls were banned from schools under the Taliban and women largely forbidden from employment.

But the Taliban are far from vanquished, and this year’s peace talks between the Karzai government and the ultraconservative Islamist group have ignited fears among women. As the security transition draws nearer and a brokered peace with the Taliban is increasingly widely assumed to be its corollary, the progress made by Afghan women over the last decade is coming under threat.

Already, attacks on women in position of authority, including legislators, have multiplied. The Afghan government and the Nato members represented in the International Security Assistance Force should insist that constitutionally guaranteed gender equality and the protection and empowerment of women are a prerequisite of any negotiations on a post-2014 set-up—not merely a desirable outcome.

The Afghan diaspora

Afghanistan had already been among the poorest countries even before the Soviets invaded in 1979. But the years of war ruined what former Afghan governments had minimally accomplished over three quarters of a century. And lack of human security led to the flight across the world of five million refugees. Afghanistan suffered from a devastating brain drain, sending the country to the bottom of the human development index—today, it has the highest illiteracy rate in the world.

It is time for this global Afghan diaspora to provide an offsetting ‘brain gain’. Prominent intellectuals and entrepreneurs have already returned home and are actively involved in public and private institution-building. Other resourceful Afghans in developed countries should follow suit to fulfil their dream of helping reconstruct Afghanistan. By becoming involved in key institutions in Kabul they can help strengthen the capacity of government to take over the rebuilding agenda, based on Afghanistan’s needs rather than external prescriptions.

Several expatriates have invested in infrastructure and communications businesses. Other Afghan entrepreneurs abroad should join them to help enhance Afghanistan’s weak economy, while benefiting from the many available investment opportunities.  

A vibrant civil society is emerging in Afghanistan and in the Afghan emigrant communities, spearheaded by women, intellectuals and ordinary Afghans opposed to the violence and factionalism that have torn the country apart for so long. In most developing and post-conflict countries, civil society is a beacon of hope for realising the principles of democracy, human rights and gender equality. Civil society can play the same role in Afghanistan, bolstering the rule of law and accelerating peacebuilding. 

The diaspora should not however expect too much of the Kabul government in facilitating their role in reconstruction. They should take the initiative, individually and collectively, at this critical juncture, following John F Kennedy’s maxim: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’


The Afghan state was created by the rival colonial powers British India and Russia at the end of the 19th century. The ruling family of the Pashtuns, enthroned by British India, favored Pashtun elements in their concept of the nation-state. ‘Afghan’ is the Persian synonym for Pashtun, Pashtu was always the Afghan national language and the Afghan history was written from a Pashtun point of view.

Ethnic groups remained blurred concepts for the Afghan population and did not provide frameworks for collective action. By the same token, ordinary Afghans did not articulate a political will to overcome the ethnic hierarchy stipulated by the state.

In its endeavor to develop a peace arrangement for Afghanistan, the international community has however been caught in the ‘ethnic trap’. Of course, ethnicity should not be suppressed—it is legitimate to identify oneself as a Pashtun, a Tajik or whatever—but nor will its politicisation allow ethnic tensions to be surmounted. Ethnicity is constructed by those in power and a reconciliation process should challenge myths and stereotypes. Members of different ethnic groups have lived together peacefully in the past.

A strong central government cannot cope with the political, social and cultural diversity of the country and there has been much discussion of federalism as a way of doing justice to ethnic demands. Building on the strong tradition of local autonomy and self-government, the Indian or Swiss approach—where the federal entities are not defined primarily in ethnic terms and they enjoy strong provincial or local autonomy—might serve as a model. The once established provinces and districts should remain the territorial basis of such a system. Certain of these administrative units could receive autonomy in legal, linguistic, religious or cultural spheres.

Qualification for a position in government should be determined by professional competence and not ethnic affiliation. The solution is not rigid ethnic quotas but care to ensure an informal ethnic balance among officials at all levels.

The most important goal in ensuring an enduring peace is a multi-party system, constituted on a civil and not on an ethnic basis. Afghanistan has no civil-society tradition and hardly any experience of democratic control of government, so democracy represents a long-term project. As with other processes of political modernisation, here too the pulse of time must be measured in generations, not years.

In Afghanistan, the international community is once again faced with the challenge of dealing with a conflict that is seen through an ethnic prism. The architects of a future Afghanistan would be well advised to work against the ethnic polarisation of the country. 

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