Pashtun Genocide in Afghanistan and How to stop it

by Ehsan Azari on 7/10/2007 · 3 comments

The ugly side of the Afghan war is the increased killing of civilians, mostly innocent children, women and elderly. In recent weeks, the official civilian death count, caused by American and NATO aerial bombardments reached into the hundreds. The experience of the Afghan protracted war shows that indiscriminate air bombings, whatever its tactical effects, in the long run, would ominously encourage an escalation in insurgency.

The legacy of the air bombardment in this tortured country goes back to the savage Russian bombings of Afghanistan in 1980s, which were often carried out when the Russian troops suffered defeat on the ground. Moreover, air strikes in the past three decades in Afghanistan have been carried out from a very high altitude for fear of missile attack, often missing the targets. Bombings often kill more civilians than insurgents, for rebels curve their foxholes deep inside mountains.

The Bush administration’s response has been different this time to the mounting civilian deaths. “I stand before you today,” an American commander Colonel John Nickleson said, “deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people.” But what about a new round of civilian killings that take place each week? The air-bombings have turned into a routine now, a permanent return of the same.

While in previous years the rhetoric was in defence of aerial strikes. On December 10, 2003 after a heavy bombardment of an Afghan village in which 93 people were killed, a Pentagon’s spokesman reacted differently.

“The US military in Afghanistan has revealed that six children died in a raid on suspected militants…However, the US warned it would not be deterred by civilian casualties…A US spokesman said [the dead children] were partly to blame for being at a site used by militants.”

President Karzai’s recent tantrum over civilian deaths dismally fails to cool down popular anger over foreign military operations. Like a little wooden bird inside a cuckoo clock, Mr Karzai, now and then, comes out of the presidential palace and makes few excuses after each round of major civilian killings. His accusations at the perpetrators of these killings are seen by many as hypocritical. So imbecilic are the so-called hearts and minds campaigns of the US and NATO.

Much of Afghanistan’s calamity and daily carnage in the past three decade have been the result of foreign air onslaughts. Thus, it will not be exaggerated if we say that Russians and the Americans have dropped all kinds of bombs including 1000 kg bombs, weighing more than the bombs dropped during the First and Second World Wars combined.

According to UN statistics, more than 40 percent of Afghan children already die due to infantile diseases and malnutrition before they reach puberty. And many who survive natural causes die from bombings. What have the bare foot, hungry, wretched Afghan children, women, and elderly—most of them members of Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun ethnic group—done to the Americans. Did the Americans lose the home address of Osama and his close associates?

To make matters worse, the US-backed anti-Pashtun warlords of the Northern Alliance are in an endless wrangle to keep a firm clout in Kabul, despite the fact that Mr Karzai expelled some of these militia leaders from his cabinet. Their clinging to power continues to derail the process of national reconciliation. The Pashtuns see Karzai as a masquerade for these predatory warlords. Like swashbuckling pirates who threaten anyone who stands in their way of illegal and sectarian campaigns. The militia of the Northern Alliance, propelled to power by the American led invasion, use the Western presence as an insurance policy for their subsequent sectarian agenda, prolonging their control of the loin share of the state bureaucracy. The minority-dominated government in Kabul helps the Taliban to manipulate the current Pashtun marginalisation and growing apathy that are mostly living in the south, east and west of Afghanistan. The equilibrium of political power is maintained by NATO and the American forces. This left most of the Pashtuns in the country side with no choice but to turn against the Americans and NATO.

The warlords of the Northern Alliance began overplaying their hands against Pashtuns in many ways, after they helped the fall of the Taliban. The 9/11 was a historical calamity for the Americans, but for the NA it was a God-sent. The mothly group of defeated and spent warlords entered once again the Afghan capital, Kabul with suitcases of American dollars. As Chalmers Johnson puts in his bestselling book The Sorrows of The Empire, “the primary strategy, however, was to reopen the Afghan civil war by having the CIA spread some $70 million in cash among the Tajik and Uzbek warlords that the Taliban had defeated.” This shows that the US got Afghanistan at a bargain-basement price, which is reminiscent of that Hindu Raja who sold one of the Indian states for a bottle of Whisky to the British invading soldiers in the nineteenth century.

The Pashtuns people comprise about 60 percent of the Afghan population who are brimming with despair and anger. They are disillusioned with the US and their imposing an unpopular regime in Kabul, which feeds into growing insurgency. This also offers the Taliban, though loathed by most Afghans for their draconian laws and an aberrant version of Islam, an opportunity for recruitments. Traditionally no government could ever have sustained its power in Kabul without the support of the Pashtuns.

Throughout Afghan history, Pashtun support has been the backbone and life-line of the central government in Kabul. Even governments with direct foreign military invasions, which were preoccupied usually with Afghan ethnic minorities, are also failing to survive for long. The Pashtuns heartland has been traditionally the graveyard of invading forces and their fantasies.

However, at present, the prospect of their prevailing in Afghanistan seems dim. Another reason is that Iran, Pakistan (indirectly), India, and Russia are all backing the warlords of the Northern Alliance, and none want Pashtuns to reinstate their traditional political standing in Afghanistan. Russia, India, Iran, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan still see the Northern Alliance as their fifth-column in Afghanistan and a proxy for their common strategic geopolitics in Central Asia.

Pashtuns in Afghanistan seem to be caught up in a double bind because they don’t see their real representation, neither within Karzai’s government, nor the Taliban. Karzai is merely a Pashtun masquerade for the American imposed minorito-cracy in Kabul. The Taliban, on the other hand, are seen as representative of Alqaida and Pakistan. Since its creation, Pakistan has left no stone unturned to write Pashtun nationalism off on both sides of the colonial Durand Line.

For the majority of the Afghans, the Taliban and pro-American warlords of the Northern Alliance underline two sides of the ongoing Afghan tragedy. The Pashtuns are paying for the Taliban’s schizophrenia. If the medieval ultra-conservative movement got rid of one Arab hyper terrorist, we would, most likely, have neither the American invasion of Afghanistan, nor a silent genocide of the Pashtuns.

This is the outcome of what Pakistan had in mind when it created the perverse phenomenon of the Taliban in the early 1990s in the name of Islam. They still bear responsibility for the destruction and endless mass murder in Afghanistan. They won the war in 1994 but their victory was chipped away by Alqaida and Pakistan. The Taliban harboured a great villain who didn’t have any place on the surface of the earth. They put their ancient country and innocent people in the jaws of alligators. With their perverse ideology, the Taliban also destroyed Islam, Pashtunwali (Pashtun ethnical and social codes) as The Economist recently wrote, and Afghaniyat (Afghanness) as well. No one can absolve from condemnation the Taliban’s petrified Leadership from sins.

Despite their many inseparable ties, Alqaida and the Taliban have different teleologies. At its core, Alqaida seems irreconcilable with Western values whereas the Taliban’s impetus for falling prey to this lethal ideology was their pathological ignorance, illiteracy, naivety, primitive superstitious beliefs, and above all a satanic manipulation of the Pakistani Judas disguised as mullahs. In their heyday, the Taliban’s ecstatic destructiveness bore evidence to the fact that ignorance was mightier than knowledge.

Moderate and secular parties among the Pashtuns are doubly victimised by the warlords and the Taliban. Pakistani ruling generals use a perverse version of Islam as a straitjacket for secularism and moderation among their own tribal Pashtun belt. This is in the Western interest to rescue Pashtuns from marginalisation in Afghanistan.

However, for the sake of ending a ceaseless war and genocide in Afghanistan, I also believe that all of the Taliban are not evil and it is possible that some of them could show a willingness to transcend terrorism. Karzai and his Western backers have failed to isolate a benign and less evil fraction from those Pakistani and Alqaida stooges who are beheading journalists, burning schools, or killing girls and other civilians. If the Bush administration shifts its headlong military solution in Afghanistan, it is still possible for some Taliban faction to moderate their militancy. Such moderation holds the key to peace in Afghanistan. Instead of ceaseless bombing, the US can still do some good in Afghanistan if it opens a new front of negotiations with some factions of the Taliban, making them turn their guns against Alqaida. This will deprive Alqaida of the Pashtun population it preys on to drive the fanatic Taliban to engage with the most fundamental truth of itself.

Nonetheless, this seems highly unlikely with Mr Karzai and the warlords still running the Kabul government. Such positive development has already happened in Iraq, as Time magazine wrote on July 9,” a good chunk of Sunni insurgency has turned against Alqaida in Iraq…The anti-Alqaida rebellion began in Anbar, formerly the most dangerous province in the country, as area famously described as “lost” to the terrorists.”

I think it is time that President Bush listens to some advice from his predecessor, late Nixon, who wrote in his excellent book, The Real War, “always be prepared to negotiate, but never negotiate without being prepared.” And “never give up unilaterally what could be used as a bargaining chip. Make your adversaries give something for everything they get.”

The second side of the problem reveals a poor handling of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The US replaced the Russians in Afghanistan, by installing and supporting a regime that is unable to defend itself. This, in the meantime, is the American weakest point. There could be no greater looming disaster for a super power, which is doomed to keep a government in place by the heavy handed use of force.

The Bush administration’s triumphalism and authoritarian nostrum is self-destructive. As La Fontaine said, it is true that “the strong are always best at proving they’re right” but in a parenthesis, we have to add to this statement that (not forever). If we need any witness to this we have to look at the fate of the Russians and their communism in Afghanistan.

The killing of children and other civilians isn’t justifiable under any circumstances. Increasing civilian killings in Afghanistan sounds death knell for the Western reconstruction campaign in the country. Indiscriminate aerial strikes destroy the American standing as a force for good in the country and, in fact, help fuel the insurgency.

The West still has the chance to succeed in Afghanistan if it budges from its current war strategy by opening a new peace front for Afghan national reconciliation that will secure its strategic interests. The longer the West sticks to a solely military solution, the greater the chance for Afghanistan to morph into an Iraq-like or even worse quagmire.

Copyright © Dr Ehsan Azari

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zalmai July 12, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Dr. Azari’s frustration is understandable on the issue of civilians being killed by NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is most regrettable and those killings must be stopped. However, he is wrong in pin-pointing the reason for war in South and East Afghanistan. He implies that the Pashtuns are unhappy because they are under-represented in the current administration of Kabul and that the non-Pashtun “warlords” are holding much of power and the warlords are the hindrance to what he call the Pashtun “reconciliation” process. He further claims that the Pashtuns are the majority in Afghanistan and they comprise 60% of the total population. So, they must be represented accordingly in the state.

One can raise several objections. First of all it is very problematic to argue that the insurgency in South and East Afghanistan is because of Pashtun under-representation in the centre. I think it has to do with the radicalization of the youth population these areas in Pakistani madrasas and Pakistan’s overt policies radicalization of the Pashtun belt in Afghanistan. This is because Islam helps to balance Pashtun nationalism (Durrant issue), pressurise the Afghan state to accommodate these radicals who then will have good relation with Pakistan. Also, they will naturally oppose India to mention few reasons.

The insurgency in the South and East Afghanistan has little to do with “warlords.” Let me ask Mr. Azari who are these warlords? Aren’t they the very legends who fought against the Soviet occupation in 1980s who were branded as “freedom–fighter” by the West? Aren’t they those who fought against Taliban and Talibanism and Pakistani plots in 1990s? Mr. Azari himself accepts that they are sidelined from power. Indeed, they were pushed to periphery by being branded as “warlords.” Ironically, contrary to Mr. Azari’s claim, in the current administration the non-Pashtuns are under-represented and the dominant party is Afghan–Milat Party: an ultra Pashtun nationalist party.

Mr. Azari claims that 60% of the population of the country is comprised of Pashtuns. No scientific statistic has taken place in Afghanistan, apart from one in early in 1970s which is deemed as unscientific and biased. Most estimates rate Pashuns in Afghanistan between 30 to 40% and the rest non-Pashtun (see Zalmai Khalilzad, “The Politics of Ethnicity in South Asia: Political development or Political Decay?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 4 Winter 1984 – 1985, p. 660 to give only one example). Accordingly, one can claim, Afghanistan is actually a country of minorities.

The article has been written with a lot of carelessness and factual mistakes, or at best, ideologically loaded passion: the mythical ideology the superiority of one ethnicity over the rest, Pashtun.

Joshua Foust July 12, 2007 at 6:21 pm

Like Zaimal, I am deeply sympathetic to the argument that the killing of civilians must be absolutely stopped, no question. As an American with some understanding of the military I am deeply outraged at how the over reliance on air power has led to a simply unacceptable number of civilian deaths (much of my recent writing on here attests to this).

However, I must take issue with the term, “genocide.” While the killing of innocents is absolutely tragic, and without question a moral outrage, it is not genocide. A genocide is the deliberate slaughter of a single people group. Pashtuns are not being specifically targeted by NATO (the Taliban simply tends to hide among them), and NATO is not deliberately killing them. The deaths are the result of some carelessness and bad tactics and a lot of really bad luck. In other words, they are unintentional. Calling such a status genocide only cheapens the term, and makes it more difficult to apply it to actual genocides (like, say, Darfur, or Rwanda).

Péter July 13, 2007 at 4:01 am

I don’t like the idea of any civilian casualties, either, as I myself have written about this before. By now I can see however how the press is zeroing in on this subject, and as a result, quite logically actually, insurgents are using more propaganda nowadays to influence news coverage. ISAF has contributed to this situation by giving at times ridiculously accurate (and high) numbers for ‘militants killed’ after incidents in the wake of which it’s not realistic to imagine somebody really did a careful count. It was also obvious from the start that when ISAF announced, say, 124 insurgents killed, all by air strikes on a given target area, it cannot realistically be assumed that everyone in the area was insurgent (even if the actual number of people killed in the given strikes was in fact just a tenth of what ISAF was talking about). The Taliban on the other hand can get village elders to call AP or Reuters and say that a hundred civilians died in my village and so on. Civilians are killed, true, but now we have even less reason to believe we can have a clear picture as to how many civilian victims there really are.

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