Afghanistan’s Political Crisis is Not Driven by Ethnic Hatred

by Joshua Foust on 7/9/2011 · 14 comments

A guest-post by Una Moore.

The danger is frighteningly real. A constitutional crisis is threatening to tear the Afghan government apart and could soon turn violent. Much more needs to be written about this, but not by people who don’t understand Afghan politics, not by people like Robert Dreyfuss, who just wrote a jaw-droppingly ill-informed piece of analysis for the Nation. In ‘Government in Afghanistan Nears Collapse,’ Dreyfuss not only gets the most important facts in the story wrong, he also frames the whole crisis in ethnic terms, a spectacularly irresponsible move for any international affairs writer.

The worst parts, followed by my (exasperated) corrections and clarifications:

Dreyfuss: […] In case you haven’t been following the news: last year’s parliamentary election was so chaotic and flawed that it resulted in the near-total disenfranchisement of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority, which makes up a healthy 40 percent of the population. Many Pashtuns either didn’t vote, because of sympathy or support for the Taliban and dislike of the Afghan government, or couldn’t vote, because of Taliban threats and violence. As a result, in some provinces in the south and east where Pashtuns dominate, not a single Pashtun was elected to parliament.

Disenfranchisement of Pashtun communities was widespread enough to affect the outcome of the elections, but calling it “near total” is a gross exaggeration. Pashtuns currently hold around 35% of seats in the elected lower house of parliament.

The only province with a Pashtun majority that didn’t send a single Pashtun MP to the parliament was Ghazni, which is ethnically mixed and has large, deeply divided populations of Pashtuns and Hazaras. Ghazni’s Pashtun-majority districts were subjected to a relentless campaign of intimidation by the Taliban during campaign season and several districts were effectively under Taliban control throughout the electoral process. The Hazara-majority districts were relatively safe in comparison and saw vigorous pre-election campaigning, although they too experienced intimidation, including the beheading of a local candidate.

One month before Election Day, the Afghan security forces, with input from NATO, made the call on where polling centers could be safely opened countrywide. In Ghazni, markedly fewer polling centers were to be opened in the embattled Pashtun areas than during previous elections. Then, many of the centers that did open in Pashtun areas saw no voters on Election Day, thanks in no small part to the Taliban flooding those areas with night letters threatening to maim and kill voters. In contrast, voter turnout in the Hazara districts was very high. The result was that all 11 of Ghazni’s parliamentary seats went to Hazara candidates.

Ghazni was recognized as a landmine in the electoral process as soon as the election stakeholders received the list of polling centers that would open on Election Day, September 18, 2010. Everyone involved realized Ghazni would become a political and potentially violent flashpoint when the results of the elections were announced, but Election Day was mere weeks away and the consensus among decision-makers seemed to be one of getting it over with and dealing with the consequences later.

Drefuss: For Karzai, [the outcome of the elections] was a disaster, especially since he’s trying to reach out to his Pashtun base as part of his search for a deal with the Taliban and its allies. Earlier this year, a special court appointed by Karzai ruled that sixty-two members of parliament, mostly non-Pashtuns, were elected fraudulently, a step toward installing Pashtun members in their place.

Not true. The only province where the special court’s decisions would significantly change the ethnic division of representation is Ghazni, where the court wants to replace four of the eleven sitting Hazara MPs with four Pashtuns. For the rest of the country, the court’s decisions wouldn’t significantly change the ethnic and gender composition of the parliament. In fact, 25 of the 62 seats the special court wants to change belong to Pashtun MPs, more than those belonging to MPs of any other ethnic group.

Hold up, you say, that doesn’t make sense. Well, it actually does make sense, but not if you view Afghan politics only through the narrow lens of ethnicity.

Ethnicity matters among Afghan politicians, but it is not a reliable indicator of political affiliation or loyalty. Even party affiliation isn’t a reliable indicator of where an individual legislator will come down on a nationally controversial issue, because Afghanistan’s party system is weak and party discipline within the parliament is almost non-existent.

The president knows that his special court could, for example, replace 10 Tajiks affiliated with the “opposition” Jamiat-e Islami party with 10 different Jamiati Tajiks and still give him 10 additional supporters in the parliament. And it appears that, broadly-speaking, that’s Karzai’s plan.

Dreyfuss: […] Karzai’s opponents in parliament, especially Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, cried foul, challenged the constitutionality of the court, and demanded the impeachment of Karzai.

The MPs have only begun debating the possibility of impeaching Karzai, while they have already voted to remove six Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General. Moreover, the MPs aren’t the only ones who have challenged the legality of the court. Every informed Afghan with a shred of independence has also done that –because the fact is, the special court has no authority under the constitution or the Electoral Law.

Afghanistan’s largest non-governmental election monitor, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan*, recently stated that: “Interference in the electoral process or its outcome by other branches of the government, individuals or ad hoc bodies threatens the separation of powers within the state and undermines the authority of the electoral institutions.”

Dreyfuss: Yesterday, the two sides actually came to blows in parliament!

Two female MPs got into a fistfight and the media had a hearty laugh over it. Look, girl fight!

But here’s the thing: physical fights in the Afghan parliament are nothing new. There were plenty of them in the 2005-2010 parliament and they were sparked by heated debates over a wide variety of issues. Tempers run hot in the lower house of the legislature and brawls alone aren’t an indicator of the political situation having reached a boiling point.

Dreyfuss: Staffan de Mistura, the UN representative in Afghanistan, is meeting both sides in search of a political accord. But he’s also sided with the anti-Karzai forces. “A court is supposed to find criminals, not to change the outcome of the election,” he said. But that’s wrong. A court is precisely supposed to rule on the propriety of elections, although Karzai’s opponents challenge the validity of this particular court.

Staffan de Mistura has not “sided with the anti-Karzai forces.” He has sided with the law, and with the constitutional separation of powers.

Article 156 of the Afghan Constitution establishes the IEC as the sole authority for the administration of elections and announcement and certification of election results. And Article 58 of the Electoral Law couldn’t be more explicit: “The results of elections shall be final and binding after certification by the [Independent Election] Commission.” Neither the constitution nor the Electoral Law permits the creation of a special court to review election results or the involvement of the Attorney General in electoral affairs.

Dreyfuss: Meanwhile, at stake is not neat legalities but the very fabric of Afghan politics and society: Will the Pashtuns, and eventually the Taliban, be integrated into Afghan politics, or not?

Needless to say, the more the Pashtuns are excluded and marginalized, the more they will turn to the waiting Taliban. Especially as US forces start to leave.

It is true that most Taliban members and supporters are Pashtuns, but it is equally true that most Pashtuns are not members or supporters of the Taliban. And while millions of Pashtuns were disenfranchised by violence during last year’s elections, Pashtuns are by no means locked out of Afghan politics. Nor are they proportionally under-represented within the state, with the notable exception of the security forces.

*Full disclosure: I was an international consultant to FEFA during 2010.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Javed July 10, 2011 at 4:05 am

Nice to read this but when you say Pashtons represented almost proportionately, you indicate that Pashtons are proportionately represented. it is simply not true. you refer only to Ghanzni and smuggle your arguments through but have you looked at the results in Kabul and Kapisa?

Porjosh Herawi July 10, 2011 at 5:21 am

Agree with Joshua that Dreyfuss is one of the least-informed person on Afghanistan. Also, agree that UN envoy de Mestura and Jed Ober of Demorcy International, who was foreign poll observors chief, have both sided with the law – not with anti-Karzai elements.
However, I disagree that the removal 62 MPs won’t change ethnic make up very much. Karzai’s court had wished to insert a dozen Pashtoon MPs from Ghazani, Kabul and Herat alone. Plus, some top anti-Karzai MPs, such as Ahmad Behzad, Khalid Pashtun, Hafeez Mansoor, Dr. M. Mehdi, Rafiq Shaheer & Latif Pedram were on the hit list.

Joe Dixon July 10, 2011 at 8:03 am

Great piece. I have one question, though.

From my reading, Afghans generally (Afghan Pashtuns in particular) have been averse to centralized government for centuries. It strikes me that there is something more deeply wrong with seeking to impose top down, complex legal systems with Articles and Statutes onto a society in which, historically (through Pashtunwali, which apparently trumps Islam as a legal system even for non-Pashtuns*), disputes have been settled by consensus of elders.

I get the sense that courts are more or less anathema to Afghan society. Wouldn’t the international community be better off more or less abandoning central government (at least for now), and fostering bottom-up local governance structures, rather than (perpetually) trying to force a rigid, square administrative system into the soft, round hole of Afghan conflict resolution methods?

*According to Rolf Helenius at the Finnish Defence Forces International Centre – (

Grant July 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I’d say the problem is less with the Pashtun people and more with a combination of constant violence making state-building almost impossible and elites who have far more to gain by keeping the Afghan state weak.
It’s true that a myth of a people’s resistance to unwelcome authority can shape present-day reactions, but you could just as easily say that for half of the U.S.A’s existence (and longer in the South) there was an aversion to centralized power.

Joe Dixon July 11, 2011 at 7:14 am

That’s something that has always fascinated me about ‘developed’ countries: the way that people still have differences and grievances, but that the expression of those grievances is not devastating to society as a whole. (For instance, I know many Americans who still consider the American Civil War to be ongoing, but mostly people get along.)

Would you say, in that case, that it’s more just a matter of time (something akin to passive attrition) until a stable state emerges? Or is there something that can be done within central government (the calls to impeach Karzai, for example) to make it more accountable to itself and its people?

Grant July 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm

The American Civil War might still be ongoing for some in the south of the country, but you should note that those same people vote in state and federal elections, pay their taxes, obey the law (the letter if not the spirit) and generally don’t make a concerted effort to challenge the legitimacy of the state. There are two reasons for that.

The first is the obvious benefits. To live in the U.S.A means having the protection of the strongest military in the world. It means having relatively clean (occasional scandal notwithstanding) police forces and judges. It means having clean water, electricity and education. It means being part of the largest economy on the planet. Of course provisions like this aren’t always enough to convince a people to remain loyal to a state, but it usually is.

The second is that the government does respond to their opinions. They can elect officials who are relatively loyal to them. They can vote in elections to choose the single most powerful person in the world.

The bottom line is, many Americans grumble and occasionally (when a law is passed that they don’t like) they’ll outright shout. However, the vast majority of Americans want to be American. They want to keep the system. Of course the American elites aren’t heavily interested in giving power to the central government in exchange for protection, but they also don’t try to challenge the legitimacy of the state or seize political power in a region of the country.

The case in Afghanistan is, sadly, very different. It’s not quite correct to say that the land has never been one nation, but it has had more decentralized power than many states. I’m not sure if any central government has had real legitimacy since the monarchy.

The Afghan warlords seem to hold a great deal of real power and they don’t seem to feel any need to give it to the Afghan government, even to fight the Taliban. Indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they’re betting on simply making nice with whoever wins (or a dubious unity government) in exchange for being able to continue the drug/extortion trade.

Additionally the war makes the state-building that is needed effectively impossible. Even if we ignore the lack of trained civil servants, the breakdown of the state over the past thirty-some years, and pretend that corruption isn’t destroying what efforts there one fact remains. You can’t efficiently tax people, police them or provide services to them with the Taliban ready to kill anyone who submits.

So we have the problems of an ongoing war, a sad pretense of a civil government, heavily armed elites who make more money (and stay out of prison) by not giving the state power and the lack of good governance since at least the 1970s (and possibly before). The short answer is that no, the passive growth of a state isn’t likely. Reform coming from within the government is also unlikely. There aren’t many leaders who have anything to gain by making it more accountable and a large number of people who stand to lose if it ever does become accountable. Even if President Karzai was impeached* we wouldn’t see reform.

Right now the best chance for Afghanistan’s government would the nation’s elites facing a crisis that makes it clear that their own strength would be insufficient and they would be forced to give power to the central government. We saw some of that in post-1968 South Vietnam, unfortunately North Vietnam invaded not too long after. Also, as was true for South Vietnam, since Afghanistan doesn’t have the needed tools (i.e. an efficient civil service) that would only fix one of many problems.

If you want examples of nations that did manage to unite well and build up a strong central government after initial weakness I’d suggest looking at Singapore post-independence. If you want more examples of where a breakdown in state power led to warlordism Tajikistan is a good example**, as is Somalia***.

*Although he has shown impressive resilience. I thought he’d be dead by now.
**Admittedly many of the warlords have been since co-opted and/or crushed but the state still isn’t exactly strong.
*** Though I’m unfortunately having trouble finding decent studies about Somalia.

Grant July 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Excellent comment

the lost flaneur July 11, 2011 at 11:55 am

You are wrong.

afghan July 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm

how will there be peace talk with taliban when there are them warlords untouchable, who killed thousands of innocent and destroyed the nation after soviet union withdrew.

i dont think the international community wants peace in the afg land, if they did they would have helped or pushed the afghan government to take those warlord (mohaqeq, dustam, fahim, rabbani, zia masood, abdullah, younis qanoni and many more )to court and punished for their crimes.
then the government would have 100% confidence and trust of the afghan people, i know its almost impossible as every one of them warlord is been supported by the ethnic groups, and thats why maybe it stops karzai government

but also i don’t think taliban will ever agree to any peace talk when there are the powerful criminal warlords still in the government and in the main oppostion party

Because it were these warlords that forced a group like taliban to emerge and then control 95% of the country.

me as an afghan don’t have any hope for the country for at least 50 years

Grant July 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm

How exactly could we push the Afghan government to do anything? The warlords have a lot of guns on their side and if the Afghan state goes after them there’s nothing stopping them from going over to the insurgents.
Also the international community gains nothing by having the war continue. Most of us want to leave as soon as we can.

Rabia July 12, 2011 at 11:42 am

great read.

Mark July 13, 2011 at 7:47 am

I agree with most of the points in this article but believe that the statement in the title of this article is very bold and is an over generalization. Ghazni is one of the most unique case studies one can look at with regards to ethnic relations, tribal dynamics, and TB non-kinetic control. The TB truly had a governing function not dissimilar from the ’90s. I think if you look in the North/West you see a lot of these ethnic tensions playing out almost to their boiling point. Again, great article just don’t down play ethnicity too much.

Anardelstan July 14, 2011 at 7:16 am

Hello Joshua,

Interesting read as usual but i would agree with Mark that your opening statement may be a bit bold. In the North and Northeast there are increasing ethnic tensions, although reducing them to ethnicity may be a bit simplistic. The trend after the collapse of the communist regime has been for Jehadi factions to ethnicise and this collapse of ethnic and political identities, although they do not completely overlap, gives an ethnic flavour to some of the conflicts.
Pashtuns in the north for example do feel politically margialised at the provincial level although the lack of proper political channels to voice discontent or seek redress is more generalised and seems to explain recent inroads of the insurgency among less traditional audiences.

I think however that you are right regarding your point that the electoral special court was not driven so clearly by Karzai seeking to include Pashtun allies; the impact of the changes seems very different from one province to another. Besides, the president has quite powerful rivals within the government structure (including his first vice-president) and is unlikely to be able to dictate decisions to any government entity without pushes in the other direction as well.

Old Blue July 18, 2011 at 5:45 pm

While I agree that ethnicity does play a role, it is the low-hanging fruit. Many commentators have become very accustomed to leaning on the issues of tribalism and ethnicity for their answers, when in Afghanistan it is almost never so simple. Perhaps Josh seemed to lean too far in the opposite direction, but he only seemed to do so. Keep in mind that arguments based on such seemingly intractable issues as ethnicity or tribalism are highly exotified and exculpatory. How can anyone possibly be expected to make progress against such odds?

As for the comments about centralized vs. decentralized government in Afghanistan, it is again not so simple. Afghans do not necessarily resent the central government, but their perception of it is heavily leveraged by what their experiences locally. Corruption and/or inefficiency tends to cause dissatisfaction with the government as a whole, while relative efficiency tends to cause an opposite reaction. The same is true here in the US. It has only been in the past couple of years that processes have been established to begin to focus more resources on the development of local governance, including training civil servants. In the past, this has been much more hit-or-miss.

Afghans will utilize any dispute resolution system (court) that they can reasonably expect to give impartial and enforceable decisions. This includes Taliban courts, which do not tend to utilize traditional systems such as Pashtunwali. Taliban courts tend to be strictly Sharia-based, but Afghans will use them as opposed to corrupt GIRoA courts or broken and dis-empowered traditional systems. Again, broad statements about Pashtunwali are not entirely helpful. However, this is not the point of this post… not that these issues aren’t important. The post discusses the weakness of explanations based largely on ethnicity at the expense of other drivers.

In the end, broad brush depictions of Afghanistan and the root causes of instability there are inherently flawed. Reliance on ethnicity as a major root cause may work in some areas and not in others.

Finally, we must temper our expectations for the future of Afghanistan by understanding that the extreme outcomes of spectacular success or massive failure are both unlikely. Prognostications based on either extreme are sensationalist and spark reactions ranging from lively debate to unrealistic optimism or depression. But they, too, are flawed. It is more likely that the eventual outcome will, like most, be blended.

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