Afghanistan now finds itself falling toward bloody civil chaos – not because of ethnic rivalries,
but because of bad governance and a lack of economic progress that could become a flashpoint for ethnic warfare.
The international community has been generous in trying to help Afghans save themselves, but donor nations should not pour more money and troops into a system that is decaying and unsalvageable. Instead, they should leverage their “kindness” to push President Ashraf Ghani into a radical decentralization of power, giving more autonomy to the provinces.
Since its inception almost three centuries ago, Afghanistan has been trapped in a vortex. It vacillates from despotism to shortlived “tranquility,” then slides back into anarchy.
Intermittent periods of peace can be attributed to foreign financial aid. Longlasting, stable institutions have never materialized and probably never will, due to huge rifts along ethnic, religious, social and geographic lines.
The Afghan problem did not start with the emergence of the Taliban or the U.S. invasion; it can be traced to two major, historic events that date back centuries.
First, in 1499, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route to India, which meant the region now known as Afghanistan – once a connecting point between central Asia and the west – lost its commercial importance. The second event came in 1893, when British India annexed a large portion of Afghanistan known as Pashtunistan into India with the Durand Line Treaty. That left the country land-locked.
Ever since, Afghanistan has been unable to become stable and prosperous. Instead, it served as a graveyard for a succession of governmental experiments: monarchy, republic, communism, Islamism and now a western-built democracy. All failed.
As a gateway to India, this area has been invaded by such powers as the Greeks, Persians, Arabs and Mughals who sought to conquer India. Many got bogged down and stayed.
Zahiruddin Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire in 1526 and once ruled Kabul, wrote in his memoir that Kabul’s inhabitants speak 10 different languages. That kind of diversity persists in Afghanistan.
Today the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are the largest ethnic groups among about a dozen other minorities. For many generations, these groups lived in harmony in separate city-state regions, divided by natural boundaries – relatively self-sufficient and without major ethnic flare-ups.
After the decade-long Soviet Union invasion in the 1980’s, however, the ethnic balance shifted. The inhabitants became polarized and started bickering over the distribution of power. Civil war raged throughout the 1990’s, and an estimated 400,000 died because of infighting in Kabul.
After the overthrow of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in 2001, then-president Hamid Karzai (himself Pashtun) attempted to end ethnic strife by appointing two powerbrokers as his vice presidents: Mohammad QasimFahim (a Tajik) and Karim Khalili (a Hazara).
Karzai bought the cooperation of tribal religious leaders and his opponents with cash from the CIA and Iran, but luck was a factor, too. It was not Karzai’s political ingenuity, but the Americans’ generous spending; they pumped billions of dollars into Afghanistan’s economy, which provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of young Afghans who otherwise might have joined the insurgency.
The prosperity bubble burst when the Obama administration ordered cuts in U.S. troops. Locals lost jobs, security deteriorated, and kidnapping and crime became rampant.
After the departure of 127,000 mostly American troops in 2014, the economy collapsed, unemployment soared, and Afghans fled the country.
The Afghan Unity Government, headed by Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah, ran out of steam, and the country started falling back into its historic cycle of anarchy. The descent has been fueled by bad governance and a stagnant economy.
Bad government: Ghani’s detractors accuse him of micromanaging government affairs while the Taliban infiltrates major cities. The president bogs himself down with trivialities like visiting hospitals and police stations and firing low-level employees. Ghani also publicly praised Abdur Rahman Khan (1844-1901), the “Iron Amir,” as a model egalitarian, despite the fact that Abdur Rahman is viewed by historians and most Afghans as a domestically violent and geopolitically weak leader. Comparing Ghani to Abdur Rahman would be unfair, but he does seem to think that if he doesn’t adopt a new bold strategy, it will lead not only to his political death, but the death of Afghanistan.
Stagnant economy: Afghanistan’s unemployment rate hovers at 40 percent. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have left the country as refugees. George Packer wrote in The New Yorker that Ghani is “a visionary technocrat” who “thinks 20 years ahead,” but people need help and change today. The protracted insurgency, violence, and hopelessness have a negative effect on the collective psyche of the nation. Anger spews downward and upward. The result: desperate Afghans, unable to extricate themselves from this vicious cycle, turn on each other. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The Tajiks blame Pashtuns for sympathizing with the Taliban, which led to the fall of major cities like Kunduz and surrounding districts. The Pashtuns accuse Uzbek militias of committing crimes against them in northern Afghanistan and charge Tajik leaders with sabotaging the peace process with the Taliban.
Some Afghans even call for Afghanistan to change its name to Khorasan (as the area was once known), which they suggest will include all ethnic groups. The word Afghan was used in the past to refer only to Pashtuns.
Another major hurdle for national unity was deep disagreement about the tazkera national ID card. Non-Pashtuns didn’t want the word Afghan to be displayed on their tazkera. Anger and frustration are widespread, and Afghan leadership is not immune to the friction.
Afghan first vice president Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, accused President Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah of plotting his assassination after his convoy was ambushed by the Taliban en route to Faryab province.
In an interview with Afghan media, Dostum complained that Ghani and Abdullah are favoring their ethnic Pashtuns and Tajiks, respectively. President Ghani suggested the accusation be prosecuted in a court of law.
Others also have turned against Ghani. Abdullah complained of a lack of access to the president, and Ahmad Zia Massoud, Special Representative of the President for Reform and Good Governance, says he is left out of the loop whenever the president appoints individuals to major government positions.
The Balkanization of Afghanistan has begun. The country is already divided north and south. The north is controlled by powerful Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Noor, and the south by police chief Abdul RaziqAchakzai. Each reportedly is untouchable and won’t take orders from President Ghani.
The U.S. and the West fail to grasp the complexity of these issues. They wrongly believe that more troops or dollars will solve the problem. In October, the European Union and international partners committed $15.2 billion to Afghanistan’s “developmental priorities,” subject to good governance and transparency.
But pouring more money and resources into the coffin of an outdated and dying political order is a path to failure.
First, the U.S. and allies need to convince President Ghani that the days of the “Iron Emir” are over. He must delegate responsibility and give more regional autonomy to provinces now, before 15 years of U.S. accomplishments in Afghanistan (democracy, human rights and freedom of speech) are totally lost.
Despite his failures, Ghani still enjoys the support of most Afghans, who see no better alternative and respect him as sincere and honest. But if Ghani remains intransigent and unwilling to accept the new realities, no amount of American money or guns will save his country.