The apparent shift in U.S. Afghan policy away from the Northern Alliance and toward the Pashtun-dominated south (see yesterday’s EDM) appears to be driven by two factors: internal and external. Internally, the Pashtuns, although a minority of about 40 percent of the population, have held the reigns of government in Kabul for more than two centuries. There have been only three exceptions: in 1929 (for less than a year power was held by a Tajik); in 1980, when the Soviet-supported Tajik President Babrak Karmal came to power; and in 1992, with the advent of the first government of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, comprised principally of Tajiks with the support of Hazaras and Uzbeks.
The Pashtuns have been effective partners in wheeling and dealing with the British, the Soviets and the Pakistanis, and have thereby kept themselves in power. Their last bit of dealing, which resulted in bringing the Taliban to power in 1996, proved detrimental to non-Pashtuns, who for that reason sought alliance with Russia and India – arch rivals of the United States and Pakistan, respectively.
Externally, it is believed that Pakistan, more than any neighboring country, has played a role in moving U.S. policy toward this new strategy. The feeling in Pakistan among army, religious parties and the intelligence establishment is that President Pervez Musharraf, by default, lost a reliable protégé in Kabul in the form of the Taliban. He thus also lost Pakistan’s so-called strategic depth (in the case of war with arch-rival India as well). Worse yet, it is perceived that a hostile or at least a non-cooperative government has emerged in Kabul that is sympathetic to the needs and wishes of Pakistan’s nemesis, India. If there is anything that Pakistan abhors, it is influence and economic opportunity for India on its borders in Afghanistan.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in her April 8 presentation to the 9-11 panel, also spoke of using “carrots and sticks to persuade Pakistan drop its support for the Taliban,” and perhaps to get its cooperation in the war on terror and the fight against Muslim fundamentalism (CBSnews.com, April 8,2004). President Musharraf, during his visit in June of 2003 to the United States, was offered a carrot – special treatment at Camp David – that is reserved for close friends and allies of the United States. Also reportedly on offer was another and bigger carrot, in the form of influence in Afghanistan. On his way home President Musharraf spoke in Paris on July 5, 2003, of “ethnic imbalance” in the government. The next day, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking in Kabul, expressed “sadness” over Mr. Musharraf’s comments, saying that “Afghanistan will not become a gamble anymore” (Afghanistan Report, July 11, 2003, Vol.2, No. 24).
After Musharraf’s U.S. visit, the feeling in Afghanistan was that the United States had once again conceded Pakistani influence over Afghanistan in return for Musharraf’s support of the U.S. war on terror. Pakistan, for its part, plays the Pashtun card in order to gain influence in Afghanistan and to appease its own Pashtun population. As a result, although it pays lip service to the principle of non-interference in Afghanistan, Pakistan has consistently either backed or has overlooked Taliban activities on its own soil as well as forays by the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.
This possibly strategic shift by the United States may be by far the biggest carrot that the United States has offered to Pakistan. But although it may serve Pakistan’s interests in the region, the feeling in Afghanistan and certainly in the region as a whole is that, in the long run, such a U.S. shift may not help anybody’s interests – including those of the United States.
At the moment, however, the reality on the ground is that the Kabul government continues to be dominated by Panjshiri Tajiks and their non-Pashtun allies. President Karzai, a Pashtun, announced just two weeks ago the creation of two new provinces, Panjshir and Daikundi, in non-Pashtun areas inhabited by the Tajiks and Hazaras, respectively. Tajiks make up 25 percent and Hazaras about 19 percent of the Afghan population. Meanwhile, Karzai has himself been playing the Pashtun card, as is witnessed by his recent visit to the still largely pro-Taliban city of Kandahar. While there he announced that former Taliban members – except those who had been in leadership positions – are welcome to field their candidates in the upcoming September general elections.