Pushtun Politics and Violence in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 15

Violence in Afghanistan in the past few months has been largely cross-border in nature, originating in Pakistan and carried out by individuals of multiple nationalities who return to Pakistan after striking. Examining the location of recent incidents supports such an analysis. [1] While no part of Afghanistan has been untouched by attacks in recent months, the vast majority of the incidents have occurred close to the Pakistani border. The threat, literally, is a peripheral one. When violence has erupted away from the Pakistani border, it has occurred mainly in remote areas, where other conditions have contributed to the persistence of the Taliban and their allies. Border attacks appear to be motivated by a desire to prevent reconstruction and election participation in these areas, thereby demonstrating that Pushtuns are being denied their fair share of aid by Kabul, which would be seen as alienated from the population if votes were withheld.

The peripheral location of the incidents also provides strong evidence that the violence in Afghanistan does not represent the action of Afghan Pushtuns alienated from the government in Kabul by the presence of other ethno-linguistic groups – especially Panjsheris – and by foreign influence and troops on the ground. If this were the case, it would be likely that attacks would correspond to the Pushtun heartland, the swath of territory near the traditional road networks from Kandahar to Kabul and Jalalabad. However, outbreaks of violence among Pushtuns have been limited to geographically remote areas such as the Oruzgon province, Zabul and Helmand, where there are local motivations. In Oruzgon, for example, violence has been motivated by maintaining opium cultivation against government efforts to suppress it. [2] Even in areas where there have been long-standing inter-ethnic tensions involving Pushtuns – such as in Konduz, a largely Pushtun city in the midst of a mainly Tadjik area, or in Jowzjan, where competing land use practices have created tensions with Uzbeks – violence has been limited.

Since 2001, both Afghans and Pakistanis have used the argument that unless more Pushtuns were placed in positions of power in the government – and Panjsheris kept from them – there would be a groundswell of opposition against Kabul. [3] The strongest Afghan advocates of this view were urbanized individuals returning from a lengthy exile in the west, shocked at seeing Panjsheris in positions of authority rather than the ethnic status quo ante bellum. Among Pakistanis, the view represented a tendency of in some elements of government, especially the security services, to see conflict in Afghanistan primarily through an ethnic prism and hence as a subset of Pakistan’s internal politics. In many cases, the tension between Afghans returning from exile and those that had remained in-country results from the former’s sense of entitlement to power and influence which dismisses the claims of their competitors as illegitimate. In reality, no group is willing to accept the status of a “junior partner” in today’s Afghanistan.

Each of these views reflect a critical misunderstanding of the political perceptions in Afghanistan’s Pushtun heartland and the nature of Pushtun politics. As long as an informal ethnolinguistic balance is ensured in Kabul, the legitimacy of the government is not likely to be undercut. [4] The average Pushtun may not like Panjsheris, even if he has never encountered one, but without the Taliban to demonize their ethnic opponents, Pushtuns are unlikely to take up arms against them. Rural Pushtun leaders, unlike their urbanized cousins, are more interested in the realities of local power than in the ethnic breakdown in Kabul; demands by tribes that justice requires them to have their own man in government in Kabul have so far largely been absent.

In the Pushtun heartland, most of the ethnic resentment is not aimed at Kabul but rather at rival Pushtuns tribes or groups. There is a long-standing expectation that, given the importance of patronage in traditional Afghan politics, any official will support first his own village or clan; senior officials are therefore viewed with suspicion by those who do not share ties with them. Thus, rivalries between tribes remain a significant cause of violence. Personal rivalries are yet another cause. For example, the fighting between Hadji Zaman and Hazrat Ali in Nangarhar in December 2001 and between Pacha Khan Jadrani and Hadji Saifullah Ahmedzai around Gardez in January 2002 often produced intra-Pushtun violence. Panjsheris were not targeted at that time, despite the fact that their influence in Kabul was at its height.

This situation reflects the weakness of Pushtun leadership in Afghanistan. Its focus has been local or tribal rather than national. Even where major tribes have re-asserted their hegemony in loyalty to the Kabul government, as with Gul Agha in Kandahar province, outside support was required. Many local Pushtun leaders are subject to the same questionable level of local support and legitimacy as other Afghan sub-national leaders. No one has elected them. Although the reality of Afghan politics is that leaders remain home town heroes as long as they are viable, few of the figures that exercised state authority in the Pushtun homeland in the Taliban’s name from 1994-2001 seem able (or willing) to build on this in organizing resistance to Kabul. This suggests that the Karzai government’s attempts at individual reconciliation with former Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami figures are more likely to be effective than seeking to win over the whole Pushtun political structure. Indeed, the shortage of identifiable Pushtun leaders able to play a productive role at the national level remains a shadow over Afghanistan’s political future. It is likely that in the future, with the rebirth of an Afghan national economy and through participation in national politics, Pushtun attention may turn away from a local or regional focus. While the major Pushtun political leaders of recent decades have been foreign-supported (Mohammad Najibullah, Mullah Mohammad Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), this says more about the failed policies of their outside supporters than of any inherent Pushtun political limitations.

The vision of traditional Pushtun lashkars (armies) assembling in the heartland and marching on Kabul has, of course, not taken place. Rather, the cross-border nature of the violence in Afghanistan has been underscored by the declining size of the forces carrying it out. There have been no encounters with over 100 armed combatants since Operation Anaconda in spring 2002, and only a handful of operations since March 2003 in which there were more than a few dozen, one or two trucks full. [5]

That the roots of these attacks are cross-border does not make them a less serious threat. While there is no broad based support for the terrorists, they can claim the support, active or passive, of a semi-clandestine network of sympathizers on both sides of the Durand line. News reports of Pakistani military operations against training camps in Waziristan are outweighed symbolically by the idea of senior Taliban leaders living openly in Quetta. As long as these leaders remain, however great Pakistani efforts against terrorist facilities elsewhere may be, the message being sent by Pakistan to the “Taliban culture” is that Islamabad does not see it as a threat. [6] However, this culture and the religious practices that sustain it still have the potential to upset peace and security in Afghanistan as long as it thrives in Pakistan.


1. “Creation of the Joint Management Center is an Objective Step Towards Complete Security in the Country”, Anis (Kabul), 4 July 2004. Translated at FBIS-IAP-20030705001. Maps issued by the UN for briefing reconstruction organizations on security issues show this graphically.

2. “Narcotics Seized in Central Afghan Province of Oruzgon”, Kabul Radio Kelid report in Pashto, 1230 GMT 3 April 2004. Translated at FBIS-IAP 20040403000054.

3. One example of many is: “AFP: Tajik Domination of Afghan Power Causing Frustration to Pashtuns”, AFP Report 5 October 2003 reprinted at FBIS-JPP 2003100500008.

4. A recent review of the state of ethnolinguistic factors in the political balance in Kabul is found in the interview with Mohammed Mohaqqeq in Sada-ye Mardom (Kabul), 20 March 2004, p.2. Translated at FBIS IAP 2004032600042.

5. Dr. Sean M. Maloney, Afghanistan: From Here to Eternity?, Parameters, Spring 2004, pp. 4-15, p.

6. A recent example is: Khalid Hassan, “Pakistan Backing Away from Promise to Dismantle Madrassas”, Daily Times (Pakistan), 20 July 2004, Internet ed.