CENTRAL ASlA; Myth of 'One
Los Ange/es Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; May 25, 2003
BY Charles Santos
At the end of 2001,
the Taliban and Al Qaeda were broken and in utter confusion. Today, they
are growing stronger and more active. They have reemerged forcefully in
their base in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, challenging
the Kabul administration of President Hamid Karzai. And American policy is
partly at fault.
The U.S. believed that establishing a democracy in Afghanistan would
prevent its reversion to an extremist, terrorist state, and so it looked
to the standard democratic model of a highIy centralized state run by an
elected government. But this model ignored the complex regional and
ethnic divides within Afghanistan.
In focusing on finding a single leader it could work with and building a
centralized state, policymakers have ignored a basic precondition for a
peaceful society in Afghanistan: building trust and goodwill among the
different tribes, ethnic groups and regions. This is especially
necessary after decades of war and a century of brutal ethnic and
Instead, the U.S. and United Nations have focused on building national
institutions and providing strong support to Karzai, a Pushtun whose
family is originally from Kandahar .They continue to hope that this
approach will have a unifying effect on the country, but it has had the
To understand what went wrong --and how to make it right -it is
important to understand the roots of the problem. U.S. policymakers have
accepted the optimistic view of many Pushtun leaders that Afghans see
each other as brothers undivided by differences. Any talk of addressing
issues of ethnicity or diversity is characterized as a plot by outsiders
to divide the country. Consequently, necessary dialogue among
communities has been squelched by Kabul authorities. We have returned to
trusting in the myth that he who controls Kabul controls Afghanistan.
The U.S., by buying into the notion of a single happy family of Afghans,
is aggravating the situation and denying diverse groups constructive
political expression. Our policy in Afghanistan is in sharp contrast to
our lraq policy, which recognizes that country's diversity and the
political rights of groups long oppressed there.
The reality in Afghanistan is that from the perspective of many of the
regions, Kabul is not so much a capital as it is another region. Though
the Pushtuns may be the largest ethnic group in the country, and though
they have historical1y ruled and dominated, they are not a majority.
Afghanistan is a country of minorities. In the aftermath of a century of
oppression of the non-Pushtun peoples, more than a decade of communist
rule, a devastating civil war and the excesses of the Taliban regime,
there will be no permanent peace or security without recognizing this
fact and restoring the confidence of ethnic groups traumatized by the
numerous campaigns to homogenize the country.
U.S. policymakers need to understand that Afghanistan's failure to fully
centralize in the past was not due to a lack of nerve or force. It's
that centralization has always amounted, essentially, to "Pushtunizing"
the country, a near-impossible task given the scale of the diversity. In
previous times, Kabul has usually required foreign intervention to
sustain the subjugation of non-Pushtun peoples and even some Pushtun
tribes. Today's attempt, too, seems to be heading that way, with Karzai
requesting help from the international community to subdue regional
discord and restore central power.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Karzai is not a
Taliban supporter. But he is, as were the Taliban’s leaders, Pushtun.
Instead of repudiating their notion that Pushtuns should rule the
country from Kabul because of their religious piety and ethnic
superiority, he has attempted to impose the kind of centralized rule the
envisioned –if not its religious principles. In doing so, he has
emboldened Taliban supporters. Terms from the lexicon of ethnic
domination are cropping up again, as those who claim rights for their
people and regions or who talk of diversity are dismissed as “infidels,”
their leaders as “warlords”. Karzai has, to his credit, appointed many
non-Pushtuns to positions of power. But he has also worked hard to
ingratiate himself with people— including Taliban supporters-- in
Pushtun regions where his support is weak.
Centralization can't work in Afghanistan, and so the U.S. should abandon
its support for a Kabul-dominated state in favor of a more decentralized
one. The fractured relations and history of violence among communities
demand that a greater political space be created in Afghanistan. A
two-track political approach, with both a national government in Kabul
and regional power centers within a loosely federated or confederated
democratic system, could create that space.
In Kabul today there is serious opposition to such a regional approach.
Those charged by Karzai with drawing up a new constitution say such an
idea can't work. But they ignore the fact that regional political
organization has been a de facto reality for many years now. It's part
of the reason the Taliban was so quickly toppled. Regional organizations
have provided local conflict mediation, economic activity and political
resistance to some of the worst abuses of misrule.
An additional benefit of a decentralized System is that it is the only
approach that directly repudiates ethnic and religious extremism. As the
growing number of attacks by Taliban and AI Qaeda remnants in Pushtun
regions dramatically demonstrates, ethnic and religious extremism is
rising again. At the same time, many non- Pushtuns believe that radical
Pushtuns in the Afghan government are using their positions to
reestablish Pushtun domination of the country. A federalist state would
challenge the dogma of domination with a more tolerant and moderate
For the U.S., the war on terrorism in Afghanistan is more a battle
against ideology than a battle over land. Cultural, ethnic and religious
notions of superiority are interrelated in complex ways that sustain the
extremist movements, so it is against them that our battle must be waged.
Caption: PHOTO: NATION-BUlLDING: U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld, left, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has strong U.S.
support; PHOTOGRAPHER: Reuters
Charles Santos, an energy consultant and director of the Foundation for
Central Asian Development, was previously a U.N. political advisor in
Afghanistan. This article is based on research done by the author,
Elizabeth Cabot and Paul Behrends.
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