I am reminded of my short and sturdy-looking math teacher in a school built by Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, where I had migrated with my family during the Taliban regime. A man of sharp acumen and snappishly honest temperament, we called him Ustad Nadir (Professor Nadir).
One day Nadir recounted how he had landed his job, a profession that is valued for the social good it can deliver but is largely considered dead-end and lacking in ambition among Afghans. Usually other professions such as medicine, engineering, or law make a hit with aspiring youth. In his case, one reason he became a teacher and not a military officer, the career in which his heart lay originally, was that he was Hazara, a historically persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Back when Ustad Nadir was probably mapping his future life in mid-20th-century Afghanistan, becoming a military officer was for Pashtuns only, who held a monopoly on social privilege as the politically dominant ethnic group. Even though Afghanistan had signed the 1946 Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the “liberty, dignity and equality” promised in it refracted when adapted to Afghanistan’s society and politics. Here, only one ethnic minority could enjoy those rights and be “more equal” than the rest.
Notwithstanding his career-related bad luck, if my teacher had been born a few decades earlier, his life could have taken a much more tragic turn. He could have been bought and sold in open markets like other members of his ethnic group as a slave.
As chronicled by the early-20th-century historian Faiz Mohammad Katib in his opus Siraj al-Tawarikh, appropriation and exchange of Hazaras as slaves intensified in the late 19th century after Afghan King Abdur Rahman Khan’s bloody push to expand his reign in semi-autonomous central Afghanistan in a series of conquests that laid the foundations of the modern nation-state, ligaturing its birth with plunder and displacement for thousands of Hazaras. A big part of the ethnic group fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where they continue to live after many generations.
Trading in Hazara slaves was officially banned in the 1920s by reformist King Amanullah Khan. However, the ban did not stall the Taliban regime who, nearly 80 years later, resorted to ethnic cleansing after entering Afghanistan’s central highlands in the late 1990s, an area called Hazarajat (“land of Hazaras” in Persian). Hazaras’ belonging predominantly to Shia Islam did not help in assuaging the zeal of the Sunni extremist Taliban in committing mass-scale persecution.
Their journey to normal citizenship in Afghanistan has been long and is far from complete. Saying their name is still widely adjoined with a patronizingly polite “brother” – as in, “Hazara brother” (beradar’e Hazara) – as if saying “Hazara” alone might sound inappropriate.
Rise of the Pashtun
Ethnic supremacy has been central to Afghanistan’s politics and was embodied in a program of Pashtun settlement in the fertile north and northeast, a policy that continued under Afghanistan’s longest 20th-century ruler King Zahir Shah and was backed by his cousin Mohammad Daoud. As a young officer before becoming Afghanistan’s prime minister, Daoud didn’t hide his support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi cause. History curricula written in those years and still taught to children in public schools in Afghanistan continue to preach the revolting racial fallacy that “Aryan” means najib (noble or superior), a race among whom Afghans include themselves.
The settlement policy, while not leaving Hazaras unharmed, came at the vast expense of Tajiks and Uzbeks, two other ethnic groups who, despite widespread neglect and deprivation that was common to all in impoverished Afghanistan, saw arable land around them given to Pashtun settlers. State-administered irrigation programs were implemented mostly by forcing the able-bodied among rural Tajiks and Uzbeks to build the canals.
Fast-forward to the present and one might witness some changes in the country mainly because four decades of war, beginning in the late 1970s, disrupted the structure of ethnic hierarchy. According to political scientist Mujib Rahman Rahimi, the wars in Afghanistan represented a moment of “dislocation” in its history. According to his doctoral thesis now published as a book, Afghanistan was a client state of British India, for which hegemonizing Pashtun rule over the country’s ethnically diverse population was deemed necessary for functional bilateral relations. This top-down politics cemented the Pashtuns’ hold on power even after gaining control of the country’s foreign policy from the British in 1919, but was undercut by the bloodshed and social unrest of the recent wars.
Hazaras and other ethnic groups are now at least free to dream of a career of their choice. Ethnic boundaries no longer retain their prewar legitimacy. Ordinary Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, among others, share their views on politics, stage protests and partake in civil society. Elections are at least held but still have some way to go to invite trust.
The effort to shrink the space for exclusionary practices on ethnic and gender grounds offers the promise of some form of impending pluralism, where liberty, dignity and equality no longer remain the preserve of one ethnic group. This was the unintended consequence of decades of violence and sacrifice that resulted in easing oppressive rule by one social group; in part it was also promoted by the institutions put in place after the US-led 2001 invasion. But not because of the Americans, as is generally assumed in the outside world.
In fact, reinforcing Pashtun hegemony over other ethnic groups has proceeded in tandem with other changes in the post-2001 period, which has now become strong enough to reverse the positive disrupting influence of recent wars in the form of ethnic pluralism.
US influence post-2001
Exclusionary politics was rapidly built into US policy early on, calling to mind British colonial policy of the late 19th century, through appointing Zalmay Khalilzad – an ethnic Pashtun – to do the United States’ foreign-policy work in its longest war, first as special envoy and ambassador of George W Bush and now President Donald Trump’s special peace envoy.
Currently, the US-educated Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and the heads of the ministries responsible for the country’s security and economy are Pashtun, an ethnic group comprising anywhere between 30% and 40% of the population (attempts to conduct a population census have been repeatedly blocked by members of parliament from the Pashtun-majority southern provinces). Ghani’s partner in the current administration, Abdullah Abdullah, was also born of a Pashtun father. The country’s former foreign minister, who belonged to the second-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks, largely because Ghani noticeably never established a working relationship with him. He was replaced by a Pashtun.
Outside the cabinet, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the president of the Independent Election Commission – the body in charge of holding presidential and legislative elections – and the head of the central bank are all Pashtun. The only remaining branch of state power, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is a Tajik who gained the post only after a raucous controversy. He came first in a parliamentary election by 73 more votes than his rival, a Pashtun who has previously called for ethnic groups rejecting Pashtuns’ traditional rule in Afghanistan either to leave the country or be forced to leave, who didn’t accept the result. He and his supporters brought the parliament to a standstill for a month before a second election was held, in which the Tajik candidate won.
During the Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s, which broke with some past ethnic privileges, a Hazara even rose to the rank of prime minister, and after the regime’s collapse in the early 1990s, the country experienced a debilitating but important stalemate in ethnic power balance, even opening the way for a Tajik, Burhanudin Rabbani, to become the country’s president.
This period was cut short by a civil war. The subsequent rise of the fundamentalist Taliban group represented a horrifying setback for ethnic pluralism because of their regime’s strong Pashtun character. The appointment of Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun from southern Afghanistan, as interim president in late 2001 strengthened this pattern, facilitated through unwavering back-channel support by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad despite Karzai’s loss to an ethnic Uzbek, Abdul Satar Sirat, in a selection process at the Bonn Conference. In a symbolic return to the past, the country’s new 2004 constitution changed the national anthem from Persian, Afghanistan’s widely recognized lingua franca, to Pashto.
Absence of clear planning for Afghanistan among the US military and civilian authorities, as revealed in the Afghanistan Papers, gave the reign of US involvement in Afghanistan to a clique of returnees from the West, including Ashraf Ghani, whose first position in post-2001 Afghanistan was as finance minister. He believed in restoring the country’s prewar centralized rule, considered harmonious and un-chaotic. An arrangement that was, before the war, built on institutionalized segregation and denial of ordinary rights for the majority of the country’s population was now required to be reinstated in order to re-establish the “right” balance of power.
Perhaps in a fitting sign of his push for return to past, Ghani ordered the construction of a mausoleum for Mohammad Daoud, the controversial cousin of the former King Zahir Shah and the last prime minister before the period of wartime disruptions, to show his political loyalty.
As a Japanese proverb goes, when the character of a man is not clear, look at his friends. Ghani, known at first as a fair-minded technocrat, has a close friend and ally in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose vision of Hindutva (Hinduness) aiming for Hindu supremacy is upsetting India’s long-standing secular tradition. A right-wing extremist befriending another right-wing extremist should hardly appear as startling nowadays.
Among the legacies of the United States’ military involvement in Afghanistan, the restoration of ethnic hierarchy should be held as its most deleterious to Afghanistan’s internal politics and society in the long run. In a multi-ethnic country with no clear demographic majority, an overwhelming hold on power by one group can bode ill. Before the period of war when a rigid ethnic hierarchy reigned, suppression of dissent happened as part of an ethnic despotism far more efficient and centralized, with far wider reach over the country’s territory.
Most important, people like my childhood teacher didn’t question their place in society and accepted what was ordained from the top. This isn’t the case now and largely, it was the wars and an indigenous historical shift that was responsible for it, which now risks being undermined by internal and external forces.