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Afghanistan: Ethnic Tensions On The Rise Between Pashtuns And Panshiris

  • Ron Synovitz

Two rival ethnic groups in Afghanistan -- the Pashtuns from the south and ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panshir Valley -- are fighting beside U.S. troops as part of a military operation against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines how the increased presence of Panshiri fighters in southeastern Afghanistan is fueling ethnic tensions.

Kabul, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. forces in Afghanistan launched Operation Anaconda earlier this month against the remaining pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, the battle plan included the use of Afghan fighters from two rival ethnic groups.

Some 500 ethnic Pashtun soldiers, and up to 1,000 ethnic Tajik reinforcements from northern Afghanistan's Panshir Valley, are reportedly participating in the fighting.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Willard Moore, a liaison officer who coordinates the work of American forces with the British-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, says the U.S.-led coalition may use whatever forces it sees fit.

Moore told RFE/RL that the United States will employ fighters from any Afghan group that can help achieve American military goals -- as long as those fighters are not members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

But the decision to deploy Panshiri fighters in the mostly Pashtun southeast of the country could have far-reaching political ramifications. Local Pashtuns in Paktia's provincial capital of Gardez say the presence of the Panshiris already has exacerbated ethnic tensions there.

This assessment is supported by Roy Allison, the head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. Allison told RFE/RL today that the issue could contribute to future ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, pitting ethnic Tajiks against Pashtuns.

"What is being done is, perhaps, from a military point of view, the sensible thing -- from an operational point of view. But from a political point of view, I think that it is likely to cause more tension."

Allison explained that Pashtun society in Paktia province is a blood-feud culture in which the concept of vendetta remains strong. In such an environment, the introduction of large numbers of Panshiri fighters is particularly sensitive -- especially if those ethnic Tajiks are involved in clashes in which local Pashtuns are killed.

Allison said rival factions of Afghanistan's interim government are seeking to gain as much political power as possible when the country's Loya Jirga appoints a transitional authority in June.

"The other layer on this, of course, is now the competition for influence both at the regional level and [within the] central government -- where the Tajiks from the North, or the Panshiris, dominate and have hold of the key ministries. And I do not think that [these Panshiris] are going to be willing to give these ministries up, regardless of the outcome of the Loya Jirga process."

In fact, Allison says the quest by the mainly ethnic-Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami party to hold onto power was likely a key factor in the decision by interim Defense Minister Mohammad Qaseem Fahim to deploy the Panshiri fighters in Paktia province alongside U.S. forces.

Fahim, Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni, and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah are all ethnic Tajiks from Jamiat-i-Islami -- a faction of the former Northern Alliance.

"The Defense Ministry is, yes, it [has] a Tajik minister. So [do] the Foreign and Interior ministries, which are the key ministries for control. If they are seen to be assisting the [U.S.-led] military campaign by doing what they can, it will tend to make it that much more difficult to resist them if they try to stay on in those ministries. They are certainly having this in mind."

But Allison said he understands why the U.S. military command has agreed to employ ethnic-Tajik Panshiris, as well as the Pashtuns under the command of Padshah Khan Zadran.

"I think it is creating tensions now. I imagine the reason why this is happening is that the Panshiris -- those from outside the region [of Paktia] -- are seen by the American forces as being far more reliable. These are people who do not have links and relationships, or dependence perhaps, with the local community [in Paktia]. There are suspicions that those in the local Pashtun community have developed contacts not only with the Taliban but also possibly with some of the Al-Qaeda or Arabs who are living in this region -- and [that the local Pashtuns] aren't quite so trustworthy and certainly are more prepared to be bribed off."

It's not only local Pashtuns and Western analysts who are concerned about the divisive potential of deploying ethnic Tajiks in Paktia province. Russian officials told visiting Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai in Moscow today that they want to see Afghanistan remain "undivided" and "independent."

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Karzai that Moscow will help the interim administration in Kabul restore Afghan statehood. He said Russian authorities believe a united, independent, and "territorially integrated" Afghanistan would be an important factor for regional stability in Central Asia.

The visit to Moscow by Karzai -- an ethnic Pashtun supporter of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah -- has deep significance for Russia. Moscow had supported the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami during much of its fight against the Taliban militia during the last six years.

The Taliban regime had been dominated by Islamic fundamentalist Pashtuns who persecuted Afghanistan's other ethnic minorities. When the Taliban fled from Kabul in November, troops from Jamiat-i-Islami swept into the capital despite the pleas of the international community and took up most of the posts in Karzai's interim administration.

There are now increasing complaints from Pashtuns in Kabul alleging that Panshiri Interior Ministry troops who patrol the capital are responsible for extortion and the growth of crime.

British ISAF troops have told RFE/RL that they regularly encounter citizens who complain about being robbed by Panshiri Interior Ministry police -- often the same police officers who go out on joint night patrols with the ISAF.

Many fear the simmering ethnic tensions in Afghanistan will erupt once the Loya Jirga appoints the transitional authority. Pashtun civilians in northern Afghanistan say they are already being targeted in ethnically motivated attacks.