During the factional conflicts that raged in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the ethnic Turkmen made a name for themselves as a peaceful community that tried to stay out of the conflicts. But some community leaders say that pacifism is now causing stronger groups to push the Turkmen aside as the country seeks to build a broad-based government.
Kabul, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, district elections across the country were held to elect delegates to the assembly. Those elections were intended to assure that the interests of all Afghanistan's regions, and all its varied ethnic groups, would be represented at the national assembly.
But while the organizers of the Loya Jirga, and international election monitors, have called the district polls largely fair, they were also flawed. There were reports of local power holders bribing or intimidating candidates to drop out of races and that interference assured that many of Afghanistan's regional strongmen won elected seats to the assembly. Other powerful figures, such as provincial governors and top officials, joined the Loya Jirga as appointed delegates.
Among those complaining that they were pushed aside in the Loya Jirga elections are Afghanistan's ethnic Turkmen. Community leaders say that by the time the voting for delegates was complete, only 30 Turkmen became delegates to the assembly. They also say that many other candidates who tried to win election from Turkmen-majority areas were prevented from doing so by the non-Turkmen armed factions that control northern Afghanistan.
It is unclear how many ethnic Turkmen live in Afghanistan because no national census has been conducted for more than 20 years. But Turkmen leaders estimate the community numbers some 2 million people. The Turkmen have traditionally lived in the north of the country, but hundreds of thousands fled to Iran and Pakistan during the past two decades.
Abdullah Furqani is a community leader among the Turkmen refugees in Pakistan. He recently told our correspondent in Kabul that the Turkmens were deliberately excluded from the Loya Jirga process by more powerful ethnic groups. "Some people were forced to step back during the elections. As an example, in Kunduz province a person, whose name I won't tell you, was elected as a delegate. But he was threatened by some people that if he remained a delegate then dangerous consequences would await him. And in this way, they presented people from their own [non-Turkmen] tribe," Furqani said.
Most of the parts of northern Afghanistan where Turkmen live are under the control either of ethnic Uzbek-based or ethnic Tajik-based militias. The two most powerful regional leaders are ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Tajik commander Ustad Atta Mohammad. The two men are rivals for control of one of the region's largest cities, Mazar-i-Sharif, though both support the outgoing interim administration in Kabul. Dostum, who is interim Deputy Defense Minister, is widely expected to take a top position in the new Transitional Authority. Atta Mohammad is a close associate of interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, who is expected to keep his same position in the new government.
Turkmen leaders say that during the district elections they complained about their exclusion to the United Nations-assisted Special Independent Commission for Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga. The commission, made up of 21 prominent Afghans, was tasked under the Bonn accord with organizing elections for the assembly and addressing complaints.
But according to Furqani, the Turkmens' complaints went unheeded. He said he traveled to Kabul to complain on behalf of Turkmen refugees in Pakistan after none of their candidates was chosen to represent the Afghan refugees in that country. The Turkmen refugee candidates had hoped to be chosen by the Special Independent Commission, which was responsible for appointing delegates to represent the large Afghan refugee and expatriate communities.
"Our problem is that we were completely forgotten and our delegates were not elected. Our Turkmen refugees in Pakistan requested me to come here because their rights were neglected, so despite having an official job I came to Kabul to talk to them. But no one even listened to me and they paid no attention to us at all," Furqani said.
Furqani said after his complaints were ignored, many Turkmen refugees in Pakistan became disillusioned with the Loya Jirga process. "Hearing that, the Turkmen refugees were completely disappointed and they said that until they were given their rights they would [maintain their distance from Afghanistan's factional conflicts] and stay in Pakistan as refugees. They also said they had lots of hopes for this Loya Jirga, but unfortunately they were disappointed," Furqani said.
The Special Independent Commission's spokesman, Ahmad Nader Nadery, told our correspondent that the commission did not receive complaints from the Turkmens. He also said that the rules governing the elections gave the Turkmens a fair chance to represent themselves at the Loya Jirga. "We never received complaints like this. Because, as you know, the rules for the election of the people was according to the size of the population of each district. And they can elect their own representatives [with the formula of] one delegate for every 25,000 people in the population. So, the number of the Turkmens that we have at the Loya Jirga is exactly according to the number of their population," Nadery said.
Nadery also said that if Turkmens voted for members of other ethnic groups to represent them, that would be in the spirit of the Loya Jirga process, which has sought to break down ethnic divisions in the country. "Something was new in this election. Even the Turkmen and the Uzbeks were ready to elect [representatives] from other ethnic groups. In this election it was not a matter of the ethnic division of the Afghans. It was about all the population of Afghanistan," Nadery said.
Nadery said that, for example, a large number of Pashtun and Tajik delegates were elected from majority-Uzbek districts. He said that showed a lack of ethnic divisions in such areas.
But while election officials argue that the Turkmens freely chose the delegates from their regions, community leaders say many Turkmen refugees in Pakistan are now putting off returning to northern Afghanistan because of concerns over what they call the intimidation of Turkmen candidates there.
If the Turkmens do not return, they could become one of the largest remaining refugee communities in Pakistan. Large numbers of refugees from other ethnic groups have already returned home since the inauguration of the interim administration in January. The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, predicts that a total of some 1.2 million Afghan refugees will return home from Pakistan and Iran by the end of this year.
Turkmen community leaders call the Turkmens' plight the result of refusing to organize their own armed factions to compete in Afghanistan's civil wars, something that has frequently meant they have been victimized by other militias. Instead of arming, the Turkmen have sought to maintain their economic self-sufficiency through carpet weaving and animal husbandry. Carpet weaving continues to sustain the large number of Turkmen refugees in Pakistan, giving them a means to delay their return home until they feel safe to do so.
The president-elect of Afghanistan's new Transitional Authority, Hamid Karzai, pledged to try to reduce the power of the country's militias as he was endorsed by the Loya Jirga late last week.
Karzai said at a news conference on 14 June that "our objective is to take Afghans to a better life, out of this quagmire of 23 years, a quagmire of warlordism, terrorism, and hunger." He also vowed to make his government representative of all the people of Afghanistan.