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 highly 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 religious persecution.
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 opposite result.
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 Iraq 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 historically 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 they 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 lately 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 Al 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 political order.
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.