Ashraf Ghani and the Pashtun Dilemma


With his impressive background, which includes a stint as a senior official at the World Bank and a ministerial post, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would not appear to be short of qualifications for leadership. Yet, the president appears on course to be just another Afghan leader who is unable to rule the troubled country. When Ghani delivered his lofty inaugural speech on September 29, 2014, following a disputed election and power-sharing deal, expectations were high. The president made a strong argument in support of what he called the “triangle of stability” – economy, security and human resources – promising to restore Afghanistan’s valuable ancient geopolitical and economic position as the “crossroads of Asia.”

More than 100 days after taking the office, however, and Ghani is bogged down in a serious political crisis, one that draws a gloomy picture of the fragile unity government. He has only in the last few days been able to form a cabinet, leaving Afghanistan’s major public institutions, including ministries, independent departments, and commissions without leaders for months. A recent survey conducted by Afghanistan’s popular private TOLO TV and an independent civil society, shows that Ghani’s popularity has fallen dramatically, with only 27.5 percent of respondents satisfied with his leadership. With insecurity and political uncertainty looming, a number of parliamentarians have asked for Ghani’s impeachment for “treason,” blaming him for Afghanistan’s current state of disarray.

What has gone wrong? Why is this impressively credentialed leader unable to fix Afghanistan? Traditionally, Afghanistan’s woes have been blamed on crippling corruption, weak governance, dismal economic conditions, and worsening security coupled with foreign intervention. While these are certainly painful realities, the root cause of political crisis lies in ethnic politics and the breakdown of consensus among diverse ethnicities in regard to the persistent Pashtun dilemma.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Pashtun Dilemma

Constituting around 40 percent of the population, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are on the front lines of the war on terrorism, both as perpetrators and victims. The Taliban that is behind the bulk of the brutal militancy both in Afghanistan and Pakistan are mainly Pashtuns and derive their support from strongholds in tribal areas across Afghanistan and Pakistan’s borders. The mainstream Pashtun intelligentsia in both countries have been mostly uncertain over whether to sympathize with the Taliban as a nationalist movement seeking to restore traditional Pashtun dominance in Afghan politics and to some extent in Pakistan, or to condemn them as an extremist and externally infiltrated militancy that have dragged Pashtuns into an asymmetric confrontations with the U.S.-led coalition at a massive cost in human life.

Despite the Taliban’s indiscriminate attacks on Pashtun areas, including the last year’s suicide bombing in a market in Paktika province that killed 89 people, some leading Pashtun thinkers support the Taliban as a nationalist movement that could restore Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan, which they believe declined following the fall of the Afghan monarchy in 1973 and the following decades of the Soviet invasion and civil wars. For instance, in his article, the decline of Pashtuns in Afghanistan, Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady, a former finance and commerce minister under Karzai and an influential Pashtun thinker, believes that the decline of Pashtuns in Afghanistan after the fall of Najibullah in 1992, was “more significant than the fall of communism. The rise of the Taliban generated optimism among the Pashtuns about the reversal of their decline.”

The view that the Taliban could serve as a powerful Pashtun nationalist movement with the ability to reverse the post-Taliban inter-ethnic relations and political landscape of Afghanistan remained largely visible in during the administration of President Hamid Karzai. Karzai was frequently criticized by the opposition for his lenience towards the Taliban, yet he continued to compromise and push for negotiation. For its part, the Taliban categorically rejected talks, humiliating Karzai as a “puppet and unauthorized” to negotiate. At the grassroots level, particularly in non-Pashtun circles, there has been a difficult debate over whether Karzai would have been as willing to compromise if the Taliban had been a non-Pashtun movement.

Ghani’s Test of Leadership  

Ghani, a Pashtun himself, already seems incapacitated by the Pashtun factor. If he is to get to grips with the problem, he will need to address several important issues.

First, it should be realized that the war on terror is being fought mainly in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this reality constrains the political status of Pashtun in both countries. To overcome this, Pashtun leaders and intelligentsia, including Ghani himself, need to draw a stark line between the Taliban as a radical movement linked to global terrorist networks, and the legitimate cause of Pashtuns for justice. Fail to do that and Pashtuns will only be more isolated in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and forever in conflict with non-Pashtun groups and the international community. Breaking with the Taliban should also not be limited to the official level; the debate should move to the heart of Pashtun tribes and traditions that continue to provide the Taliban with sanctuaries and new recruits.

Second, the dynamics of ethnic relations and politics have fundamentally changed in Afghanistan and Pashtuns must face the reality that the time for a despotic monarchy or factional regime like that of the Taliban has passed. In the worst possible scenario, the collapse of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and unity government could lead to chaotic civil war, but it will not permit the emergence of a Pashtun-dominated government, just as it will not allow a government that excludes Pashtuns. Pashtuns will need to renegotiate their relationship with other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and this will inevitably mean giving up some of the privileges they enjoyed in earlier times.

Ghani could play a pivotal role in pushing this message among Pashtuns, but he seems to be replicating the failings of his predecessor. Like Karzai, Ghani is uncertain whether to consider the Taliban enemies or political dissidents. For the moment, he believes they are political opponents, a designation that would baffle many Pashtuns and all non-Pashtuns who have suffered under the Taliban’s violence. Ghani has been clear on his desire to reach a diplomatic settlement with Pakistan, and has also increased his contacts with nationalist Pashtun leaders in Pakistan. In fact, he recently hosted them in Kabul, a risky move that will have infuriated Pakistan’s government and intelligence agency given Pakistan’s long obsession with Pashtun nationalism.

Clearly, there will be no peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the region without the genuine participation of Pashtuns. Yet Pashtuns’ failure to engage constructively with non-Pashtuns in a democratic process that rejects the Taliban will only lead to their isolation. Ghani is the one man who could achieve this engagement, and he will need to do so if he desires to escape the fate of other Afghan rulers.

Ali Reza Sarwar is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service where he is completing a master’s degree in Intelligence and National Security. Reza graduated from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) where he was also in charge of the university’s enrollment management plan. 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief