There are several factors preventing the United States from successfully reaching its objectives in Afghanistan, but one that is consistently overlooked is the detrimental impact of identity politics on the nation’s governance. The Trump administration’s policy toward Afghanistan is primarily focused on three main points: increased American military presence and action against the Taliban, increased pressure on Pakistan to act against militant safe havens on the border, and an invitation for India to play a larger role. What this strategy lacks is an attempt to solidify the various ethnic Afghan factions, dominated by warlords-turned-politicians, into a cohesive and united front against the Taliban. However, this is much easier said than done.
U.S. objectives in Afghanistan can only be met when there is an efficient and united Kabul that can adequately defend and provide for its citizens. The current government can best be described as a fractured governing body. Following the departure of former President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan held its first modern democratic transition of power. This election was fiercely divided along ethnic and tribal lines, with Ashraf Ghani gaining major support from the dominant Pashtun community and rival Abdullah Abdullah gaining support from Afghanistan’s minority groups, which have a strong foothold in the country’s north. The results of the election were contested by Abdullah, who claimed widespread corruption and ballot stuffing.
The previous U.S. administration brokered a political compromise in 2014 that gave a weakened presidency to Ashraf Ghani and created the post of chief executive officer (CEO), which Abdullah currently occupies. This complicated and fragile relationship between the two political leaders continues to be estranged, with internal disagreements and fighting spilling into Afghanistan’s governance. Abdullah and his supporters believe that the agreement brokered gave him an equal role to that of Ghani’s presidency. Ghani and his supporters argue that according to the constitution the role of the president has no equal.
Figure 1: Divisions within the Afghan National Unity Government
Furthermore, Ghani’s much-needed support with three major minority political leaders, who also occupy important positions in his cabinet, continues to fall. Uzbek leader Abdurrashid Dostom, Tajik leader Mohammad Atta Noor, and Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqeq forged an unlikely alliance demanding reforms be made or that Ghani step down from office, following a deadly bombing at the end of May this year. The former warlords-turned-politicians threatened to stage protests and demonstrations until the Ghani government accepted their list of reforms. The political disagreement was further complicated by the rhetoric of former fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who expressed skepticism at the opposition’s motives and asked the Afghan people to unite behind the Ghani government. Relations between the two major sides remain strained and have taken on a new dimension as allegations of rape surfaced against Dostum, who now resides in exile in Turkey.
The divisive impact of identity politics has been further amplified through the use of reckless militias that are either loyal to a particular political figure or a political party. The former governor of Paktia province and adviser to Ghani, Juma Khan Hamdard, stated that Kabul should not “accept armed militants and illegal armed men because such groups do not serve the national interest; rather they work for personnel interests of some individuals.” He later told Afghan journalists, “Militias in the north have violated the secrecy of people’s lives, they have committed moral crimes, have usurped people’s properties and commit overt and mysterious killings.”
This past August, a militia under the control of a senior security official in the northeastern province of Takhar opened fire on worshipers, killing five and wounding 37, none of which were militants. Meanwhile, a feud between Jamat-e-Islami supporter Governor Mohammad Atta Noor of Balkh province and a provincial councilman Asif Mohmand turned violent when the former sent gunmen and police officers to arrest the latter. Mohmand, who enjoyed support from the Hizb-e-Islami party, engaged in a shoot-out with Noor’s men that resulted in two dead, 17 wounded, and the closure of the Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport. There have also been numerous other instances of warring militias harming local populations in the provinces of Faryab, Parwan, and Oruzgan. This lack of a united front prevents the success of American objectives and continues to drain scarce resources and energy away from the greater fight against the Taliban.
Arguably, the most significant impact of identity politics is the erosion of credibility that the Afghan people hold for their government in Kabul. The most recent survey conducted on the people of Afghanistan showed that the public’s faith in state institutions stood at a 10-year low, with only 37 percent of those surveyed holding confidence in the Afghan parliament and 35 percent confident in government ministers. The impact of identity politics is most visible in the survey when seen through ethnic lines. The Pashtun population holds a marginally higher opinion (32 percent) toward their member of parliament (MP) than other major ethnic groups such as the Tajiks (21 percent), Uzbeks (19.4 percent), and Hazaras (17.2 percent). Furthermore, of all the individuals surveyed, more than half believe that their MP either prioritizes personal and ethnic interests rather than those of the country as a whole.
These views held by the Afghan people continue to be reinforced as the current government has been plagued by reports of fraud and abuses of power. Reports of corruption and embezzlement of both material resources and funds, from within both the Afghan military and government, have led to the resignation of Afghanistan’s defense minister and a massive shake up of the country’s military establishment. Furthermore, military defections and the use of “ghost soldiers” (to siphon funding) within the military have weakened the Afghan military’s ability to effectively counter Taliban offensives, further diminishing government influence and authority.
The herculean but undoubtedly crucial task of limiting the use of identity politics and uniting the various ethnic factions in Afghanistan should be a major focus of the Trump administration’s policy toward Afghanistan. The overarching American objective to stabilize Afghanistan, both economically and militarily, can only be met when some in positions of power in Afghanistan are compelled to prioritize the interests of their country rather than themselves. Countering the gains that the Taliban has made and eliminating militant safe havens is absolutely crucial but is a wasted effort if Kabul continues to be fractured and politicians continue to pursue petty self-interests.
Ali Malik is a research consultant at the Stimson Center in the South Asia Program.