Three years ago, after the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani decided to change the route for a major electricity project that was initially designed to pass through the central highlands of the country, the Hazarajat, the Enlightenment Movement was born. To protest the decision to change the route, thousands of Hazaras took to the streets, the government in answer blocked roads with containers. When they rallied for a second time, the Islamic State’s local iteration attacked the rally, claiming the lives of almost a hundred and wounded 400 more.
Seeing it’s indifference to their demands and deaths, the Hazaras couldn’t help but resent the Ghani government. Since then, relations between the Hazaras and Ghani’s government have remained strained and hostile.
One of Ghani’s most dire mistakes in office was his confrontations with Enlightenment Movement and subsequent resentment of the Hazaras. A different deal with the Enlightenment Movement could have given Ghani a firmer stand at the current moment when he is badly scrambling for survival in both the peace process and the upcoming elections.
Ghani came to power with a grandiose agenda promising reform and change. A key element of this reform agenda was a war on warlords and corruption. Ghani rightly had come to the conclusion that the power of Afghanistan’s warlords needs to be curbed if the country is to embrace rule of law. He has constantly, albeit unsuccessfully, pushed against them: In 2001, when he was a World Bank economist, Ghani warned against the warlords’ role in post-Taliban Afghanistan while drafting “a five-step plan for a political transition to a broad-based Afghanistan.” In 2004, he resigned from his post as finance minister in a break with the government of Hamid Karzai over the increasing power of the warlords. In 2009, Ghani turned away Karzai’s offer to join his government again, citing his price was “to exile thirty of the most corrupt members of the government,” a clear point to warlords.
Yet despite his ardent opposition, the history of Ghani’s war on warlordism is filled with failed attempts, all as a result of the same mistake: Trying to displace warlords with no concrete alternatives. In 2016, when an alternative came in the shape of Enlightenment Movement, he squandered it.
The youth-led Enlightenment Movement was partly born because the Hazaras were fed up with their traditional leaders. Gaining reputation and status during the anti-Soviet war, these leaders had both religious education and were coming from quasi-warlord backgrounds, twin facts that Ghani certainly don’t like about them. They were increasingly losing their public support among the Hazara community. A Ghani deal with the movement would have meant an official end of those leaders at the time, yet Ghani missed the opportunity. The unmade deal with the movement would have benefited Ghani in three ways.
First, as shown by scholars, the politics of warlordism in Afghanistan is shaped through a broader network, and a defeat of warlords in the Hazara community would have cracked the network, signaling a decline of warlord power in Afghanistan. These warlords make coalitions when necessary and try to defend their collective benefits. Doing harm to any of them would have hurt the whole system.
This posture could also have contributed to Ghani’s relations with the United States. Like any another ethnic leader who is funded by neighboring countries, the Hazara leaders are widely believed to be funded by Iran, even by the United States, as illustrated in leaked diplomatic cables. Any move to curb pro-Iran forces would have been welcomed by U.S. officials, especially as leaked cables reveal that Americans favored the alternative, Hazara youth, more. According to another leaked cable, “[The] new generation [of Hazaras] hopes to separate Hazara politics from Iranian patrons and create more opportunities for Hazaras nation-wide.”
Of course, the entrance of young Hazaras could have benefited Ghani’s youth-centric agenda. He has been pushing for the entrance of youth into Afghan politics by appointing younger Afghans into senior positions, a move that has been dubbed “generational change” by his spokespeople. The Enlightenment Movement had the potential to speed up this so-called generational change, but Ghani’s refusal of the movement brought him a label of ethnic-nationalism even in his youth centric agenda as described by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neuman in an article for the National Interest last December.
Ghani’s miscalculation of the movement also reversed the outcome of his anti-warlordism agenda. He started a war on warlordism, pressuring warlords yet rejecting their alternatives. The alternatives were not only the Enlightenment Movement among the Hazaras, but also among the Uprising for Change movement among Tajiks.
Ghani is facing the outcome of those decisions now: He was dubbed “The Lonely Man of the Palace” in an article in Kabul-based daily Hasht-e-Subh, while the very warlords he once was trying to curb have joined the camp of his main rivals and are campaigning against him. Had Ghani accepted the Enlightenment Movement’s demands, a robust public base could have helped him in his efforts to establish peace while dying warlords would be unable to challenge him in the presidential race.
Sayed Ziafatullah Saeedi is a fellow at the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford. He is a co-founder at RCDSP, a youth-led initiative that aims to promote dialogue and tolerance in Afghanistan. He tweets @TheZiafat.