A Smart Pashtun Play
Why Washington should back Karzai.
While the U.S. struggles to get its act together in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, widely ridiculed as corrupt and ineffectual, is consolidating his power and moving toward a peace deal with the Taliban. The U.S. is trying to stop him, but Karzai’s bold moves could help the U.S. and NATO find a graceful way out of the deepening Afghan quagmire.
Internally, Karzai is seeking to win over his fellow Pashtuns—the biggest ethnic bloc in the country—who had been largely excluded from key security posts, which were held by U.S. protégés representing the Tajik ethnic minority. Three weeks ago Karzai replaced his Tajik intelligence czar, Amrullah Saleh—an outspoken opponent of his outreach to the Taliban—with a respected Pashtun in the intelligence hierarchy, Ibrahim Spinzada. Now, in a little-noticed move, he has promoted two Pashtun generals, Shir Karimi and Mohammed Akram, to the pivotal posts of chief and deputy chief of staff of the Army, both posts previously held by Tajiks.
Externally, Karzai is carrying on an exploratory dialogue with Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has come to see him twice recently in Kabul to explore a peace settlement with the Taliban, which has close ties to Islamabad’s intelligence agencies. Since the Taliban’s leaders and fighters are all Pashtuns, and its propaganda depicts Karzai as a U.S.-Tajik puppet, his peace initiative helps him consolidate Pashtun support.
Washington is alarmed by the terms of the peace deal now being explored. Former Pakistan foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan suggested recently what that agreement might look like, observing that the Taliban is entrenched in certain key Pashtun provinces, such as Khost and Paktia, “where they should be accommodated.” Significantly, he made no mention of power-sharing in Kabul and dismissed the possibility of another nationwide takeover.
If it is the price for his continuance as president, Karzai might be prepared to accept Taliban control over some of its local strongholds, perhaps as part of broader constitutional reforms strengthening provincial autonomy. But the U.S. should not object to such a deal, provided that the Taliban and its Islamabad backers agree to safeguards barring the use of these provinces as bases for international terrorist activity. What matters most to the U.S. is barring or limiting Taliban power-sharing in Kabul, and ceding power to the Taliban in some local strongholds might be necessary to achieve this goal.
For a variety of reasons, Washington has ignored the historic Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan. Pashtun kings ruled Afghanistan from its inception in 1747 until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973. Today the Pashtuns make up an estimated 44 percent of a population of 28 million. The Tajiks make up 27 percent. Yet Tajiks have held the levers of power in Kabul because they were in the right place at the right time during the confused months leading up to the U.S. ouster of the Taliban government that ruled from 1996 until 2001. When victorious U.S. forces marched into Kabul, the Northern Alliance—a Tajik-dominated, anti-Taliban Afghan militia—was there too, and with U.S. help, a clique of Tajik generals seized the key security posts in the new government.
Supporting Karzai’s overtures to the Pashtuns would counter Taliban propaganda that the U.S. doesn’t care about the nation’s largest ethnic group. But one risk of Karzai’s strategy is that it could lead to a Tajik counterattack. Strong American support for Karzai would be necessary to keep the Tajiks in check. That would also avoid the appearance that America is opposing Pashtun interests again, which would only strengthen the Taliban’s position in the insurgency and in the peace process that appears likely to unfold. U.S. cooperation with Karzai is also necessary because if he and his Pakistani interlocutors can come up with a formula for peace, Taliban leaders will still insist on a U.S.-NATO timetable for withdrawal as a precondition for definitive negotiations. Ironically, when and if a timetable is announced, the Taliban’s emotive appeal as the spearhead of opposition to a foreign occupation will be deflated. As Howard Hart, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, told Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, “the very presence of our forces is the problem. The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition.”
Harrison has reported on Afghanistan since 1963. He is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.