Tajik Grip on Afghan Army Signals New Ethnic War

by , November 29, 2009

Contrary to the official portrayal of the Afghan National Army (ANA) as ethnically balanced, the latest data from U.S. sources reveal that the Tajik minority now accounts for far more of its troops than the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group.

The massive shift in the ethnic composition of ANA troops in recent years is leading to another civil war between the Pashtuns and a Tajik-led anti-Pashtun ethnic coalition similar to the one that followed the fall of the Soviet-supported regime in 1992, according to some observers.

Tajik domination of the ANA feeds Pashtun resentment over the control of the country’s security institutions by their ethnic rivals, while Tajiks increasingly regard the Pashtun population as aligned with the Taliban.

The leadership of the army has been primarily Tajik since the ANA was organized in 2002, and Tajiks have been over-represented in the officer corps from the beginning. But the original troop composition of the ANA was relatively well-balanced ethnically.

Gen. Karl Eikenberry, then chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, issued guidelines in 2003 to ensure ethnic balance in the ANA, according to Chris Mason, who was a member of the Afghanistan Inter-agency Operations Group from 2003 to 2005. Eikenberry acted after then Defense Minister Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim had packed the first group of ANA recruits to be trained with Tajiks.

The Eikenberry guidelines called for 38 percent of the troops to be Pashtun, 25 percent Tajiks, 19 percent Hazaras and eight percent Uzbek.

Since then U.S. officials have continued to put out figures indicating that the ethnic balance in the ANA was in line with the Eikenberry guidelines. As recently as 2008, the RAND Corporation was given data showing that 40 percent of the enlisted men in the ANA were Pashtun and that Tajiks accounted for less than 30 percent.

The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued Oct. 30, shows that Tajiks, which represent 25 percent of the population, now account for 41 percent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and that only 30 percent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns.

A key reason for the predominance of Tajik troops is that the ANA began to have serious problems recruiting troops in the rural areas of Kandahar and Helmand provinces by mid-2007.

At least in the Pashtun province of Zabul, the percentage of Pashtuns in the ANA has now been reduced to a minimum. In Zabul province, U.S. officers embedded in one of the kandaks (battalions) reported earlier this year that they believed only about five percent of the troops in the entire brigade are Pashtuns, according to a report by Army Times correspondent Sean D. Naylor published in the Armed Forces Journal last July.

The brigade commander in Zabul is a Tajik.

Meanwhile, Tajiks have maintained a firm grip on the command structure of the ANA. . Marshall Fahim put commanders from the Tajik-controlled Northern Alliance in key positions within the Ministry of Defense as well as the ANA command.

Mason recalled that the United States thought it had an agreement with President Hamid Karzai under which the command structure of the ANA would be reorganized on the basis of ethnic balance, starting with the top 25 positions.

But Karzai never acted on the agreement, Mason said.

Even after Fahim was stripped of his government and military positions by Karzai in 2004, his appointee as ANA chief of staff, Gen. Bismullah Khan, remained as head of the army. Tajiks have continued to occupy the bulk of the positions in the Ministry of Defense

A United Nations official in Kabul estimated that, as of spring 2008, no less than 70 percent of all kandaks were commanded by Tajiks, as reported by Italian scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Even in overwhelmingly Pashtun Zabul province, there are only two Pashtun kandak commanders out of a total of six, Matthew Hoh, the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul until he submitted his resignation in September in protest against the war, told IPS in an interview.

Mason views the process by which the ANA is coming to be seen as an increasingly Tajik institution as making a civil war between the Pashtuns and the Tajiks and other ethnic minorities virtually inevitable.

"I believe the elements of a civil war are in play," Mason told IPS.

Mason said the refusal of Pashtuns in the south and east to join the ANA is part of a "self-reinforcing spiral." The more Dari, the language spoken by Tajiks, becomes the de facto language of the ANA, said Mason, the more Pashtuns will see it as an alien institution.

"The warlords have already started rearming," said Mason.

Although the United States "has done as good a job as it could have" in trying to make the ANA mirror the broader society, Mason said, it can only "attenuate" rather than prevent such a war in the future, even with a larger troop presence.

Hoh believes a civil war between the Pashtuns and a Tajik-led alliance of ethnic groups has already begun but could get much worse. "It is already bad now," he said, but unless U.S. policy changes, "we could see a return of the civil war of the 1990s." To avoid that outcome would require putting priority on political reconciliation in order to "integrate all elements of society into the Afghan government and security forces," said Hoh. That, in turn, would require an international framework, probably involving the United Nations, he said.

Hoh recalled a scene he witnessed in Zabul suggesting that Tajik commanders view the ANA as belonging to the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. At an Afghan independence day event at a military base Aug. 19, attended by hundreds of ANA and national police, the large photograph adorning the wall was not of President Karzai but of the Tajik commander of the entire Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.

The previous civil war between Pashtun and Tajik-led armies was triggered by the disappearance in 1992 of the national army of the Soviet-supported Najibullah regime, which had maintained a tenuous balance between the two major ethnic groups.

The collapse of the Najibullah regime and its army was followed immediately by fierce fighting between the Northern Alliance, which had gotten to Kabul first, and the forces of the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had previously been allied with the non-Pashtun mujahedeen against the Soviet-backed regime.

In a sign that Tajik commanders don’t trust Pashtuns in the south and east, the Tajik senior ANA officer in Zabul, Maj. Gen. Jamaluddin Sayed, dismissed the locally recruited national police in the province as being under Taliban influence and called for recruitment of police from outside the province.

"If we recruit ANP [Afghan National Police] people from Zabul province, probably they have some relationship with the Taliban," Jamaluddin told Army Times reporter Naylor.

Inter Press Service

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