When one hears the phrase ‘Afghan Conflict”; the first question that comes to their mind is ‘what Afghan conflict’? And that is right, for this piece of land has been pervaded by countless conflicts that even the natives are at their worst to name them. Given the presence of numerous conflicts, a new addition to this long list of conflicts is the protracted unaddressed “Identity Conflict” among the ethnic groups in the country. The identity conflict pushed the country into a more fragile state in particular after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but recently it is getting worse as the government has announced it will launch the electronic Tazkiras (National Identity Cards) to its citizens.
The government of Afghanistan with the assistance of the International Community has initiated the process of providing the residents with the e-ID cards for the first time after years of preparation. It is believed that the new “National ID system will enable the government to establish a very accurate, up to date and effective database of the census of the country’s population, their movement, addresses, age categories and many more.”
The computerized ID cards were supposed to be distributed in 2013, however, due to technical and political problems, the citizens are yet to receive ones. The current government (the National Unity Government) is unresolved about the launch of e-ID cards.
What has stopped the distribution of national identity cards is the long disputed word “Afghan” used as a nationality for all the citizens of Afghanistan. The word Afghan historically has been used in reference to the Pashthun tribe by the Arabs, Iranians, British and many others, but with the passage of time, the term adopted its meaning, referring to all the citizens of the country including non-Muslims (Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan). In fact, the Afghan Constitution, Article Four reads “the nation of Afghanistan shall be comprised of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pachaie, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and other tribes. The word Afghan shall apply to every citizen of Afghanistan.”
However, the members of other ethnic groups including some major ones namely Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras are troubled by the meaning and application of the word. They regard the term Afghan as an imposed identity rather than an identity by choice. This was evidently noticed because after the delays in the launch of the e-ID cards due to this very problem, large protests were held mainly in provinces where Pashthuns are a majority. Even in Kabul, the demonstrations involved people associated with Pashthun ethnicity and very few people from other ethnic groups except for Pashthuns on social media such as Facebook have shown their solidarity with the demonstrators to include the word Afghan as a nationality in the e-ID cards.
Like any other identity conflict, the roots of the identity conflict in Afghanistan are embedded in the psychological and historical factors of these ethnic groups. Throughout the history of Afghanistan, all the ethnic groups had co-existed very peacefully. In fact, during any foreign invasion, the citizens of the country have defended their country shoulder to shoulder. For instance, during the invasion by the British, the Soviet Union and by any other foreign invaders, all the ethnic groups have fought as a nation to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country. They had always given priority to the broader national identity rather than the narrow identity limited only to their own ethnic group.
This sense of collective identity continued until the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, however, the Soviet forces departed from the country, the civil war erupted in Afghanistan. And like in any other society, the power hungry leaders and warlords had manipulated the masses in Afghanistan too. These warlords used them for their self-interests. During the civil war, the once united Afghan nation fighting the mighty Soviet forces broke into factions and groups.
Pashthuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras were following the orders of their avaricious leaders and committing heinous crimes not only in Kabul but in their respective provinces. The people who suffered most were ethnic minorities who were living with the majorities in their provinces. So the Pashthuns who were minorities in the north and Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras who were minorities in other parts of the country had harmed each other throughout the civil war. This created more hatred and animosity among the ethnic groups. Additionally, the emergence of the Taliban to power inflicted more harms on minorities.
After the fall of the Taliban, all the ethnic groups were given equal status and rights in the Afghan constitution. However, the grievances of the people were not addressed at all. The reemergence of the warlords and other racist personalities of different ethnic groups resulted in the manipulation of their ethnic groups with political rhetoric to further fragment the already weak collective identity.
Added to that was entitlement of the formation of political parties and groups to these warlords through the new democratic system in Afghanistan. Now, this entitlement and reorganization of the bigoted leaders institutionalized racism and prejudice either through their political activities or serving as high governmental officials. They ran and are still running their propaganda through a well-organized strategy to further their interests and keep the nation divided.
To resolve this conflict, there is a dire need of a proper strategy reuniting all the ethnic groups, who can coexist as they did before and have an identity that all the ethnic groups agree upon and feel comfortable with. However, before finding any solution to either manage, resolve or transform this conflict, it is important to understand at what stage is the conflict now and what are the new dynamics that further deteriorate the situation because putting any resources in place without realizing the root causes of the conflict and recognizing the phase of the conflict will be useless and can have adverse effects. Hence, the emergence stage of the conflict is over; the preventative measures might not be that fruitful.
The conflict right now is at its second stage, escalation. On a daily basis, the ethnic groups are attacking each other on social media web-sites. Also, the media channels that are biased to one or the other group are running programs which further segregate the nation. The politicians, on the other hand, whether parliamentary or others aiming to run for election to secure power use this identity conflict as a tool to get there. Most importantly, some of the currently prejudiced high level governmental officials have institutionalized the conflict through their presence in the government and the power and resources they have. These officials in order to gain the future support of the people leave the conflict unaddressed and even try to prevent any efforts undertaken to resolve this conflict.
Way Forward from Destructive to Constructive Identity
Identities are created by the past interactions, ideologies and cultural or religious patterns. Unfortunately, all of the mentioned three factors have contributed to the current identity conflict in Afghanistan. Though the previous government had ordered to preclude the word Afghan in the identity cards, it did not resolve the conflict. In order to resolve or transform this conflict, one single solution or mechanism will suffice. A number of approaches and strategies are needed to permanently resolve or transform this conflict and bring all the ethnic groups as a one united nation.
First of all, there is a need of dialogue and discussion at national level over the term Afghan. Unless there is a general consensus by all the ethnic groups over what word should be used to identify them as one nation, the conflict will continue to emerge time and again. It is equally important, that the dialogue is people-led and by no way manipulated by the prejudiced and racist personalities or self-imposed ethnic leaders. Instead, the leadership of this national level dialogue should be given to the community leaders, civil society organizations, Ulema(Islamic Scholars), university professors and school teachers, who are free of biases and self interest. A pure, transparent and people-led national level dialogue can bring all the citizens of this country under an umbrella of single united nation.
The above mentioned four groups of people are of great importance for such a significant national dialogue because unlike the politicians, these people are in regular contact with their ethnic groups. Among them, Ulema are the ones who can play the major role in transforming this conflict, for the religious leaders are against the ethnocentrism. They can use the Quranic verses and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad to alter them from the narrow identity to a broader identity, which is not being Pashthun, Tajik, Hazara but Muslims and humans.
Similarly, the teachers and professors who are the foundation builders of youth can play a vital role in deescalating the conflict by giving the students examples of the neighboring and regional countries such as Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, Pashthun, Baloch, Punjabi, Sindi, and Siraiki as well as Sikhs and Christians are living not by their ethnicity but as a nation, Pakistani. The same is true for India. All religions, races, ethnicities, classes, cultures are called Indians.
Added to the above, it is also very important to start a nationwide reconciliation process. After the civil war, the fall of the Taliban regime and the UN-mandated U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, almost no transitional justice mechanism has been implemented. The warlords are still free. The crimes they had committed still have a huge influence on the opposite ethnic groups. Still, the presence of hatred towards “the other” is prevalent. The grievances have still not been addressed. The warlords never happened to have apologized or repented.
Instead, the ordinary people and the community leaders should come forward apologize and forgive each other for the crimes their leaders have committed. This will bring the different ethnic groups even closer and the sense of superiority and inferiority will diminish at a large scale. In addition, the reconciliation processes like the ones in South Africa and Rwanda will address the grievances of the victims. These actions may be initiatives to reduce grievances felt by adversaries or reciprocations of peaceful gestures by the other side.
More importantly, there is an urgent need to closely monitor and control the media outlets, which spread the message of antagonism. It is the responsibility of the ordinary people not to allow the media outlets which under the label of one ethnicity are working for other countries, promote disunity and cultivate a culture of enmity. In addition to the ordinary people, the government is equally responsible to give such media channels the mandate to promote harmony through producing different dramas, plays as well feature and documentary films that bring unity among all the citizens of this country. In case, they do not comply with the government orders, such media outlets should be closed down.
It is true that the identity conflicts require more time and are hard to resolve or transform than material conflicts, but it is not impossible to manage or transform them. There are strengths, shared values and culture, common enemies and friends that if utilized properly can bring an end to this conflict. Consequently, a nation-wide reconciliation process, a national level dialogue and discussion on the term Afghan as a nationality, reforms in institutions, public awareness, education, and prevention of racist media outlets from spreading the message of hatred will help deescalate and transform the identity conflict in Afghanistan.
*Khalid Momand is a Fulbright Scholar, has a Master’s in Conflict and Co-existence, has also taught at various universities in Afghanistan and has worked as co-editor at Afghanistan Times.