The Diplomat recently published an article Ashraf Ghani and the Pashtun Dilemmawritten by Ali Reza Sarwar. The article, however dense in language, was full of gross generalizations, speculations, and baseless claims. Ali’s main argument was that President Ghani is indecisive to term Taliban as enemies rather than political dissidents, because both, the Taliban and the President belong to same ethnic group – Pashtuns. The gist of Ali’s argument is to lobby hard for a militaristic solution to defeat Taliban. Unbeknownst to him, NATO and ISAF forces from more than 40 nations couldn’t come close to defeating the terrorist group. In essence, the war on terror is winding down and after more than 35 years of constant bloodshed the battle in Afghanistan necessitates a political solution.

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Afghanistan suffered at the time of Taliban.  It wasn’t just Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras or Uzbeks, but Afghans who suffered from North to South and East to West as a nation. There are still Taliban in Herat, and Badakhshan, just as there are in Kunar and Kandahar. Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse nation, but to call Taliban a Pashtun movement is an inaccurate depiction of current turmoil and disrespect to all those who have lost their lives in the War on Terror. Pashtun areas geographically have turned into battlegrounds, not because Pashtuns wanted them, but because they shared borders with Pakistan. Pakistan’s involvement in spreading the terror and training the Taliban is a well-known fact around the world.

Pashtun intelligentsia and politicians have been fighting with the current stereotyping and have been supporting uprising against Taliban in the Pashtun areas for last few years. Pashtuns have been deprived from access to education, health, and other basic needs.  Taliban are extremists who do not belong to any ethnicity.  The extremists on both sides of the Durand Line are targeting Pashtun leaders and activists continuously.

Furthermore, it is not true to assumes that Pashtuns are yet to realize “the reality that the time for a despotic monarchy or factional regime like that of the Taliban has passed”. In both rounds of the last year Presidential election, in second round in particular, Pashtuns braved Taliban threats and participated in an unprecedented numbers.  Unlike the general perception, Pashtun women came out in large numbers to take active part in the democratic process. This is a testimony of the fact, that Pashtuns have realized that democracy is the only legitimate mean to gain legitimate power in the country.

In retrospect, to call Ghani another failed leader would be betraying the history of Afghanistan. In Winston Churchill’s words, “history is written by the victors” and only a good leader can lead the nation to victory. It is also true that tribal ties and identities are strong in Afghanistan. And as we know, minorities tend to hold to their tribal identity more than majority, because of the cultural intimacy that plays a big role in forming their communities. Most of our former leaders in Afghanistan were Pashtuns, and each had a different style of leadership. Their leadership style was as diverse as it is in any nation. These leaders gave us our borders, identity, and history. The identity of a nation is built on its history and culture. Symbols and people that represent a nation should be respected and accepted by its citizens. To question a nation’s history is always acceptable, but to disregard it entirely to make a political score is naive and an affront to the people.

Ali uses Tolo Television, a controversial media outlet, survey as an evidence to argue Afghans dissatisfaction with the current government. According to a research paper published by House Hold in Conflict Network (HICN) in 2012, surveys in Afghanistan are not reliable.  Representativeness in the survey and the reliability of the pollsters are the biggest issues in this regard. Not only that, but the author also cites that Pashtuns make up “40 percent” of the ethnic group without any empirical evidence. Even the C.I.A factbook states that Pashtuns are the largest group with the 42 percent of the population. Ghani’s approval ratings have certainly dipped in the wake of deteriorating security across country and the extended cabinet picks have galvanized opinion that the administration will not last long. However, that is not the entire picture. Pseudo intellectuals and political elite, in particular, the ex-mujahideen are grinding axe because they got cut out largely from the administration which is why Ali sounds like a disgruntled political mercenary in his unwelcomed depiction to vilify an ethnicity. Moreover, to judge government’s performance in less than just over a hundred days in a post conflict nation itself is a politically immature move.

Ghani’s Dilemma?

Afghanistan is not the United States. Ghani’s problem is not the Pashtun problem at all, but rather it is one of dealing with the insurgency that does not seem to die. Ghani succeeded a nation with a fragile political system. The previous Administration handed over President Ghani a government characterized by endemic corruption, weak institutions, worsening rule of law, empty government coffers, unprecedented insecurity, souring international relations, and most importantly a country politically divided along ethnic lines – largely thanks to last year’s acrimonious presidential election. Therefore, given the scale and complexity of domestic and foreignchallenges facing Afghanistan, both President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah need time and space to address them.

War prolongs the conflict and negotiations end it. Historically, Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, geographically, a conflict prone country, and politically, a weak democracy. Despite the presence of 135000 International Soldiers during the 2009-2012 surge along with substantial military strength and financial resources failed to defeat Taliban (though they were made weaker), how would the ANSF despite its recent success, would bring security to the country, given that it lacks advanced military equipment as well as when the country cannot pay their salaries from its domestic revenue?

Killing the expandable Taliban in the villages of Afghanistan will not bring peace to Afghanistan unless the fundamental differences with Pakistan are not resolved. It is a reality that Taliban are proxies of Pakistan and dictated by ISI, thus it is imperative to hold talks with Pakistan Army rather than with Taliban. This is what the new government has been doing in last few months – though the results of these talks are yet to be seen. In such conditions, use of legitimate force combined with peace talks is the only way forward.

Ghani’s Test of Leadership:

The real test of President Ghani’s leadership would be on how he combats corruption and brings sustainable peace in the country.

Corruption is as malicious for Afghanistan as Taliban are. Corruption and poor governance have created vacuum in the country, especially in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, as a result, these areas have become hotbeds for Taliban insurgency.  It is imperative for President Ghani to fire incompetent government officials regardless of their ethnicities and/or political connections and make a government responsive to the needs of people. This will make life much harder for Taliban insurgency to nurture in Afghanistan.

In addition, as in the second round of election, the president should make serious efforts to bring in substantial chunk of sidelined Pashtuns (including Taliban) into mainstream politics. Bringing Taliban into the mainstream politics should be the ultimate goal of President Ghani, even though if it requires amending the Afghan constitution and giving them representation in government. However, this must be conditional on the willingness of Taliban to denounce violence, cut its ties with neighboring spy agencies, most importantly to respect human rights – women rights in particular, and accept the Afghan Constitution.

Taliban must be viewed as a radical movement who are easily used as proxies by Pakistan, not a Pashtun nationalist movement. Taliban pose threat to Afghanistan, region and the World.  It is not a constructive criticism to associate an elected president with terrorist group, but a deliberate move to divide the nation and raise new tensions among ethnic groups. All ethnic groups in Afghanistan have suffered at the hands of Taliban, thus, it is important to unit Afghans rather than dividing them on ethnic lines, so that terrorism can be defeated.

About the Authors:

HabibaAshna is an International Relations Student in Sweet Briar College. She regularly writes on socio-political issues related to Afghanistan. She could be reached at habiba_ashna@hotmail.com

ZiauddinWahaj has a postgraduate degree from University of Adelaide. He tweets at @wahajzia and can be reached at zia.wahaj@gmail.com