The Nation and Citizens of Afghanistan
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Information on the Nation and Citizens of Afghanistan
Foreign Policy in Focus has released a new informational report on Afghanistan. The entire profile, along with an array of useful links for more information, can be found at FPIF’s Self-Determination In Focus page: http://www.fpif.org/selfdetermination/
by Jim Lobe and Abid Aslam
In late 1994, the Taliban, a Pakistan-backed militia consisting of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalists, launched operations along the Pakistani border, sweeping westward until it finally captured Kabul in September 1996. In 1998, it extended its control when it seized Mazar Sharif from predominantly Uzbek and Hazara Shiite forces in the Northern Alliance and reportedly massacred thousands of residents. In November 1998, the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions against the Taliban for its refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden in connection with attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In March 1999, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between the Taliban and the remaining Northern Alliance forces under Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, but fighting resumed in July. In December 2000, the Security Council imposed a ban on arms sales to the Taliban.
A combination of crippling drought, shortfalls in humanitarian aid, and continued international isolation compounded by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues throughout Afghanistan contributed to growing hunger and a new outflow of refugees. In September 2001, tensions mounted sharply after Massoud, the Northern Alliance’s chief military commander, was assassinated, and senior U.S. officials suggested military action against Bin Laden and the Taliban in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC.
- Pashtuns (also known as Pathans): 38% of the population; concentrated in the eastern and southern part of the country, but also with a strong presence in Kabul.
Tajiks: 25% of the population; concentrated in the northeast and in the west around Herat.
Hazars: 19% of the population; concentrated in the central mountains and along the border with Iran.
Uzbeks: 6% of the population; concentrated in the north along the border with Uzbekistan.
In linguistic terms, more than 65% of the people speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, while the rest of the population speaks Dari and related languages.
Taliban: Led by a council of ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim clerics headed by Mullah Muhammad Umar in Kandahar, the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtuns from rural areas of Afghanistan, many of whom were mujahedin or were refugees in western Pakistan during the Soviet occupation. Now in control of more than 90% of Afghanistan’s territory, the Taliban’s strict rule and its harboring of Osama bin Laden (who, according to some reports, is married to Umar’s daughter) and his associates have alienated much of the international community.
Northern Alliance or United Front for Afghanistan: The opposition coalition made up of major elements of the mujahedin alliance that forced the Soviet withdrawal and ousted President Najibullah in 1992, as well as some ethnic-based elements of the Najibullah regime. They include:
Islamic Society: Headed by former President Burhannudin Rabbani and, until his assassination in September 2001, military chief Ahmed Shah Massoud, this faction is predominantly Tajik and controls the Panjshir Valley and other areas in northern Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, another legendary mujahedin commander who was governor of Heart Province from 1992 until 1995 and escaped from a Taliban prison last year, could emerge as the faction’s new leader.
National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan: Led by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam, who served under Najibullah before helping broker his ouster, this group is predominantly Uzbek. Its control has been sharply reduced to small areas along the border with Uzbekistan since Taliban forces captured its headquarters at Mazar Sharif in August 1998.
Unity Party (Hizb-e-Wahdat): Although split into two major factions since 1995, this group represents most Hazara Shiite Muslims traditionally concentrated in Afghanistan’s western Herat province and central Bamiyan province, from which hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced by fighting and drought in recent years.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979, the U.S. focused its efforts on supporting the mujahedin with a massive, $3-billion covert aid program channeled mostly through Pakistani military intelligence. It included primarily military equipment, including sophisticated weaponry such as scores of shoulder-fired “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles. While Washington continued to back the mujahedin after the Soviet withdrawal, its policy objectives became more multifaceted. These included ending the conflict and restoring stability; eradicating the opium crop; retrieving the Stingers; removing landmines; and preventing the export of arms and the mujahedin’s militant Islamist ideology to neighboring countries.
Since shortly after the Taliban seized Kabul, relations with Washington have become increasingly problematic. Washington has spoken out forcefully against the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, its interference with foreign aid operations, and its sheltering of Bin Laden, who reportedly helped recruit Afghan Arabs in the final months of the Taliban’s offensive. Washington has also pressured the Taliban regime to close down suspected training camps of Bin Laden’s, which were the targets of several dozen cruise missiles launched by America in retaliation for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. Shortly afterward, Unocal, the California-based energy company, abandoned a proposed mega-project to build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through western Afghanistan to Pakistan. In 1997, Washington added Afghanistan to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and in 1999 imposed sweeping sanctions, including a freeze on all Taliban assets in the U.S. and a ban on U.S. trade with Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. [However, US aid to the Taliban has continued to the present.] Some kind of military attack against Afghanistan is considered highly likely in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.
On the multilateral front, Washington has supported efforts since 1994 by a succession of UN mediators–most recently Francesc Vendrell–and others to negotiate a cease-fire and the creation of broad-based government. It has also participated in the so-called “Six Plus Two” process established in 1997 to support UN peace efforts. That forum includes six of Afghanistan’s neighbors–China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–as well as Russia and America. At the same time, it has joined Moscow in cosponsoring Security Council resolutions imposing travel, diplomatic, economic, and arms sanctions against the Taliban.
Proposed Solutions and Evaluation of Prospects
Almost all efforts to end hostilities in Afghanistan have been channeled through the United Nations, bolstered by the Six Plus Two process initiated in 1997 after key external states agreed informally to observe an arms embargo against all Afghan factions. The UN’s efforts have been geared in the first instance to achieving a sustainable cease-fire, but, aside from the two-month cease-fire achieved in 1999 by UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, these have been unsuccessful.
Although all factions agreed at that time to a process leading to a coalition government, the cease-fire broke down after the Taliban made a series of demands, including that its ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islamic rule become the law of the land and that opposition armies be integrated into the Taliban’s militia forces. In 1997, the Taliban proposed that a religious council (ulema) be established to resolve the conflict, but it coupled the proposal with demands similar to those made two years later.
The Intra-Afghan Dialogue was launched in 1997 by internal groups, including former mujahedin commanders, who have not taken sides in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. This effort was supported by the Rome-based former king, Zahir Shah, who has called for a permanent government to be established by convening a traditional “loya jirga,” or council of notables. Called the ”Rome Process” since 1999 when Dialogue representatives met with the king, the effort gained a statement of support from the U.S. administration in May 2000, but most analysts believe that the participants lack the clout necessary to bring the warring factions to the table.
The elimination of Massoud, according to observers, could have been a fatal blow to the Northern Alliance, given his stature and the role he played in keeping the coalition together. But his assassination has been overshadowed by the U.S. reaction to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, leaving the Taliban in a defensive crouch, unable to mount a new offensive in the north.
Jim Lobe email@example.com and Abid Aslam firstname.lastname@example.org are contributing editors with Foreign Policy In Focus as well as editors with Inter Press Service in Washington, DC.
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