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US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished

The lives of four Afghans provide a lens on how America's longest conflict has changed a nation – and the divisions and dangers that persist.

(Page 8 of 8)

Ethnic factionalism is one reason the International Crisis Group warned, in a May 2010 report, that the Afghan National Army is "incapable of fighting the insurgency on its own," the other reasons being drug addiction, illiteracy, and desertion.

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On paper, the ethnic breakdown of soldiers within the Army closely matches that of the country, with 44 percent Pashtuns, 25 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazaras, 8 percent Uzbeks, and 13 percent members of other groups. But loyalties among these soldiers are divided, the Crisis Group report found, with Pashtun soldiers likely to favor Pashtun commanders and the Pashtun Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, and Tajiks favoring the Tajik commanding general Bismillah Khan.

That the Taliban was once made up primarily of ethnic Pashtuns has made it hard for many of them to feel trusted or welcome in their own country, says former Transport and Aviation Minister Hamidullah Farooqi, an ethnic Pashtun. "In the first year after the Taliban left, the rest of the people said that a Taliban equals a Pashtun, and the people of the north used that against the people of the south," says Mr. Farooqi. This discrimination "pushed Pashtuns into a corner; it pushed them to be Taliban. They didn't have any choice."

The problem has gotten worse, as Karzai fills his cabinet and immediate pool of advisers with those of his own ethnic groups, while other top politicians of other ethnic groups do the same. On one level, this is a matter of personal loyalty, but it reinforces ethnic division.

Part of the problem, says Hussein Yasa, a newspaper publisher in Kabul, is that Afghanistan has few institutions that can unify Afghans. The country has a single parliament, but there are so many political parties – 259 at last count – that none is able to speak for a majority of Afghans. Religion would seem to be a uniter; but while most Afghans are Muslim, the divide between the 80 percent who are Sunni Muslims and the 20 percent who are Shiites becomes a dangerous source of contention.

The solution is inclusion, Mr. Yasa says. "If you create a balance of power, so no group feels that they are out of play, then you can have a sense of peace."

Ms. Koofi, the liberal female parliamentarian who is of Tajik ethnicity, says that most Afghans are well ahead of their leaders when it comes to living an inclusive, tolerant daily life.

"You don't see this problem at the community level, because as communities we get together and solve problems. We handle food distribution for poor families of different ethnicities, different religions," says Koofi. "But at the national level, many politicians are putting their reliance on ethnic forces, and this is hurting us."

Koofi says she doesn't believe Afghans will allow themselves to be manipulated by ethnic divisions the way they were during the civil war of the 1990s. "You can't impose a government on the people when the people are educated, and when they remember the days of war," she says. "The hope I have is my people. They will not accept it."

• Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report from Kabul.


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