When Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim was nearly killed by an explosion in the Pashtun tribal area near Jalalabad earlier this week, tribesmen a hundred miles south could be found celebrating, with cups of tea and smiles all around.
"We don't know who did it, but it was the right idea," said a Pashtun tribal leader from the Khost region, who asked not to be named. "They [the Northern Alliance of which Fahim is a leader] have been killing and abusing our people since they swept into power in November."
Though Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, they have very little to cheer about in the new Afghanistan. Human rights abuses against Pashtuns, which a new Human Rights Watch report claims are taking place on a massive scale, could well undermine the traditional, clan-based system of government that is due to replace the fragile, Tajik-dominated government currently in power in Kabul. The report, which details abuses against Pashtuns across Afghanistan with a focus on the north, says it's "payback time" against the group, which provided most of the fighters and leaders of the radical Taliban movement.
"If northern Pashtuns are unable to take part in district or regional meetings to choose their representatives, then the validity of the entire loya jirga [national assembly] process will be called into question," claims the report by the New York- and London-based group. "The international community must act now to guarantee the security of northern Pashtuns and other local minorities across Afghanistan as the loya jirga process begins."
Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for the group, says that Afghanistan's three major non-Pashtun factions the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and especially the ethnic Hazaras, all of whom are major players in the nationally dominant Northern Alliance were committing offenses against the Pashtuns. "We found case after case of beatings, looting, murders, extortion, and sexual violence against Pashtun communities," he says.
Several Pashtun subtribes held urgent meetings this week in eastern Afghanistan to decide on what they called "a military strategy" to fight back against perceived abuses by the Northern Alliance. "The NA is playing a dangerous game, it is dangerous both for the national interests of Afghanistan and the US campaign against the terrorist groups of Al Qaeda and Taliban," says Malik Mohammad Shah Zadran, chief of the Tribal Union of Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces.
Just a week earlier, more than a hundred Pashtun tribal leaders living in Kabul were rounded up by Northern Alliance officials in the ministries of interior and intelligence and accused of trying to kill their own ethnic compatriot, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.
The government affirms that ethnic ties had nothing to do with what it describes as a crackdown on supporters of pro-Taliban warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. General Abdul Qadir Gulzad, who is chairman of the national security and defense commission, says: "We are not involved in [anti-Pashtun retribution.] That is up to the local people. The people are angry, because they believe Pashtuns are supporting the Taliban."
But Mohammed Faizan, a Pashtun recently released from jail, claims that it is not safe to speak his own language in Kabul. "The Northern Alliance is arresting everybody who speaks Pashto they don't know who is who," he says. "Intelligence officials just swept in and seized everyone they could, including passersby."
A factional leader of the Pashtun-dominated political party Hizb-I-Islami, Wahidullah Sabawoon, who is permitted to leave his home only in the company of security officials, repeats accusations that the government crackdown was motivated by anti-Pashtun sentiment.
"The aim is to exclude our people from any future influence," he says. "If they arrest us, they know we can't be active political players and that we will be out of their way."
Outside of Kabul, stakes are often higher. Human Rights Watch has documented the killing of 27 Pashtun civilians in the Chimtal district. A 16-year-old ethnic Pashtun woman from the Pashtun village of Bargah-e Afghani, identified in the report only as "H," claims to have witnessed the beating and killing of her 70-year-old father.
"Six men came to our house; they were Hazaras," she told human rights investigators, referring to the ethnic rivals that the Human Rights Watch reports says are the most keen on revenge against the Pashtuns.
"When they entered into the house, they beat us and looted our household goods. When they were beating my father, I was holding him, trying to stop them from killing him. The Hazaras were asking us for 2,000 to 3,000 lakhs [about $1,700 to $2,500].
At first, they beat them [the men] with their weapons, very forcefully. Then they shot them with about 30 bullets. Then they fired at them with [a heavier weapon]. They were [shot] in the courtyard inside our compound."
Western human rights groups monitoring the situation in Afghanistan have long charged that the international community needs to take firmer action to step between rival groups and to extend its peacekeeping activities beyond Kabul. Mr. Bouckaert says he is concerned that the United States and its partners are already abandoning Afghanistan to parties and groups that continue to commit human rights abuses.
The report calls for, among other things, an expanded mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, support for efforts to establish accountability for past and current abuses, and an increase in funding for human rights monitoring, including through the Afghan Human Rights Commission that is to be established under the Bonn agreement.