On May 31, 2017, a massive truck bomb killed up to 150 and severely wounded hundreds more in a busy square near the German embassy in central Kabul. The number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan has been on the rise in recent years, and this was the deadliest occasion since 2001. The trauma was all the worse because the insurgents struck right in the heart of the capital.
Several days later, bereaved relatives and civil society groups converged near the blast site to voice their grief and anger. Joining in were opposition politicians, some of whom saw an opportunity to exploit public outrage, as well as activists of varying political affiliations, mobilized by social media. As the crowd tried to press on to the presidential palace, security forces opened fire, killing seven. The next day, at a funeral for one of those killed, suicide bombers killed another seven and injured more than 100.
Kabul is still grieving through the summer heat, and citizens are on edge awaiting the next truck bomb or insurgent strike. Although such attacks pose a serious danger, however, they are only one of many threats facing Afghanistan. Feuding politicians stoking ethnic rivalries pose perhaps an even graver menace.
Any Kabul resident old enough to remember the years before the Taliban, when Kabul was divided between ethnically based factions that shelled each other’s neighborhoods and carried out atrocities against rival ethnic groups, has reason to be afraid when politicians play identity politics. Although a return to earlier levels of conflict is unlikely for now, various politicians still command the loyalty of some ethnic brethren in the security forces. These loyalties have already caused friction and could eventually bring about dangerous fragmentation within the security forces.
The reaction to the May 31 attack laid those divides bare, even among the political elite. In barely veiled criticism of the predominance of Pashtuns in President Ashraf Ghani’s inner circle, critics referred to a “fifth column” inside the administration. Some civil society groups planning the June 2 event withdrew, wary of politicians hijacking the protests, notably Latif Pedram, the head of a Tajik ethnocentrist party, known for provocative outbursts, and Zia Massoud, who was dismissed from his position as advisor on good governance on April 17, and had previously called for Ghani and his cabinet to resign. Both men apparently saw the event as an opportunity to rally their supporters. At the rally, moreover, some among the crowd blamed the government for the truck bomb, even accusing the government of “cooperating with terrorists.”
All this occurs during great uncertainty about U.S. Afghan policy. Since March, when the U.S. military announced that troop numbers were under review, analysts from Kabul to Washington have alternately called for more troops or fewer, for a harder line on Pakistan or a more conciliatory one. As the review has dragged on for weeks and then months, it has become clear that the Trump administration’s policy entails more support for struggling Afghan government forces, more joint operations, and wider authority for the U.S. military to use airstrikes against the Taliban, but not a political strategy for supporting more effective governance in Afghanistan—the kind of thing that could ease ethnic tensions by encouraging inclusivity rather than rule by strongmen, broad participation in government through credible elections, and genuine talks to pave the way toward ending America’s longest war.
All this is bad news for Afghan civilians, who are dying or being seriously injured in greater numbers now than at any time since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began in 2001. Although insurgent attacks, including the May 31 truck bomb, have caused most of those deaths, an increasing number are due to the actions of Afghan troops, particularly in air operations, where inadequate training and procedures have caused a spike in civilian casualties. Additionally, Afghan government forces rely extensively on militias that operate outside official chains of command and have poor human rights records. And without a political strategy on the U.S. side to push for much-needed reforms, including curbing corruption and reining in abusive forces, the grievances that have fueled the conflict will only mount. Some of Afghanistan's young activists find themselves drawn to the same ethnic politics that defined the war for their parents.
Even among Afghanistan’s young activists, many of whom grew up outside the country and came back with their families after 2002, some find themselves drawn to the same ethnic politics that defined the war for their parents. Their frustration is tangible. In the heady days after the 2001 international intervention, Afghans found hope in the vast machinery of reconstruction. Corruption was rife and the war continued, but for the most part, the violence was far away from Kabul and other major cities, and new enterprises thrived. Nearly everyone was connected by mobile phones, and Afghan media—virtually nonexistent during the years of Taliban rule—came into its own. Women entered the workforce in numbers not seen since the days of communist rule, although they faced systemic discrimination, violence, and harassment. Private schools and universities opened, and government-funded schools also expanded, with more girls attending both—although not in the inflated numbers claimed.
But beneath it all were ominous signs that corruption was undermining the progress of the post-Taliban era. Ghost soldiers, the product of padded military payrolls that went unquestioned for years, were just the start of a multibillion-dollar fraud, graft, and nepotism problem. With the Afghan government utterly dependent on foreign aid, the lack of oversight, competing donor agendas, and Washington’s obsession with a “global war on terror,” money was there for the taking. Bribery and kickbacks percolated through every layer of government. Donors acknowledged the problem but, protective of their own programs, never turned off the tap. The judiciary became emblematic of the institutional abuse with which ordinary Afghans had to contend. A prosecutor I met some years ago noted that, in the early years after 2002, it was common for someone to pay a judge to let a suspect off. Five years into the effort to rebuild the judiciary, “police wouldn’t make an arrest unless they were bribed.”
Frustration among ordinary Afghans alongside Pakistan’s willing support for the terrorist group helped foster a Taliban resurgence. Blaming Pakistan for Afghanistan’s ills is a familiar reflex among Afghan politicians. And there’s cause enough for blame. Having supported the Taliban through the 1990s (despite UN sanctions), Pakistan never really stopped. But the Taliban found fertile ground in Afghanistan for reasons beyond Pakistan’s support. The fundamental failure of the United States and other donors who bankrolled the Afghan government for the past 15 years to establish minimally accountable institutions; the rampant corruption throughout the ranks of the police and other security forces; and human rights abuses by government officials, security forces, and militias had all alienated enough of the population that the Taliban could make significant inroads. Now, they control or contest more than half of the country.
The security forces won back little support through their reaction to the June 2 protest. To be sure, the marches were not entirely peaceful; some participants threw stones, injuring a number of police, and activists posted photos of armed men among the crowd. But the security forces—principally the presidential palace guard—resorted to live ammunition before there was any real threat to public safety serious enough to justify using lethal force. Having first used a water cannon to disperse the crowd and then firing guns over the heads of demonstrators—itself a dangerous exercise when the bullets come down—the police shot into the crowd, ultimately killing seven. Afghan civilians are dying or being seriously injured in greater numbers now than at any time since the U.S. war began in 2001.
It might seem shocking that, after 15 years of training, the police and other security forces were not better prepared to deal with such a situation. But it shouldn’t be. Since 2001, the international forces in Afghanistan saw their mission as training the police as a counterinsurgency force to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, not to handle demonstrations or do community policing. After the protests, the government dithered, finally promising a full investigation and firing the commander of the Kabul Garrison and the Kabul police chief. But since government investigations tend to lead nowhere, the actions did little to quell protesters’ outrage.
Since then, activists on both sides of the divide have hurled vitriol at one another on social media, denouncing each other as dictators or rioters intent on stoking ethnic hatred. Protesters also erected tents in central Kabul to stage sit-ins and to continue to press their demands. Because several of the tents impeded traffic, public pressure compelled the protesters to dismantle most of them. However, during the night of June 19-20, police attempted to dismantle one of the last tents and clashed with protesters again. The sequence of events is not clear, but at least one protester was killed.
Then, on June 28, one of Ghani’s staunchest critics, Governor Atta Noor of Balkh province, threatened to “launch the strongest and most dangerous civil movements“ and accused the government of being “dictatorial,” which was ironic given that Atta tolerates little dissent in Balkh province. He and Mohammed Mohaqiq of the Wahdat party travelled to Ankara last month to forge an alliance with the disgraced First Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who left Afghanistan on May 19 in a face-saving attempt to avoid a court hearing over his alleged sexual assault of a political rival. On July 18, Dostum apparently attempted to return to Afghanistan, bypassing Kabul, but the plane carrying him was forced to turn back. The incident is likely to further strain relations.
All three strongmen seem more intent on pulling in a greater share of government positions than on achieving greater accountability or adherence to human rights. And therein lies the problem. The three call their new entity the Coalition for the Rescue of Afghanistan, but all have long track records of human rights abuse and corruption. In Afghanistan, patronage systems still have a firm hold on government; those in power can dole out jobs and contracts. The disputed 2014 election left many of the old guard, who largely controlled the security institutions after 2001, on the outside; partisan bickering over these and other appointments has crippled the government. At the same time, despite Ghani’s much-vaunted promises to curb corruption, diplomats and analysts have accused members of the president’s inner circle of cronyism and graft.
Many Afghans hope that a new U.S. troop commitment and potentially harder line toward Pakistan will reverse Taliban gains. But unless Washington backs reforms aimed at improving governance, any hope is misplaced. Diplomatic pressure is building for Ghani to make a deal with his political opponents, which may temporarily reduce tensions but will further erode the government’s legitimacy. Short-term fixes have been the bane of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan; they cannot resolve the Afghan government’s fundamental problem: Since 2001, the failure to adequately establish respect for the rule of law within the courts, army, police, and other institutions has undermined all efforts to achieve sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Continually rising body counts are testament to the price Afghans have paid.