Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

Afghanistan's Deadly Identity Politics

How Corruption and Ethnic Division Undermine Governance

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 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.”

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