Ethnic conflict is on the rise in Afghanistan, as evidenced by a number of incidents that do not appear to have been reported in the major U.S. media, though the brave and diligent wire service reporters on the ground have been filing them. These conflicts may well draw the United States military into one side or the other, with the potential for alienating entire regions.
As reported on 7/25 below, Ismail Khan’s Tajik forces, based in Herat city and its environs, clashed on Sunday and Monday with ethnic Pushtun forces led by Amanu’llah Khan. The source of the conflict is now said (by AP) to be that both sides were setting up more security posts around an airport at Shindand in the south of Herat province (the south has more Pushtuns). In short, Ismail Khan and his Pushtun opponents appear to be jockeying for position. Will airport taxes and tolls on goods brought in that way stay among local Pushtuns or go north to Herat city, to benefit the Tajiks? The clashes that broke out are now said to have left a dozen persons dead by Monday. A ceasefire was reached late Monday with central government officials acting as mediators.
Karzai on Friday pronounced himself very happy with the tariff income forwarded by Herat and Balkh provinces. For a long time the provinces have not remitted monies to the center.
On Friday, 3000 Pushtuns demonstrated in Jalalabad, protesting the failure of the Kabul government to make any arrests in the assassination of Vice President Abdu’l-Qadir. They also protested Tajik dominance of the government. Abdu’l-Qadir’s brother summarily announced himself his successor as governor of Nangarhar Province. Karzai confirmed the appointment on Friday, but this appears more acquiescence than executive action.
Although the wire services reported Friday that the cease-fire was holding between the Tajiks and the Pushtuns in Herat province, the Pakistani newspaper *Dawn* reported on Saturday morning that the Pushtun chiefs have demanded that Karzai dismiss Ismail Khan. They threatened to mount a military insurgency against him if Karzai refused to act.
Karzai is unlikely to dismiss Ismail Khan at this point, since he needs him and since he just sent the central government the first provincial revenue it has had in more than a decade. If the Pushtuns of southern Herat province do turn violent, the US may be tempted to intervene. If the Pushtuns perceive McNeill to be taking the side of the Tajiks, however, this perception could cause political problems for the US military throughout southern Afghanistan.
One elegant solution would be for Karzai to call upon Pushtun chieftains loyal to him to intervene against Amanu’llah Khan if he rebels, thus transforming the fight into an intra-Pushtun affair. By governing only loosely from the center and allowing tribal mechanisms in the provinces to keep what order they can, Karzai’s government might be able to survive the years it will need to become powerful enough to intervene directly in such security issues. Still, as a last resort, the need for US intervention cannot be ruled out. Its consequences, however, might be long term and parlous.
Given the potential size of the security problems the US and the US-backed Afghan government face in the next year, it seems to me particularly foolish for the Pentagon to be planning further big wars. There may yet be a battle of Shindand to be fought, with parlous consequences throughout the country.
(For Shindand airport see the interesting Web site: http://www.wapf.com/world/AF75939.html.