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The shadow of Tribalism over Democracy in Afghanistan

Bahman Takwin
Monday 14 October 2013

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According to Oxford Dictionaries, “Tribalism” is defined as the state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes… the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group[1]. Afghanistan’s society is consisted of many ethnicities. Within ethnic groups there are tribes[2]. The history of these tribes, their battles, coexistence, conflicts and peace is varied from historian to historian and from tell to tell. But what is most important in this era of democracy, after long years of civil war and social conflict, is the understanding of the nature and role of the tribalism as a political stance and its conduct in the course of history till now.

The Duranis[3] built their kingdom based on the unification of various Pashtoon tribes as a form of greater ethnic group and started to establish an ethnic-state[4] by suppressing other ethnicities and social groups in the middle of 18th century. To some extent, they succeeded but their success was more as a result of the disunity among other ethnicities and their lack of desire for political power to challenge the newly established ethnic administration. However, the different tribes within this ethnic kingdom started conspiring and breaking each other’s head, pulling out one other’s eyes, to grab a bit of the power. The legendary lifestyle of the kings, their lust for women and luxury, (as they sometimes held more than 100 women at their disposal), gave birth to many greedy “princes”. As soon as these princes grew up, their demand for power grew even bigger. Every “prince” asked the throne, not less than that. Hence, some of the tribal heads, who had long waited for such an opportunity, used one prince against the other to achieve some power and privilege. This ended with many civil wars and armed conflicts in which people from all tribes and ethnicity endured great losses. However, ordinary people, mostly peasants from all tribes and ethnicities had to bear the burden of war and battles continued by the selfish and avaricious princes.

The tribalism notion based on which Duranies established their administration was fading due to the prolonged war and flammable conflicts between the rival princes supported by emulous Pashtoon tribes. The tribes drag country to medieval decentralized tribe-states and demanded power for their own tribe or even families. On the other hand, two raising empires, the Russians and the British, have always been interested to have a presence in Afghanistan due to the geopolitical importance of the country. The two imperial powers were painstakingly, trying to keep the flames of such civil conflict as shimmering as possible.

Henceforth, the country entered in the nineteenth century; in an era in which new nation-states were emerging. These powerful nation-states basically came to existence in the aftermaths of American and French socio-political and Britain’s industrial revolutions. Inspired by these gigantic social and economic changes, the new nation-states based in Europe and America was strengthening their grip over world’s political and economic destiny.

Britain in the south of Afghanistan who had grabbed immense power over sub-continent and was emerging as an undefeatable empire, entered Afghanistan to occupy the country and threaten its historical rivals on the north. Ordinary people of Afghanistan mostly peasants and small tradesmen who were folded badly due to the high taxes, insecurity and fatal poverty; got to gather from all ethnic groups and tribes to form a resistance and claim the independence of their land. Hereafter, the difference of ethnicity and tribe meant little and everyone was ready to sacrifice for the cause of liberty and independence. After winning all the battles against the British by the blood and sweat of poor peasants – mostly from excluded ethnic groups; the new rulers who belonged to the Pashtoons ethnicity, (claiming to contain the majority of the population) re-established a new despotic and tribal administration. The new tribal-state was ready to suppress any voice of liberty, freedom and civil rights raised once again. The most successful of such a tribal absolutism was formed by Abdul Rahman Khan. He reunited the rival tribes and joined them under a united force of despotic and feudalist power to topple any resistance and citizen’s efforts for freedom. They joined hands with the aristocracy and landlords and suppressed meanly any voice from powerless ethnic groups and poor peasants. This situation was certainly in the favor of the British colonialists who gradually regained their dominion power over Kabul rulers.
After the third Anglo-Afghan war, as a new government was about to born under the leadership of an educated Pashtoon prince, King Amanullah Khan, there was a hope of freedom, open atmosphere and even democracy. Amanullah khan who achieved the throne with great support from the enlightened and intellectuals around him started his reforms to develop the country as per the 20th century demands. However, he never wanted to change the form of governance to provide equal opportunities for different ethnicities, tribes, classes and other social segments to have a choice of electing and questioning their rulers. Hence, soon he was plunged into the luxuriant lifestyle like his ancestors at the cost of the ever high taxes on peasants and landless citizens. Therefore, it was not long that his kingdom was toppled by a famous peasant and poor people uprising, substituting him with an ordinary soldier, Habibullah Khan, who know nothing of any political prejudices practiced by Amanullah Khan and his ancestors to suppress people in the name of ethnicity, tribe, race or religion.

Nadir Khan another tribalist power thirsty Pashtoon commander who belonged to the ruling family of Pashtoon dynasty. Being in India he attracted the attention of the British who didn’t like an independent Afghanistan at their northern borders. Nadir Khan convinced British to help him gain the power and he will serve the British interests afterwards. He managed to achieve the support of the Pashtoon tribes on both sides of the Afghan-India border (Durand line) and started his assault on Kabul. Habibullah Khan, the first non-pashtoon “Amir” since the formation of the “Afghan” state, was soon toppled and assassinated cowardly by Nadir Khan. The Pashtoon tribes, united under Nadir Khan went to fiercely attack non-Pashtoon resistance under the slogan of “Only Pashtoons can rule Afghanisnt”. Hence, Nadir Shah re-organized his tribal forces and re-established another strong tribe-state after Abdul Rahman Khan. This administration continued till the war against the soviet invasion led by Nadir Khan’s family. During the soviet invasion the new pro-soviet leaders who all belonged to Pashtoon tribes could not overcome their desire to keep the track of ethnic-tribal ruling course in spite of their progressive slogans of democracy, socialism and communism.

After the withdrawal of USSR and the establishment of Mujahedeen government, although there was no mention of democracy but there were tendency to change the ethnic and tribal face of the governance with emphasis on “Islamic Unity”. Nevertheless there existed fierce tribalist Mujahedeen groups such as Hezb-e- Islami under Gulbudin Hekmatiar and Hezb-e-Islami under Maulawi Khales who did not conceal their tribal and ethnic-centered intentions in their public speeches and publications. Hence, the civil war started and the Pashtoon Mujahed leaders repeating Nadir Shah’s slogan, attacked Kabul and showed zero tolerance to a non- Pashtoon Islamic state newly formed by Sebghatullah Mujadedi and continued by Burhanudin Rabani.
In mid 1990s a new tribal-fundamentalist and extremist force fabricated by Pakistan and US intelligence, entered in the civil war to demolish all fighting Mujahedeen groups and establish a pure Pashtoon Islamic state. They used all suppressing and propaganda tools against their non-Pashtoon rivals and even threatened them to evacuate Afghanistan because the land belongs to Pashtoons only[5]. They captured Kabul and killed any sign of democracy, human and civil rights. But, after the attack of their International allies on New York on 11th December 2001 and the assassination of their only serious enemy commander Ahmad Shah Massoud; they had to face the anger revenge of the United States and its international companions. Hence, they were forced to leave the power and flee to their hiding caves throughout the “Durand” border line with little or no resistance.

After the Bonn Confrance and the establishment of a new government, the world was looking at a new emerging democratic state that had a new constitution and practicing free elections in Afghanistan. However, this democracy was very different from what Abraham Lincoln once described. Soon after, everyone realized that there was no “government of people on people”. There was a government in which “people” didn’t see themselves in it anymore. Even from the first presidential elections a custom of having a Pashtoon president with assistants from other ethnic groups was the dominant principle over any democratic norms of electing the head of the government. Once again the Tribal-state rose with modern connotations of new “tribalism” theorized by new “Afghan Melat”[6] leaders. This revival of tribalism was not accidental; particular groups and political organizations such as “Afghan Melat” and “Hezb-e-Islami” being the loyal Pashtoon monarchists and tribal political actors, changed the track of political opinion of local power holders and their international supporters from a democracy based on social justice and civil rights to a tribal-state in which only “Pashtoons” have a right and obligation to rule…[7]
The course of history as mentioned above, since the establishment of Afghanistan till today as we are in the eve of another presidential election; has shown us that, Afghanistan has been ruled by tribalism as a dominant political ideology of governance, practiced by ethnic-centered individuals and groups. The country has been a safe haven for non-democratic and tribal believes and conducts that obviously contradict with the basics of democracy and social justice. Hence, sooner or later, this tribalism will exchange the trembling democracy with autocracy and despotism. People of Afghanistan and democratic forces around the world need to take action and draw a clear line between tribalism and democracy so that Afghanistan’s path for establishing a democratic and socially just society becomes distinct and smooth.

11 October 2013

[1] http://oxforddictionaries.com/...
[2] Mostly Pashtoon ethnicity is divided in such particular classification
[3] A major Pashtoon tribe based in Kandehar and suberbs,
[4] Tribal-state may be quoted as a state against the Nation-state (writer’s explanation)
[5] A pashtoo poetry based on the Taliban propaganda tape.
[6] Afghan Melat or Afghanistan’s Social Democratic Party,
[7] The theory of Afghan Melat, based on Dr. Anwarulhaq Ahadi’s opinion.

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