Tackling Structural Violence in Afghanistan

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In Afghanistan, opportunity is not equally distributed among all citizens.

Afghanistan’s history is marked with the persistent struggle faced by the ethnic communities due to the country’s geostrategic significance and multi-ethnic divisions. Every historic change — from the expansion of Islam into Persia, the Soviet invasion or the Afghan Civil War, followed by the era of Taliban rule — has involved the use of this split, leading to acute sectarian segregation and further subjugation of the less powerful ethnicities.

Johan Galtung defines structural violence as the difference between the potential and the actual realization that is built into the structure and emerges as unequal power and, consequently, as unequal life chances. It can be referred to as systematic exclusion of a particular sector of a nation from the state apparatus and developmental projects.

As a major ethnic group, the Pashtuns have come to dominate the power structures for decades. This political, economic and military dominance of one ethnic group has been a major source of structural violence against other ethnicities. For instance, all the presidents have come from the Pashtun ethnic group except for the mujahedeen government headed by a member of the Tajik community; no Hazara or Uzbek has ever been president. At the second tier, officials are mostly dominated by the Tajiks and the Pashtuns — the posts of defense minister, minister of foreign affairs, home ministers and heads of intelligence services have never been occupied by members of the Hazara, Uzbeks or Imaq communities.

Post-2001, with the US-led involvement in Afghanistan, many of the disadvantaged communities aspired for justifiable power-sharing in government and state institutions. However, many impediments blocked these aspirations. From the 1890s to 1980s — almost an entire century — no Hazara has held any significant position in the Afghan government. Only during the communist rule did the state recruit Hazaras and Uzbeks. The so-called well-grounded racial hierarchy, which keeps these communities in third, fourth and fifth place respectively in terms of population after Pashtuns and the Tajiks, is one of the many causes for this less representation of these ethnic communities.

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National Disunity Government

In the 2014 elections, Abdullah Abdullah — a member of Tajik community — ran against Ashraf Ghani — a Pashtun — for a place in the presidential palace. The elections ended without any concrete result, leading to the signing of the National Unity Government (NUG) agreement brokered by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry. This latest attempt by the Tajiks to put a non-Pashtun president at the Arg office failed.

But the Tajiks now hold the chief executive officer (CEO) — a newly-created post that is headed by Abdullah Abdullah — and also security ministries and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Uzbeks replaced the Tajiks in the last election and Abdur Rashid Dostum — a member of Uzbek community — became the first vice president. So far, no representative of the Hazaras, Uzbeks or Imaqs has held any of the three security ministry positions. In other words, none of the three security ministers have been appointed from these communities in an attempt by the dominant ethnic groups to keep the high politics of the country out of the reach of these communities. This hierarchy was enhanced through Western involvement, based on the idea that the only way to stabilize Afghanistan is to perpetuate the existing structural hierarchy.

Those born into different ethnicities have different aspirations in Afghanistan. Opportunity is not equally distributed among all citizens. Afghanistan does not have a civil service entry exam and bureaucrats are selected along personal preferences of the president and CEO. According to International Crisis Group, Afghan officials only elect members of their own ethnicity into the government body.

On the development front, areas inhabited by ethnic minorities are the least advanced: The lowest amount of foreign aid has been spent in those areas.

Structural Inequalities

Among the less privileged ethnic communities, the Hazaras are facing both direct and structural violence because of their ethnic differences and their belief in Shia strand of Islam in a country dominated by a Sunni majority. The 2016 attack on a Shia mosque in Arusha and the bombing of a peaceful protest in Kabul by the Islamic State are only a few examples. Not only does this violence take its toll, but it also brings with it the consequent psychological violence and trauma so prevalent in Afghanistan.

The repeated attacks on the Hazaras by terrorist groups like the Taliban and Islamic State have accelerated their marginalization from government. Structural violence coupled with direct violence from extremists has made the Hazaras politically disadvantaged. Despite being Sunni, Uzbeks and Imaqs are neither seen as politically relevant nor economically adjusted in Afghan society due to their minority status.

Furthermore, Afghan society neither acknowledges the role of women in making of the nation state nor grants women any major role other than the household chores. Around 27% of Afghanistan’s MPs are women. However, their presence does not translate into power. Just four of the 28 ministries are headed by women: education, women’s affairs, labor and counter-narcotics.

The mandated wearing of the burqa and social stigmatization for those who do not cover their face is part of the domestic and psychological violence that women face on everyday basis. Over-concentration on security issues have kept the Afghan state from addressing women’s rights issues, which has resulted to the continuation of male chauvinism in Afghan society.

Another deeply rooted cause of structural violence is related to the drugs production and supply. The government’s incapability to provide any profitable alternative to poppy cultivation has led to the estimation that 11% of the population being affected by drug use. Poppy is cultivated in the Pashtun dominated areas where the government has little or no control and funds the Taliban’s fight against the government. Furthermore, the government has channelled a big part of state and international aid into buying loyalties of locals in these regions — a policy that failed badly. This results in aid going to local warlords and the Taliban.

The recent social unrest embodied in Enlightening Movement shows that the empowered Hazaras and Uzbeks can no longer cope with the current status quo, opting for more representation in the political system. Afghanistan’s future stability lies not only in rooting out terrorism but equally in renegotiating the interethnic status quo — a factor that is neglected by the United States as well as the Afghan government.

It is the time for Afghanistan’s political parties, the bureaucracy and most importantly the government to diversify their insistence on realpolitik and divide power more equally to include the Hazaras and the Uzbeks. Poverty reduction through sustainable development and countering structural divisions through de-ethnicization of public institutions is a constructive way for long-term peace in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: MivPiv

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