Reemerging Sectarianism in Afghanistan

Embed from Getty Images

Afghan warlord turned vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum is no stranger to conflict. A veteran of decades of conflict and embroiled in ongoing scandal, Dostum has been a central figure in Afghanistan’s political scene for the last thirty years. Last week, the Vice President’s plane was diverted from landing in Afghanistan amidst a power struggle between him and President Ashraf Ghani. The government attempted to redirect Dostum’s plan to Kabul, but the Vice President responded by flying to Turkmenistan. Dostum’s departure from Afghanistan can be read as the latest chapter in the struggle between the central government and sectarian interests.

Abdul Rashid Dostum’s part in Afghanistan’s long history of civil war has set him up as one of the most important power brokers in the nation. Dostum fought during the 1980s under the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets withdrew, Dostum fought with different factions, switching alliances as his rivals gained and lost power. Later, Dostum would fight the Taliban from the North where he governed in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, commanding 50 thousand men. Dostum fled during the war and returned to join the US led coalition against the Taliban in 2001. Since then, he has played a variety of roles in the Afghan government, serving at times as deputy defense minister and chairman of his own political party, The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan.

True to his past, Dostum has remained a highly controversial figure at the center of Afghanistan’s political scene. In 2014 despite his history as a warlord, Dostum became the vice president of Afghanistan under the new Ghani regime. In 2016, Human Rights Watch accused The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan of abusing civilians and Dostum of ordering the sexual assault of a political rival. The latter has resulted in ongoing litigation against Dostum by the Afghan government. Dostum has been uncooperative with federal investigators and his bodyguards have repeatedly refused to show up to court. Further, Dostum has resisted multiple attempts by the judicial system to question him and his allies and has been uncooperative with the attorney general. Despite the case being brought against him, Dostum recently took a trip to Turkey for medical checkups due to rumored health problems.

Dostum’s political rivalry with his president, Ashraf Ghani, echoes the history of sectarian violence in Afghanistan. Sectarianism has played an important part in Dostum’s political career. The Vice President helped the ticket win Uzbek areas which were crucial to Ghani’s win. But despite running on a joint ticket, the current government has been at odds with Dostum for some time, with the VP claiming that Kabul marginalizes Uzbeks and does not do enough to fight the Taliban in the north. Last year, Dostum raised the specter of ‘gathering his people’ against the government, in a thinly veiled threat to the Ghani administration. After Dostum’s recent visit to Turkey for medical attention, the Ghani government has sought to keep him at arm’s length and out of the country, where his presence has been seen as inflammatory.

The balance of power in Kabul is maintained through an intricate balancing act between Afghanistan’s different ethnic and ideological cleavages. President Ghani is Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and Abdulla Abdulla, the Chief Executive, is Tajik. Throughout the 1990s, Afghanistan’s civil war divided the nation along ethnic lines as militias - claiming to represent different ethnic groups - ravaged the nation. Indeed, maintaining an inclusive balance of power while keeping volatile personalities from colliding is a difficult game. This is especially true because efforts to expand government power usually fly in the face of sectarianism, where increasing taxes and accountability collides with the agendas of local elites.

The most recent developments with Dostum’s plane may be part of the government’s attempts to centralize power. Ghani’s administration ran on and has worked to develop a technocratic central bureaucracy while sidelining sectarianism and patronage. The Ghani administration’s attempts to keep Dostum in Turkey follow a similar logic. By holding sectarian warlords back and out of the public eye, Ghani can focus on building more robust civilian institutions without having to worry about having to cater to militiamen. Therefore, the most recent developments may be yet another attempt to shore up domestic political support around the central government and away from ethnic power brokers.

The Ghani administration has good reason to clamp down on sectarianism. Every year, millions of dollars are siphoned off of the central government for local patron-client relationships. Patronage networks result in cronies being appointed to government positions as political favors, and selective enforcement of the law in favor of clients. These relationships are not only inefficient, they also undermine the efficacy of governance and push the dispossessed into the arms of the Taliban. This is because without the ability to appeal to the formal political structure for assistance, locals on the outside of patronage networks are forced to rely on militants as guarantors of protection.

Headlines about the NATO force and the Taliban dominate the news, but one of the most important issues for Afghanistan’s future lies within the government itself. Indeed, the drama surrounding Dostum is only the most recent example of the tension between central and sectarian interests. In May, after years of exile, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul. Hekmatyar is an ideologue and warlord from the civil war era, who was known as “The Butcher of Kabul.” Many are worried that Hekmatyar’s return and legacy of sectarian violence will further polarize the country. The return of sectarian warlords is a significant internal problem for the Afghan government. While most media attention on Afghanistan’s security situation focuses on external groups, like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the regime’s internal balance of power is just as important. Will the Afghan central government be able to overcome sectarian interests and establish a strong central bureaucracy?