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Afghan leaders threaten Karzai's peace effort

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Afghan leaders threaten Karzai's peace effort

Adding to president's woes, local leaders spark crisis from within

  • Afghan National Police watch over a marketplace in Kandahar, May 12.
    isafmedia/Flickr (U.S. military photo)Afghan National Police watch over a marketplace in Kandahar, May 12.

KABUL, Afghanistan — As President Hamid Karzai puts the finishing touches on his National Consultative Peace Jirga, scheduled for this week, he is facing a growing domestic crisis that could easily derail the entire process.

Since mid-May, Karzai's second vice president has stormed out of the government, a powerful erstwhile ally is leading a parliamentary revolt against him, and an ethnic group that makes up, at best guess, close to 20 percent of the country is threatening to take up arms to make their demands heard.

Just when the Afghan president is appealing for national unity, ethnic, religious and regional tensions seem to be tearing the country apart.

It all began with a perennial conflict between the nomadic Kuchis and the more agriculturally oriented Hazaras over grazing rights in central Afghanistan. The seasonal clashes between the two groups almost always escalate to violence; so far this year, according to the Ministry of the Interior, five Hazaras have been killed, four Kuchis have disappeared, between 30 and 50 people have been injured, several houses have been burned and hundreds of families have been displaced. Local residents say the actual figures are much higher.

The conflict zone encompasses Behsud and Daimerdad districts of Wardak, a province nestled right up against the capital, Kabul. Demonstrations have broken out in Kabul and several other provinces; a group of Hazaras even held a protest in London.

Potentially even more serious than the local unrest is a revolt within Karzai's own government, which leaves him isolated and fragile at a particularly delicate time.

Mohammad Karim Khalili, Karzai's second vice president and an ethnic Hazara, has left Kabul and gone to Behsud, where, he insists, he will stay until a solution is found.

"If blood is to be spilled, mine will be the first," he told reporters. He also accused certain members of the central government of "putting obstacles in the way of a resolution of the crisis."

Mohammad Mohaqeq, leader of the powerful Hezb-e-Wahdat political faction, which is made up overwhelmingly of Hazaras, is conducting sit-ins in the parliament, charging Karzai with reneging on campaign promises to Hazaras and threatening to lead a general walk-out if something is not done quickly. He commands the loyalty of almost 20 percent of the legislature, and has said that the group will boycott the Peace Jirga if the crisis is not settled by then.

The seasonal conflicts between the Kuchis and the Hazaras have a long history. The Kuchis, who are traditionally nomadic, claim rights to pasturelands in central Afghanistan based on monarchical decrees from the late 19th century. The land where they now bring their animals to graze is located in an area inhabited mainly by ethnic Hazaras.

The Hazaras want the decrees voided; the present Kuchis have no right to rely on edicts issued by a ruler more than 120 years ago, they say, especially not one like Abdurrahman Khan, who ruthlessly suppressed dissenting Hazaras.

Sarwar Jawadi, a legal expert and parliamentarian, argues that the decrees have no legal force, since Afghanistan was a colony of Britain when they were issued.

"In addition to the fact that Afghanistan was a colony and we had no independence, the decrees are cruel and have no legal or justifiable base," he said. "Most importantly, all decrees issued by Abdurrahman were annulled during Zahir Shah's reign."

The Kuchis are not swayed by these arguments, and are demanding what they see as their historical rights.

"We can use any part of Afghanistan, especially central Afghanistan, it is our right," said Alam Gul Kuchai, a member of parliament representing Kuchis. "We have decrees issued by Afghanistan's kings."

Adding fuel to the fire are ethnic and religious differences between the two groups: Kuchis are almost all Pashtun and Sunni, while the Hazaras mostly belong to the Shia branch of Islam.

The Pashtuns and the Hazara have a history of antipathy dating from the brutal civil war of the early 1990s; the resentment was compounded when the Taliban, who were mainly Pashtun, took over the reins of government in 1996.

This intractable conflict spills over into bloodshed nearly every spring. Last year, however, the crisis was averted. Hazaras say that Karzai, who was facing re-election and courting voters, put the brakes on the conflict by preventing Kuchis from exercising their seasonal migration rights.

"During last year's presidential election, the Kuchis did not attack our districts, because Karzai controlled them and paid them, as he wanted our votes," said Farooq Sultani, a farmer in the Kajab village of Behsud. "But now that he is elected he is not trying to control the Kuchis any more."

The Karzai government has done little to douse the fire; the Afghan National Police did not step in to stop the violence, and local militia groups known as the Afghan Public Protection Force were withdrawn once fighting began.

"The police could not interfere in the conflict," said Shahidullah Shahid spokesperson for the Wardak governor. "Later it might be interpreted that they were biased toward one side or the other. As for the Afghan Public Protection Force, they had to come to the district center for an important program right at that time."

Karzai himself acknowledged that his government had been slow to react, but promised to take steps to solve the problem.

On May 20, he released a six-point plan designed to resolve the conflict permanently. He ordered the Kuchis to leave the conflict area, directed the appropriate branches of government to specify damages caused and to compensate the victims; and said that a special government commission would find a permanent solution for the Kuchi/Hazara conflict within three months.

However, since the president had issued a similar decree in 2007 with no discernible results, his directive did not satisfy either of the opposing sides.

If the crisis is allowed to simmer indefinitely, say analysts, it could soon boil over into a much wider conflict.

"Civil war in 1992 between Hezb-e-Wahdat, a prominent Hazara armed faction, and Itihad-e-Islami, a prominent Pashtun armed faction, began after the alleged killing of 5 Hazara civilians by Itihad-e-Islami in Kabul," said Massoud Ansari, a researcher and political analyst. "In a society deeply divided by tribes, such incidents could easily be repeated."

Both sides seem more than ready for further violence.

"Democratic protests will not work," said Oudus, 31, a shopkeeper in western Kabul. "We cannot achieve our rights through peaceful means, because the international community is not paying attention to this crisis. We will have to take up arms and begin to fight."

Some prominent Hazara figures seem to agree with this idea.

"We have to provide weapons, organize our people and start fighting, it is the only solution for the politically motivated Kuchi crisis," said a former high-ranking official and Hazara mujaheddin commander. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It will also wake up the international community. Those who kill NATO forces and burn schools, those who are linked to Al Qaeda, receive money, are begged to come to the negotiating table and are promised privileges and high-ranking positions. But peaceful people who have not fired a single bullet at NATO are deprived of everything."

Hazaras have traditionally been quite loyal to the government; Bamian, a province inhabited almost entirely by Hazaras, is one of the most peaceful in the country. Hazaras seem to be growing impatient with the lack of attention, or what is known among analysts as "the Peace Penalty."

The Kuchis are also itching for combat, according to parliamentarian Alam Gul Kuchai.

"We are fighting for our rights," he said. "We will go to Hazara provinces even if it means killing thousands of Hazaras."

Against this volatile backdrop, Karzai will be attempting to prompt his nation to seek reconciliation with the armed opposition.

But according to his vice president, he has to look a little closer to home.

"The growing conflict in Behsud could undermine the democratic achievements that Afghanistan has made over the past eight years," said Khalili in a May 23 interview with Nega TV, which he owns. "This could severely damage national unity."

Whatever happens, it will be a difficult time for the president. He is also facing a protest from some 45 parliamentarians who are demanding that he put forward candidates for the 10 out of 24 ministerial posts that have not yet been confirmed. Karzai has appointed the rejected nominees as acting ministers, a condition that is supposed to last no more than two weeks. The acting ministers have been in place since mid-January. These additional lawmakers are also threatening to boycott the Jirga; if all of the protesters follow through, more than one-third of the 249-member body will be absent.

"The National Assembly is in protest against the president's irresponsible acts, half of the ministers have not been confirmed, and Karzai's vice president, Karim Khalili, has left the government," said parliamentarian Sarwar Jawadi. "Karzai is now in quite a predicament."

Jamaluddin Temori is a journalist in Kabul.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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