Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 30, 2001
To some Taliban foes, ethnicity is no divider
In a nation long split by such rivalries, the Pashtuns and Tajiks in the frontline town of Sayod focus on what unites them. 

At War With Terror

The Ethnic Groups of Afghanistan

Pashtun: 38 percent

Tajik: 25 percent

Hazara: 19 percent

Uzbek: 6 percent

Other: 12 percent  (Chahar Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Nuristani)

SAYOD, Afghanistan - Asil Khan, the commander of the anti-Taliban forces in this town on the front line north of Kabul, is surrounded by many of the same lieutenants who have served him loyally through 15 years of warfare.

They are all from Sayod, a village built on the high banks of the Panjshir River. During free time, they talk about their town, and they talk about the Koran, and they talk about the American bombs that fall on the Taliban positions a few miles away.

One thing they say they do not talk about is ethnicity - "nationality" in the local terminology. Asil Khan and half his commanders are Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. The other half are Tajiks, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan's north and the dominant group in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

"I don't pay attention to which one is which," said Asil Khan, a soft-spoken man whose troops regard him with great respect. "I speak Tajik almost as well as I speak Pashtun. All the people are the same. Even my children are Tajik since I married a Tajik girl."

The harmony with which the two groups coexist here seems exceptional. Afghanistan has been cleaved for centuries along ethnic lines, and the current conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance is laced with ethnic rivalries. These differences complicate any talks about a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

In towns such as Sayod, however, where Tajiks and Pashtuns are roughly equal in number, residents say they have lived harmoniously for generations. "People attend the same mosques, go to the same markets," said Asil Khan, whose great-grandfather settled here from more traditional Pashtun areas in the south. "The only difference is language."

He and other Pashtuns who are members of the Northern Alliance opposition blame the Taliban and its sponsor, Pakistan, for heightening ethnic tensions to divert the attention of discontented Pashtun nationalists who dominate Pakistan's population in the north.

"The divisions between the ethnic groups is the propaganda of our enemies," said Asil Khan, 32, who joined the jihad when he was 13 and became a commander as a teenager.

If it were only so simple. Afghanistan long has been a nation where rival ethnic groups and their foreign allies have vied for supremacy.

The northern minorities that make up most of the opposition forces now are unified by their hostility to the Taliban. But they have been bitter rivals themselves in the past.

The Tajiks, whose roots and language are tied to ancient Persia, are closely allied with Iran. So are the Hazaras, predominantly Sunni Muslims who physically resemble Central Asians. The Uzbeks are Turkic people whose primary population lies in Uzbekistan. The Pashtuns, by contrast, historically have been oriented toward the south.

After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan and the communist government fell in 1992, Afghanistan descended into chaos as various warlords and mujaheddin commanders fought one another for influence and control.

The government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, came under fire from rivals who complained his government gave too much power to the minorities of the north. The deadly squabbling ended when the fundamentalist Taliban arose and seized control of Kabul in 1996.

The Taliban leadership is exclusively Pashtun, supported by hard-line Islamic troops from Arab countries and Pakistan who came to fight the Soviets during the 1980s holy war. Now it was the northerners' time to complain that they were excluded from the government.

At first most Pashtun groups greeted the Taliban with relief. Hoji Abdul Qadir, the Pashtun governor of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, initially welcomed the mullahs and their guest Osama bin Laden - until they overran Nangarhar and drove him out.

"That's when I started to fight the Taliban," said Qadir, 47. Then based in Pakistan, he had time to organize a guerrilla force in Afghanistan before he was expelled from Pakistan. He now is a member of the Northern Alliance's Supreme Council.

"If you are a Pashtun, it doesn't mean you have to be a Talib," said Qadir, whose brother, Abdul Haq, was captured and executed by the Taliban on Friday while on a mission in Afghanistan to organize Pashtun groups to reject the Taliban.

Other prominent Pashtuns also joined the Northern Alliance. Its deputy prime minister is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who heads Islamic Unity, the only opposition party whose membership is largely Pashtun. Sayyaf's party backed Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war and has offered to wage war to oust Americans from Saudi Arabia.

Asil Khan, the soft-spoken commander in Sayod, maintained his loyalty to the Rabbani government until it fell to the Taliban. After that, he and his troops retired to their farms around Sayod.

"The Taliban at the beginning wanted to bring peace to the country, and I believed what they said, that they were acting in the name of Islam," said the commander, who keeps a Koran at his bedside, wrapped in an elaborately embroidered cloth. "Later I came to think they were worse than the Russians."

In 1998, the Taliban arrested Asil Khan for not supporting the government. He spent two winter months held in a 20-foot steel shipping container with 18 other former mujaheddin.

The Taliban eventually released him with the promise that he and his troops would help guard the Taliban's front line in the Shamali Plain, the basin 25 miles north of Kabul where the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have squared off. Asil Khan said the Taliban leaders assumed he would support them because he was Pashtun.

But a month after he was released, he received a call from his old commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujaheddin chief and - until he was assassinated Sept. 9 - leader of the Northern Alliance forces. Massoud, a Tajik, asked Asil Khan to join the fight against the Taliban.

The young commander said he joined without hesitation, and his troops helped the alliance to reclaim much of the Shamali Plain in early 1999. "The Taliban never understood how much I hated them because they imprisoned me," he said.

His allegiance and those of his troops were not based on ethnic connections but on individual loyalties - perhaps the strongest tie in this semi-feudal warlord society.

"I am a commander of the Islamic State of Afghanistan," he said, using the formal name for Rabbani's government in exile, which the United Nations still recognizes as Afghanistan's legitimate government.

"I'm a Pashtun. I obey the defense minister, who is a Tajik. That's all that really matters." home page   
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