The latest outrage occurred last weekend in Mirza Oleng, a remote, mostly Hazara town in the mountainous northern province or Sar-e-Pol. After weeks of begging Kabul to send help – several nearby villages had been overrun by the Taliban – Mirza Oleng was assaulted by gangs of heavily armed men carrying the Taliban flag as well as the flag of the Islamic State’s “Khorasan” wing. At least 50 townspeople were slaughtered: men, women and children. Some were shot. Others were beheaded or thrown off cliffs.
Afghanistan’s Hazaras have long been subjected to discrimination, pogroms and periodic outbreaks of genocidal violence, most viciously during the five years of Taliban rule that ended in 2001. But even with the presidential election that brought the cosmopolitan and forward-thinking Ashraf Ghani to power in 2014, Afghanistan’s minorities are chafing against what Ghani’s critics call his “Pashtunization” of power. Ghani’s government is fast losing favour with the concerns of the country’s minority Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmen and Baloch, who together comprise about 60 per cent of the Afghan population.
Like every Afghan leader over the past two centuries, Ghani is a Pashtun – the ethnic bloc that has produced everything from enlightened monarchs and quick-witted statesmen to the murderous pro-Soviet thug regime of the late 1970s to the leadership of the Taliban and its allied Haqqani network in Pakistan. And now, with the rapid drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces since 2014 and the resulting upswing in Islamist terrorism, Afghanistan is poised on the brink of a return to the post-Soviet ethnic warlordism of the 1990s’ civil war years.
It hasn’t helped that the U.S.-led NATO policy during the Obama years was to peg military and reconstruction aid on the Afghan government’s commitment to “reconciliation” with the most brutal enemies of the Afghan people, including the Taliban.
A shudder of fear swept through Afghanistan’s minorities last September when the mass murderer terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, after 15 years in hiding, was absolved of his war crimes from the 1990s and welcomed back to Kabul in a “peace talks” deal. The Hekmatyar arrangement followed a horrific suicide-bomb attack in Kabul that killed about 100 Hazaras at a peaceful protest against the Ghani government’s decision to reroute a transmission line away from the province of Bamiyan in the Hazara heartland. Ever since, Afghanistan’s minorities have been turning to bygone-era warlords from their own ethnic blocs, for protection and leadership.
The ethnic stresses now stretching to their limits in Afghanistan broke out into the open in Afghanistan’s Embassy in Ottawa last week, when Ambassador Shinkai Karokhail was recalled to Kabul in an uproar involving claims and counterclaims of in-house ethnic power plays and recrimination. But that’s small spuds. In the bigger picture, Afghanistan’s fracturing along ethnic lines, exacerbated by the “war weariness” of the NATO countries, has opened up a political and military vacuum that Russia and Iran are happily filling, just as they did in Syria.
Two years ago, the Kremlin stopped cooperating with NATO forces in Afghanistan. At the time, Zamir Kabulov, Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, confirmed that Moscow was sharing intelligence with the Taliban because “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours” in its doctrinal and battlefield differences with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (ISIL). When the Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed in a drone strike last year in Balochistan, he was returning from meeting in government officials in Iran, where he also met Russian officials.
In recent weeks, Taliban commanders have confirmed that Tehran is boosting its supply of funding and weaponry to the Taliban leadership, and that some of those arms shipments originate in Russia. Last October, Afghan security forces managed to repulse a massive Taliban assault in the province of Farah, on the Iranian border. Among the dead Talibs were four senior Iranian commandos, and several of the wounded Talibs were brought back across the border into Iran for hospitalization.
It is not clear what role Turkey (at least still nominally a NATO member) is taking in Afghanistan’s ethnic troubles. In June, several of Afghanistan’s prominent Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik strongmen met in Turkey to announce a new anti-Ghani political coalition. They vowed to mount a series of mass protests to back a string of demands, but so far not much has come of it. The coalition is led by the gruesome Uzbek warlord Abdurrashid Dostum, an old friend of Turkish President Recip Erdogan. Dostum is a vice-president of Afghanistan, but he lives in Turkey, allegedly for his health, although avoiding the sexual-assault charges he faces in Afghanistan might have something to do with it as well.
While Donald Trump’s White House convulses in imbecilities and lurches from crisis to crisis, it is difficult to determine what will become of Trump’s promised overhaul of the U.S. approach in Afghanistan, although he has been quite clear that he wants to wash his hands of the country altogether. The Americans ended their official “combat role” in Afghanistan three years ago. Roughly 8,400 U.S. soldiers remain – less than one-tenth the troop strength prior to Obama’s 2011 drawdown. The U.S. effort is part of a NATO training-and-assistance effort involving about 13,000 soldiers from 39 countries. Canada’s contribution, after pulling the last of our soldiers in 2014, consists of an annual $150-million package of military and reconstruction aid until 2020.
The Trump administration is right about one thing: The good guys are not winning in Afghanistan anymore. Not by a long shot.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) counts 1,662 terror-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan between Jan. 1 and June 30 this year. Civilian deaths have been climbing steadily since 2012. Last week, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that Ghani’s government holds sway over only 60 per cent of the Afghan countryside. The Taliban controls only 11 districts, mainly in the Pashtun areas of the south and east – Helmand, Kunduz, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Zabul – but nearly one-third of the country remains “contested” by the Afghan National Security Forces and an array of gangsters and crackpots from the Taliban, Al Qaida, and lately, ISIL.
Canada lost 158 soldiers in Afghanistan in a struggle that made the country a better a place, or at least Afghanistan was getting better, for a while. However, in the absence of any competent and determined effort to win the cause our soldiers fought for – a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic – it would not be a stretch to say those soldiers died in vain.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.