Factors Fostering Secessionism in Afghanistan

Amanollah shafaei
December 2018

Afghanistan is a country known for its cultural and ethnic plurality. However, historical domination of rulers originating from the Pashtun ethnic group on this country has fostered secessionist ideas and currents there. Of course, a closed political atmosphere and presence of totalitarian governments throughout history of this country have not left much maneuvering room for the realization of secessionist ideas by racial and religious minorities. However, following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the country saw an opening up of political and social arenas, which in addition to inefficient governance and frequent political deadlocks as well as security and social crises, have given birth to secessionist tendencies during the past 17 years. Such tendencies are especially rife among a group of educated people as well as activists belonging to Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic groups.
High-ranking politicians affiliated with the aforesaid ethnic groups have noted that the plan for immediate partition of Afghanistan is very crude and against the national interests of the country. This is because most of them are committed to defend the country’s territorial integrity and unity as a result of political dealings both at national and international levels. However, it is no secret that secessionist tendencies have been on the rise among civil activists and educated people, most of whom are young people coming from Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic backdrops. As a result, such ideas as the establishment of idealistic countries like Khorasan, Hazaristan, and Southern Turkestan, have been cherished during recent years.
It is evident that secessionist currents are well aware of the high cost that they must pay for the realization of their idea. They also understand that partitioning Afghanistan into a number of independent countries would elicit various reactions both at international and national levels. This is especially true taking into account that most Pashtun ethnic groups consider the idea of partitioning as a red line.
Nonetheless, secessionist and independent seeking tendencies and efforts have been soaring during past years. It must, however, be noted that some security and political developments and decisions, which may have ethnic orientations, have further fostered such tendencies. One example was the gap in the structure of the national unity government and increasing differences between the Afghan president and General Dostum, his former first vice president, which ended in his exile to Turkey. Another example was removal of Atta Muhammad Nur from his post as the governor of Balkh province. These decisions dealt serious blows to national and governmental unity in Afghanistan. This is especially true because after the arrest of Nizamuddin Qaisari, a well-known police chief and a friend of General Dostum, a number of Uzbek-dominated provinces saw extensive protests and strikes. Protesters in those provinces highlighted independence seeking ideas and called for the establishment of an independent Southern Turkestan country.
In another case, Afghan Tajiks turned the assassination anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud into a forum for following up on the idea of establishing an independent Khorasan country. They also brandished the flag of a government, which was established by Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani following the fall of the Marxist government in 1992, but was later dismantled by the Taliban in 1996. A similar situation has been experienced by Hazara ethnic group in recent years, which feels greatly discriminated against from both ethnic and religious viewpoints. As a result, a sense of independence seeking is very strong among them.
To add to the existing woes, a change was made in the course of the TAPI (Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India) gas pipeline project, which was supposed to cross through the territory of the Hazara people and somehow allay that region’s deprivation. It led to an upsurge in ethnic feelings in the form of the “Light Movement” after which a map was produced for the establishment of the independent Hazara government whose flag was also brandished by that ethnic group.
A recent measure by the Afghan government for arresting Abdul Ghani Alipour, a prominent local commander of Hazara people, and attacks on Hazara regions by the Taliban have once more rekindled anti-government tendencies. The final result of such tendencies has been a surge in secessionist views and hoisting of the flag of Hazaristan government. It seems that although Afghan Hazara people lack good geostrategic conditions to found an independent country, they are more motivated to achieve independence, or even autonomy at any level, due to historical and accumulated deprivation and prejudices against them.
In reality, in those countries that are multicultural and underdeveloped, only one factor has been able to rein in secessionist tendencies of minorities, which is the existence of a dictatorial regime. Here, the policy of convincement and consensus is not effective. However, when conditions change and the dictatorial regime is gone and a democratic rule is in place, there is always room for resurge of secessionist currents. Under such circumstances, if the political elite prove unable to answer citizens’ primary demands or fail to understand new realities under the influence of historical mentalities or racial and religious affiliations, they would naturally have to get ready to deal with secessionist tendencies.
It seems that when it comes to Afghanistan, apart from historical mentalities, two other factors in the form of the type of government and government’s decisions play the most important part in encouraging secessionist tendencies. Of course, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, unlike former Afghan governments, has provided minorities with unprecedented opportunities to share power, and has created an ambience of social plurality. However, remnants of old mentalities still exist in the government structure, so that even an apparently small mistake will be potentially able to create a major crisis. Examples included the case in which the independent election commission decided to suspend parliamentary elections in Ghazni province, where Hazara people stood a good chance of winning, or when quotas were introduced into national university exams to provide Pashtun people with a better chance of admittance under noncompetitive conditions. Such decisions were not only blatant violation of the country’s current laws, but also fueled hatred among various ethnic groups and ignited a sense of discrimination and systematic injustice among Hazara people. It must be noted that continuation of this situation and repetition of such policies in the long run may jeopardize unity in Afghanistan and its territorial integrity, causing the whole country to pay a high price.