Though it is well-known that Afghanistan has experienced more than three decades of armed conflict and repression since 1978, what is less publicly known and acknowledged is that the country has been grappling with persistent tribal, ethnic, communal and sectarian conflicts ever since the foundation of the modern Afghan state in the late 19th century.
The cost of this long history of violence has been catastrophically high, both in terms of the loss of human life and chronic socio-economic and political underdevelopment. Unfortunately, successive Afghan governments have consistently refused to tackle the root causes of these conflicts, giving preference to merely managing and containing them in the short-term and on the surface. There has been no attempt to build strong institutional frameworks that could promote economic growth and development as a means to enduring peace. Nor has there been any promotion of measures for conflict resolution at the community level, something that could de-escalate the potential for conflicts and enable a move towards the kind of social integration essential for permanent peace in the country.
What is worse, multiple Afghan authorities have often exacerbated conflicts through elitist and top-down initiatives, disregarding the needs and grievances of local communities, as well as applying coercive measures to crush one people, one tribe, one community and one ethnic group in the interest of their own narrow tribal interests. Self-serving compromises and deals regarding the distribution of power, resources and privileges struck among selected urban and rural elites have historically been fostered as a way of “building peace”, leading to further marginalization of ordinary Afghans already struggling to survive.
On the other hand, inter-tribal and inter-ethnic conflict resolution through the involvement of apolitical local power brokers with community backing has historically been a relatively effective method. Sadly, as a result of the past 37 years of armed conflict its effectiveness has been eroded by the emergence of insurgent leaders and religious extremists who have systematically targeted traditional dispute resolution arbitrators and mediators.
In Afghanistan, ethnic and linguistic boundaries tend to conform to geographical boundaries, with each ethnic group occupying well-demarcated geographical territories. For instance, over 10 provinces located in the southern and eastern regions have predominantly been populated by the Pashtuns while the Tajiks and Uzbeks have traditionally controlled the northern and eastern parts of the country with the Hazaras occupying the Hazarajat (central) region. Today, none of these regions are adequately connected with each another and there is also no properly established and well-functioning country-wide economic system which could bring these different ethnic groups into closer communication, contact, interaction and transaction. As a matter of fact, due to greater economic and ethno-linguistic ties, the provinces of Southern Afghanistan are more closely connected with the Baluchistan area of Pakistan than they are, say, with the Hazarajat or Northern Afghanistan. The same can be said of other Afghan regions, which maintain closer contacts with Iran (Western Afghanistan), Peshawar and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (Eastern Afghanistan) and Central Asia (Northern Afghanistan) than with other regions within Afghanistan. The result of this segregated coexistence has been a history of minimal inter-ethnic social, cultural and economic ties, profound mutual misconceptions and stereotypes and an almost total absence of any commonly held sense of Afghan national identity.
Even within the urban areas, ethno-tribal groups have largely isolated themselves, often forming ethno-social enclaves inside the major cities. Concretely, the residents of these enclaves engage in marriage, business transactions, social events and traditional ceremonies almost exclusively within the parameters of their own ethnic or qawm group, rarely going beyond their geographicaly/socially constructed boundaries, and thus leading to the consolidation of an entrenched attitude of “Us and Them”
Finally, recent phenomena such as the emergence of social media, and in particular Facebook, have further strengthened this binary logic through the establishment of virtual groups and networks along ethnic lines. These networks often engage in hate debates vis-a-vis other ethnic groups and offer serious possibilities for deepening already existing animosities.
Afghan authorities have made very few serious attempts to address these issues. In theory, the state bureaucracy provides an opportunity for inter-ethnic and social interactions but in reality Afghan state institutions are largely ethnicized with ethnic groups congregating around specific institutions where they have numerical preponderance. Furthermore, in spite of understanding what the problems are, successive national governments have largely chosen to ignore the problem rather than use its available resources to encourage social interactions by constructing townships with ethnically mixed population, persuading inter-ethnic marriages, or organizing events and programs with ethnically and tribally diverse beneficiaries.
In short, the current scenario of entrenched misinformation, misunderstanding, stereotypes and perceived hostilities among different ethno-tribal communities across the country provides an enormous potential for conflict. Already, local political and tribal elites have been taking advantage of this situation by tapping into and drawing upon these explosive pools of potential for conflict for their parochial and self-serving political agendas. Examples abound where small incidents have resulted in the mobilization of an entire community, tribe or ethnic group for a costly and destructive confrontation with the ethnic “other”.
As a result, social trust and capital, the social liquids and bonds that tie individual, groups and communities together, and that constitute the fundamental assets for peace, unity, ethnic integration and ultimately nation-building, are badly missing in Afghanistan. Therefore, there is a critical need to create possibilities for peaceful social coexistence in Afghanistan through the tackling of the root causes that have produced the current inter-community trust deficits. One such possibility is the promotion of increased physical encounters among the diverse Afghan ethno-linguistic and cultural communities at the grassroots levels so that they can begin to consciously spend time together, get to know each other, exchange experiences, and simply expose themselves to different local cultures, practices and realities. It is this shared existence that Afghans have historically missed.
The “Addressing Ethnic Conflict in Afghanistan at the Grassroots Level: From I through We to Community” project aims to address the missing social trust and capital link- the social liquids and bonds that tie individual, groups and communities together, and that constitute the fundamental assets for peace, unity, ethnic integration and ultimately nation-building- in Afghanistan. It will put into contact selected young Afghan women and men from the four largest ethno-cultural and religious communities in the country. It will focus on building ties and consequently trust and social capital at the inter-community levels through mutual visits consisting of a variety of complementary activities that will address the most salient misconceptions, misperceptions, and misinformation and stereotyping currently leading to the dehumanization of the ethnic “other”.
The key objectives of the project are as follows:
- Establish active contact, communication, dialogical channels and networks among different ethno-linguistic and tribal communities from different regions of the country.
- Help diminish and eliminate the current misinformation, misperceptions, stereotyping and dehumanization through cultural, educational and social visits, conversations, talks, discussions and debates.
- Assist in the de-escalation and elimination of potentials for inter-ethnic, inter-tribal and inter-lingual communal conflict by addressing key informational, cognitive, and intellectual deficits and distortions on different communities.
- Establish essential infrastructure such as social networks and communication channels for joint cultural, social and educational projects and programs.
- Improve the prospects for enduring peace and stability at the grassroots level among Afghanistan’s diverse communities.
- Challenge the top to bottom peace efforts through the cultivation of peace in the hearts and minds of all Afghan citizens.
This project is being supported by Medico International (mi) and funded by German Federal Foreign Office. AHRDO has selected participants, both male and female, from four ethno-cultural regions of Afghanistan- Balkh in the north, Bamyan, in the central highlands, Kandahar in the south and Heart in the west. This project brings six educated, proactive and positive thinking Afghan youth together to understand the real life experiences of each other (ethnic) and engage in constructive discussions through different artistic activities, cultural exchange and discovery trips.