Alexander the Great, the British Raj and the Red Army all learned the hard way that the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest and historically dominant ethnic group, will unite to fight a foreign occupation force simply because it is foreign. As Howard Hart, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, recently told the New York Times, “The very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem. The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition.”

The tenacity of the Taliban insurgency is rooted in opposition to an occupation that is, in this case, a particularly distasteful one to the Pashtuns. The US infidel is hated for Persian Gulf and Middle East policies–especially unconditional US support for Israel–that are perceived as anti-Muslim. But there are other factors that explain the strength of the Taliban. Some are widely written about, like drug money, popular anger at corrupt warlords and support from Pakistani intelligence agencies.

One factor of special sensitivity and importance that receives almost no attention either in the public debate about Afghanistan or in the internal policy battles of the Obama administration may well be the most important of all: the domination of the Afghan armed forces, police, secret police and intelligence agencies by leaders of the Tajik ethnic minority, who use their US-backed power in Kabul to lord it over their historic Pashtun rivals.

Pashtun kings ruled Afghanistan from its inception in 1747 until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973. Initially limited to the Pashtun heartland in the south and east, the Afghan state gradually conquered the neighboring Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek areas to the north and west. Today the Pashtuns make up an estimated 42 percent of a population of 28 million; the Tajiks make up 27 percent. Yet Tajik generals hold the key levers of power in Kabul because they happened to be in the right place at the right time during the confused months when US forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

During the struggle against the Soviet occupation, the Tajiks built up a militia in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, that had close CIA ties. Later it acquired allies in neighboring areas and became the Northern Alliance, which fought the Pashtun-based Taliban government that ruled from 1996 until 2001. When the victorious US forces marched into Kabul, the Northern Alliance was there, too, and with US help a clique of Tajik generals seized the key security posts in the new government.

The Bush administration, wanting to give a Pashtun face to the initial interim government, installed Hamid Karzai as president. He, too, had longstanding CIA ties and was the only Pashtun leader acceptable to the Tajik in-group headed by Gen. Muhammad Fahim. Fahim vetoed other more popular Pashtun figures identified with the last Pashtun king, Zahir Shah, notably Abdul Sattar Sirat. The United States later blocked Pashtun efforts to make Zahir Shah president of the second transitional government, which ruled from 2002 until a constitution was adopted and Karzai was elected president in 2004.

Now the Tajiks are riding high. In Karzai’s recent bid for a second term (in elections widely regarded as rigged), Fahim was his running mate as first vice president. Army chief of staff Bismillah Khan has made fellow Tajiks his key corps commanders, and some 70 percent of his battalion commanders are Tajiks, making it difficult to enlist Pashtuns. The Tajik-dominated National Security Directorate, a sprawling network of intelligence and secret police agencies, systematically harasses Pashtun leaders who seek to challenge Tajik control. And if Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a half-Tajik and longtime Northern Alliance insider, shares power in a coalition government or wins a runoff, Tajik dominance would be strengthened.

The United States has painted itself into a corner in Afghanistan from which there can be no graceful escape. If it seeks to end Tajik dominance and shifts to a pro-Pashtun policy, there could well be a Tajik backlash and an uncontrollable, ethnically defined civil war. Yet a continuation of the status quo will only deepen Pashtun discontent.

What can be done now?

First, set a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US and NATO forces during the next three years, limiting their role to the protection of major cities and of communications arteries critical to the defense of Kabul. This is the necessary condition for identifying the Taliban factions prepared to negotiate peace agreements at the local level with Pashtun tribal leaders.

Second, to offset Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, replace the present “Af-Pak” strategy with a broader regional strategy that encourages India, Iran, Russia, China and Tajikistan–all of which oppose a Taliban takeover–to play a more active role in shaping Afghanistan’s economic and political future and in setting the terms for a gradual US-NATO withdrawal.


Stephen M. Walt

, “High Cost, Low Odds

John Mueller

, “The ‘Safe Haven’ Myth

Priya Satia

, “Attack of the Drones

Manan Ahmed

, “Paranoia Over Pakistan

Mosharraf Zaidi

, “The Best Wall of Defense

Robert Dreyfuss

, “How to Get Out

For a collection of The Nation‘s best Afghanistan coverage, see our special page of links, “Afghanistan In Crisis.”