Afghan Elections: The Pashtun Factor

Pashtun ethnic agenda at heart of Afghan war
By KATHY GANNON (AP); Washington Post, August 1, 2009

KABUL — In a recent debate leading up to the presidential elections here, the first question was not about terrorism, or violence, or even opium. It was about how candidates viewed a jagged line casually drawn on a map 115 years ago by British colonial rulers.

For the West, this border separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, and it is a source of great frustration that neither country seems able or even willing to enforce it. But for many Pashtuns, the most powerful ethnic tribe here, the line runs through what they call "Pashtunistan" and is no more legitimate than the border that once divided East and West Germany.

The Pashtuns and their ethnic agenda are in many ways at the center of the upcoming elections and the armed conflicts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, many Pashtuns who have not taken up arms still share the dream of a united Pashtunistan. This dream grows stronger as the Pashtuns on both sides of the border get more disgruntled.

If the Pashtuns vote in large numbers in the Aug. 20 election, it will help current president Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun. If their turnout is low, possibly because of violence or Taliban threats, his rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, stands a better chance. Although half-Pashtun, Abdullah is identified with the ethnic Tajiks, and some analysts are concerned that Pashtuns would not accept his victory.

"Pashtuns are critical to the Afghan election," says Hassan Abbas, research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Pashtuns are at the heart of insurgency in both Pakistan and Afghanistan because they have been used and abused in the last three decades by regional as well as international players. Their social fabric has been torn to smithereens and their tribal ethos has been under severe stress and strain due to the rise of fanatical religious elements. Pashtuns today are a victim of circumstances."

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