Tajik grip on Afghan army signals strife
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Contrary to the official portrayal of the Afghan National Army
(ANA) as ethnically balanced, the latest data from United States sources reveal
that the Tajik minority now accounts for far more ANA troops than the Pashtuns,
the country's largest ethnic group.
The shift in the ethnic composition of ANA troops in recent years is leading to
another civil war between the Pashtuns and a Tajik-led anti-Pashtun ethnic
coalition, similar to the one that followed
the fall of the Soviet-supported regime in 1992, according to some observers.
Tajik domination of the ANA feeds Pashtun resentment over the control of the
country's security institutions by their ethnic rivals, while Tajiks
increasingly regard the Pashtun population as aligned with the Taliban.
The leadership of the army has been primarily Tajik since the ANA was organized
in 2002, and Tajiks have been over-represented in the officer corps from the
beginning. But the original troop composition of the ANA was relatively
General Karl Eikenberry, then chief of the Office of Military
Cooperation-Afghanistan, issued guidelines in 2003 to ensure ethnic balance in
the ANA, according to Chris Mason, who was a member of the Afghanistan
Inter-agency Operations Group from 2003 to 2005. Eikenberry acted after then
defense minister Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim had packed with Tajiks the first
group of ANA recruits to be trained.
The Eikenberry guidelines called for 38% of the troops to be Pashtun, 25%
Tajiks, 19% Hazaras and 8% Uzbek.
Since then, US officials have continued to put out figures indicating that the
ethnic balance in the ANA was in line with the Eikenberry guidelines. As
recently as 2008, the RAND Corporation was given data showing that 40% of the
enlisted men in the ANA were Pashtun and that Tajiks accounted for less than
The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan
Reconstruction, issued on October 30, shows that Tajiks, which represent 25% of
the population, now account for 41% of all ANA troops who have been trained,
and that only 30% of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns.
A key reason for the predominance of Tajik troops is that by mid-2007 the ANA
began to have serious problems recruiting troops in the rural areas of Kandahar
and Helmand provinces.
At least in the Pashtun province of Zabul, the percentage of Pashtuns in the
ANA has now been reduced to a minimum. In Zabul province, US officers embedded
in one of the kandaks (battalions) reported earlier this year that they
believed only about 5% of the troops in the entire brigade are Pashtuns,
according to a report by Army Times correspondent Sean D Naylor published in
the Armed Forces Journal last July. The brigade commander in Zabul is a Tajik.
Meanwhile, Tajiks have maintained a firm grip on the command structure of the
ANA. Marshall Fahim put commanders from the Tajik-controlled Northern Alliance
in key positions within the Ministry of Defense as well as in the ANA command.
Mason recalled that the US thought it had an agreement with President Hamid
Karzai under which the command structure of the ANA would be reorganized on the
basis of ethnic balance, starting with the top 25 positions. But Karzai never
acted on the agreement, Mason said.
Even after Fahim was stripped of his government and military positions by
Karzai in 2004, his appointee as ANA chief of staff, General Bismullah Khan,
remained as head of the army. Tajiks have continued to occupy the bulk of the
positions in the Ministry of Defense.
A United Nations official in Kabul estimated that, as of spring 2008, no less
than 70% of all kandaks were commanded by Tajiks, as reported by Italian
scholar Antonio Giustozzi.
Even in overwhelmingly Pashtun Zabul province, there are only two Pashtun kandak
commanders out of a total of six, Matthew Hoh, the senior US civilian official
in Zabul until he submitted his resignation in September in protest against the
war, told Inter-Press Service (IPS) in an interview.
Mason views the process by which the ANA is coming to be seen as an
increasingly Tajik institution as making a civil war between the Pashtuns and
the Tajiks and other ethnic minorities virtually inevitable.
"I believe the elements of a civil war are in play," Mason told IPS.
Mason said the refusal of Pashtuns in the south and east to join the ANA is
part of a "self-reinforcing spiral". The more Dari, the language spoken by
Tajiks, becomes the de facto language of the ANA, said Mason, the more Pashtuns
will see it as an alien institution.
"The warlords have already started rearming," said Mason.
Although the US "has done as good a job as it could have" in trying to make the
ANA mirror the broader society, Mason said, it can only "attenuate" rather than
prevent such a war in the future, even with a larger troop presence.
Hoh believes a civil war between the Pashtuns and a Tajik-led alliance of
ethnic groups has already begun but could get much worse. "It is already bad
now," he said, but unless US policy changes, "we could see a return of the
civil war of the 1990s".
To avoid that outcome would require putting priority on political
reconciliation in order to "integrate all elements of society into the Afghan
government and security forces", said Hoh. That, in turn, would require an
international framework, probably involving the United Nations, he said.
Hoh recalled a scene he witnessed in Zabul suggesting that Tajik commanders
view the ANA as belonging to the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. At an Afghan
independence day event at a military base August 19, attended by hundreds of
ANA and national police, the large photograph adorning the wall was not of
Karzai but of the Tajik commander of the entire Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah
Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the September 11,
The previous civil war between Pashtun and Tajik-led armies was triggered by
the disappearance in 1992 of the national army of the Soviet-supported
Najibullah regime, which had maintained a tenuous balance between the two major
The collapse of the Najibullah regime and its army was followed immediately by
fierce fighting between the Northern Alliance, which had reached Kabul first,
and the forces of the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had previously
been allied with the non-Pashtun mujahideen against the Soviet-backed regime.
In a sign that Tajik commanders don't trust Pashtuns in the south and east, the
Tajik senior ANA officer in Zabul, Major General Jamaluddin Sayed, dismissed
the locally recruited national police in the province as being under Taliban
influence and called for recruitment of police from outside the province.
"If we recruit ANP [Afghan National Police] people from Zabul province,
probably they have some relationship with the Taliban," Jamaluddin told Army
Times reporter Naylor.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.