When did the decline of Afghanistan begin?

Conrad Schetter
Afghanistan between chaos and power politics

Preliminary version

Afghanistan is entering its twentieth year of war. Hardly any other country in the world has been in a permanent state of war for so long. In the course of this war, the entire country was bombed to rubble and ashes; 1.5 million people lost their lives. Further consequences of the war are the legacy of over 10 million anti-personnel mines, an illiteracy rate of over 90% and the flight of up to 6.5 million of the 14 million inhabitants of Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran.

At first glance, the Afghan war looks like an opaque chaos in which new factions are constantly appearing and fighting each other in constantly changing coalitions. However, at second glance, two levels of conflict can be distinguished: On the one hand, there is the international level of conflict, since the Afghan war is strongly determined by the security, economic and ideological interests of foreign powers, especially those of its neighboring countries. On the other hand, there is the level of conflict within Afghanistan, where ethnicity is becoming increasingly important. Both levels of conflict are interlinked and have their points of intersection in the warring parties. Therefore, the thesis presented here is that in the long term in Afghanistan only those factions who are the recipients of foreign support will assert themselves militarily and politically and have the support of the population.

Fig. 1 The warring parties in Afghanistan, their foreign partners and their ethnic organizational bases (1997/8)

The parties that are currently significant in the Afghan war are the Jamiat-i islami [Islamic Society; Abbr .: Jamiat], the Hezb-i wahdat [unity party; Wahdat], the Jombesh-i melli-ye islami [National Islamic Movement; Djombesh] and the Tahriq-i taliban [Movement of Religious Students; Taliban] (Fig.1).

Inner-Afghan conflict potential

An empire called Afghanistan has existed since 1747. However, Afghanistan in its current borders did not emerge until the end of the 19th century as a buffer state between the areas of interest of the colonial powers British India and Russia. It was in this founding of the state that the main potential for conflict in Afghanistan was located. Because Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state in which over 50 ethnic groups live. The largest ethnic group are the segmentally organized Pashtuns, who split up into various tribal associations; the Durrani and Ghilzai confederations constitute the most comprehensive Pashtun tribal units. Other important ethnic groups are the Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan and the Hazara in the central highlands. The Persian-speaking, Sunni population of Afghanistan is summarized under the collective name Tajiks (Tab. 1; Map 1).

Tab. 1. Overview of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, their predominant language and religion as well as their estimated number (status: 1978)

EthnicitylanguageDenomination Number (in millions)
PashtunsPashtoSunnis 4,8 - 7,0
TajiksDari (= Persian) Sunnis2,0 - 3,6
UzbeksUzbekSunnis 0,7 - 1,3
HazaraDariShiites 0.8 - 1,1
AimaqDariSunnis 0,5 - 0,8
FarsiwanDariShiites 0,6 - 0,6
TurkmenTurkmenSunnis0,1 - 0,4
BaluchBaluchishSunnis0,1 - 0,2
NurestaniNurestani languages Sunnis0,1

Source: Orywal, Erwin (ed.): The ethnic groups of Afghanistan. Wiesbaden 1986. here: 70f.

Before the war began, the ethnic diversity in Afghanistan expressed itself in a social stratification. The Pashtuns appeared to the outside world as the ethnic group that supported the state. From 1747 to 1973 they were the head of the country with the royal house, which belongs to the Durran tribal association. The majority of the traditional elite also consisted of Pashtun nobles. The Tajiks made up the bulk of the middle class, which is why they dominated the economy and state administration. The Uzbeks had little influence on the Afghan power apparatus and were largely confined to their settlement area. Due to their Turkic-Mongolian appearance and their Shiite denomination, the Hazara formed a marginalized ethnic group that was largely excluded from participating in social resources. But before 1978 the "ethnicity" was an abstract identification and action variable for the Afghan population that was perceived but rarely triggered ethnically motivated actions.

The ethnic conflict potential was overlaid by the dualism between town and country. The rural people of Afghanistan, who made up around 90% of the population, were firmly anchored in their traditional cultural patterns. Since the tribal and village elites had the say in rural areas, the state institutions of Kabul had little influence on the ruling structures there. As the center of state power and modernization, Kabul was a foreign body in rural Afghanistan. The Kabul population had a comparatively high level of education and had already adapted to Western influences. For the rural population, Kabul represented the "sin babel" par excellence, while the Kabul population stigmatized rural Afghanistan as backward. The intelligentsia trained at universities, who represented modern political ideas and competed with the traditional power elite, were also concentrated in Kabul. The communist DVPA (Democratic People's Party of Afghanistan) formed an important movement within this intelligentsia. The DVPA split into two wings, Parcham [flag] and Khalq [people], who fought bitterly. The reason for this is the social background of its members: while the followers of Parcham were mainly Tajiks from the urban milieu, the members of the Khalq originally came from rural Pashtun regions and were considered newcomers in Kabul.

The Cold War in Afghanistan (1979-1989)

The striving for power of the young intelligentsia, namely the DVPA, triggered the Afghanistan crisis at the end of the 1970s. In 1973, the former Prime Minister Mohammed Daud Khan drove out the last Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah, with the help of the DVPA. On April 27, 1978, the DVPA launched a coup against Daud and took power itself. Since the DVPA carried out land reform in the first months after it came to power, disregarding traditional social structures, it was soon confronted with uprisings across the country. When the DVPA threatened to lose its power and to wear itself out in internal party struggles, the Soviet Union occupied the country in December 1979 in order to secure socialist rule in Afghanistan. With this move, which the US viewed as a Soviet offensive, the national crisis in Afghanistan developed into an international conflict and the most important battlefield of the Cold War.

Islam was built up as the ideological antithesis of communism, which was expressed in the declaration of jihad [holy war] against the godless communists and in the designation of the resistance fighters as mujahedin [fighters of God]. Most Afghans, however, did not understand Islam and communism as sophisticated ideologies, but as the continuation of the dualism between town and country. Islam was synonymous with the traditional order of society and values, while communism was associated with the modernization and centralization policy of the Kabul power center.

A major goal of the Kabul regime was the Sovietization of Afghan society. The policy of Sovietization concentrated on the inhabitants of Kabul, who, in contrast to the "reactionary" rural population, were considered to be "progressive". An essential measure was the state-sponsored emancipation of women, which stood in contrast to traditional rural society, in which the participation of women in public life was unthinkable. Another decisive measure was the nationality policy. The Kabul regime took advantage of the ethnic stratification of Afghan society, as disadvantaged ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks or Hazara were reaffirmed by upgrading their languages ​​to national languages ​​and emphasizing their culture and history. In the case of some ethnic groups, the Kabul government supported the establishment of independent combat units that also functioned as ethnic organizational bases. Special mention should be made of General Rashid Dostum's Uzbek militia, which, after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, developed into the most important military support of the communist regime and formed the forerunner of Jombesh, which was founded in 1992. Under the Pashtuns, however, the Kabul regime promoted tribal conflicts in order to weaken the Pashtun unity and thus the resistance in the strategically important border area with Pakistan.

The US was indirectly involved in Afghanistan by jointly financing the resistance against the Soviet occupiers with Saudi Arabia. The logistical structure was the responsibility of the Pakistani secret service ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), which organized the resistance in accordance with Islamabad's security policy calculations. In the 1970s, Pakistan was on the verge of war with Afghanistan, because the Afghan government had called for the annexation of the Pakistani North West Frontier Province, in which the majority of the Pashtuns live, on the "Pashtunist question". In order to put the "Pashtunist question" aside, the ISI allowed several groups dominated by Pashtuns who differed from one another in their tribal origins. Durrani Pashtuns - who made up the Afghan royal house and, from a Pakistani point of view, were responsible for the "Pashtunist question" - were not tolerated in the leadership of the parties. The resistance parties were also religiously oriented, as this meant that nationalist tendencies could be suppressed.

Three of the seven parties represented the traditional religious establishment and advocated the rethronement of King Zahir Shah. The ISI was suspicious of these parties, which is why it tolerated them rather than supported them. The most important of these traditional parties was the Harakat-i enqelab-i islami [Movement of the Islamic Revolution; Harakat] by Maulawi Muhammad Nabi Mohammedi, who was represented in southern and western Afghanistan through the network of Islamic clergy and Pashtun tribal associations, but was only a loose association of local resistance fronts despite its spread. Many of these fronts associated with the Harakat were Koran schools where Taliban [religion students] received religious and military training. The majority of these religious schools follow the strictly orthodox, Sunni-Hanafi Deoband theology. The remaining parties belonged to the Islamist camp.

Islamism, which began as party politics in Afghanistan in the 1960s, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state of God and the introduction of Islamic law [Sharia], but is also strongly influenced by modern ideologies. Like the followers of the Khalq, the representatives of the Islamist parties are mostly of rural origin and come from the young intelligentsia of Kabul. The Islamist Hezb-i islami [Islamic Party of Afghanistan; Hezb] and Jamiat became the most powerful parties in the course of the war. The Hezb, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, split off from the Jamiat in the 1970s. They were mainly sponsored by Pashtuns who had lost their tribal ties. Although the Hezb was widespread throughout Afghanistan, its appearance was always only cellular, as the general population and the traditional clergy rejected their radical views. The Hezb was the preferred partner of the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan until 1992, which is why it was also the richest resistance party. The Jamiat, founded as a collecting basin for all non-Pashtuns, developed into a "parti tajik par excellence" that is firmly anchored in the Tajik settlement areas. At the head of the Jamiat is Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik clergyman who studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. His main military support is Ahmad Shah Massud, who gained fame for his battles against the Soviet army. Although the Jamiat, like the Hezb, is radically Islamist in its ideology, it has developed a political pragmatism that enables it to work with the network of the traditional Islamic clergy.

In addition to this resistance organized by Pakistan, there were also the Shiite parties, which had their strongest support from the Hazara and differed in their degree of dependence on Iran. But until the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the Shiite parties were more preoccupied with fighting among themselves than against the Soviet regime. In 1992 the Shia parties united under pressure from Iran for the election.

In this first phase of the war, the interests of the superpowers USA and Soviet Union determined the Afghanistan conflict. On the inner-Afghan level, the young intelligentsia had prevailed against the traditional elite, which had to leave the country and were not included in the organization of the resistance. In Kabul, as in the resistance, the positions in the control centers of power were mainly taken by representatives of the rising intelligentsia. In many places in rural areas, commanders who came from a socially modest background and were often illiterate replaced the traditional village and tribal leaders. Although the Afghan conflict was waged under the sign of the Cold War, ethnicity was already an essential guideline, as the foreign powers understood how to exploit the potential for ethnic conflict for their own interests.

Afghan Civil War (1992-1994)

Although the Soviet Union recognized early on that Afghanistan could not be pacified militarily, it was not until the political turning point under Gorbachev in 1989 that the Soviet army withdrew. Even under the Soviet occupation it became clear how artificial the ideological boundary between communists and Islamic resistance was. Because agreements took place across the ideological front, while tensions within the Kabul regime and the resistance intensified. Najibullah, a Pashtun who had been head of government of the DVPA since 1986, was able to stay in power until 1992 through a clever policy of "national unity". But the lack of financial support from Moscow and the formation of new fronts in April 1992 led to his overthrow. The decisive factor was that he placed Tajik militias under the orders of a Pashtun and was suspected of negotiating with Hekmatyar to reestablish Pashtun hegemony. The coup against Najibullah was made possible because the non-Pashtun forces entered into a temporary alliance with Dostum's militias, the Parcham and the Jamiat. The fall of Najibullah caused Afghanistan to disintegrate into partial empires that were separated from one another by ethnic as well as ideological concerns. The members of Khalq and Parcham, unless they fled to Dostum's empire, joined the Hezb or the Jamiat, depending on their social and ethnic preferences.

Under the dictatorial rule of Dostum, a secular empire emerged in the north, in which intellectuals and ex-communists sought refuge. Compared to the rest of Afghanistan, Dostum had a functioning infrastructure and administration. But the Uzbek element also played a role in Dostum's territory, as he knew how to mobilize ethnicity among the Uzbeks and to praise himself as the sole representative of the Uzbek minority. In central Afghanistan, the wahdat under Ali Abdul Mazari was able to establish its power. In the ideology of the wahdat, the Shiite element is of paramount importance, but the party also sees itself as representing the interests of the Hazara. The Hazara in particular, who were a socially underprivileged ethnic group before the war, gained a new self-confidence through the organization of the wahdat. In southern Afghanistan, which is dominated by Pashtuns, a power vacuum prevailed at the regional level, as tribal disparities did not allow any party to establish itself beyond the local framework.

The Jamiat had their strongholds in the Tajik settlement areas in northeast Afghanistan and in the Herat province. In addition, with Rabbani as president, with the participation of various small parties, she established the official government in Kabul. In its four-year term in office, the Jamiat was not in a position to present a government program, but it was also not ready to share its power or campaign for general elections. She justified the concentration of power in her hands with the fragmentation of Afghanistan and the ongoing state of war. For many Pashtuns, the jamiat's seizure of power, which put an end to the 250-year-old Pashtun hegemony, was more unbearable than the rule of the DVPA, which always had Pashtuns in leadership positions.

The war between 1992 and 1997 was concentrated in Kabul, which lies at the interface of the Tajik, Pashtun and Hazara settlements. Accordingly, the main actors in these struggles were the Jamiat, Hezb and Wahdat.Dostum limited himself to preventing a war party from becoming dominant in alternating coalitions. If Kabul was unscathed during the first 13 years of the war, it has now been almost completely destroyed. Ethnic mass murders of civilians were also carried out in Kabul for the first time. Arbitrariness prevailed in the partial empires, as the parties were too weak to control their commanders and prevent them from looting the civilian population.

Foreign interest

With the end of the Cold War, the Afghan war lost its global dimension and turned into a regional conflict. The importance of Afghanistan is due in particular to its geostrategic location on the southern flank of the Central Asian CIS republics, which are considered to be the prosperous economic area of ​​the future. The aim of the foreign policy of Iran and Pakistan, which does not itself border on the CIS countries, is to become a major regional power and the preferred economic partner of the CIS countries through indirect rule in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan policy of both countries is therefore generally offensive, even if different currents can be identified in both countries. For example, radical Islamist groups in Iran such as the Pasdaran [religious guardians] are close to the wahdat due to the Shiite community. But Tehran also supports the Jamiat because of their hostility to the Pakistani favorite Hekmatyar and not least because of the cultural ties between Persians and Tajiks.

In a seizure of power by the ISI protégé Hekmatyar, Pakistan saw its own interests in Afghanistan most likely to be realized. But in 1992 the alliance between ISI and Hezb broke up because they used Pashtun slogans in the fight against the Jamiat, which disqualified them as a guarantor for a settlement of the Pashtunistan conflict. The relationship between the ISI and the Jamiat had deteriorated sharply since they came to power in Kabul, as it received support from Iran and the Pakistani hereditary enemy India. Since Islamabad no longer had any influence on any of the powerful warring factions, Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan had been in crisis since 1992. The Pakistani government under Nawaz Sharif tried to re-establish a foothold in Afghanistan as a mediator between the factions. This diplomatic path was also supported by Pakistani business circles who were striving for a quick solution in Afghanistan in order to finally be able to use the trade routes to Central Asia.

In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war with Iran, with which it is vying for supremacy in the Islamic world. But his ally Hekmatyar dropped it when he declared his sympathy for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. Therefore, since the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia had been looking for a new ally in Afghanistan who represented Orthodox Islam and stood up to Iran.

For the Central Asian CIS states, in which the former communist cadres were able to hold on to power, domestic political stability in their own country is the highest priority; They see this as endangered by the infiltration of Islamic terrorists from Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, as the most powerful of the Central Asian republics, supports Dostum, as it sees it as a bulwark against the emergence of a radical Islamic state on its border and also feels ethnically connected to it. Civil war raged in Tajikistan between the government of former communists and the Islamic opposition. This formed a reservoir of diffuse Islamic currents, which Iran supported and which operated from Afghan soil under the tolerance of the Jamiat.

Russia used the unstable situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan to protect the Central Asian republics from the threat of "Afghanization". Under his direction, 20,000 CIS soldiers were stationed on the Tajik-Afghan border. For Russia, this military presence on the southern border of the CIS symbolizes that Central Asia is part of the Russian sphere of interest. But the opinion is widespread that Russia was not interested in ending the Tajik civil war until 1996 to justify its military interference. Indeed, Russian foreign policy was twofold: because his most important ally in Afghanistan, alongside Dostum, was the Jamiat, against which Soviet troops had fought for years and which was close to the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan. By supporting the Jamiat, Russia hoped to prevent Hekmatyar, the representative of American and Pakistani interests, from coming to power.

Turkmenistan, which has the second largest reserves of fossil energy resources in the world, has been interested in opening up new transport routes since the early 1990s in order to become independent from Russia, which previously had control of the pipelines. Turkmenistan's plan to join Iran's pipeline system called the US, which had disengaged from Afghanistan policy since 1989, back on the scene. In line with its doctrine of isolating Iran, the US effectively put pressure on Turkmenistan to reject the "Iranian variant". The American alternative, on the other hand, was to build pipelines through western and southern Afghanistan to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. For the implementation of this project, the US was now also interested in pacifying Afghanistan. In addition to economic interests, the collapse of the state in Afghanistan revitalized American engagement. Because Afghanistan had become the second largest heroin producer in the world and the center of Islamic terrorism due to the lack of a regulatory power. In this situation it made sense for the USA to reactivate the old alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which had fallen on the losing road in the Afghan war. The Taliban project could be tackled.

The Taliban construct

An essential prerequisite for the emergence of the Taliban was the renewed takeover of power by Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad in 1993, which ushered in a turning point in Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan. But the Taliban are by no means a completely new movement; rather, they have their roots in the Harakat of Nabi Mohammedi (see above). In agreement with the latter, who wanted to withdraw from politics, the Harakat was used as a basis for building up the Taliban under the leadership of the Pakistani Interior Minister Babbar, a Pashtun. Bhutto's coalition party Jamiat al-ulama-i islam (DUI) played a key role in the Taliban project. Most of its supporters are Pashtuns and the political figurehead of the Deoband school in Pakistan. The ISI was responsible for building a military power out of the Taliban. The funds for building the Taliban come from Saudi Arabia. But the Taliban are also supported by various oil companies. For example, a consortium consisting of the US company Unocal and the Saudi Arabian company Delta Oil is competing with the Argentine company Bridas for the bid for the US $ 2.5 billion pipeline project through western and southern Afghanistan. The US avoided being directly associated with the Taliban. But the tacit tolerance of its spread and the frequent visits by American diplomats to their headquarters are indications of the US's initial goodwill towards the Taliban.

Since the late summer of 1994, the Taliban spread through the network of Koran schools in southern Afghanistan. Their rapid expansion was facilitated by the power vacuum that prevailed at the regional level in southern Afghanistan, as no serious opponent stood in their way. Crucial for the Taliban's initial success was that southern Afghanistan is identical to the tribal area of ​​the Pashtun Durrani Confederation, which saw the Taliban as an opportunity to become politically active for the first time during the Afghan war. It is therefore not surprising that Kandahar, the center of the Durrani Pashtuns, is now a stronghold of the Taliban.

In early 1995, the Taliban extended their rule into the tribal area of ​​the Pashtun Ghilzai Confederation, which lies between Kandahar and Kabul. Although the Ghilzai tribes compete with the Durrani tribes, they too joined the Taliban. In addition to the Pashtun character of the Taliban, the decisive factor here is that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar belongs to the Ghilzai tribe of the Hotaki. The Taliban increasingly made themselves obedient to stubborn warlords through financial donations. Their first attempt to take Kabul ended ingloriously as they lost their image of clean men through the bombardment of residential areas and the devious murder of the Wahdat leader, Ali Mazari. The Taliban also gambled away their aura of invincibility, which preceded them due to their initial successes, when they suffered their first defeat against the Jamiat at the gates of Kabul. This setback was made up for with the conquest of Herat in October 1995. But the Herat population does not see the Taliban as liberators, but as an occupying power. The reason for this, in addition to ethnic and social differences, is the Shiite denomination of many Herati. With the capture of Herat, the Taliban had achieved an essential goal of Islamabad. For now the transit route from Turkmenistan to Pakistan was in the hands of the Taliban, so that Pakistan could finally trade with the Central Asian republics on a large scale.

Taliban ideology and sponsorship

The radical Sunni-Orthodox orientation of the Taliban fits into the concept of its foreign supporters: It was in the interests of the USA and Saudi Arabia that Shiite Iran felt threatened by the Taliban, for whom Shiism is a heresy. Pakistan's need for security is also satisfied by the religious demeanor of the Taliban. Because as long as the Taliban emphasize Islam programmatically, the Pashtun element will be suppressed and a revival of the Pashtunist question will be excluded.

In their demarcation from the other warring parties, the Taliban take up the black and white painting that the mujahideen used in jihad against the Soviet invaders: they see themselves as the saviors of Afghanistan, who give the torn country the longed-for peace under the unifying banner of Islam. Dostum is vilified as a communist, while the leaders of the mujahideen parties are denigrated as "murderers and robbers". Content-related delimitations, as they exist between the conceptions of Deoband theology and Islamism, play a subordinate role. It should be noted that most of the Taliban are illiterate and only have a fragmentary knowledge of the Koran. The best way of distinguishing them from the other warring parties is expressed in their self-designation. Because, as the Taliban, they distance themselves from the mujahideen, who gambled away their reputation as "holy warriors" through atrocities against the Afghan population. With this renaming, they conceal the fact that many Taliban were themselves mujahedeen in the past. The self-designation Taliban stands for uniform action under the sign of Islam and opposes the fractionalism to which the previous Islamic warring parties have succumbed.

The official line of the Taliban is to transform Afghanistan into a state of God based on the example of the early Islamic period. Mullah Omar, their mysterious leader, can be referred to as the "second Omar" after the second caliph, who lived at the beginning of the 8th century, and has assumed the title Amir-al mu'min [ruler of the believers]. The Taliban see the appropriate key to the revival of the Islamic social order in the introduction of Sharia law. Since the Sharia is not codified, they have a lot of leeway to legitimize their orders as "Islamic". Sharia criminal law, with its deterrent penalties for certain offenses (e.g. stoning for adultery), is rigorously applied. Prohibitions on shaving, dancing, listening to music, photo portraits, televisions and paper bags (because they are made from waste paper on which a religious text could have been written) correspond to an idiosyncratic interpretation of religious legal texts. The suspicion arises that this catalog of regulations, which is constantly being expanded, has the purpose of employing the population in order to distract attention from the lack of a government program.

The appearance of the Taliban also follows the motto "the more radical the more Islamic", since the other parties that call themselves Islamic can be branded as un-Islamic. The victims of this "competition between Islamic radicals" are women as the weakest link in Afghan society: if the Jamiat had introduced the obligation to veil, the Taliban banned women completely from public life. However, there are no clear postulates in Islamic legal texts for the Taliban's misogynist measures - such as the obligation to wear a full-body veil, the work ban for women and the closure of girls' schools. The sentencing of women to stoning for allegedly committed adultery even violated Sharia law in some cases: In one case, two witnesses were sufficient to confirm the adultery, although four eyewitnesses are required under Sharia law. In another case, an unmarried couple was sentenced to death for adultery.

The strict moral standards and women's policies illustrate how strongly Taliban Islam is infiltrated by the Pashtun code of honor and law. The honor of a male Pashtun is linked to the protection of the female part of his family, which is guaranteed by strict seclusion of the woman. If the integrity of a female family member is in doubt, the responsible Pashtun must promptly restore his honor through retaliation. Any suspected non-marital intercourse between a woman must be atoned for with the murder of the couple concerned. Against this background, the Taliban's interpretation of Sharia becomes understandable: the ousting of women from public life, the stoning of "tainted" women and the inclusion of retaliation in their legal system correspond to Pashtun notions of honor. Since the Pashtuns do not perceive their code of honor and law to be in contradiction to Islam, the Taliban amalgamate orthodox ideas about Islam and Pashtun tribal thinking to form an "Islam with a Pashtun character". Whether this represents an autochthonous product of the Taliban or was deliberately initiated by the top management or from outside in order to establish the Taliban in the Pashtun areas cannot be answered.

While the rural, Pashtun areas are largely spared from the orders of the Taliban, customs are strictly monitored, especially in Herat and Kabul. One reason for this is probably the linguistic and ethnic contrast between the Pashtu-speaking Taliban and the Persian-speaking, predominantly Tajik population of these cities. But the repression of the Taliban is also an expression of the persistent discrepancy between urban and rural areas. The over-harsh demeanor of the Taliban in Kabul results from their aversion to the urban population as well as from their insecurity towards the urban milieu, in which their rural values ​​anchored in the Pashtun social order no longer apply. Since the DVPA came to power in 1978, Kabul has also been regarded as a refuge for communism, which further increased its negative reputation. The position of women in urban society - not least because of the women's emancipation promoted by the DVPA - was incomprehensible to the Taliban and inevitably had to become the target of their politics.

The Taliban pride themselves on having restored public security by disarming the population and introducing harsh penalties for crimes. But the Taliban's approach was more like the incorporation of local combat units into a higher-level organizational structure. What the Taliban understand by public security is not based on the rule of law, but is entirely at the discretion of the individual Talib. As a result, rumors are mounting that the Taliban are exploiting and harassing the civilian population in the style of the Mujahideen. Public security under the Taliban is reduced to the fact that there are no more acts of war within their territory.

Various interest groups can be identified in the Taliban. The core of the Taliban consists of former mujahideen who already held leading positions under the Harakat and who were part of the Taliban from the very beginning. A large number of the rank and file are recruited from Koran schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Koran students mostly come from socially low backgrounds and have usually lost ties to their social origins, which is why the Koran schools take on the function of the family. These "real Taliban" are the most loyal followers of the movement. But during their triumphant advance, the Taliban also incorporated fighters from other war factions. There are many "professional mujahideen" in the Taliban who have been fighting in the Afghan war for years and who sided with the winning Taliban in good time.There are also former members of the Khalq among the Taliban who, because of their training, take on administrative and military tasks for which the Taliban lacks trained personnel.

The traditional Pashtun elite, which had previously been excluded from Afghan power poker, also hoped to regain office and dignity through the Taliban. The unanimous opinion among Afghans is that the great support that the Taliban initially had in the population is due to the advocacy of this elite, as they still have a large clientele in Afghanistan. The traditional establishment as well as the majority of the population also hoped that the Taliban would bring back King Zahir Shah, who has enjoyed unbroken popularity in Afghanistan and, despite his 84 years of age, has repeatedly been brought up as the solution to the Afghan conflict. Within the Taliban there was a wing loyal to the king and anti-Pakistani under the leadership of Maulawi Burdschan. The professional mujahedin, Khalq followers and traditional Pashtun elite - despite their different social origins - also share their Pashtun identity. These groups therefore see the Taliban as a movement through which Pashtun hegemony can be restored in Afghanistan. How strong the Pashtun moment is in the Taliban can be measured by the fact that it spread like wildfire in the Pashtun areas but met with considerable resistance in the non-Pashtun areas.

Change of power in Kabul

The Taliban's rapid gain in power led Hekmatyar, who had got caught between the Taliban and Jamiat fronts, to join the Rabbani government on June 26, 1996, which he had been at war for four years. He received the office of prime minister. This alliance was Hekmatyar's only possible political salvation, as the Taliban strictly refused to negotiate with him. But Hekmatyar lost a large part of his followers through this political turning maneuver, who preferred to fight on the side of the Pashtun tribal brothers of the Taliban than on the side of the hated Jamiat.

At the end of September 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul. Before the Taliban invaded Kabul, the Pakistani government launched a press campaign linking the return of Zahir Shah with the successes of the Taliban. But the dreams of rethronising Zahir Shah, which many Afghans believed in at the time, were dashed, as Mullah Burjan, the leader of the loyal wing within the Taliban, was killed in the storming of Kabul. His supporters suspect that the ISI moved him out of the way in order to eliminate the wing loyal to the king within the Taliban.

On the day of the invasion of Kabul, the former President Najibullah, who had been housed in a UN building since his fall in 1992, was executed and his body was put on public display. The assassination of Najibullah took place on UN premises, with which the Taliban violated international law. However, many Afghans think that this murder was also ordered by the ISI. The fact is that anyone who wanted to rule Kabul must see a danger in Najibullah. Because he had a very high reputation among the Kabul population - despite his dark past as a former head of the secret service - as Kabul was spared the war under his government.

After the capture of Kabul, the Taliban were immediately recognized by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as the new Afghan government. The US, however, reacted cautiously because of the negative image the Taliban had in the international press. They underscored their newfound distance to the Taliban by closing the Afghan embassy in Washington. The UN and the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) also emphasized their neutrality by declaring the country seat of Afghanistan vacant. The behavior of the European states towards the Taliban can be interpreted as negative: The embassies in Bonn, London and Paris, which are all occupied by representatives of the Jamiat, remained open.

In the same way as the Jamiat had already taken over the staff from the DVPA, the Taliban left the government officials at their posts - with the exception that they banished all women from office. She filled the key administrative positions with former supporters of the Khalq. The top positions in the government were shared by fellow campaigners from the very beginning, all of whom are Pashtuns and mostly come from the Harakat. Insignificant ministerial posts were given either important commanders as rewards or non-Pashtuns to refute accusations of Pashtun ethnocentrism. The traditional Pashtun elite, which had speculated on participation in power, was not taken into account in the formation of the government.

The conquest of Kabul by the Taliban caused the Jamiat, Wahdat, Hezb and Jombesch to put their old hostilities aside and to rush to form the "Supreme Council for the Defense of the Fatherland". With the founding of this northern alliance, which the ex-government led by Rabbani supported, the dichotomy of Afghanistan was enshrined (Map 2). The Taliban forced this split in Afghanistan in October 1997 by renaming the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The CIS states, which feel threatened by the radical Islam of the Taliban, reacted immediately to the change in power in Kabul by protesting on May 4th / 5th. October 1996 in Almaty for support of the Northern Alliance. Their allies are still the Jombesh and the Jamiat. Turkmenistan, which has an interest in the Taliban because of its oil deals, stayed away from this meeting. In contrast, Iran supports the Northern Alliance because it feels threatened by the Taliban and wants to push back American and Pakistani influence in Central Asia. A loose alliance was formed between Russia and Iran, as both wanted to keep their options to exploit the oil reserves on the Caspian Sea and to prevent the construction of the pipeline through Afghanistan. A sign of this is that, since the change of power in Kabul, both states have pushed for an end to the civil war in Tajikistan so as not to offer the Taliban a target. The Jamiat, from whose territory the Islamic resistance had operated, was also interested in a settlement of the civil war in Tajikistan, since they themselves now needed a retreat due to the advance of the Taliban. On June 27, 1997, the peace treaty between the Tajik government and the Islamic opposition was ratified.

War in the Hindu Kush

Since the winter of 1996/97, fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance has taken place in western Afghanistan and at the strategically important passes in the central Hindu Kush. Dostum was undisputedly the strong man of the Northern Alliance. But his power was seriously shaken when Malek Pahlawan, his commander in chief in western Afghanistan, formed an alliance with the Taliban. The reason for Malek's change of front, in addition to financial incentives from the Taliban, was his distrust of Dostum, who is accused of having initiated the murder of his brother Razul Pahlawan and his friend Maulawi Abdur Rahman Haqqani. Malek's overflow in mid-May 1997 enabled the Taliban to advance unhindered to Mazar-i Sharif, the center of power of the Northern Alliance. At the same time, the Taliban had crossed the passes in the central Hindu Kush in a major offensive and invaded northern Afghanistan. The situation worsened dramatically: Dostum was forced to flee hastily via Uzbekistan to Turkey, while Rabbani fled to Tajikistan. The wahdat in central Afghanistan also seemed to have been defeated and Masoud controlled no more than a tenth of the country. On May 24, the Taliban captured Mazar-i Sharif with 5000 men.

But the tide turned on May 29th. The reason was that the Taliban wanted to disarm the people of Mazar-i Sharif. Within a very short time, under the leadership of the Wahdat, the Shiites, who make up a large part of the city's population, rose up and caused a bloodbath among the Taliban, who did not know their way around the city's maze. Malek saw the signs of the times. Without further ado, he terminated the alliance with the Taliban and sided with the winning Wahdat with his troops. He later justified this step by stating that the Taliban had not kept to the previous agreements. It is estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban were massacred and another 3,000 were taken prisoner that day; only a few managed to escape. At the same time as the Taliban debacle in Mazar-i Sharif, Massoud and the Wahdat succeeded in reoccupying the passes between northern and southern Afghanistan. Masud's troops even pushed the Taliban back as far as the city limits of Kabul, where the front continues to this point in time. The Taliban units that were stranded in northern Afghanistan fled to Kunduz, the Hezb's last power base. Once again it became apparent that ethnic ties are stronger than ideological ones: these Pashtun units of the Hezb left the Northern Alliance and fraternized with the Taliban.

Malek's position as the leader of the Jombesh remained weak, as Dostum still had strong support in it and Malek's foreign country offered no support because of its temporary liaison with the Taliban: Uzbekistan demonstrated its negative attitude towards Malek by extending its borders with Afghanistan lock. Malek's decline began when the Taliban tried again from their base in Kunduz to take Mazar-i Sharif in early September. The main burden in repelling this attack again carried the wahdat, as Malek was unable to command the troops of the Jombesh due to his weak position. Malek's opponents used the confusing situation in Mazar-i Sharif to drive him out of the city and bring Dostum back from exile. Malek retired to Farjab Province, but Dostum was able to bring it back under his control two months after his comeback. Malek fled to Iran. Even with Dostum back in the saddle, his position of power is weakened and more dependent than ever on the loyalty of his warlords. The winner of the past battles was the Wahdat under its leader Karim Khalili, which expanded its sphere of rule to the north and now controls several districts of Mazar-i Sharif, the seat of government in Dostum.

Prospects for Peace

The defeat of the Taliban at Mazar-i Sharif made it clear to the USA that it was unable to militarily pacify the whole of Afghanistan. In any case, Washington had distanced itself from the Taliban since the winter of 1996/97, as they did not curb opium cultivation and their misogynist policies triggered public criticism of unimagined intensity and extent. At the same time as growing skepticism towards the Taliban, the landslide victory of Khotami, who is considered moderate and liberal, opened up the possibility of rapprochement with Iran. The relative internal political stability of Iran in a crisis-ridden region is a further criterion for the fact that in American foreign policy the primacy of isolating Iran has been replaced by a cautious approach to the former enemy. Signs of this are that Washington approved the connection of Turkmenistan to the Iranian pipeline system in July 1997, as well as Khotami's "speech to the American people" in January 1998, in which he advocated dialogue with the USA. The establishment of contact between Washington and Iran also stimulates peace negotiations over Afghanistan. The US is now interested in peace talks as the conflict in Afghanistan blocks American economic interests in Central Asia. A peace agreement would be interesting for Tehran, as it could demonstrate its goodwill towards Washington and participate in the prophesied economic boom in Central Asia. The "six-plus-two talks" recently launched by the UN on an arms embargo in Afghanistan are the first peace negotiations in which the US and Iran are jointly participating. The other negotiating partners are Russia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. However, the talks have so far failed due to Iran's accusation that Pakistan could undermine compliance with the embargo due to its uncontrollable border with Afghanistan.

Since the CIS states are also interested in peace in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia is following US policy, Pakistan is now becoming increasingly isolated on the international level as the protector of the Taliban, which categorically rejects peace talks. During her visit to Pakistan in November 1997, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, condemned the Taliban's violations of human rights and put pressure on Pakistan to urge them to enter into talks with the Northern Alliance. But Nawaz Sharif, who has been Pakistani Prime Minister again since January 1997, cannot be expected to change course, as Afghanistan policy is now entirely in the hands of the ISI. The ISI is sticking to the Taliban as they are Pakistan's only option for the future government in Kabul and for Pakistan's claim to great power. A deviation of the Taliban from their radical Islamic course is also not in the interest of the ISI, since the Pashtun element could then prevail within the Taliban. But the ISI must also ask itself the question of whether the Taliban are not developing into a boomerang: The Taliban are constantly gaining influence in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, where they are introducing their "Pashtun-style Islam" in many places. Pakistani trade with Turkmenistan, which has flourished since the Taliban captured southern and western Afghanistan, did not bring about the hoped-for economic upturn, but rather a deterioration in the Pakistani trade balance, as the goods are smuggled past customs; Afghan merchanting is considered to be the cause of the budget deficit that justified Benazir Bhutto's dismissal in November 1996.

The peace efforts of UN mediators such as the USA assume that the war in Afghanistan will be over when the neighboring countries stop supporting their representatives. What speaks against this thesis is that almost all parties are now financially quite independent due to the drug cultivation and trade and have a full arsenal of weapons at their disposal. The party leaders' thirst for power must not be underestimated either. Finally, it is to be feared that the emotions that have accumulated in the Afghan war cannot be channeled through peace talks. The fighting of last year caused an escalation of violence, in which the blind hatred of the warring parties was directed not only against the military opponents, but also against the ethnic groups they suspect behind these parties: when the Taliban in January 1997 the captured the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa north of Kabul, they expelled the Tajik population of these provinces or forced them to relocate to Kabul. In return, Malek and factions of the Wahdat are accused of murdering 2000 Taliban captured during the fighting over Mazar-i Sharif and burying them in mass graves. The Wahdat in turn accuses the Taliban of massacring over 400 Hazara civilians in September 1997. Finally, rumors are growing that the Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan and the Hazara in Kabul have suffered from persecution and acts of arbitrariness. The temporary climax of this spiral of violence was the Taliban blockade of UN food transports to central Afghanistan in the winter of 1997/98 in order to starve the Hazara.

The UN's plans for the reorganization of Afghanistan envisage the installation of a broad government, in which all political groups should be represented, and a federal model. Apart from the fact that a government with personalities as diverse as Mullah Omar, Rabbani, Khalili and Dostum is illusory, all four parties also have different goals. The Wahdat calls for a federal system and a third of all posts in central government for their party. In addition, the Wahdat insists that in addition to the Hanafi law school of the Sunnis, followed by around 75-85% of all Afghans, the law school of the 12th Shia must also be recognized. But the equal coexistence of two Islamic legal doctrines would inevitably lead to chaotic conditions in the legal system. Jombesh advocates a loose, confederal system in which every federal state retains the right to withdraw from the confederation, to have its own army and to maintain diplomatic relations with foreign countries. Based on a quota system, every ethnic group should also be represented in the central government. This also demands the Jamiat, which at the same time claims the majority of the state posts as well as the office of head of state for its party, since the majority of all Afghans speak Dari and they see themselves as their representative.

The Taliban vehemently reject concepts based on federalism or quotas for ethnic groups.The ethnic question is nipped in the bud by referring to the super-ethnic claims of Islam. But it is precisely this exclusion of the ethnic problem that the opponents of the Taliban interpret as a Pashtun hegemony. Also, due to their claim to totality, the Taliban are unwilling to hold talks with other parties about power-sharing. The involvement of the Taliban in peace talks is made more difficult by the fact that tensions between them and the international community have steadily worsened. The constant attacks by the media and foreign politicians, as well as the ongoing quarrels with international organizations, most recently because of the arrest of the European women's representative Emma Bonino in Kabul in October 1997, have given the Taliban the idea of ​​breaking completely with foreign countries. For this they like to try a historical parallel: For already in the last century the Afghans isolated themselves from the outside world in order to defend themselves against any foreign influence.

The interest group of the exiled Afghans who try to regain influence in Afghanistan through contacts with foreign governments should also be mentioned at this point. Your programs are usually well-intentioned, but have no relevance to reality. It is an illusion to believe that even a war faction would be willing to share its power with Afghans in exile. Because in these the warring parties see the representatives of the traditional elite, who are superior to them due to their higher educational standards and their social position. The Afghan exiles are also accused of having run away instead of defending the country as real patriots gun in hand.

The Northern Alliance's willingness to negotiate since autumn 1997, as well as its attempt to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban on the exchange of prisoners, could be seen as progress in the most recent peace efforts by the USA and the UN. But it may also be that the Northern Alliance only wants to gain time through these negotiations in order to weaken the Taliban from within. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that the power of the Taliban is only on thin ice: The series of defeats shook the confidence of its followers in the Pashtun tribal areas. For the first time, the Taliban have problems recruiting new fighters, which is why more religious students are being recruited in Pakistani Koran schools, who often speak neither Pashto nor Dari. The Taliban also reached their limits in the spread of their ideology, as the differences between their Islam and the Pashtun code of honor and law are becoming increasingly apparent: When the Minister of Justice, Mullah Nuruddin Torabi, wanted to introduce Sharia based on the Kabul model in Jalalabad in November , a Pashtun tribal assembly condemned the Taliban's actions after his departure. The Taliban's position is also weak in some eastern Afghan provinces, as local mujahideen have been able to maintain their autonomous position here. Finally, discontent with the Taliban is also increasing among the civilian population, as economic improvements fail to materialize and religious students are now imposing high taxes on the population, just like the mujahideen once did.


The Afghanistan conflict is an example of how a country's internal conflict potential can be exploited by the interests of foreign powers. The competition between the traditional elite and the new intelligentsia, as well as the urban-rural divide, triggered the Afghanistan crisis. The superpowers USA and Soviet Union used this crisis for a proxy war in which they mobilized the internal conflict potential for their interests. With the withdrawal of the Soviet Army, the Afghan war mutated into a regional conflict in which the neighboring countries support the conflicting parties in order to assert their interests. During the Afghan war it became clear that only parties can survive if they have popular support. Ethnic ties in particular proved to be a social glue between the population and the parties. The failure of the Hezb of Hekmatyar is due not least to the fact that they were never anchored in the general population and only played the Pashtun card when it seemed implausible. Without the support of Pakistan, the dissolution of the Hezb was only a matter of time. Pakistan seemed to have learned from its experience with the Hezb. For with the Taliban, Pakistan knew how to use the Pashtun moment to establish them in the Pashtun areas, while at the same time masking their Pashtun ethnocentrism through their radical Islamic orientation. From the beginning, the Jamiat used the ethnocentric moment to spread into the Tajik settlement areas. When she came to power in 1992, she changed her foreign partner. So it renounced Pakistan, which at that time still supported the Hezb, and allied itself with Iran and Russia. The Wahdat, as a party of the Shiite Hazara, also belongs to Iran's clientele and was founded under pressure. For Iran, their religious characteristics played a more important role than their ethnic characteristics. The Jombesh has its substantial backing in the Uzbek minority and receives support from the CIS states, which fear a radical Islamic Afghanistan on its borders.

But it would be wrong to describe the Afghan war as a puppet play by foreign powers, since the momentum of this conflict should not be underestimated: A population now lives in Afghanistan for whom the war has become everyday life and fighting has become a profession. A coexistence of all Afghans under one roof is hardly imaginable in the medium term due to the bloody fratricidal war, which has cut deep rifts between the Afghan population groups. The hope remains that, despite the fragmentation of the country, all Afghans firmly believe in the integrity of Afghanistan.