Ethnic Favoritism in Afghanistan is Not in Pakistan’s Interest

Pakistan’s moral and material support to Afghan Pashtuns, oftentimes at the expense of other Afghan ethnic groups, hasn’t served Pakistan well. Since Pakistan is directly involved in the Afghan peace process, it’s an opportune time for Pakistani policymakers to re-evaluate and correct this aspect of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

Pakistan’s moral and material support to Afghan Pashtuns, oftentimes at the expense of other Afghan ethnic groups, hasn’t served Pakistan well. Since Pakistan is directly involved in the Afghan peace process, it’s an opportune time for Pakistani policymakers to re-evaluate and correct this aspect of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.


Pakistan’s Support to Afghan Pashtuns

Initially, for the first three decades after Pakistan’s founding, it was Afghanistan that regarded itself as a of Pakistani Pashtuns’ rights. With the passage of time, however, Pakistan has acquired the upper hand and has emerged as a champion of Afghan Pashtuns’ rights. First signs of Pakistan’s ethnic favoritism emerged toward the end of the Afghan jihad in the early 1990s, when the rift between various Afghan Mujahedin organizations was widening along ethnic lines.


In the ensuing civil war, which was fought mainly along ethnic and linguistic lines, following the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992, Pakistan supported the ethnic Pashtun Guldbuddin Hekmatyar against the ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud. . . Pakistan tried but failed to convince the Taliban to expel bin Laden to avoid the invasion.


Moreover, According to Rangin Dadfar Spanta, .[1] In recent years, Pakistan has toned down its rhetoric in support of Afghan Pashtuns, but the overall thinking that Afghan Pashtuns are sidestepped and that they could still be better represented seems to have survived.


Why Pakistan Supports Afghan Pashtuns

First, Pashtuns are considered a majority ethnic group in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan has never conducted any country-wide census to determine the actual size of its population (leave alone declaring ethnic groups as majority or minority), non-Pashtuns take the idea of Pashtuns’ being a majority with a grain of salt. Despite the controversy surrounding it, the belief that Pashtuns are a majority still persists in parts of Afghanistan and beyond.


Second, Pakistan’s support to Afghan Pashtuns also stems from the fact that multiple Pashtun tribes . Pakistan, however, also has an Urdu speaking Turkic (Mughal) population that shares ethnic ties with northern Afghanistan’s Turkic population. If ethnicity indeed matters, then shouldn’t Pakistan’s Urdu speaking Muhajirs be more sympathetic toward their Afghan cousins?


Third, Pakistan considers major non-Pashtun ethnic groups, or at least their leaders, to be under (non-Pakistani) foreign influence. The truth however is that, during the 1990s civil war, Pakistan’s support to Hekmatyar and the Taliban drove most non-Pashtun Afghans to seek modest assistance from India, Iran, and Russia.


Finally, there is a belief that Pakistan’s support to Afghan Pashtuns is aimed at finding a counterweight to the nationalists who interfere in Pakistani internal affairs and challenge the legality of the border. Those Pashtuns who receive support from Pakistan, the argument goes, will give in to Pakistani point of view concerning the border issue (among other things). That being said, both Hekmatyar[2] and the Taliban, showcasing the futility of this policy, refused to endorse the Pakistani position on the Durand Line.


Consequences of Pakistani Ethnic Favoritism

First, due to Pakistani ethnic favoritism, non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan have become suspicious of Pakistan. If Pakistan wants to expand trade and energy ties with Central Asian republics, it will have to improve relations with Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns, who have close ethnic and linguistic ties with the people of Central Asia. Pakistan will also have to earn and depend on non-Pashtun Afghans’ goodwill as its trade and energy routes will run through their territory.


Second, despite favoring Afghan Pashtuns, Pakistan has neither quashed their irredentist sentiments, nor has it built credible trust with them. Most Afghan Pashtuns, including those residing in areas adjacent to Pakistan, are as (if not more) suspicious of Pakistan as non-Pashtuns. For many Afghan Pashtuns, at least in theory, the Afghan territory doesn’t end at the current Pak-Afghan border; it rather ends on the banks of the Indus River.


In addition to the nationalists, Pashtun fundamentalists also entertain irredentist sentiments. When asked by Pakistanis on different occasions, both Hekmatyar and Mulla Omar refused to recognize the Durand Line as an international border. By putting its weight mostly behind Pashtuns, who have yet to give up their irredentist sentiments, Pakistan has lost the goodwill of non-Pashtuns, who unlike most Pashtuns don’t harbor irredentist sentiments.


The way forward

First, Afghanistan, where between 20 and 30 ethnic groups reside, is a country of ethnic minorities. Given the ethnic diversity, unless there’s impartial, scientific data such as a country-wide census, it is imprudent to assume a particular ethnic group as a majority or minority, and subsequently formulate policies on the basis of such unfounded assumptions.


Second, Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal makeup is extremely complex. Not only is the Afghan population divided into tens of ethnic groups, but there are also deep divisions, rivalries, and jealousies along tribal and regional lines within each ethnic group. An example below from Kandahar should suffice to sum up the point.


Former Kandahar Police Chief General Abdur Raziq, a tribal Achakzai, grossly misused his title to settle scores with his family rivals from the Noorzai tribe, whose members are found in abundance amongst the Taliban (including the Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah being a tribal Noorzai). While Abdur Raziq’s toughness against the Taliban was appreciated within anti-Taliban circles, most didn’t understand his underlying motive, which kept adding fuel to the insurgency fire in Kandahar.


When foreigners try to support a particular ethnic group in Afghanistan, they most likely will miss the subtleties underlying complex ethnic and tribal issues. To a foreigner, for instance, the tribal affiliation of a Pashtun may not matter much. But to a tribesman the tribe is his primary source of allegiance. Thus, by promoting ethnic Pashtuns from a certain tribe, without regard to tribal and ethnic sensitivities, foreigners have often sharpened inter-tribal rivalries and intensified inter-ethnic tensions.


Pakistan should stay aloof from playing favorites amongst Afghan ethnic groups and tribes. Pakistan should maintain contact with all Afghan domestic stakeholders and factions. Pakistan’s own past experiences should serve as an eye-opener to help it adopt a different approach. By dissociating itself from sophisticated inter-ethnic and inter-tribal affairs, which it can’t solve or manage, Pakistan will gain respectable leverage in the eyes of all Afghans, which in turn will help Pakistan bring all Afghan factions to the negotiating table to reach a durable settlement.



[1] Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, Afghan Politics: An Insider’s Account, PP. 600-601 (translated from Persian by the writer).

[2] Riaz Muhammad Khan, Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal, P. 279

Arwin Rahi

Written by Arwin Rahi

Arwin Rahi is a former adviser to the Parawan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at

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