In the wake of a recent attack on US service members in Afghanistan, the long ignored issue has come to the fore in national discussions. For the many in mainstream media who particularly highlight veterans’ and military issues, like Rachel Maddow, this was an opportunity to ask if we’re still an occupying presence in Afghanistan (technically, no; effectively, maybe).
Even in reporting focused beyond the experiences of US military, there’s a looming expectation. The attacks on not only the few US service members remaining in the country but also on religious and ethnic targets, namely the Hazara minority, are presented as the alternative to a larger US military presence. The implication is that they’re on the ends of a fulcrum, with US presence dampening the terrorism and related violence, which proliferates in our absence.
Another, more seldom presented, way of understanding the situation is that perhaps the recent attacks – against Hazara and US military – are themselves the result of the way that US became involved in the country. Far from opposites, they essentially encourage each other.
Long before the US’s presence there under the auspices of the War on Terror, the funding of counter-Soviet jihadists armed radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan to the teeth. Long hostile to Hazara and other ethnic groups who are predominantly Shia, this already threatened to tip the already militarized balance of ethnic power within the country against the Hazara and others. The Soviet invasion was, of course, a colonial nightmare, like most of the Soviet escapades through central Asia. This one, however, has reached even more nightmarish heights because of how another power, the US, perpetuated the internal conflicts.
Even as the Cold War melted away and new global struggles captured the US’s interest, Afghanistan remained a site of proxy war. A number of ethnic groups, including the Hazara to some extent, were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, the primary opponents to Taliban rule – the ultimate state-like incarnation of those same radical Sunni circles. Supported by many neighbors, primarily those further north and with similar ethnic compositions, this and other groups fighting against the Sunni supremacist and largely Pashtun-run Taliban were effectively off the US’s radar until Sunni supremacists hit here. Suddenly, those same largely Pashtun Sunni supremacists transformed from militants upsetting another empire to militants striking within the heart of ours.
With the overwhelmingly US-driven NATO presence then arriving in Afghanistan, you might expect the US’s alignments to change. Not so, as Pashtun politicians rode the wave of US-backed democratization into a new form of power. Even outside of positions explained by the formidable Pashtun voting bloc, they tended to rise to the top. Hamid Karzai, later the president of Afghanistan, rose to power first as an appointed interim leader at least to some extent condoned by the US military occupation.
The most notable exception to that trend was Mohammed Fahim – a prominent leader within the Northern Alliance and a non-Pashtun. His exceptional status is dampened somewhat when it’s pointed out that he was Tajik, not Hazara, and like many Tajiks, he was a Sunni Muslim, and at that one who studied Sunni Islamic law. What’s more, his role within the nominally moderate Karzai administration was to find as much common ground as possible with radical Sunnis and draw them back into non-violent politics. He died of natural causes just before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
Beyond the political world as well, the part Pashtun Khaled Hosseini captured the US’s interest with The Kite Runner. While not fully Pashtun and quite vocally in favor of expanding the opportunities for Hazara and other ethnic minorities, his non-Pashtun ancestry is apparently Tajik, like Fahim. In his most prominent of several well-received stories, he painted a sympathetic picture of the Hazara as a uniquely constrained minority within Afghanistan, even as he at once embodied the greater attention paid by the US to the other groups within and from the country.
Perhaps most iconically however, there’s Sharbat Gula, better known the world over as simply “the Afghan girl”:
Steve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” taken in December 1984.
She is also Pashtun, and like a large number of Pashtun people in the part of the world, even though not a Taliban supporter, she was sympathetic to their causes and was essentially open to their return. As she put it, quite accurately for many Sunni Pashtuns in all likelihood, under the Taliban “there was peace and order”.
That Pashtun-designed peace and order disintegrated with the US shifting from Cold War proxy support, to 1990s disinterest, to War on Terror occupation. The many modern militant groups currently threatening Hazara and US military members alike, are all committed to recreating some small slice of that in an era in which US drones can and regularly do coldly strike their villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
It’s a rather indirect path from US intervention to a toxified Afghanistan, in which the political choices are often between Pashtun-dominated/Sunni supremacist rule and an anemic centrist government that regularly negotiates with that precise political bloc. That said, there are recurrent patterns here – about whom the US chooses to arm, to fund, to advance, and otherwise to support. Our relationship with the many different Pashtun communities in the world is one riddled with inconsistency, but that stands in sharp contrast to a monolithic disinterest towards all things Hazara, which clearly extends out into higher standards for other non-Pashtuns too.
There are other, more common ways of noting that the US presence isn’t necessarily a check against extremism. If nothing else, our military presence anywhere in the Islamic world serves as a reason to radicalize. Beyond that, however, there’s a very simple question of which people in Afghanistan have been the recipients of our resources.
The featured image for this article is an ethnographic map of Afghanistan, from here.