Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Ethnicity and Civil Society in Contemporary Afghanistan

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Ethnicity and Civil Society in Contemporary Afghanistan

Article excerpt

This article focuses on the critical question of ethnicity and politics in Afghanistan. It examines current conceptual models of ethnicity and their application to present-day political affairs in the country. Research shows that it is not the presence of ethnic groups per se that leads to violence or instability but the absence of civil society and democratic governance and norms. Lessons may be drawn from Afghanistan's neighbors to the north. These Central Asian nations present cases of emerging civil societies, which are fragile, fragmented, and strongly influenced by the international donor community. After 23 years of war in Afghanistan, repression and neglect have had a devastating effect on civil society.

Afghanistan was supposed to be the centerpiece in America's war on terrorism, an example of how to rescue a failed state. Disintegration would be terrible for Afghanistan, and bad for the United States and outside world.1 State failure, predictably tied to internal strife and humanitarian crisis, can spread from limited unrest to national collapse and then regional indeterminacy. So how is the rebuilding of Afghanistan faring?

The international community2 is calling for the creation of a secular, multiethnic, and democratic state without providing the military force or resources to build it. Critical to helping Afghanistan emerge from its failed and threatened status are state capacity, the question of ethnicity, and the victory of normal politics over guns, imperiled today by the power of warlords outside Kabul. This analysis focuses on the critical question of ethnicity in Afghanistan.


Ethnic groups are no longer viewed as primordial, but are considered to be the products of history, the design of concrete procedures of administrative classification, political organization, and socialization. Analyzing colonial politics in Zambia, Daniel N. Posner3 concludes that the structure of a country's ethnic cleavages is not just a social fact but also a historical product. Posner indicates that the ethnic landscape is important because the dynamics of ethnic competition and conflict rise not from the presence of ethnic groups, but from the pattern of their relative sizes and geographic distribution. Countries containing a single large ethnic group or two evenly matched groups, he notes, have been found to be more violence-prone than those including a larger number of equally sized groups. Countries with a large number of small ethnic groups demonstrate slower rates of economic growth than countries that are more ethnically homogeneous. Posner also draws on ethnic fractionalization research to point out that the numbers and relative sizes of ethnic groups in the political system are central to the outcomes of economic growth rates, political instability, and the outbreak and duration of civil wars. In addition to their numbers and sizes, the physical placement around the country is also crucial. Posner states that the link between the characteristics of the cleavage structure and the likelihood of conflict is a basic supposition in nearly all explanations of ethnic politics and communal strife.

If the Pashtuns,4 which comprise approximately 38% of Afghanistan's population, can be considered a single large ethnic group, Posner's research could be of interest here. Also, most Pashtuns reside in the south. Where they do live "intermixed" with other minorities - as in the north, such co-mingling as occurred was usually accomplished by force.

Posner's research is basically at odds with that of James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin5 who find that a greater degree of ethnic or religious diversity, or indeed any particular cultural demography, does not by itself make a country more prone to civil war. Also, they found little evidence that one can predict where a civil war will break out by looking at where ethnic or other broad political complaints are strongest. …

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