Afghan Factions Vie For Position Amid Civil War Fears

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Last week's assassination of the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, not only dashed hopes for peace negotiations, it also increased the talk of civil war.

It came at the time that American troops are preparing to begin a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, exposing deep anxiety among Afghans about what lies ahead.

Most of the international focus on Rabbani's death has to do with his position on Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Inside the country, more attention is being paid to Rabbani's position as a prominent ethnic Tajik. His followers see his party, Jamiat-e Islami, as a bulwark against the ethnic Pashtun Taliban.

But Rabbani's death is just the latest in a string of assassinations targeting his party.

Deep Ethnic Rivalries

This week, hundreds of supporters marched through Kabul, shouting "death to Pakistan, death to the Taliban and death to President Hamid Karzai," among many others.

Leading the crowd was Amruallah Saleh, Afghanistan's former intelligence chief. He denounced appeasement of the Taliban and what he called a "Taliban fifth column" inside Karzai's government. Saleh pledged more nonviolent protests.

But it was hard not to notice that the crowd was overwhelmingly Tajik, and the Afghans they were chanting "death" to were almost all Pashtuns.

The factional splits go beyond rhetoric.

According to former high-ranking U.S. and Afghan officials, ethnic-political parties are staking out positions within the government and especially within the security forces, in anticipation of renewed factional fighting after Western forces leave the country. Many highly qualified security officers have been transferred or removed from key posts in favor of party faithful.

Jockeying For Position

Abdulhadi Khalid, who previously held several government positions and is a reserve army lieutenant general, says he was pushed out because he is not connected with any of the parties.

"Those parties who were the cause of the civil war, still they are there, they are very strong and powerful in the army and in all the government, and they know how to control Afghanistan," he says.

He says that even down to the company level, it's very difficult to get promoted without a letter from one of the ethnic parties.

Analysts say that Vice President Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a Tajik, and the Tajik minister of the interior, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, have placed men in positions with control over lucrative black market goods and in key locations from Afghanistan's previous civil war in the 1990s.

Abdulhadi says the corruption saps morale — he thinks the Afghan army can beat the insurgents, but only with clean, patriotic leaders.

If President Karzai and his administration don't "clean up all institutions, if they don't put patriotic elements on the top of these forces, I'm not sure that Afghanistan will pass this crisis," he says.

He says the same factions that fought the last civil war are now vastly more powerful from all the wealth they've accumulated over 10 years of American-led aid.

Patronage No Secret

A recent survey by the Killid Group, an Afghan media company, linked almost every minister or serving member of parliament to one of the former warlords.

Mohammad Isaqzadeh teaches political science at the American University in Kabul.

"The issue of patronage, and the relationship between the parliament and the executive, is not something secret — everybody knows," he says.

He notes the rise in particular of the Hizbi Islami faction within Karzai's government. It's a mostly Pashtun political movement that still has connections with the insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord. Karzai needs Hizbi Islami to provide support from his fellow Pashtuns, says Isaqzadeh.

In addition, he said "it is believed that they may be able to be a bridge between the government and insurgents, in order to help and facilitate the peace and reconciliation project in Afghanistan," he says.

But with peace and reconciliation now seeming a more distant prospect, many Afghans fear their country's factions are carving up the government and the military in preparation for war.

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