Are the Ghilzai Taking Control Again?

Later this year, America will celebrate (!) the 10-year anniversary of Afghanistan’s liberation from the Taleban. After the initial success, this venture has been on a continuous downward path to eventual failure. President Obama has announced America’s disengagement from Afghanistan, a process that might take a couple of years. What America leaves behind will haunt the region for many years, we fear.

This longest “war” in American history has been doomed from the start by an appalling ignorance of un-partitioned Afghanistan, its history and its many people. When we began writing about Afghanistan in September 2008, the American media was obsessed about calling this an Islamic conflict. Our view was simple and historically accurate. This was a conflict of the Pashtuns, by the Pashtuns and for the Pashtuns. The only “solution” we could see was the unification of the Pashtuns into a Pashtunistan or a land of the Pashtuns.

Today, we see a greater acceptance of the Pashtun thesis in the mainstream American media. Two weeks ago, Bob Woodward (can you get any more mainstream?) told MSNBC’s Chris Mathews:

  • …the ticket out is training the Afghan Army – there have been lots of improvements in the Afghan Army – there is a real problem, this is the deep secret in all of this, the recruiting of the Pashtun majority is so low, it is less than …it is in the single digits, so you cannot have a country that is majority Pashtun with an army that is gonna save you and preserve you and take the place of US and NATO,  that is 7-8% (Pashtun)…. Any one who knows this, just says this is the ghost in the machine(emphasis ours)
Earlier this year, Ambassador Blackwill (Bush Administration) had proposed a Plan B that would further partition Afghanistan into a southern Pashtun region and a northern Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara region. Such a partition could create an irredentist Pashtunistan by uniting Pashtun areas on both sides of the Af-Pak line of control, Mr. Blackwill argued. 

Yesterday’s Opportunity?

The above, we fear, may already be yesterday’s story and yesterday’s opportunity. Because the events on the ground in Afghanistan show that the Ghilzai are beginning to take control.

To those who now realize Af-Pak is a Pashtun problem, we say it is time to focus on the Ghilzai and the Durrani. To put it simply, discussing the Pashtun without understanding the Ghilzai and Durrani divide is like discussing the current Debt Ceiling Debate in America without understanding the divide between the Tea Party and Establishment Republicans. 

Look at what the Taleban have accomplished recently. First they killed Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai and the central power figure in Kandahar. Then the Taleban (with Pakistani ISI’s help?) assassinated Jan Mohammad Khan, the senior Presidential advisor, in Kabul itself. And a few days ago, they assassinated the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, in his own office.

This is a serious and determined campaign to get rid of all popular or powerful figures loyal to President Hamid Karzai at least in the Kandahar province. The easiest way to topple a regime is to kill the senior leadership of the regime. And that has been the Ghilzai way for centuries. 

The Ghilzai

Kandahar is the heart of Pashtunistan, not Kabul. And southeastern Afghanistan between Kandahar and Kabul extending into Pakistan is core Ghilzai territory. It is crucial to understand the history of the Ghilzai because the Taleban is predominantly Ghilzai.

The Ghilzai are considered to be the most war like and tough Pashtun community.  The first great man of the Indo-Afghan Continuum was Ala-Ud-Din Khilji, the earlier name of the Ghilzai. He (1296-1316) was the first invader from Afghanistan to conquer South India. The Ghilzai ruled vast areas of today’s India & Pakistan in the 14th & 15th century until the invasion of the Mughals (or Mongols) of Babur.

The Ghilzai are believers in massacres as a useful tool for dominance. It was Ala-Ud-Din Khilji who massacred the invading Mongol armies on two separated occasions. The tactic worked and the Mongols did not invade India again. A Ghilzai tribe revolted against the Safavid dynasty of Persia in 1709 and occupied large areas of today’s Iran. During their short occupation, they nearly destroyed the renowned city of Isfahan (3rd largest city in today’s Iran). The population of Isfahan dropped from 1.2 million to just around 10,000 people within seven years, so brutal was their occupation.

In 1738, Nadir Shah of Persia destroyed both Kandahar and Qalat-i-Ghilzai, the two principal Ghilzai strongholds. He also revived the Durrani Pashtuns to prevent any revolt from the Ghilzai Pashtuns. Nadir Shah appointed Ahmed Shah Abdali, his talented personal attendant, as the head of Afghan provinces of his kingdom.

The Durrani

After Nadir Shah’s assassination, the Durrani chose Ahmed Shah as their new leader. He established a Pashtun empire in much of North India (including today’s Pakistan) and his reign marked the beginning of a 270-year old dominance of the Durrani. It continues to this day. President Hamid Karzai and his leadership is mainly Durrani.

The Pashtun regions controlled by today’s Pakistan are also ruled by Durrani ministers and governors. The Durrani are bureaucrats, officials, businessmen and merchants. The literacy rate of the Durrani is the highest among all the Pashtun tribes and they are also considered to be the most liberal of the Pashtun tribes. It was the Durrani who helped elect the mostly secular Awami National Party in the last election.

The Modern Ghilzai-Durrani conflict

The Ghilzai resurgence began in the fight against the Soviet occupation. Many of the Mujahideen of that fight were Ghilzai and so were the leaders like Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today’s Taleban leadership is also predominantly Ghilzai. 

The Ghilzai are skilled in breaking traditional alliances between the various Durrani tribes. That is how they managed to control the Durrani during the rule of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Recent assassinations of prominent Durrani leaders in the Kandahar province demonstrate that today’s Ghilzai are just as skilled in dividing the Durrani and just as vicious in killing those who stand in their way.

History shows that once the Ghilzai consolidate their control over the Pashtun tribes, they tend to attack their neighbors. And the first attack by the “sons-of-mountain” Ghilzai is against the softer people of the Indo-Gangetic plain, known today as Pakistani Panjab.

So next time, you hear or read a story about the Afghans or even the Pashtun, ask whether it is a Durrani story or a Ghilzai story. We wish the Obama Administration would do the same.

Note: We decided to stick to the portions of Durrani & Ghilzai history that is described in Wikipedia. Since we come from the community of the second great man of the Indo-Afghan Continuum, we have heard of and read about the “Gilche” or Ghilzai since we learned how to read.

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