Ethnic Clashes Threaten Afghanistan's Peace Jirga

06/01/2010 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Karzai's twice-delayed peace jirga is now slated for June 2. The jirga, or assembly, will consist of hundreds of participants converging in Kabul from across Afghanistan. The goal is to find national consensus on how to deal with the ongoing insurgency.

But a conflict between Afghanistan's Kuchi nomads and Hazara villagers in Maidan-Wardak province is dividing the government, polarizing the country and potentially boosting the Taliban.

For the past several years, violent clashes have broken out as Kuchis have entered Hazara areas where they claim they have legal grazing rights. An unknown number has been killed and injured on both sides in these clashes. Villagers claim Kuchis have used heavy weaponry to drive them out of their villages. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, about 2,000 families have been displaced this year alone. Several villages have been burnt, schools and mosques destroyed and livestock killed. Armed Kuchi gunmen - estimated to be between 500 to 1,000 - occupied dozens of villages.

The clashes have broken out in the presence of the national police and army, who have been unable -- and often unwilling -- to prevent confrontations or to safeguard people's lives and property.

Vice President Karim Khalili, who is a Hazara and actually hails from Maidan-Wardak, walked out of his office in a rage uncharacteristic of his usually conciliatory manners. He is now in the affected areas, vowing not to return to office until Kuchis are out of the area, and the villagers are resettled and compensated for their losses. In a fiery video statement, he said he is prepared to give his life if that helps stop the violence.

The chairman of the upper house -- a close ally of President Karzai -- criticized Vice President Khalili. Not one to mince his words, Mojaddedi squarely accused Khalili of stoking ethnic tension in the country.

Beyond the upper echelons of the administration, the ethnic dimension of the conflict is playing out in Afghanistan's parliament and its streets. It has also crossed borders.

Hazaras have staged mass protests in several provinces against government inaction in the wake of the violence. The Hazara diaspora has also organized protests in Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and several Australian cities.

Afghanistan's Lower House has seen bitter debates between Hazara and Kuchi representatives, each blaming the other side for inciting violence and using the conflict for political gains. More than two dozen Hazara parliamentarians have held public rallies and staged a sit-in for the past two weeks to protest President Karzai's inability to decisively tackle what has become a perennial problem.

The MPs have threatened larger scale protests and vowed to boycott June's peace jirga if the issue remains unsolved. At the helm of these parliamentarians is Mohammad Mohaqeq, a prominent Hazara leader who backed Karzai in last year's presidential elections. Reports also suggest that General Dostum, the Uzbek leader who flew in from exile to support Karzai in last year's election, has pledged his support for the Hazara parliamentarians.

That's two of President Karzai's strongest supporters outside his traditional power base backing away from him. That not only weakens his government but also casts a shadow on the upcoming jirga that aims to promote reconciliation and solidarity. The absence of Vice President Khalili from the jirga will be conspicuous, too.

As the government scrambles to resolve differences among its ranks and address the Kuchi-Hazara issue, it wouldn't be unthinkable that Taliban might take advantage of the situation.

The Taliban and other non-state insurgents have not yet penetrated most Hazara areas, which are among the most peaceful in Afghanistan. If not already, they could piggyback on the Kuchi cause and extend their influence further into Afghanistan's peaceful provinces. That can make life harder for the American-led NATO campaign and further weaken the Afghan government's authority.

The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan has distanced itself from the issue, saying in a Facebook post that it is Afghanistan's internal matter.

While differences within the Afghan government are internal matters, the destabilizing flares of violence and its ethnic dimensions are not. A divided Afghanistan with a growing Taliban influence is detrimental to U.S. efforts. The plight of the thousands of displaced families aside, the U.S. and its NATO allies should act out of their own interests.