03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Karzai Must Heal Afghanistan's Divisions

President Karzai has promised to rule inclusively after his contested victory. But this must mean more than just how he forms his government.

Even his biggest detractors see him as an inclusive consensus-builder who reaches across Afghanistan's ethnic and factional divides, which date back even beyond its bitter civil war. But he will have a tough task persuading Afghanistan's northern Tajik people to accept the legitimacy of his government. They voted overwhelmingly for his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah, in the first round of voting. Dr. Abdullah's withdrawal undermines their confidence in the eventual result. Consequently, the delicate ethnic consensus in Afghanistan that has existed since 2001 is under threat.

Afghanistan has more ethnic diversity per square mile than almost any other country on earth: nearly fifty languages, distributed among innumerable ethnic groups and tribes, each with their own distinctive history. Disputes over land ownership, and the distribution of government funds and jobs, make this patchwork troublesome as well as picturesque. It motivates voters. But it also strengthens the insurgency, when these disputes become grounds for one party to call for government help and the other then to turn to insurgents as allies. It can be exploited to whip up anti-foreigner sentiment. It also greatly complicates the work of government, causing it to focus on achieving consensus rather than taking decisions.

This is the challenge that President Karzai should now take up -- with international support and encouragement. Here are three elements for a solution.

First, the easy bit. President Karzai should tour the country to show that he is a President for all Afghan citizens. He should appoint provincial governors who are acceptable to the people of that province. Some high-profile appointments, early on, should be designed to win confidence from Abdullah's supporters. Ministerial jobs should not reflect a strict ethnic balance -- but Ministers must agree to show, even in their first staff appointments, that they are going to govern for all Afghans and not for their own particular group. They should be even-handed in their distribution of government funds.

Second, in order to enable elections to bridge ethnic gaps instead of widening them, Afghanistan needs cross-ethnic political parties. India and Pakistan have political parties that draw support from more than one region or group; so can Afghanistan. Indeed it used to, to a limited extent, before the civil war of the 1990s reinforced division and sectarianism. Political parties that form a government of people from different ethnicities and backgrounds, but who feel a sense of common purpose, can govern far more efficiently than a coalition of temporizing competitors.

The Afghan President can lead the way by forming a cross-ethnic movement and devising a platform for it. In addition, the losing candidate should create a credible, policy-based opposition movement. International donors, too, can do more to help, such as dedicating funding for political parties provided that they cross ethnic divides, show some staying power and avoid extremist ideology.

Finally, the government must address historic and contemporary grievances that reinforce ethnic divisions. More than twenty years of fighting has left a sad legacy. A pragmatic, but consistent and principled approach needs to be taken toward the crimes of the past. The new President should make this goal a visible priority.

He should, however, focus first of all on defusing contemporary grievances. These are plenty enough. The biographies of minor Taliban commanders show how several of them joined up quite simply to get backing in a local dispute over land or water with a better-connected neighbor. Nomads, moving northward into Afghanistan's mountainous central region every year, regularly spark conflict with the region's settled pastoralists, resulting in a number of killings. The deaths have a wider effect, as both sides to the dispute try to attract powerful armed allies to defend them. Once again, the Taliban often jump in, seeing another opportunity to expand their influence.

Resolving these disputes will pay long-term dividends for the government, and for Afghanistan's international partners. This is an area where a foreign presence , possibly the United Nations, can play an important role. A mini-surge of conflict mediators -- all perceived as neutral -- might resolve these conflicts better than a surge of civilian experts in governance and agriculture.

This is the true process of reconciliation in Afghanistan. Through it, maybe one day Afghans will no longer vote according to their ethnic loyalties and future elections can be contests between individuals rather than ethnic groups. And then, at last, we can talk about Afghan democracy