The anticipated bilateral agreements between the United States and the Taliban raise fresh concerns on the viability of Afghanistan’s future. Nowhere is this more important than in the southeastern province of Ghazni, whose persistent violence over the last four decades continues to reside at the apex of regional geopolitical competition, government incompetence, and insurgent violence. Ghazni represents the failures of nearly two decades of United States led state building. Despite negative narratives, a rising gross domestic product, an improved education system, and the completion of long-awaited parliamentary elections in 2018 demonstrates potential for future stability. As a result, the United States must alter its measurements of success from air strike quantities to inclusive economic projects to bridge Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic fault lines.
However, robust levels of ethnically targeted violence persist. The potential for ethnic militarization seemingly increases monthly with targeted deadly attacks focused on the minority Hazara communities by the Taliban and Islamic State. Ninety miles south of Kabul, Ghazni possesses the conditions that allow the Taliban’s resilient insurgency to thrive. Ghazni straddles the ethnic fault line between a Pashtun dominated east and Hazara majority west. The Taliban enjoy widespread support from marginalized Pashtun populations that support the infiltration of combatants, weapons, and equipment that nearly resulted in the loss of the provincial capital last summer. The Andar tribe, numbering almost half a million strong across eastern and northern Ghazni, often find themselves victims of Afghan National Security Forces’ (ANDSF) artillery and airstrikes, driving an already marginalized community further from the nascent government center. Routine mortar attacks and Taliban checkpoints alienate the Andar population from the provincial capital.
Further tribal support for anti-government actions derives from the southern Taraki tribe, whose communist government supports and competes against the Karzai-led rivaling Durrani tribal networks, thus resulting in an increasingly pro-Taliban sentiment. The alienation of the Andar and the Taraki tribes is the product of national and provincial level appointments of Tajik and Hazara leaders in Ghazni, rather than a representation of the Pashtun majority. As a result of the government sponsored violence, marginalized representation, and the lack of physical presence, there is little reason for the Ghazni’s Pashtuns to believe in the Afghan government, turning to the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban for the provision of basic services. Inclusive economic projects, and their ancillary services, offer opportunity to stifle malign Taliban influence in Ghazni.
Additionally, ongoing grievances between the western Hazaras and eastern Pashtuns, where the human and physical terrain converges south of Ghazni City, finds increasing traction due to a lack of social services. The resulting protests elicit international attention to district-level government and ethnic deficiencies, while simultaneously driving narratives of government corruption and military incompetence. The perfect storm of obstacles resides within Ghazni, where shortfalls are amplified after almost two decades of counterinsurgency at the apex of a regional geopolitical competition. However, high-risk, high-reward options persist across multiple echelons to halt Ghazni’s perpetual conflict, offering opportunity for future stability.
Firstly, self-sustaining economic activity tied to an inclusive political ecosystem for Ghazni’s multi-ethnic community actors has the potential to serve as a neutral center of discussion, creative thinking, and problem-solving. Ukraine’s “Urban Space 100” project serves as an example, where an isolated and impoverished region in the western region of the country is promoting community ownership and inclusion. The project is driven by an equal investment from a variety of locals, the food-centric atmosphere thrives on a neutral political stance, thereby serving as a center for discussion, creative thinking, and problem-solving within a small, divided community. Similar potential exists in Ghazni, where Pashtuns particularly lack a sense of community ownership resulting from dominating provincial leadership coming from the Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities. Furthermore, the potential for discussion and debate may maximize the innate Afghan cultural hospitality, serving as a pillar to attract rival tribal leaders to solve community disputes, thereby preventing blockages of the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, from driving international narratives of government biases and ineptitude. Most importantly, the expansion of government and economic influence will disrupt Taliban services that bypass the national government.
The Afghan tailored “Urban Space 100” to Ghazni serves as the first building blocks to bridge Ghazni’s ethnic fault lines, rather than increasing airstrikes.
Second, while an Afghan tailored “Urban Space 100” level project builds a provincial sense of community, Ghazni’s massive lithium deposit provides additional potential to the long-term stability prospects of Afghanistan. While requiring billions in foreign direct investment with high levels of counter-corruption and oversight, and adjacent military operations to disrupt the Taliban’s Andar and Taraki strongholds, the project possesses the potential for massive national economic impacts. The Afghan tailored “Urban Space 100” to Ghazni serves as the first building blocks to bridge Ghazni’s ethnic fault lines, rather than increasing airstrikes. Not only would infrastructure increase rural access to the government and military, but the ancillary support services of truck mechanics, cell phone shops, hotels, and restaurants will inject opportunities into a lifeless economy.
Hope remains for a stable Afghanistan, and it begins with garnering interest that is currently absent in many United States’ leaders. The leaders of the mission to rebuild Afghanistan must be held accountable to comprehensive metrics associated with sustainable development goals, rather than quantity of ordnance dropped. Until that happens, the fruitless Afghanistan stalemate will persist. While the United States’ Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, continuously references future inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue, the failure to implement and integrate tangible economic and political benefits in Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic Ghazni region only ensures the four decade long conflict will continue to simmer into the next decade.
Greg Walsh is a U.S. Army Officer and second-year Security Policy Studies student. He has deployed multiple times to Afghanistan, and uses his academic studies to further his understanding of the human dynamics driving mature insurgencies and terrorist networks.