Expert Faults U.S. Strategy In Afghanistan

An expert in Asian affairs says the U.S. is backing Tajiks in Afghanistan, though the ethnic group is roughly half the size of the country's Pashtun majority. "How are we going to build an Afghan army ... if we have an army dominated by a minority so that the Pashtuns don't want to join it?" says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There's much discussion in Washington these days about Afghanistan, about war aims, about troop levels, and about election recounts.

Well, Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy in the Woodrow Wilson Center has been writing about and covering Afghanistan ever since 1963. And he has written about another dimension of the Afghan conflict: the ethnic fault lines that run through the country in what he's called the tyranny of the minority. Welcome to the program once again.

Dr. SELIG HARRISON (Director of Asia Program, Center for International Policy): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, in a nutshell, can you give us a primer on the big ethnic groups in Afghanistan?

Dr. HARRISON: Well, the largest ethnic group are the Pashtuns, at least 42 percent. This is the ethnic group that has produced the Taliban. And this group is, you know, almost twice as big as the next biggest one: the Tajics who are perhaps 24 percent. And there are smaller groups: the Uzbeks and the Hazaras.

But what's important, in the context of the American involvement in Afghanistan, is the fact that the United States has gotten itself on the side of the Tajic minority, helped it to get control of the key security agencies of the government, including the intelligence and secret police agencies that operate in the Pashtun areas; control of the armed forces.

How are we going to build an Afghan army - which seems to be the way the Obama administration hopes to get out - if we have an army dominated by a minority so that the Pashtuns don't want to join it?

SIEGEL: You've written about the fact that Tajic officers are represented disproportionately in the officer corps...

Dr. HARRISON: Very, very disproportionately. And this is born out in all the expert studies, recently the Rand study for the Pentagon. Seventy percent of the battalion commanders are Tajics, according to a U.N. report. So you've got a built-in problem in recruiting Pashtuns in the most important populous area of Afghanistan where the insurgency is going on, into the new Afghan army that we are hoping to create.

SIEGEL: However, President Karzai himself is not a Tajic. He's a Pashtun.

Dr. HARRISON: Yeah, he was the Pashtun face on a regime that was established after we went in in 2001. After 9/11, we'd ousted the Taliban with the help of a group of Tajics who had been active in the war against the Russians. So when they set up an interim government in Afghanistan right after we went in, the Tajics, they wanted a sort of safe Pashtun, an Uncle Tom Pashtun. And Karzai was the one Pashtun figure who was acceptable to the Tajics.

So from the beginning, he's been distrusted by his fellow Pashtuns as not a really strong defender of their interests. And particularly in the fact that with the backing of the U.S., Karzai has gone along with Tajic control of the army, the police, and the key intelligence agencies, including the secret police, which is very important.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, U.S. strategy is as it appears to beef up the Afghan army so that within a year or two it can take over from the United States, and however many troops there are then, they can be withdrawn. By your analysis, all that will do is further strengthen the Tajic hold on power and further alienate more Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

Dr. HARRISON: That's right. But it'll also be impossible to build up that army. Because if you're organizing, you're trying to build up an army to fight the insurgency, to fight the Taliban, you can't do it with Tajic forces that have Tajic battalion commanders. And you're going to have to recruit Pashtuns, and they won't join the new Afghan National Army, as long as it is dominated by the defense minister who - I mean an army chief of staff. I mean they do have a Pashtun defense minister, but he doesn't have any power. The chief of staff runs everything.

SIEGEL: Selig Harrison, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. HARRISON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Selig Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and he's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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