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Ethnic Pushtuns are being forced from northern Afghanistan as local warlords move to crush pockets of potential resistance. The new violence is a significant step toward increasing the power of local warlords, at the interim government’s expense.

A United Nations official said Feb. 19 that some 20,000 people, mostly Pushtuns, have been forced to flee northern Afghanistan under threat of persecution since the beginning of the year. Violence against Pushtuns began in late December, according to anecdotal reports, though the U.N. implied the pace has increased substantially since early February.

Ethnic Pushtuns formed the core of the Taliban movement that once controlled most of Afghanistan. Western media reports frame the violence against Pushtuns as reprisal for years of Taliban brutality, but there is likely more to the story.

Removing the Pushtun population from northern Afghanistan is a way to consolidate power and squelch potential rebellion against the ruling warlords before it happens. It also is a big step in consolidating the power of regional warlords, thus decreasing the influence of Afghanistan’s fledgling central government and contributing to the de facto partitioning of the country.

A weakened central government will become increasingly irrelevant as outside powers choose to do business with local warlords or their external sponsors, such as Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. A neutered regime in Kabul also would be increasingly ignored by the international aid community, which would mean a severe blow to any hopes of economic revival in Afghanistan.

Pushtuns occupy a number of pockets in northern Afghanistan, especially in the provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan and Takhar. Several warlords – including ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, ethnic Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq and ethnic Tajik leader Ustad Atta Mohammad – control the area and are allied in a loose security pact.

Witnesses cited by the Boston Globe claim that members of Dostum’s 3,000-man army, Junbish-e-Millie, are raping and looting in Pushtun villages. Ethnic Hazaras, which comprise perhaps the second-largest armed presence in the north, appear to be complicit if not actively participating in the incidents. Mobs attacked several Pushtun residences in Balkh province in November, according to Pushtun refugees interviewed by the Associated Press. Balkh province is controlled by the Hezb-e-Wahadat, a Hazara group that has more than 6,000 fighters across northern Afghanistan.

On the individual level, the violence may indeed represent reprisals for acts committed under Taliban rule, but there is likely a larger goal as well. Removing the Pushtuns will eliminate pockets of potential resistance to local warlords. Uzbeks and Tajiks don’t have to think back very far to remember the danger posed by pockets of ethnic minorities. Some of the toughest fighting in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban was in the northern city of Kunduz, where the Pushtun-heavy population fiercely resisted Uzbek and Tajik forces.

Despite the horrific details, the latest wave of violence against Pushtuns may not lead directly to a larger ethnic conflict in Afghanistan. In the near term, it may even increase stability in the north by removing a potential flashpoint.

The larger danger is that removing the Pushtuns marks only the beginning of inter-ethnic struggle, and that Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks will turn against each other as each attempts to assert control over northern Afghanistan. Hints of this have already emerged, with Uzbek and Tajik factions skirmishing over parts of Mazar-i-Sharif in recent weeks.

The segmentation of Afghanistan along mainly ethnic lines may reduce the number of low-scale hostilities, but it also may increase the wrangling between power centers such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar. It will also make cross-regional activities, ranging from aid work to economic plans to gas pipelines, much more difficult.

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