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Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan â It started with a heat-of-the-moment comment on a partisan television talk show, drawing an ethnic line that was bold even by Afghan standards.
âPashtuns are the rulers and owners of Afghanistan; they are the real inhabitants of Afghanistan,â said Gen. Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former intelligence official. âAfghanistan means âwhere Pashtuns live.â â
The words ignited protests in Kabul in December. Social media erupted. To contain the uproar, President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, had General Taqat arrested and chastised the news media for trying to whip up hatred, something he said many outlets were increasingly doing.
The president warned his fellow Afghans, with their bitter memories of ethnic conflict, of what they stood to lose: âIf it were not for the national unity of the people, you wouldnât be able to live in Kabul for a second.â
More than 100,000 people died during the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, a conflict that broke largely along ethnic lines, among the Pashtuns and the smaller Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek populations.
Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
Although there has been little ethnic violence across the country lately, in political and news media circles, nerves are raw and tempers have been flaring. Shouting matches over ethnic issues in Parliament and on radio programs have started to erupt into fistfights, a troubling reminder that the fragile ethnic détente here, sustained by foreign troops and billions of dollars in aid, could easily shatter. And with the American-led coalition preparing to withdraw, a long-term security agreement in doubt and a presidential election looming, many Afghans feel vulnerable about the future.
But so far at least, ordinary Afghans do not seem to be following the news media and political eliteâs lead. Many people have taken to the Internet and to the streets to protest the provocations, writing songs and poems about unity and castigating the news media and partisan leaders who play the ethnic card. Under pressure, General Taqat offered an apology to the nation, in a video posted on YouTube.
The television and radio dials in Afghanistan are crowded with partisan stations that glorify their leaders and fire up their followers, and many of them have seized on the ethnic debate that the generalâs remarks reopened. The ethnically mixed Karzai administration has a history of pushing back when debate turns into the fanning of ethnic hatreds; in 2010, it forced one station, Emroz TV, to shut down.
The government is acutely conscious of the danger, to the point that it has made inciting ethnic strife a crime. Many of its senior officials took part in the brutal civil war, and few officials doubt that if Afghanistan were to fall into civil unrest again, much of the violence would erupt along ethnic lines, even within the countryâs own security forces.
Sensitivities about ethnic identity can impede progress in Afghanistan in unexpected ways. The country is conducting its first census since 1979, but census workers avoid asking routine questions about ethnicity or language, for fear that the census might find altered proportions of each group in the population and as a result upset the balance of power.
Lawmakers have been arguing for months, sometimes violently, over what it means to be an Afghan. Many members of ethnic minorities believe that the word refers only to Pashtuns and want their own ethnicity listed on new national identity cards, but some Pashtun leaders are objecting.
âWe are defending the Afghan Constitution, which says that every single citizen, regardless of his or her ethnic group, is called an Afghan,â said Aryan Yoon, a Pashtun member of Parliament, and the wife of one of the founders of Zhwandoon TV, the channel that aired General Taqatâs comments.
Others see the issue differently, including workers at Mitra TV, a channel for Tajiks that was recently opened by Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province.
âA particular ethnic group is trying to remain dominant,â said Asar Hakimi, an adviser to the station. âIf they hold power exclusively, it will lead to a disaster, like in the Balkans.â
Ordinary Afghans have not been easily provoked to factional violence, not even after a bombing at a Shiite festival in 2012 left nearly 70 Hazaras dead. But that does not mean the question is not on their minds.
Ethnic issues appear to loom largest with older people who witnessed the civil war firsthand, while younger peopleâs attitudes are more fluid and their identities more complex, especially in Kabul. Lotfullah Dost offers himself as an example: His family is Pashtun, but he grew up in a Tajik neighborhood and speaks only Dari, the language of Tajiks.
Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
âThere are a lot of people like me,â he said. âIâm in the middle. I cannot claim to be a Pashtun because I donât speak Pashto. I canât claim to be a Tajik, either, because Iâm not.â
Mixed families have become more common. One of the most popular candidates in the presidential election scheduled for April is Abdullah Abdullah, who has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother.
In East Kabul, along a road that leads to Jalalabad, a largely Pashtun neighborhood, Arzan Qemat, buzzes with life in the evening as vendors hawk fruit and men make their way home from work. Sharifullah Safai, a police officer in the neighborhood, said that if the new identity cards did not say âAfghanâ on them, he would not accept his.
âAfghan doesnât mean Pashtun,â he said. âIt means anyone who lives here.â
Still, he says he believes the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan discriminate against Pashtuns, not the other way around, a view that many Pashtuns share. In some respects, the ethnic fault line that is felt most acutely in Afghanistan is the one that separates Pashtuns from everyone else, a divide that is accentuated by the fact that the Taliban militants warring with the government and the international coalition are almost all Pashtuns.
âEthnic tension is limitless,â Mr. Safai said. âI donât see a future of stability.
âThe Afghan Army and police will not be able to prevent the Taliban from taking over,â he added. âThe rise of the Taliban will be a precursor to an ethnic civil war.â
A Pashtun man, taking a stroll with his adult son in the neighborhood before sunset, paused to discuss General Taqatâs remark that Afghan meant Pashtun.
âI agree with General Taqat,â he said as a small crowd gathered to listen and to eye the journalists interviewing him. âThese days, everyone is trying to make political maneuvers.â
A young Tajik man in the crowd took exception. âHow can you say that?â he shouted. âWe are both human beings. Itâs not written on our foreheads that you are a good Afghan and I am a bad Afghan.â
The older man stood for a moment, appearing nonplused, as the crowd watched.
âListen,â he said finally. âI think General Taqatâs statement was misinterpreted. He was saying we should stop using ethnic terms â Tajik, Pashtun and so on. We are all living under one flag.â
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