KABUL // Hundreds of Pashtuns gathered in Kabul recently to protest against the alleged discrimination they face in the education system and public sector. But for many among their community, the event could just as easily have been about the past nine years of social, political and military upheaval in Afghanistan.
The country's largest ethnic group is growing increasingly frustrated and angry with the government and its foreign backers. From house raids and air strikes, to problems in the classroom and civil service, they believe they are the main victims of a war deliberately targeting their very way of life. "Our blood is turning the streets red, and so is yours," said Nasimgul Tutakhail, an associate professor at Kabul University who helped organise the protest. "If you do not listen to our speech, very soon you will be defeated."
Pashtuns are, by all independent estimates, the majority ethnic group here. Living predominantly in the south and east, they have long been Afghanistan's traditional rulers, supplying the heads of state in regimes that have covered just about the entire political spectrum, from monarchies and communism to Islamic theocracy. But since the 2001 invasion brought with it the promise of a new democratic system, there has been a pervasive feeling in some circles that the balance of power has shifted towards their enemies.
The current Pashtun president, Hamid Karzai, is often regarded as a figurehead put in place to disguise what is actually happening on the ground. "He is just a symbol," Mr Tutakhail said. The root of this anger is the US-backed appointment of a number of warlords from the north of the country to official positions after the collapse of the Taliban government. Mostly ethnic Tajiks, they have been directly implicated in human rights abuses before, during and after the invasion, often against Pashtuns.
It is a wound that continues to fester today, fuelling conspiracy theories about what the West's intentions here really are. "America and Nato gave power to a minority group of thieves in Afghanistan," Mr Tutakhail said. As well as this political alienation, there is a feeling that Pashtun culture is under attack. The demonstration in Kabul was held to demand the equal use of the Pashto language in public institutions.
Protesters complained that in universities and schools across the capital, lessons are held only in Afghanistan's other main language, Dari. This, they said, has caused some students to underachieve or even fail their exams because they do not understand what is being taught. For Hasibullah Azam, a Grade 10 pupil, it is all part of the same problem. Speaking after the march, he said: "The government of Afghanistan has not paid enough attention to Pashtuns and that is why they started fighting. The fighting going on now is just for Pashtuns to receive their rights; they have no other aims."
While the war is spreading to nearly all parts of the country, it continues to be fiercest in the south and east, where the insurgency is gaining in intensity and sophistication. It has also spilled into neighbouring Pakistan. Pashtun communities straddle both sides of the frontier, having been divided when the British drew the border in 1893. The Taliban is not a nationalist movement, but it is has always received the bulk of its support from Pashtuns and observers say cultural grievances are an important factor in motivating men to take up arms. These include the dishonour brought about by house raids, and the need to avenge the killing of relatives.
Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, president of the Regional Studies Centre of Afghanistan, warned that attacks by Nato and US forces would be regarded as "a holocaust" if they went on for much longer. "Unfortunately, if the situation goes on like now, 10 years later you will fight against maybe one million fundamentalists, people like the Taliban. Because it is clear that when you kill one innocent person among Pashtuns, 10 more Taliban will rise," he said.
The potential for Afghanistan's ethnic tensions to boil over into mass sectarian violence does appear to be growing. Tajik leaders have voiced their concern about any future peace deal with the Taliban and ethnic Hazara politicians have begun speaking out against the government in a row about cabinet posts. Meanwhile, the violence in Pashtun areas shows no signs of abating. In the capital city there is anger, but in the provinces there is open revolt. Asadullah Waheedi, editor of the daily Sarnavesht newspaper, warned that opposition to the occupation was now a majority opinion among his people.
"The foreign troops and the current government prepared the ground for me to continue my education, they solved my economic problems and I am living in Kabul and have access to all the facilities of a modern life. But I am not happy for the Americans to stay for even one minute more in Afghanistan. "So if a man is living in the countryside, seeing civilians killed by foreign soldiers and losing members of his family, why would he be happy for them to stay?"