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Leaked Memo Fuels New Allegations Of Ethnic Bias In Afghan Government

FILE: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2 - L) granting an Afghan Army soldier, Esa Khan (C) with the keys to a new flat in recognition of his bravery in June 2015.
FILE: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2 - L) granting an Afghan Army soldier, Esa Khan (C) with the keys to a new flat in recognition of his bravery in June 2015.

The letter, sent earlier this month by an Afghan police commander, requested recruits for a new antiriot force in the capital, Kabul. Officer candidates should come from the country's main ethnic groups -- Hazara, Uzbek, and Pashtun.

Left out was the country's second-largest ethnicity -- Tajiks.

Now the letter has leaked, published in the Afghan press and circulated on social media, sparking an uproar and provoking new accusations of systemic ethnic favoritism in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani.

The controversy comes with ethnic tensions already running high, spurred on by an unpopular central government divided between Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who draws political support from the Tajik community. Ghani, a Pashtun, has been dogged by claims of favoritism and stoking tensions, allegations that he vehemently denies.

In the November 18 letter written by Abdul Fattah Frogh, a commander of the Afghan Public Protection Forces (APPF), he asks officials for recruits for the new force, and pointedly singles out Tajiks.

"On the basis of an order of the president, a 500-member antiriot unit has been established under the Kabul 101 commandant; hereby it is directed that within 24 hours the identities of officers belonging to Hazara, Uzbek, Pashtun -- except Tajik ethnicity -- must be sent," the letter reads.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the APPF, did not dispute the veracity of the leaked document. It said what it showed was not discrimination, but rather a simple clerical error.

"The majority of our APPF members are currently ethnic Tajiks," Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danesh said in a statement on November 20. "This is a typing error. We have adequate numbers of ethnic Tajik police officers within this unit. There is therefore a need in the unit for members from other ethnic groups so that the unit's ethnic composition is balanced."

Those remarks have not ended a wave of condemnation by lawmakers, members of the Afghan military community, and from the media.

'Cause Of Riots'

The angry reaction reflects the historical tensions among the country's ethnic groups. Tajiks are second only to Pashtuns in numbers, and the two groups have traditionally struggled for control over the country's most powerful government positions and wealth.

When they controlled the country in the years leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban were largely made up of Pashtuns. Their opponents in the civil wars of the 1990s were mainly ethnic Tajiks.

"While Ashraf Ghani continues to say his government sees all Afghans as equal, the second satanic memo was issued by his [Interior Ministry] instructing relevant sections to exclude Afghans of Tajik ethnicity from antiriot unit," said Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief who is part of Jamiat-e Islami, a mainly Tajik political party. "Does it mean he creates [an] anti-Tajik unit? Shame & shame."

"These actions committed for political gain create differences at the national level," Fakuri Beheshti, a Hazara lawmaker from Bamiyan Province, said on November 20. "The unit cannot serve as antiriot police. Instead, the unit will be a cause of riots."

The independent Hasht-e Sobh daily wrote in an editorial that the "content of the letter shows clear discrimination."

"This is the second ethnic-based plan by the presidential palace which has been disclosed by media outlets; and has created concerns for the citizens of the country," the private Arman-e Melli daily wrote in an editorial on November 20.

Leaked Memo

The memo is the second to have leaked in months, and the second to stoke suspicions about Ghani's commitment to balancing government appointments among ethnic groups.

In September, a memo from the Administrative Office of the President appeared to show positions being handed out with the intention of keeping power in the hands of Pashtuns while giving the appearance of diversity.

"Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us, should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented," said the memo, which was mistakenly shared on Telegram by Sawabdin Makhkash, the deputy chief of monitoring and observation in the administrative office.

The memo also mentions an official, saying he is "a good person but he brings in Hazaras and appoints them to top positions."

"We have to look for Pashtuns who are fluent in all languages," it adds.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.