MAZAR-I-SHARIF: The serenity of the historic Blue Mosque at the centre of northern Afghanistan’s largest city, where worshippers stream in from early morning to pray, appears to have spread across the city that was once an ethnic cauldron.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias vied for control of Mazar, but Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, managed to establish his writ until 1997, when the Taliban advanced on the city.

Dostum fled to Turkey but several thousand Taliban were killed in a failed first bid to take the city. The Taliban returned in 1998, capturing the city and slaughtering in revenge several thousand Shia Hazaras, the weakest link in the anti-Taliban alliance in Mazar.

Today, Mazar is one of the most peaceful and prosperous cities in the north, benefiting from the near-total absence of the Taliban insurgency and from trade links with neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But ethnic tensions still linger, perhaps only prevented from boiling over by the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the generous spreading around of money by a patronage-driven political set-up.

“The ethnic issue is one of the main problems in Afghanistan,” said Ahmed Saeedi, a Kabul-based analyst, arguing that the ethnic cracks papered over in the last decade could emerge viciously again post-2014.

“All the institutions, the cabinet and the political parties are populated on ethnic lines and the leaders are exploiting the ethnic issue for their narrow gains. Everyone knows that if played around with too much, it could lead to the disintegration of Afghanistan,” Saeedi said.

Ripples of discontent are easy enough to find. In Mazar, there is deep grumbling about the perception that Tajiks have assumed a disproportionate share of power in Balkh province.

“There is oppression by one group of the rest at the moment,” claimed Syed Shamsuddin Agha, an Uzbek member of the provincial council and lieutenant of Rashid Dostum.

“Marshal Fahim (a former warlord and now vice president) and Bismillah Muhammad (the defence minister) have by force installed their man as governor,” Agha said, referring to Ata Mohammad, the Tajik governor of Balkh province who survived a recent reshuffling of governors and often defies President Karzai.

“As 2014 approaches, all groups are preparing to fight. Nobody has faith in the government,” Agha warned, echoing the words of Ismail Khan, the former warlord who caused consternation in Afghanistan earlier this month when he called for the reformation of militias.

Economy slowing

Money, much of it from a war economy, is a large element of the glue that has held together Afghanistan and its ethnic fissures over the past decade.

Earlier this year, a US Senate report on assistance to Afghanistan claimed that the World Bank estimates that 97 per cent of Afghanistan’s roughly $20bn GDP is linked to “international military and development aid and spending in the country by foreign troops”.

The World Bank has distanced itself from the estimate, but the fear is that as the West ratchets down its military spending in the near future, Afghanistan’s economy will be hit hard.

GDP growth has already slowed to 11 per cent in 2011, half the figure from a year before, and the IMF has projected growth in the next two years in the region of 5-6 per cent. The pressure on the local currency, the Afghani, which has lost substantial ground to the US dollar in the last year, is intensifying.

“The economy is not so great, but not so bad yet either,” said Ahmed Siar Khoreishi, the acting CEO of Ghazanfar Bank, one of Afghanistan’s privately owned banks. “If a country relies on aid, there will be problems. If we had built factories, developed agriculture over the last decade, concentrated on the economy, things could have been better. But the last decade was a missed opportunity.”

In an economy that is largely agrarian and subsistence-based, shiny growth rates may matter little to the estimated 70 per cent of the population that lives near or below the poverty line. But factor in the acute political and security uncertainty hanging over Afghanistan and a dramatically slowing economy could have serious effects on stability.

In Mazar, the wide, paved roads, multi-storey buildings and mushrooming construction sites give the impression of a city still booming. A 75-km railway line, Afghanistan’s first, connects Mazar to the Afghan-Uzbekistan border and is set to be extended to Faryab, Balkh’s capital city. Electricity from Tajikistan gives Mazar uninterrupted power at economical rates. But doubts about the sustainability of Afghanistan’s economic growth are casting a shadow even in Mazar. Ahmed Khoreishi cautioned that tough days lie ahead: “Security concerns are already scaring investors away. They are holding back, waiting to see what happens. The fluctuating Afghani is a sign of where investor confidence lies.”

Pakistan non grata

For all the doubt, predictions of an ethnic meltdown in Afghanistan post-2014 can seem dire and overblown at the moment. The smooth-talking Tajik speaker of the Balkh provincial council, Mohammad Fazal Aadi, rattled off a number of statistics to argue that the various ethnicities in Mazar – Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and several other small communities – have been given a share of power and influence.

But if there’s one thing the city of Mazar appears to be in agreement on, it’s the role of Pakistan in their lives. Even in this northerly city, separated from the east by the perilous Salang pass that has already witnessed the season’s first snowfall, the tug of Pakistan is strong.

“When people fall sick, they go to Pakistan for treatment,” said Robaba Naimi, a female Hazara member of the provincial council. “I’ve been to Pakistan three times for treatment. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (which border Balkh province) don’t have good facilities and doctors, they are also very expensive, and it’s more difficult to cross over.”

Aadi, the provincial speaker, joked: “At Torkham, you just have to slip a few hundred rupees to a border guard and you’re on your way to Peshawar.”

But accessible and inviting as Pakistan may be, there is wariness of Pakistan’s strategic role, and of Pakistanis themselves. Aadi, who spoke profusely of Pakistan’s contribution to Mazar, including the construction of an engineering faculty at the local university, admitted: “Some people say that Pakistan’s recent outreach to the north is really to destabilise these areas.”

And perhaps most tellingly, the famous Afghan hospitality has its limits for Pakistanis in Mazar. Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimkhel, a Pashtun and a leader of the High Peace Council in the north, offered every hospitality bar one: “I can’t introduce you to other (ethnic) groups in Mazar. They’ll think I’m a Pakistani agent.”

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