KABUL — Nothing brings together a fractious population like a common enemy, and Pakistan may be inadvertently creating something long absent in Afghanistan: national unity.
In an ethnically diverse country dominated by tribal alliances and with a population largely disdainful of centralized power, Afghans are rallying around a common bogeyman — Pakistan — spurred largely by cross-border rocket attacks in northeast Afghanistan blamed on their neighbors.
The attacks have affected the heavily Pashtun provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, as well as Nuristan, where a barrage of rockets has displaced thousands. Outrage seems to have cut across ethnicity and solidified Afghans’ already dim view of their neighbor. Public anger finally persuaded Afghanistan’s parliament to vote to dismiss the country’s top two defense officials last month, citing their inability to stop the rocket attacks as the main justification.
While news coverage of Afghanistan has been sparse outside its borders, the issue has dominated national news and necessitated an uncomfortable balancing act for members of the international military coalition. There have been protests in several provinces, and one former presidential candidate is even recruiting Afghans from across the country to travel to Kunar province and defend it against Pakistan.
Bismillah Sher, himself an ethnic Tajik from Kunduz, is the leader of the Wefaq-Milli Afghanistan (National Unity Party of Afghanistan) and recently sent out the call for volunteers in a strongly worded missive that states “the invading Punjabis are bleeding the people of Kunar.” He said he already has 1,000 volunteers from 10 provinces, and that letters and emails are still pouring in.
He’s vague about what his so-far-unarmed militia will do if it gets to the border, but he says they’re determined to respond if the central government of international military coalition won’t.
“Afghan people don’t love to fight, but Afghan people love to defend their country,” he said.
Outside of military channels, the U.S. government is not playing intermediary in the dispute, though cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is vital, said Masha Hamilton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
“What Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton has said is that good relations between neighbors are critical for regional stability and regional stability is critical for Afghanistan’s future,” she said.
The issue came to a head in August when the normally timid parliament took a rare stand against Karzai, voting out one of his most trusted defense officials, long-time Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, and Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi (though Karzai has now announced his intention of bringing back Mohammadi as defense minister).
Votes often break down along ethnic lines here but that was not the case when parliament voted to oust Wardak and Mohammadi, one a Pashtun from the east and the other a Tajik from the north. In that, some see a hopeful sign.
“The two cabinet members who were removed, it was not just done by the members of parliament from Kunar, it was the whole nation’s representatives,” said Haji Sakhi Mushwani, a parliamentarian from Kunar. “They are one voice about these attacks by Pakistan.”
On a popular weekly call-in show broadcast by Radio Free Europe, callers have been jamming the show’s voice mail with angry messages about the attacks, said host Zarif Nazar, who has devoted several two-hour blocks solely to discussion of the rocket attacks.
Nazar said calls are coming from across the country and from Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, as well as Pashtuns.
“The people blame the government,” he said. “They say the government doesn’t do anything and that they are spies for Pakistan.”
Ayoub Fazali, a musician who lives in Kabul echoed some of the fiery rhetoric heard over the airwaves.
“This is a national issue and I’m seeing many Afghans united about it,” he said. “I, myself, if I’m asked, and if there is a need, I’m ready to sacrifice my life. I’m ready to pick up with my family and go defend this country if I’m asked.”
Anger is not just directed at Pakistan, but equally toward Kabul and the international military coalition, undermining efforts to build trust in the central government, said Shahmahmood Miakhel, Afghanistan country director for the United States Institute of Peace.
“It creates more distress for the government and international forces, widening the gap between people and the government,” he said.
Fazlullah Wahedi, governor of Kunar province, which is dealing with a humanitarian crisis set off by the attacks, said he has received supportive calls from officials across the country from provinces unaffected by the attacks.
“We are Afghans, we are brothers, we are one country,” he said.
Afghanistan has experienced fragile, temporary bouts of strategic brotherhood in the past. During their war against the Soviet Union, the opposition Mujahedeen were recruited from all ethnic groups but that quickly disintegrated and sectarian bloodletting began almost as soon as Soviet troops pulled out.
However, that war affected nearly everyone in the country; what is notable about the response to the rocket attacks is that the violence has affected relatively few villagers in remote areas and yet it has touched a nerve with Afghans hundreds of miles away.
Aminullah, 20, a student in the Kapisa province, far from the border, said the rocket attacks are a constant topic at his local youth group and he hopes to connect with other youth groups to take action.
“The border issue brought national unity and this is good because even if Afghans are having problems among themselves they are united on (this),” he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this story.