Monday, January 5, 2015

Ethnic Quotas and Ethnic Representation in Afghanistan

Many countries have been involved in Afghanistan in the past decade. However, one would be pressed to say that their presence has brought or greatly contributed to achieving stability in the country. Nevertheless, some progress has been made. For instance, USA`s biggest achievement in Afghanistan was establishing fairly ethnically representative defence and police forces. This post will analyze the method used to attain this ethnic representation.

In Afghanistan, prior to the past few years, the dominant ethnic group, the Pashtun, was under-represented in both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).  Based on the ethnic representation of the general population, the USA set ethnic targets for the defence and the police forces as follows:  Pashtun – 44%, Tajik – 25%, Hazara -10%, Uzbek – 8%, and others 13%

The USA has clearly made some significant gains in this area. For instance, in 2009, the Tajik made up 70% of ANA officer corps. Today, they make up 39.6% of the officer corps and are moving closer to the 25% target. They are still over-represented in the police force, at the expense of the Hazara, the Uzbek, and the other smaller ethnic groups. Moreover, the largest ethnic group the Pashtun still falls short of the 44% target, both in the ANA and the ANP. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the establishment of ethnic quotas has greatly increased the ethnic representation in the defence and police forces.

Yet, one has to question the utility of using ethnic quotas for the ANP. Since ethnic quotas ensure that the force represents the general population of the country rather that of the community, it means a unit might not be ethnically representative of the community in which it is stationed. To illustrate, in the case of Afghanistan, ethnic group dominate certain territories: the Pashtun occupy the majority of the south, while the Tajik are found in the north. Currently, the ANP is representative of the general population as mentioned above; however, it would be more beneficial if the ANP units were ethnically representative of the community they are located in. Thus in a Pashtun dominated territory, police officers would be mostly Pashtun. As a result, they would be better able to relate to the community and would be better positioned to gain its trust. Conversely, if a police unit meets the current ethnic quotas, the majority of officers in that unit will be Pashtun. However, the unit could still be based in a Tajik-dominated area. Consequently, a Pashtun dominated police unit in a Tajik dominated area can be a recipe for police abuse and ethnic predation.

On the other hand, ethnic quotas still work well in the ANA (or in any military). Since the army protects all citizens, it should be ethnically representative of the general population especially if there are ethnic tensions in the country. An ethnically representative army will demonstrate to the population that people from different ethnic groups can work together thus, hopefully, inspiring cooperation between groups. Moreover, by requiring soldiers from different ethnic groups to work together, it teaches them to put aside their ethnic differences and regard each other as brothers in arms. As a result, the approach will promote loyalty to the army thus enhancing its cohesiveness and efficiency. Furthermore, if each unit is ethnically representative of the general population, then the unit will have a link to the community in any area of operation.  

However, some criticize this approach by pointing out that if an ethnic group was to rebel then it would undermine a part of each unit. They propose the British regimental system as a solution: small units (battalions) are ethnically homogenous, while the encompassing larger group (a brigade) is ethnically representative. For example, in the case of Afghanistan, an ethnically representative brigade would be made up of four ethnically homogenous battalions: the Pashtun, the Tajik, the Hazara, and the Uzbek. Proponents of this method claim that ethnic links within the unit can improve morale and the efficiency of battalions, while enabling the brigade to exercise control over them when it engages in combat against the ethnic kin of that battalion.

However, the homogenous battalions would have to be different sizes in order to proportionally represent the size of an ethnic group in general population, which could lead to issues such as abuse of the smaller battalions. Moreover, this approach promotes stark separation, which could lead to competition or tensions between the battalions. Any such tensions would hinder the ability of the army to work harmoniously as a unit. In addition, the approach would forgo the benefits of having an army that is as a whole ethnically representative of the general population.

Therefore, the ANP should be representative of the community where its posts are located, while the ANA should be ethnically representative as a whole of the general population. Furthermore, the above reasoning could also apply to other countries where majority and minority ethnic groups dominate certain territories (as is the case in Afghanistan), and there are tensions between them.


  1. It is good overview. One wonder how etnicity correlates to professional abilities ? It could be that equal etnical representation is not best way to go ?

    1. You're right. Meritocracy is important. However, considering all police officers/soldiers go through the same basic training, I think it is assumed they have the same professional abilities.