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ABSTRACT This article argues that ethnicity has become increasingly salient in Afghan politics and society during the years of war, and discusses how the country’s new institutions can be designed in a way that will contribute towards a reversal of this trend. The article examines a series of policy issues with a bearing on inclusion vs exclusion in inter-ethnic relations: political institution building (institutions of government, electoral system, and centre–region relations), land rights, state religion, the census and the new identity document. For each of these the article discusses what outcome would best contribute to longer-term stability and integration by stimulating inclusive, integrative identities —and what the problems and prospects are for these outcomes to be realised. The article specifically discusses warlords’ role as spoilers, and the potential and limitations to the leverage on Afghan politics that is held by international actors, above all the USA.