The proposal to divide Afghanistan after the US withdrawal flies in the face of history – and the best interests of the Afghan nation.
On the verge of exit from Afghanistan, the US and its allies might be tempted to leave a Balkanised version of that country in their wake. The idea, championed by Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, is seen as something of an end game, where the country is divided along ethnic lines.
A divided Afghanistan, the thinking goes, would prevent a full-scale return of the Taliban by reducing its presence to the Pashtun-dominated south and, in the process, contain the threat. The presumedly peaceful north could embark on nation-building while military operations and counter-terrorism could continue in the south. It sounds simple. But is the analysis missing something?
The logic of a divided Afghanistan is based on three premises. First, there was no such country as Afghanistan until Russia and Britain decided to create it in 1893 as a buffer between the Russian and British empires. Second, Taliban support is confined to the Pashtun-dominated south. And last, a division along ethnic lines would be acceptable to all parties.
All three premises are appealing to consider – and all three are dead wrong.
The first premise is manifestly false. In 1747, Ahmed Shah Durrani began to carve out an empire covering almost all of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even though the Durrani empire had disintegrated by the late 19th century, the extension into the Indian sub-continent and Iran laid a regional framework tied to Afghanistan.
In fact, that political entity was only imperfectly divided by the British-imposed Durand Line in 1893, which drew an arbitrary division between Afghanistan and British India, along the border of present-day Pakistan. The political cohesion of the area was pulled apart by the Great Game rivalry between Britain and Russia, but Afghanistan has disputed the Durand Line since its creation.
The second premise of Balkanisation is also dangerously misleading. While the Taliban are entirely Pashtun, and the leader of the Quetta Shura, Mullah Mohammed Omar, hails from Kandahar in the south, neither Pashtuns nor Taliban support is confined there. Qunduz is a Pashtun-dominated region in the extreme north. The provinces of Logar, Nangarhar and Paktia immediately south and east of Kabul are Pashtun dominated. And west and north of Kabul, Jalalabad and the region bordering Pakistan is also Pashtun.
The bulk of the Hazara ethnic group lives in central Afghanistan, though they are a minority in every province. While Hazaras are almost exclusively Shiites and have often been discriminated against by Pashtun groups, predominantly Pashtun areas have historically hosted peoples of many religions including Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Parsis. The arrival of the Taliban, of course, changed this acceptance of this religious diversity.
Finally, the belief that Afghanistan would happily accept a state carved along ethnic divisions is also wrong. Despite the country’s ethnic and religious diversity, there has always been a national character among Afghan people, who pride themselves on being Afghan first. Afghan Tajiks may dominate the region bordering Tajikistan, and Uzbeks near Uzbekistan, but they are all Afghans.
This sense of national identity has been bolstered by another factor that the Americans have perhaps overlooked. Afghans have a vested interest in a united country that can better exploit its mineral wealth and keeps intact the economic corridor that runs through Central Asia. While outsiders might not value the economic unity of the country, it should be the foundation of the country’s future development. If divided, some of the constituent parts would quickly become economically inviable.
It remains to be seen what form Afghanistan will take after the United States and its allies make their exit. But that exit is on the horizon. As I have argued in previous articles, last month’s visit of the US vice president Joe Biden and his return two days ago may signal a changing US strategy in the region. Mr Biden is the greatest proponent in Washington of a diminished US troop presence on the subcontinent, and his visits will be dealing with an exit strategy.
But regardless, events may outpace the Americans. The so-called Rabbani initiative, named for the Tajik veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war Burhanuddin Rabbani, proposes rapprochement with the Taliban in a framework that only includes Afghans. Obviously, that excludes America’s hand from shaping the post-invasion order. Mr Rabbani made that proposal to the Pashtun jirga in Nangarhar.
Just as the Americans are being pushed towards the exit, their plans for Afghanistan are becoming further irrelevant. Those who try to impose an outsider’s solution on Afghanistan will be making the same mistakes of many wars past.