Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Afghanistan’s Unavoidable Partition

NEW DELHI – The United States, still mired in a protracted war in Afghanistan that has exacted a staggering cost in blood and treasure, will formally open peace talks with the Taliban, its main battlefield opponent, in the coming days (apparently despite last-minute opposition from Afghan President Hamid Karzai). With the US determined to withdraw its forces after more than a decade of fighting, the talks in Doha, Qatar, are largely intended to allow it to do so “honorably.”

How the end of US-led combat operations shapes Afghanistan’s future will affect the security of countries nearby and beyond. Here the most important question is whether the fate of Afghanistan, which was created as a buffer between Czarist Russia and British India, will be – or should be – different from that of Iraq and Libya (two other imperial creations where the US has intervened militarily in recent years).

Foreign military intervention can effect regime change, but it evidently cannot reestablish order based on centralized government. Iraq has been partitioned in all but name into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, while Libya seems headed toward a similar tripartite, tribal-based territorial arrangement. In Afghanistan, too, an Iraq-style “soft” partition may be the best possible outcome.

Afghanistan’s large ethnic groups already enjoy de facto autonomy, which they secured after their Northern Alliance played a central role in the US-led ouster of the Taliban from power in late 2001. Having enjoyed virtual self-rule since then, they will fiercely resist falling back under the sway of the Pashtuns, who have ruled the country for most of its history.

For their part, the Pashtuns, despite their tribal divisions, will not be content with control of a rump Afghanistan consisting of its current eastern and southeastern provinces. They will eventually seek integration with fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan, across the British-drawn Durand Line – a border that Afghanistan has never recognized. The demand for a “Greater Pashtunistan” would then challenge the territorial integrity of Pakistan (itself another artificial imperial construct).

The fact that Afghanistan’s ethnic groups are concentrated in distinct geographical zones would simplify partition and make the resulting borders more likely to last, unlike those drawn by colonial officials, who invented countries with no national identity or historical roots. Indeed, both geographically and demographically, Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun groups account for more than half of the country, with Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras alone making up close to 50% of the population.

After waging the longest war in its history, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives and nearly a trillion dollars, the US is combat-weary and financially strapped. But the American effort to cut a deal with the Pashtun-based, Pakistan-backed Taliban is stirring deep unease among the non-Pashtun groups, which suffered greatly under the Taliban and its five-year rule. (The historically persecuted Hazaras, for example, suffered several large-scale massacres.)

While Karzai has been fickle, to say the least, about cooperation with the Americans (indeed, he has since backed away from participation in the Doha talks), the rupture of his political alliance with non-Pashtun leaders has also fueled ethnic polarization. Some non-Pashtun power brokers continue to support Karzai, but many others are now leading the opposition National Front.

These leaders are unlikely to accept any power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban. In fact, they suspect that Karzai’s ultimate goal is to restore Pashtun dominance throughout Afghanistan.

Their misgivings have been strengthened by the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015,” a document prepared by the Karzai-constituted Afghan High Peace Council that sketches several potential concessions to the Taliban and Pakistan, ranging from the Taliban’s recognition as a political party to a role for Pakistan in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The roadmap even dangles the carrot of cabinet posts and provincial governorships to prominent Taliban figures.

The most serious problem today is that the country’s ethnic tensions and recriminations threaten to undermine the cohesion of the fledgling, multiethnic Afghan Army. Indeed, the splits today resemble those that occurred when Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, an exit that led to civil war and the Taliban’s eventual capture of the capital, Kabul.

This time, the non-Pashtun communities are better armed and prepared to defend their interests after the US withdrawal. Thus, in seeking to co-opt the Taliban, the US is not only bestowing legitimacy on a thuggish militia; it also risks unwittingly reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife, which would most likely tear the country apart for good.

This raises a fundamental question: Is Afghanistan’s territorial unity really essential for regional or international security?

To be sure, the sanctity of existing borders has become a powerful norm in world politics. Yet this norm has permitted the emergence of ungovernable and unmanageable states, whose internal wars spill across international boundaries, fueling regional tensions and insecurity.

With a war-exhausted US having run out of patience, outside forces are in no position to prevent Afghanistan’s partition along Iraqi (or even post-Yugoslav) lines, with the bloodiest battles expected to rage over control of ethnically mixed strategic areas, including Kabul. In this scenario, Pakistani generals, instead of continuing to sponsor Afghan Pashtun militant groups (like the Taliban and their allies like the Haqqani network), would be compelled to fend off a potentially grave threat to Pakistan’s unity.

A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be a desirable outcome; but a “soft” partition now would be far better than a “hard” partition later, after years of chaos and bloodletting – and infinitely better than the medieval Taliban’s return to power and a fresh reign of terror. Indeed, partition may be the only way to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into large-scale civil war and to thwart transnational terrorists from reestablishing a base of operations in the rubble.

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  1. CommentedGregory W. MacPherson

    Ridiculous that the USA allowed itself to be drawn into the Afghan quagmire. The original strategy, pursue and defeat the Taliban, could have been executed in 2002 but the politicians failed to allow the military to do their job (as usual). More than ten years later the USA has no business having troops in Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter, which was all Paul Wolfowitz's fault BTW).

    Afghan tribal warfare has been going on for centuries, and shows no signs of letting up. A weakened Afghanistan is a good thing for India, since India's primarily Hindu population already has to deal with the threat of Pakistan and Islamic extremists there. Allowing the Islamic radicals to strengthen in Afghanistan is just more trouble along India's northern border, so geopolitically I don't understand this reasoning at all - unless the author is a Taliban sympathizer; then this argument makes sense.

  2. CommentedGary Tucker

    I commend your article for being very forthright and insightful. And I totally agree with your assessment except for the final outcome.

    Instead of a "soft partition" I would encourage the US to approach Russia and France to enter the discussion in a big way. The main reason for this is that I believe the best outcome would be voting by the north to becoming part of Tajikistan instead.

    I will concede that President Rahmon and his People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan is not the shining example of transparent democracy.

    However consider a few other factors:

    Tajikistan has an ongoing government structure, currency and basic framework to more quickly create a viable combined nation. Both areas of the same Tajik and yet also consist of even other related minorities in both regions. Many of those secondary minorities could find newly acquired political power in at least regional matters.

    Much of what one region now has the other lacks. These assets include hydroelectric projects, established world economic connections and a possible new find in hydrocarbons in Tajikistan. Whereas North Afghanistan has a substantial amount of land below the vast majority of high altitude area that is Tajikistan that could be opened up to much greater agricultural usage. With the shared Amu Darya as the backbone of the new nation the possibilities grow endlessly.

    Why would Rahmon even consider such an option? First and foremost it would be pressure from Russia and France in the way of aide inducements. The second major factor is that the combined population of Tajikistan and North Afghanistan would put it much closer to the population of its neighbor Uzbekistan.

    As North Afghanistan would most likely be bringing a larger population than the current Tajikistan it would require either much greater cooperation among the Afghans to achieve some deal of political power and/or Rahmon and his party actually delivering on reforms and advancements to stay in power. Either way both sides win.

    As this is a deal with a very short time window and the possibilities of the newly combined countries are much greater than remaining as they are, it would be in the best interest of the US, Russia, France, Tajikistan and most importantly the people of North Afghanistan to consider and act upon such a union.

  3. CommentedKrishnan Unni

    So the US has admitted finally that their 'War on Terror' has been an abject and miserable failure. They got the wrong regime off (Iraq) and never managed to eliminate the actual culprit (Taliban). The Taliban had openly claimed they were the ones providing support for the 911 attacks. So much for getting rid of them then. Over 10 years of the world's time, effort and lives have been wasted in this most quixotic of adventures. All that money would have been sufficient to prevent the financial crisis, if anything, and would have gone a long long way in meeting the Millennium Development Goals of the UN. What's most hysterical is the amount of brainpower that has gone into waging this ultimately pointless 'War'. All the commanders and leading figures had exceptional capabilities - Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and all else are common words in the CVs of the big shots. How they almost universally forgot the basic premise (or lack thereof) of a war on an emotion. Was it even about oil - after all that they've spent, all that oil might just help them break-even. And is anyone actually thankful of 'the West' for this 'gift'? The shoe-throwing incident spoke for the entire region. For a lay-by individual like me, Afghanistan and Iraq made media interesting, and gave me something of a conversation-filler. My hearts go out to the people who lost their lives - totally uncalled for. Was anyone benefitted from the whole exercise? Or more pertinently, did any of the intended beneficiaries get what they wanted?

  4. CommentedPiruz Parsi

    As a citizen of Afghanistan I believe If the current chauvinist and ethnic supremacist policies of southern pashtuns continue , which I am sure will, there won't be any way out other than a partition. We do no want to live and coexist with a violent tribe who support the atrocities of Taliban and their daily life is conducted by tribal laws which are primitive and extremely violent. There are two opposing factors, which is Persian langauge and pashto ( the minority language), after partition a huge part of the geography will adapt Persian as their only official language and so one of the biggest problems will be automatically solve. Pashtuns can do whatever they desire with their language in the south. Northern, Central and Western regions no longer desired or accept to be ruled by a tribal goon from the south.

  5. CommentedHarsh Ray

    The article goes beyond the superficial stuff that dominates media coverage of Afghanistan to shine a spotlight on an unpalatable reality: the deep, bitter ethnic divisions and how they threaten the reestablishment of a central authority whose writ runs throughout the country. The Afghans are a brave people who have suffered a lot for more than two decades now. If a "soft" partition brings peace, so be it.

  6. CommentedMonyshka Harp

    The international community faces difficult choices on Afghanistan. I liked this article for its sobering, realistic assessment that once the law of unintended consequences kicks in, the capacity of outside actors to shape developments gets limited.

  7. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Prof. Chellany is eminently qualified to limn the Indian nationalist perspectives on regional, even global, security issues. His commentary on US-Taliban talks appears to be shaped by that particular ideational preference.

    His appreciation of the complexity of the Afghan reality appears to be coloured by his fundamental belief that Afghanistan was "created as a buffer between Czarist Russia and British India." This is factually incorrect and suggests somewhat limited and selective grasp of Afghan history.

    In 1747, the commander of the cavalry bodyguard of King Nadir Shah of Persia, an Ahmedzai Pashtun named Ahmed Abdali, led a coup against the Persian monarch, killed him, fled to Kandahar and proclaimed an independent Afghan/Pashtun state. He was enthroned by Pashtun tribal elders as Ahmed Shah Durr-e-Durran (pearl of pearls, an especially noble honorific, given that pearls were particularly rare in landlocked Afghanistan).

    The British and the Russians, especially the former, firmed up Afghan borders, both exercising significant influence since the 19th century (the Brits went to war in Afghanistan twice in the 19th century, with tragic results). Britain and Russia did not create Afghanistan; Afghans did. that basic error and inaccuracy erodes the value of his commentary.

  8. Commenteddonna jorgo

    Afghanistan is one country with high virtytes they have long history )war) and untill now no one win.
    (the group ethnic) how you express IF fighting for freedom with out Islamic rules will be real ethnic BUT IN Kabul have all most every day killing people (Afghan) this is not ethnic this is terrorist ..SO i will be agree with you IF this Group ethnic DON'T get budget from FBI OR CIA
    because they take some where fund for having ARME for fighting?
    THE AFGHANISTAN PROBLEM(IF IS PROBLEM) I DON'T THINK SO (FOR MY OPINION) ARE CREATE TO HAVE SOME WERE TOPIC WAR OR (DICIOLOGIA) FOR SOME BAD PEOPLE FIGHING USA ..
    SO FIGHT FOR FREEDOM NOT FOR RELIGION ..(RELIGION KEEP WITH RESPECT BY YOUR TRADITIONAL)NOT DICTACKT TO THE WORLD(OR OTHERS). THERE HAVE BIG INTERESES SO NOONE CAN FIND SOLUTION

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