Afghanistan’s partition might be unpreventable

An ethnic partition of Afghanistan appears the best of bad options


The National, March 1, 2013

AfghanistanAmerica’s unwinnable war in Afghanistan, after exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure, is finally drawing to an official close. How this development shapes Afghanistan’s future will have a significant bearing on the security of countries located far beyond. After all, Afghanistan is not Vietnam: the end of U.S.-led combat operations may not end the war, because the enemy will seek to target Western interests wherever located.

Can the fate of Afghanistan be different from two other Muslim countries where the United States also intervened militarily — Iraq and Libya? Iraq has been partitioned in all but name into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish sections, while Libya seems headed toward a similar three-way but tribal-based partition, underscoring that a foreign military intervention can effect regime change but not establish order. Will there be an Iraq-style “soft partition” of Afghanistan, with protracted strife eventually creating a “hard partition”?

Afghanistan’s large ethnic minorities already enjoy de facto autonomy, which they secured after their Northern Alliance played a central role in the U.S.-led ouster of the Afghan Taliban from power in late 2001. Having enjoyed autonomy for years now, the minorities will resist with all their might from coming under the sway of the ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for long.

For their part, the Pashtuns, despite their tribal divisions, will not rest content with being in charge of just a rump Afghanistan made up of the eastern and southeastern provinces. Given the large Pashtun population resident across the British-drawn Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, they are likely sooner or later to revive their long-dormant campaign for a Greater Pashtunistan — a development that could affect the territorial integrity of another artificial modern construct, Pakistan.

The fact that the ethnic minorities are actually ethnic majorities in distinct geographical zones in the north and the west makes Afghanistan’s partitioning organically doable and more likely to last, unlike the colonial-era geographical line-drawing that created states with no national identity or historical roots. The ethnic minorities account for more than half of Afghanistan — both in land area and population size. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities alone make up close to 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population.

After waging the longest war in its history at a cost of tens of thousands of lives and nearly a trillion dollars, the U.S. is combat-weary and even financially strapped. The American effort for an honorable exit by cutting a deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, paradoxically, is deepening Afghanistan’s ethnic fissures and increasing the partitioning risk. With President Barack Obama choosing his second-term national security team and his 2014 deadline to end all combat operations approaching, the U.S. effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is back on the front burner.

This effort, being pursued in coordination with Afghan President Hamid Karzai amid an ongoing gradual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, is stirring deep unease among the Afghan minorities, who fought the Taliban and its five-year rule fiercely and suffered greatly. The Taliban’s rule, for example, was marked by several large-scale massacres of members of the historically persecuted Hazara group.

The rupturing of Karzai’s political alliance with ethnic-minority leaders has also aided ethnic polarization. Some non-Pashtun power brokers remain with Karzai, but most others now lead the opposition National Front.

The minority communities are unlikely to accept any power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban. In fact, they suspect Karzai’s intention is to restore Pashtun dominance across Afghanistan. Karzai, however, does not belong to the mainstream Pashtun tribes, whose traditional homeland straddles the Durand Line; rather, like key Taliban leaders, he is from the tribally marginal Kandahar region.

The minorities’ misgivings have been strengthened by the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” put forward recently by the Karzai-constituted Afghan High Peace Council, empowered to negotiate with the Taliban. The document sketches several striking concessions to the Taliban and to Islamabad, ranging from the Taliban’s recognition as a political party to a role for Pakistan in Afghanistan’s affairs. The roadmap dangles the carrot of cabinet posts and provincial governorships to prominent Taliban figures.

The ethnic tensions and recriminations, which threaten to undermine cohesion in the fledgling, multiethnic Afghan Army, are breaking along the same lines as when the invading Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, an exit that led to civil war and Taliban’s subsequent capture of Kabul. This time the minority communities are better armed and prepared to defend their interests after the U.S. exit.

In seeking to co-opt the Taliban, the U.S., besides bestowing legitimacy on that thuggish militia, risks unwittingly reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife. A new civil war, however, would likely tear Afghanistan apart, Balkanizing the country into more distinct warlord-controlled zones than the situation prevailing today.

This raises a fundamental question: Is the territorial unity of Afghanistan essential for regional or international security? In other words, should the policies of outside powers seek to keep Afghanistan united?

First, the sanctity of existing borders has become a powerful norm in world politics. Border fixity is seen as essential for peace and stability. Yet this norm, paradoxically, has allowed the emergence of weak states, whose internal wars spill across international boundaries and create serious regional tensions and insecurity. In other words, a norm intended to build peace and stability may be creating conditions for conflict and regional instability. The survival of ungovernable and unmanageable states can be a serious threat to regional and international security.

Second, outside forces, in any event, are hardly in a position to prevent Afghanistan’s partitioning along Iraqi or Yugoslavian lines, with the bloodiest battles expected to rage over the control of ethnically mixed strategic areas, including the capital Kabul.

A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best or desirable outcome. Yet it will be far better than an Afghanistan that dissolves into chaos and bloodletting. And infinitely better than one in which the medieval Taliban returns to power and begins a fresh pogrom. Indeed, it may be the only way to thwart transnational terrorists from rebuilding a base of operations there and to prevent the country from sliding into a large-scale civil war. In this scenario — the best of the bad options — Pakistani generals, instead of continuing to sponsor Afghan Pashtun militant groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, will be compelled to fend off a potentially potent threat to Pakistan’s unity.

With American options in Afghanistan narrowing considerably and a deal with the Taliban appearing both uncertain and perilous, some sort of partition may also allow the U.S. to exit with honor intact.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (HarperCollins, 2010) and Water, Peace, and War (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming).

(c) The National, 2013.