America’s war in Afghanistan, the longest and costliest in U.S. history, is finally drawing to an official close. How this shapes Afghanistan’s future will have a significant bearing on the security of countries far beyond the region. 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 intervened militarily – Iraq and Libya? Iraq has been partitioned in all but name into Shia, 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 in late 2001. Having enjoyed autonomy for years, the minorities will resist coming under the sway of the ethnic Pashtuns, who long ruled the country.
For their part, the Pashtuns, despite their tribal divisions, won’t 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’re likely to revive their long-dormant campaign for a Greater Pashtunistan – a development that could affect the territorial unity 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 U.S. effort for an honourable 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’s 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, pursued in co-ordination with Afghan President Hamid Karzai amid a 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 rupturing of Mr. Karzai’s political alliance with ethnic-minority leaders has also aided ethnic polarization. Some non-Pashtun power brokers remain with Mr. 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 Mr. Karzai’s intention is to restore Pashtun dominance across Afghanistan.
The minorities’ misgivings have been strengthened by the recent “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” issued 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 Afghan affairs. The roadmap dangles the carrot of cabinet posts and provincial governorships to prominent Taliban figures.
The ethnic tensions, which threaten to undermine cohesion in the fledgling Afghan National Army, are breaking along the same lines as when Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, an exit that led to civil war. This time, the minority communities are better armed and prepared to defend their interests after the U.S. exit. 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? The sanctity of existing borders has become a powerful norm in world politics, yet this principle has allowed weak states to survive. Ungovernable states can be a serious threat to regional and global security. Outside forces, in any event, are hardly in a position to prevent Afghanistan’s partitioning along Iraqi or Yugoslav lines.
A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best or even a desirable outcome. Yet, it will be far better than an Afghanistan that dissolves into chaos. And infinitely better than one in which the medieval Taliban return to power. In this scenario – the best of the bad options – Pakistani generals, instead of continuing to sponsor Afghan Pashtun militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network, will be compelled to fend off a 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. and its allies to exit with honour intact.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water, Peace, and War.