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Afghanistan – “looming” partition?

July 14, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Whether “partition” is likely or desirable, it would almost certainly be very bloody.

Photos of Afghan maps 006Interesting piece about the risks of “looming partition” for Afghanistan.  Here, the premise is that the colonial creation of Afghanistan – a buffer between the Russian and British Empires – should not necessarily be assumed to remain in its current geographic shape.  Specifically, the suggestion is that ethnic groups  could divide themselves on a north/south basis – loosely between “the rest” and Pushtuns – but perhaps also between specific ethnic groups (of which there are perhaps five distinct blocs).  This would take place while a war-weary international community looks on and keeps its head down.

Chellaney, Washington Times, 8 July 2013: Afghanistan’s large ethnic-minority groups already enjoy de facto autonomy, which they secured after their Northern Alliance played a central role in the U.S.-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 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 Pushtuns 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 simplifies partition and makes the resulting borders more likely to last, unlike those drawn by colonial officials, who invented countries with no national identity or historical roots, lumping together disparate ethnic groups. Afghanistan’s ethnic divide also runs along a linguistic fault line, with the Pashto language of the Pashtuns pitted against the more widely spoken Dari (a Persian dialect). 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 percent of the population.

I am not sure if a partition would be as simple and likely as suggested here.  A very bloody and fragmented outcome might be at least as plausible should Afghanistan drift down this route, with no guarantees of clearly resolved borders.  And it would be a “drift”, rather than a conscious decision, I feel.  It would also be to throw the brakes on all efforts to date and push the region into a very unknown area.  There are some key points here.  The weariness of the international community and likely high reluctance to get involved militarily again should the civil war intensify would probably assist this default slide into worsening violence.  The importance (still) of the warlords leading the ethnic groups means great potential risk to the fledgling Afghan National Army of internal political loyalties and tensions of an ethnic and personal nature (shades of Ahmed Rashid: “I have seen 6 or 7 armies fall apart in Afghanistan…”).

Thomas Barfield’s study of Afghanistan in 2010 (“Afghanistan: a Cultural and Political History”) suggested strongly that Afghans actually like being “Afghans” and would not naturally gravitate towards a partition solution.  This view would be strengthened if it were to be achieved as a result of 5 – 10 more years of civil conflict.  But, conversely, he also speculated, in a Foreign Affairs piece in 2011:

Instead of fighting another bloody civil war, as Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns did in the 1990s, they might instead abandon the unitary state and secede, leavig the Taliban to struggle for power with other factions in the south and east

Maybe this outcome would see a bloodier but more localised civil war in which Pakistan would be much more likely to intervene militarily.  Although the country is probably in a civil war already, lets try to avoid dividing Afghanistan on a map just yet – the lines might look clear on a chart, but they would be very blurred and bloody in reality.

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