By Brahma Chellaney
Mar 3, 2013
America's war in Afghanistan, the longest and costliest in its history, is finally drawing to a close. How this shapes Afghanistan's future will have a significant bearing on India's security. Will the fate of Afghanistan be different from two other countries where the US also 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. 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 Taliban from power. 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 generations.
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 Britishdrawn Durand Line, they are likely sooner or later to seek a Greater Pashtunistan - a development that could directly affect the territorial unity of another artificial modern construct, Pakistan.
The fact that the ethnic minorities are actually ethnic majorities in distinct geographical zones makes Afghanistan's partitioning organically doable. Ethnic minorities account for more than half of Afghanistan - both in land area and population size.
The US effort for an honourable exit by cutting a deal with the Pakistan-backed Taliban, paradoxically , is deepening Afghanistan's ethnic fissures and increasing the partitioning risk. With President Barack Obama choosing his second-term team, the US effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is back on the front burner.
This effort, in coordination with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 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 Hazara civilians.
The rupturing of Karzai's political alliance with 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 recent "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015" issued by the Karzai-formed 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 reconstitution 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 the Taliban.
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 in 1989, an exit that led to civil war. This time the minorities 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 and unmanageable 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 Yugoslavian lines.
A partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best outcome. Yet it will be far better than an Afghanistan that dissolves into chaos. And infinitely better than one in which the medieval Taliban returns to power and begins a fresh pogrom. With a partitioned Afghanistan, Pakistani generals, instead of waging proxy war against India and sponsoring Afghan Pashtun militant groups, will be compelled to focus on fending off a potent threat to Pakistan's unity. This is the only conceivable scenario that will force the Pakistan military to bury the hatchet with India.