Afghanistan’s partition might be unpreventable

by Brahma Chellaney

America’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 militarily intervened — 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 Hazara civilians.

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.

The minorities’ misgivings have been strengthened by the “Peace Process Road Map 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 road map 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 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.

A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best 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, 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 potential 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).

  • The author unfortunately lacks a deep understaning of the internal politics of Afghanistan and its demography. The minorities don’t form a distinct majority in geographic regions that are large enough to be sufficiently viable. Having a quarter in major cities and districts in provinces that may comprise a certain ethnicity does not constite having a viable demography for a successful government. The South and East are entirely Pashtun, the west is over 75 % Pashtun, with small pocket of minorities, except around Herat where they are located in the city center, In the Northewest there are large pockets of Pashtun, Uzbeck, Turkemen, and Tajiks localities that are disperse and non-contiguous. In the northern regions, we have the same phenomenon of interspersed minories and Pashtun community, which in no way can evolve into a hormoniuos unit, since the scattered Pashtuns wouldn’t accept any partition, nor would the dispersed minories be in any position to allow one minority ethnicity to govern another. The same is true in North East.
    Unfortunately, the author of the above article hasn’t performed a deeper evaluation of the ethnic composition and demography of the norhtern regions before writing this very superficially written article, but with a major human consequence such as ethnic cleansing.
    A much bigger concept that has been omitted by the author is the desire of partition amongst the masses. It is rare to find any Afghan to elect to partition Afghanistan. The leaders of the various minority groups that he refers to are non-represetative war criminals that will fight to the last breath for money and power, and they are playing the ethnic game to main the status quo without having major support amongst the masses.
    Moreover, if these northern leaders need NATO for survival then that exemplifies even further how weak they are, and are unlikely to have broad based support.

    • Samir

      first of all you are wrong Mr. Kabuli Afghan and second you go and select a better name like Pashtunistan not kabuli afghan because Kabul is not by your name. pashtuns are only about 30 percent and no more and even now you people are afraid of losing that property which you had in south and east of Afghanistan, becuasue there is a threat from Pakistan which every day they capture your land. and in the North the small papet and terrorist which exist they are within a day can be cleaned by us. If you say that you are 75 percent why do you people are afraiting of writing the ethnic name in the national identity card?

  • odzer

    Brahma is forgetting that he lives in another artificial construct called India or may be he knows that is how he is sure that other artificial constructs won’t survive or may be he is just shooting in the dark.

    • al tirmidhi

      Unfortunate but true. The inbuilt seeds of anarchy in the qu’ran and ahadith means any state of islam is always an artificial construct. An overwhelming clash between mawali acceptance of arab supremacism in the guise of “universal brotherhood=ummah” and aspirations of a nationality based state! . No wonder islamic states are always metastable, a hairbreadth’s distance away from fitna…

    • Indians, by and large, don’t want to split their country.

  • al tirmidhi

    Hope Americans are awake to this idea and facilitate it.

  • muhammad

    American departure from Afghan war exposes how vulnerable and frightened our neighbouring artificial construct habitants feel. Afghanistan is for Afghans and that means rule of Quran and Sunnah.

  • Abdullah Arsala

    Afghanistan is one of the oldest countries and civilisation of the world. The writer must realise that his or her piece is illogical and far from reality on the ground. Afghanistan withstood the U.S.S.R, the communist regime, the Mujahideen civil war, the Taleban and now the U.S coalition. If it didn’t break during the civil wars so how does the writer comes up with this idea while no Afghan group i.e the so called Northern Alliance, Taleban or other political groups even in the bathroom wouldn’t think of a breakup.

  • Jake_in_Louisiana

    What Brahma has omitted from this article is that the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities live in areas that are far more densely populated than the Pashtun majority, which even though spread out more thinly, still controls a much larger geographical expanse of territory than the other three minorities combined.
    But Brahma is correct about the “pivot” of Pashtun objectives that would follow a partition of Afghanistan. They would indeed turn their attention towards strengthening cross-border ties with their ethnic kin in Pakistan and that political realignment in the region might be the only hope for ending Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs, which is the ultimate source of destabilization in the region.

  • good artical but the writer is lacking information, he wrote that the minaritise make 50% of afghanistan’s population in fact they make 67% of afghanistan population. all those who wish to write about afghanistan need to skydive and see afghanistan by google map, the 2 major citise in the south is not pashtoon’s city they are Baloch citise only Tajik and Hazara make the 50% of afghanistan population regardless of Ozback/Turkman and Balooch. If you wish to get afghanistan population census there is not such thing as correct of becasue pashtoon never let that happpen just to hide the fact, they only claimed that they are the majority, but never could provided any fact.

  • mladenm

    Every Salafist state is disaster for ethnic and religious minorities, liberals, woman’s rights… Minorities in Afghanistan will rightfully fight against Taliban supremacy, driven in great part by experience what awaits them if they fail. And this time Russia is not semi-chaotic state in disarray, and they have every reason to keep Salafist as far from own border as possible. Ditto goes for Iran….

  • Khushal

    Afghanistan is a weak state but a strong Nation. Its illogical to partition Afghanistan on ethnic basis because Northern Alliance had a best opportunity during fight against Taliban but there fight was for restoration of united Afghanistan. Durand line should be freely decided by the Pashtunes residing on its both sides Not by any one else, to bring long term stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  • Fahim Payab

    Mr. Brahma your article simply portraits your lack of knowledge and understand for Afghanistan. Afghans have lived in this region for thousands of years and just some foreign power invasion (which is not the first time) deciding on the future of this land is nonsense. We are weak but strong well-ed people, the ethinic divide in the country is just a cloud of hatred caused by some individuals in Afghanistan and some so called Foreign Democracy providers with the cost of Blood and Minerals. Afghanistan shall remain poor but it will always be Land of Afghans for Pashtons, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Balouch, Turkmen, and other minorities.

  • I wrote an essay here, but apparently it wasn’t published. Anyhow, in a nutshell, it is nearly impossible to partition Afghanistan. Geographically, none of the minorities live in a fix geographic region. They live in dispersed pockets in northern Afghanistan that can never allow for partition uses there was massive ethnic cleansing. Importantly, most Afghans are happy as one unit. The various ethnicities of Afghanistan have always lived under one common leadership and government, however weak, corrupt, inept, and so forth it may have been.

  • pnkearns

    Let Afghanistan be partitioned if that is the choice of the Afghani people. The West should stay out of it. As for Pakistan, having it face break up would be karma for it’s double dealing.

  • salam Khan

    Partitioned or not but Pashtun supremacy is not welcome anymore, Pashtuns groups such as Taliban, Hekmatyar, Haqani has always acted as Pakistani agents and worked for foreign interests .

  • As a citizen of Afghanistan I believe If the current chauvinist and ethnic supremacist policies of southern pashtunists 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. Pashtunists 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.

  • Xanti

    Abdullah Arsala, it’s already been broken up de facto for decades. What the author says is spot on.

  • “The inside and outside selfish and corrupt powers who are seeking refuge in manipulating the un-informed or the powerless, always and always have tried (and at times have succeeded) to use ‘divide & conquer’ strategy specially in countries where the geographical and strategical position place them on the arena of the political big game. However, it is also always and always the real people of those countries who have been smart enough and courageous enough not to fall for the cat and mouse game, and have stayed together!!! Reporters and journalists write what they think they see and know, and real people whose fate are the point of discussion, live and survive based on the level of their conscious effort to uncover the dirty plots and stay united.” Dr. Donia Gobar

  • If “Afghanistan” does not embrace federalism it will be partitioned. Under current circumstances partition looks inevitable. I am from this country and I say it will be partitioned. Those who support Pashtoon domination always give the world the wrong image of the country, they say it is impossible to partition the country.