By Syed Iqbal Hasnain – America’s war effort in Afghanistan remains adrift, a fact accentuated recently following the firing of General Stanley McCrystal. Yet the problems that America faces are in many ways intrinsic to the nation it is trying to change, and part and parcel of a nation that has not truly been a single, cohesive entity. It is a state divided into roughly three parts, with a complex history that must be understood.
For the US to fix the Afghan problem, it must appreciate the ethnic, cultural, and religious mix of present day Afghanistan which can be divided into three distinct ethno-geographical regions. Western Afghanistan is dominated by Persian speaking Hazaras and Tajik groups, the majority of whom follow Shia Islam and speak the Dari language. Northern Afghanistan is dominated by Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Sufi Sunni strain of Islam who speak Turkic and Dari. In the south and eastern parts of the nation, the majority of the population is made up of Pashtun tribes who speak Pashto and follow the Wahabi Sunni school of Islam.
These divisions reflect Afghanistan’s complex history of invasion, colonization, and incomplete efforts to create a unified, independent state. Here are some milestones from that history:
- 654 AD, Arab armies colonized and spread the message of Islam across the Hindu Kush Mountains. They defeated the existing Buddhist rulers and established Yakub ibn Lias as first Muslim ruler of Afghanistan. The Ghaznavid dynasty lasted two hundred years and consolidated Islamic rule further eastward into India.
- Genghis Khan captured Afghanistan in 1219; the Mongol empire was later expanded by Taimur, who ruled from Samarkand, a city in modern-day Uzbekistan. Shah Rukh was a great connoisseur of art and culture and, under his patronage, the region witnessed a unique blending of Persian and central Asian culture.
- The Afghan Lodi dynasty ruled northern India from Delhi between 1451 and 1526. Babur, a descendent of Taimur, was driven out of the Fergana valley, an area shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and the scene of recent Uzbek-Kyrgyz ethnic violence). Babur first conquered Kabul in 1504 and later defeated the Pashtun Lodi dynasty and established Turkic Mogul rule in Delhi, which lasted until 1857 when it was ended by the British Army.
- In the eighteenth century, the feudingtribes came together and established the modern state of Afghanistan. This consolidation was driven by the power vacuum created by the decline of the Persian Safavi dynasty in the west, the Turkic Moghul Empire in Delhi, and the Uzbek Janid dynasty in the north.
- Since then, the three distinct nationalities have never come together except briefly during the Soviet occupation when the warlords, tribal chiefs, and religious leaders fought together with funds and weapons supplied by the US to bleed the Soviet occupiers.
Since the withdrawal and collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan has played an increasingly important role in shaping the politics of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s trump card was to install Pashtuns as the new rulers and marginalize the northern and western ethnic groups. The Interior Minister of the Bhutto Government, a Pashtun, conceptualized a strategy with the active cooperation of Pakistan’s army and intelligence service (ISI): the strategy was to use both Afghani and Pakistani students (Taliban) studying in various madrassas as mercenaries to capture southern Afghanistan and ensure Pakistan’s trade and sphere of influence with Central Asian Republics.
The Obama administration has to deal with many competing players in the 21st century Afghanistan. These players include: the Persian Turkic group north of the Hindu Kush Mountains; Persian-speaking Hazaras and Tajiks in the western flank; the Pashtuns in the south and eastern regions and across the Durand Line. Another major outside player is Pakistan with its geopolitical, financial, and strategic interests in Afghanistan. The overarching aim of Iran is to support the government in Kabul and covertly provide aid to Taliban groups so as to bleed America. Iran also provides financial and material support to the Persian-speaking Hazara and Tajik populations. India traditionally has supported the moderate leadership of the Northern Alliance, but has also been willing to support any dispensation in Kabul which can keep the Jihadi elements under wraps and weaken Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan.
Under such circumstances, the US cannot act as if it is fighting a conventional war, as it must constantly deal with such variegated interest groups. Pakistan has now positioned itself to fill the power vacuum it expects to open in July 2011 when US forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Sirjauddin Haqqani group (mentored by Al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban leadership, and the Pakistani security apparatus) has been pushed, as an ally of President Karzai, by the Pakistani establishment on the pretext of rehabilitating Taliban groups. This might not bring peace to Afghanistan, which is inherently unstable, but would certainly destabilize Pakistan bring another round of civil war among warring factions in Afghanistan.
Nine years of an American effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan has not only cost billions of dollars, but is also in a state of disarray. America cannot expect to change the lifestyle and culture of Afghanistan. It is a nation in the loosest sense of the word, with little holding it together and much keeping it apart. Under the circumstances, it is prudent to concentrate on neutralizing the terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban with a limited presence rather than “winning” the war and wasting billions of additional dollars in the process. Under a new calculus, America should encourage and mentor marginalized ethnic groups other than Pashtuns in order to facilitate power sharing. Ultimately, Afghanistan needs to be divided into three regions, with the aim of allowing the Dari and Turkic language-speaking groups to control the Pashtuns, and consequently allow for an American disengagement. America must prepare the country for a virtual federal structure with three autonomous regions, and keep Pakistan out of Afghanistan and on a tight leash.
Photo Credit: Capt. Thomas Cieslak, Army Sgt. 1st. Class Veronica Ashe scans the Afghanistan countryside: http://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/4695168971/