by Brahma Chellaney
Feb 27, 2013
NEW DELHI – 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.