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January 25, 2011

Dividing Afghans


January 25, 2011


As the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan seem headed for failure, the debate about the “de facto partition” of the country is rapidly intensifying in Western intellectual circles. Over the past few months a number of articles have appeared in Western print media supporting the division of the country along ethnic lines.
The most prominent voice favouring this prescription is Robert Blackwill, the former US ambassador to India. Mr Blackwill is of the view that since the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan, “it should consider the partition of the country, handing over the Pakhtun-dominated south to the Taliban and propping up the north and west,” where Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Dari-speakers and other ethnic communities live.
Afghanistan has been a nation-state since 1761 and Afghans have invariably proved to be the staunchest of nationalists. Over the last three decades a number of failed attempts have been made to divide the country but no Afghan government has ever succumbed to outside pressure for partition, despite all the machinations of great powers. In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the KGB tried hard, and failed, to persuade the Uzbek leaders to create a separate state for Uzbeks. Similarly, in the mid-1990s Tajikistan tried to persuade the Afghan Tajik leaders to build a Greater Tajikistan.
This ill-crafted US strategy demonstrates the poor understanding of Afghanistan’s ethnic mix and demographic features, with thousands of Pakhtuns living in the north amid the Tajiks and Uzbeks. Likewise, the southern part of country has its fair share of non-Pakhtuns. Pakhtuns are mingled with other ethnic communities and they are scattered throughout the country.
Kunduz is a majority Pakhtun province in the north while Herat is a majority Dari-speaking region in the south. Logar is a predominantly Pakhtun area, but a large number of Tajiks also live here. Hazaras populate

central parts of Afghanistan while Tajik and Uzbek regions in the north are separated by the Pakhtun-dominated region of Kunduz.
This bizarre recipe is developed from the wrong assumption that the insurgency in Afghanistan is concentrated in Pashto-speaking provinces of the south. Such a policy to salvage Afghanistan would backfire and fuel inter-ethnic wars. In addition, it would threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity, encouraging its 40 million Pakhtuns to link up with their 15 million Pakhtun brothers in Afghanistan and claim a territory of their own. This policy would destabilise the whole region serving as a rallying cry for marginalised ethnic groups, including those in China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
Afghan literature has always expressed love for all communities – i.e., Pakhtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks alike. If Iraq, with equally distinct and strong linguistic and sectarian divisions, could not be divided, Afghanistan is least expected to go that way. Indian journalist Nitin Pai has recently said that “despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So, while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.”
In order to create a Pakhtun south, the US would have to replace all those Pakhtuns who currently live in other parts of the country. Moreover, abandoning the south would betray those Pakhtuns who have so far resisted the Taliban. The US cannot continue committing blunders upon blunders. The only alternative is to try to achieve stability through negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. President Obama should seek to persuade the Taliban to lay down arms and join an Afghan government.

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