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Afghanistan: one conflict, three faces

The Afghan war is at a critical stage. A longer-term view of its three dimensions - regional, ethnic, and religious - offers some vital lessons to policy-makers, says Valey Arya.
Valey Arya
2 July 2010

The conflict in Afghanistan tends to be discussed in terms of post-2001 events and from the perspective of the western coalition’s armed campaign. This limited focus may be understandable in circumstances where (as at present) military casualties are rising and there are increasing doubts over the progress of the war against the Taliban (see Paul Rogers, “Afghanistan: the impossible choice”, 1 July 2010). But it is also regrettable, in that it can close off awareness of the longer and larger context of what is happening.

This article looks at the bigger picture of the Afghanistan conflict, in terms of three major structural aspects as they have developed since the 1970s: regional, ethnic and religious. The purpose is to sketch some of the longer-term dynamics of the war in order to broaden the framework of understanding of Afghanistan, including among policy-makers.

The regional dimension

A decisive period in Afghanistan’s modern history was the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s military occupation of the country, launched by the invasion of December 1979 as part of an effort to secure a Moscow-friendly regime in power in Kabul. At that time, different groups of Afghans from divergent political traditions started to resist the Soviet forces and their local allies. They included political and secular nationalists; conservative religious groups (many with a Sufi and traditionalist interpretation of Islam); and more radical political Islamists (who would begin to be described as “fundamentalists”).

Among all these factions, the Islamic world and the western world alike chose to finance, train and arm the fundamentalists - even though they were fringe elements at the time. The argument was that they could fight the Soviets more passionately and zealously than anyone else.

Pakistan’s politico-military establishment had a particular reason to support this group: it believed that the Soviets would be forced to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner or later, and a fundamentalist regime in Kabul would be more amenable to its influence than any other kind. A secular or moderate Afghan government, Islamabad feared, might be tempted into a friendly alliance with India; and it might open the issue of the disputed Durand line (which defines the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) among irredentist Pashtuns in Afghanistan in ways that could undercut Pakistan’s regional power.

There is strong continuity here with present-day thinking within the Pakistani establishment - except that now Islamabad expects the western coalition to be forced to withdraw sooner or later, and is determined to avoid a secular moderate pro-Indian regime being established in Kabul (see Kanchan Lakshman, “India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure”, 11 July 2008). This logic governs Islamabad’s distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban (the latter defined as those elements prepared to make trouble inside Pakistan), and its notion of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan (which would be extremely valuable in case of armed confrontation with India).

This regional dimension of the Afghan problem suggests that the problem of Indo-phobia in Pakistan and Pakistano-phobia in India and Afghanistan needs to be seriously addressed by robust confidence-building measures within and among all three countries. These should include Afghanistan considering official recognition of the Durand line as the official border in return for serious concessions by Pakistan. The international community could play a very active role in this area. It could also exert pressure on India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue, and take note of the influence of Iran, China, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on events in Afghanistan.

The ethnic dimension

It is not too much of an overstatement to see the Afghan insurgency as an ethnic conflict. Afghanistan’s complex history until 1979 was marked by many internecine disputes between different groups and the lack of a strong sense of nationhood; if anything, the last three decades of war have intensified these trends.

The Soviet-backed communist government of the 1970s and 1980s was, its unifying ideology notwithstanding, also based on ethnic fault lines; the Pashtun/non-Pashtun rivalries within the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party turned out to be instrumental in its demise. Similarly, the anti-Soviet resistance was ethnically-based; after the Soviet withdrawal the country became balkanised; and after invasion in 2001, the internal division between the Taliban and its adversaries fell largely along Pashtun/non-Pashtun lines.

Today, every ethnic group in Afghanistan believes it is the loser and that others are winners. The Pashtuns want to have more seats in government and the non-Pashtuns believe they are being sidelined. Such attitudes reinforce ethnic extremists, who argue (for example) that Afghanistan is the land of the Pashtuns and that the Tajiks belong to Tajikistan, the Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and the Turkmens to Turkmenistan; or (on the other side) that Afghanistan originally belonged to the Tajiks and that the Pashtuns migrated over centuries to the south and east of the country from what today is Pakistan.

The way out of this regressive aspect of the conflict is via the principle of “one size does not fit all”. There must be as much decentralisation as possible in Afghanistan to facilitate a federal system composed of several states, coordinated by a central government which sets foreign policy and has authority over a unified national army

At present, the Afghan provinces are sites of bitter competition for power, what democracy there is limited to the centre, and the capital offers little in the way of resources for emerging from the crisis. In these conditions, only a federal democracy can ensure a healthy balance between centre and periphery. This can be done in a way that avoids the spectre of Afghanistan’s partition among lawless regional commanders, for a federal democracy (borrowing in realistic fashion from the experience of north America, western Europe and India) will also devolve real power to local populations; for example, Pashtun representation at federal and local level will increase, as befits their position as Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

The religious dimension

A solution to the regional and ethnic dimensions of Afghanistan’s insurgency, ambitious as that may be, would not end the war as long as its religious motivations persist. The Taliban leadership and their al-Qaida partners remain committed to imposing their extremist interpretation of political Islam on Afghanistan’s people, although they are also enmeshed in the foreign-policy calculations of regional powers. This aspect of the problem has no quick-fix solution.

The principal exit-route is deradicalisation of the next generations. The ingredients of the strategy needed here are multiple: social measures (education, alleviating poverty, creating employment opportunities); dialogue and communication; fighting corruption and the drug-economy. These are both short- and long-term tasks. But if the international community and the Afghan political community can devote energy and resources to these vital tasks, there may still be time to turn around a bleak situation. 

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