Break Up Afghanistan? Why Not?
By STEPHEN KINZER
The New York Times December 1, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO - Should Afghanistan even exist?
As representatives of rival Afghan factions met in Bonn this week to begin shaping a new government for their long-suffering land, American specialists have been debating whether it makes sense to try to reconstitute a single, unified country.
Many scholars, intellectuals and policymakers are considering how to create a broad-based Afghan government, but a handful of experts argue that Afghanistan is a failed state destined to spread instability forever.
Among those who urge the end of Afghanistan is Eden Naby, a longtime associate at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She has argued in several recent speeches that Afghanistan should be broken down into "allied independent states."
"Getting rid of the idea or concept of Afghanistan is very difficult, just as getting over the idea of Yugoslavia was difficult," Ms. Naby said after she addressed the Middle East Studies Association last month in San Francisco. "There is a sense that this kind of thing shouldn't be allowed to happen, because it can have a domino effect. But I think the idea of Afghanistan breaking up has already practically happened. There is no common language, nothing common to all these people. The expected amalgamation of ethnic groups into a nation never happened there."
Ms. Naby said that much of the Afghans' already weak sense of national identity faded during the last generation because of the resurgence of warfare and a lack of education.
"A loose coalition of states would work better, but there's an obvious incentive against it," Ms. Naby said. "There will probably soon be a lot of money dangling in front of tribal leaders on condition that they stay together in some fashion. That may be decisive, at least for the time being. But in the long run no one wants a strong Afghanistan."
Larry P. Goodson, the author of "Afghanistan's Endless War," asserts that strong central governments have been a curse on Afghanistan for more than a generation. He said they disrupted, perhaps forever, the regional and ethnic balances that once kept Afghanistan fairly stable, and turned the country into "a mass of rubble and mine-strewn fields" in which half the prewar population has been killed, wounded or forced into exile.
"The old order in Afghanistan is gone, and it's unclear how much of it is gone forever," Mr. Goodson told a panel at the San Francisco meeting. "Everything flows from the depth of the destruction of Afghanistan's people and physical infrastructure. The level of destruction is so complete that no prewar entities emerged unscathed."
Mr. Goodson did not support the idea of dividing Afghanistan, but said he hoped foreign aid for the its reconstruction would be sent to regions and communities rather than to Kabul. The aid, he said, should be given to local leaders who agree to three conditions: no forced expulsion, equal treatment for all citizens, and surrender of heavy weapons. He acknowledged that the last condition "might be the most difficult."
Afghanistan's borders are arbitrary, drawn to meet 19th-century political needs rather than to respect ethnic or religious patterns.
The British authorities in India and the Czar's government in Russia both sought to control Afghanistan as a way of blocking each other's expansionist ambitions. For most of the 19th century, a series of Pashtun emirs and kings ruled the country, but tribal leaders held considerable power. During the 19th century, Britain fought two wars in unsuccessful attempts to subjugate the Afghans. When Britain finally drew a border between India and Afghanistan in 1893, Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan were cut off from related tribes across the border in what was then India and is now Pakistan.
As recently as the 1970's, some Pashtun leaders in Afghanistan were pushing to create a new state, Pashtunistan, by joining with Pashtuns in Pakistan. Ms. Naby said they might now revive their campaign. If they do, they would certainly come into conflict with Pakistan, which would stand to lose large amounts of territory to such a new state.
Many scholars point out, however, that Afghanistan is hardly the only country in the world with arbitrary borders and a mix of ethnic and religious groups. Those factors, they say, are not sufficient reason to break up a state that has existed, albeit on shifting territory, for more than 250 years.
"Afghanistan is about the size of France, which is an effective size for a country," said Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, who has lived with nomadic Afghan tribes. "You hear a lot of talk about ethnic hatred in Afghanistan. There's also a history of ethnic cooperation. You don't have this situation of Serbs and Croats and Bosnians who seemed to feel they had to kill each other because they couldn't live together."
"When Afghans fight, it's over which ethnic group will dominate, not which one will exclude the others," Mr. Barfield said. "Each group fulfills a different function, so there's no reason for the right hand to cut off the left hand. These groups are like poker players who argue about the pot, but not about the table. In the new Afghanistan, regions are going to be more self-sustaining. They'll be the real power centers. But there won't be a push for Balkan-style separation."
Many Afghan intellectuals in the United States believe that their country is best kept together. They are encouraged by the fact that no leading tribal or political figure there has called for secession.
"Since 1747, the name `Afghanistan' has come with this geography that we have," said Alam Payind, an Afghan-born historian and political scientist, who is director of the Middle East Studies Center at Ohio State University. He was referring to the date when King Ahmad Shah came to power, which is often cited as the birth of the Afghan state.
"This is a multiethnic, multilinguistic and multiracial country," Mr. Payind said. "But even when these groups fight with each other, they don't want to secede. Outsiders may discuss this idea, but there is no wish for division among Afghans."
Mr. Payind said the new Afghan constitution should grant wide powers to local governors and also assure that the governors are honestly chosen in free elections. In recent years, governors have been appointed by the authorities in Kabul.
"Afghanistan traditionally lived under a sort of central government that was not fully in control of everything, one that was not supreme and that often you couldn't even see," Mr. Payind said. "We need something like that again. People elected in the provinces should run things, but they would still want a central authority. That can happen if there's a broad-based government. The danger is that we won't get that kind of government because the Northern Alliance has power on the ground and won't want to bargain it away in Bonn."
There's also another problem for anyone who would want to split off from Afghanistan. "No other country would take him," Mr. Paykind said. "Every country is afraid that if they swallow up a piece of Afghanistan, the Afghans would be their enemy until hell freezes over."
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