Why Not Redraw Afghanistan's Borders or Even Break It Up?
 
Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
Saturday, December 8, 2001
NEW DELHI According to the English Civil War rhyme, "All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again." Given the agreement this week in Bonn, it may be overly pessimistic to question whether Afghanistan can be glued back together. That effort must be made.
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However, we also need to think the unthinkable on two counts. First, is Afghanistan, as now constituted, necessary? Second, why is a redrawing of national boundaries considered impossible, even though so many are unnatural creations of former British, Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian and other empires?
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The past 30 years has seen the fragmentation of several states, usually along ethnic lines. Many people rejoiced at the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The international community accepted the breaking away of Bangladesh and Eritrea, and fathered the escape of East Timor from Indonesia. But it has failed to get to grips with the irrational borders which are the root of many ethnic and inter-state conflicts.
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There is at least one major conflict which can, if at all, only be resolved by an internationally accepted redrawing of a boundary - to allow Israel to keep part, however small, of its 1967 conquests. So might it be better to admit the wisdom of redrawing other boundaries - in southeastern Europe, in the Caucasus and Central Asia - before they too become subject to de factor changes by right of conquest, or causes of more ethnic cleansing. The 1945 redrawing of European maps and consequent migration of populations was painful but has contributed immeasurably to central Europe's subsequent tranquillity.
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Modern Afghanistan is not a natural construct. It is the rump of a Pashtun kingdom created in the 18th century from bits of declining Persian, Mogul and Uzbek entities by the Durrani clan, from whom the former king Zahir Shah is descended. It once extended east of the Indus River. The Durranis lost half their Pashtun heartland to the British and hence to Pakistan, but thanks to Afghanistan being seen as a useful buffer state between the British and Russians they were able to hold their non-Pashtun territories north of the Hindu Kush. Memories of their brutal suppression of Uzbek and other uprisings have been an important ingredient in post-1989 tribal bloodletting.
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With the Russian retreat, a buffer state is no longer needed. Successor states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan need fewer distractions: Stalin's cunning map drawing ensured that each allegedly autonomous central Asian republic contained a large minority of a rival ethnic group.
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If we look now at central Asia as a whole, the dismemberment of Afghanistan is not without historical precedent or justification. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could absorb the land of their kin in the north and Iran take the western fringe.
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The biggest of all issues would be: to which state would the Pashtuns themselves belong? A truncated, mostly Pashtun Afghanistan would be one option. Another would be to join Pakistan. India would oppose the idea of an enlarged Pakistan but in practice a Pakistan in which Pashtuns had more influence and which looked as much west as east might be less a problem for India than today's Punjab-dominated Pakistan.
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The other alternative would be a further truncation of Pakistan itself. The idea of Pashtunistan, uniting the Pashtuns on both sides of the border, has existed since before the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Afghan state has never accepted the Durand Line, the British-drawn modern border. Pakistan's role in the creation and destruction of the Taliban has left the Pashtuns weak and divided. Their position in any future Kabul government has been undermined by the dominant role of Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks in the current war. Their response could be a revival of a cross-border Pashtun nationalism.
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In reality, redrawing of maps is not so simple, because of religious as well as linguistic divides. For example, the Hazaras of central Afghanistan are Mongol by race, speak a form of Persian but unlike their Tajik neighbors are Shiite Muslims, not Sunni Muslims.
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It would be preferable for ethnic differences to be overcome so that a rebuilt Afghanistan can emerge as the "Switzerland of Asia," as the tourist guides used to describe it. But unless the sense of Afghan identity becomes a lot stronger, what once was a buffer state will remain a location for ethnic-based proxy wars. In that case most Afghanis would be better off without an Afghanistan.
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For the time being, the state will be on a Western-devised life support system. If intensive care fails, it would be better to consider negotiating peaceful dismemberment. The borders set by compromises between Russian and British imperial needs are a poor basis for 21st century statecraft. They will remain a source of ethnic conflict when the Taliban's manic interlude has become just a bad dream.
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