DELHIAccording 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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.