The well-known American geopolitical thinker Robert D. Kaplan in his famous book “Revenge of Geography” points out that the only way to end Afghanistan conflict is creation of “Greater Pashtonistan and “Greater Tajikistan”. Through this statement we can infer Kaplan’s belief that the root cause of all instability in Afghanistan lies in its geographical location and ethnocentric conflicts. Since time immemorial, the ethno-conflicts have always been a major national security threat to Afghanistan since its creation.
In total, thirty ethnic groups live in Afghanistan out of which the four following are the major ones: Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara and Uzbek. The exact percentage of these four large ethnicities are not clear to date to determine their majority and minority scale, but some literature claim that Pashtuns are the major ethnic group in the country grounded in the logic of their political dominance since 1747, although the claim is unconfirmed and unkind. Certainly, the rule of one group over the others cannot be criterion to distinguish majority and minority amongst the said ethnicities; in the contrary, there are a number of countries who are/were ruled by minor groups through use of force and violence.
The Pashtun rule took root in Afghanistan after coronation of Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747 over the Ashish of Safavid’s Empire in Kandahar. Ahmad Shah built a large strong empire virtually bigger than today’s Afghanistan. From the north, it extended to the Amu River, in south and east to the throne of Delhi and in the east to the Mashhad province of Iran with its capital in the Kandahar city of Afghanistan. Although, he ruled the empire with wisdom and foresight for 25 years, but unfortunately after his demise, his successors divided the empire amongst themselves and continued the race for seizing the throne, which culminated in the Abdali’s Empire disintegration. Due to the said internal disputes, Afghanistan lost the bulk of its territories in the south to the Sikh Empire and later to the British East India Company and in the north to Russian Tsar and in the west to Iran.
Since Ahmad Shah’s coronation, the Pashtuns have dominated the political power in Afghanistan except through the years 1929-1930, 1980-1986 and 1990-2001. As Pashtuns have politically dominated Afghanistan for quite a long period, they always state that Afghanistan is land of Pashtuns and other ethnic groups who are chiefly dominant in the north are small in numbers and always tried to challenge the Pashtun ascendency over Afghanistan.
Factually, Afghanistan is a land of ethnic minorities and none of them exceed 50 + 1 percentage. Moreover, to date no government in course of history of Afghanistan has been able to conduct a scientific census to identify the exact number of Afghanistan population as well as to specify the minority and majority ethnics. All the data provided to date by different national and international institutions in respect of Afghanistan ethnic groups number are estimates and lack validity. Besides, all the challenges such as external interference, drug trafficking and terrorism that Afghanistan is embroiled in, one of the main unresolved challenges is ethnic-conflict. Therefore, until unless the issue of ethnic inequality, plus power disputes remain unaddressed, the problem of instability will remain in Afghanistan ad infinitum.
Afghanistan is a diverse land with a multitude of languages and ethnicities, hence, the only way to end the chronic conflicts is altering the prevalent centralized political system of government to autonomous regions with majority ethnic groups in those specific regions in power, which will ensure the Afghanistan’s survival and put an end to the protracted conflicts.
Afghanistan is not the only country with different ethnic groups, but there are countries in its neighbourhood with the same ethnic complexities, for instance Pakistan and India who for the sake of tackling their ethnic differences have accepted a decentralised system of government. The system has thus helped them overcome their political differences and instability to a large extent.
In the last twenty years, respective balance of power was created by the international community intervention that lamentably reverted to the past morbidity upon re-takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. With return of the Taliban to power for the second time, the ethnic issues are becoming intensely hot yet again. The reason is that the Taliban are chiefly hailing from the dominant Pashtun heartland and recognize no one equal to themselves. In 1996 when Taliban captured Kabul, they isolated all other ethnic groups, massacred the Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif city of the Balkh province, Yakawlang district of the Bamyan highland province, and coerced mass displacement of Tajiks from their ancestral plains of Shamali in the north of Kabul. In their first term, Taliban committed a huge amount of atrocities towards other ethnic groups, thus today the people are concerned that they may soon embark on an ethnic cleansing policy which is one of main components of their ethnocentric ideology.
Given consideration of the above facts, the following scenarios are assumable for the future of Afghanistan:
First Scenario: Change of Political System
Transition from a centralised to a decentralised political system is the optimistic scenario to put an end to the ethnic conflict in Afghanistan and avoid another civil war. Since 1747, Afghanistan has always been governed by failed centralised political systems. In 2003, during the composition of the new constitution, Afghans found the chance to change the political system from presidential to prime-ministerial, but unfortunately, sworn ethnocentrists re-established the centralised system which in one hand was a historic blunder and on the other, inflamed ethnic hatred among the people more than ever.
Centralized system granted ultimate power to a single person and led to ethnic dominance in governance. The outcome of this wrong decision come to the fore during the 2009, 2014 and 2018 presidential elections which caused grave political crisis for several months and brought the country to the edge of civil war, however, was narrowly avoided by making a power sharing deal among the influential political parties. In these three presidential elections the people cast their votes based on their ethnic sentiments, which was indicative of a clear referendum urgently required to change the government system, but Pashtun inferred that shifting from centralised system to a decentralised one will extirpate their dominance in Afghanistan once and for all. For instance, President Ashraf Ghani and his other Pashtun fellows strictly opposed the change of system. Even, he exploited and monopolised all the national institutions by appointing his Pashtun entourage. Through this policy he attempted to marginalise other major ethnic groups to form a pure Pashtun state. In stark contrast, his these wrong policies led Afghanistan to an irreparable turmoil and widened the ethnic gaps more than any other time.
Now, as Taliban have returned to power again, their policy is no different from the erstwhile Pashtun rulers. They come from a purely Pashtun origin and mask themselves with Islamic ideology. Without any doubt, they desire to establish a government on the Pashtun ethnic pivot and by establishing such a state, they want to revive the 284 years of Pashtun rulers past glory. Therefore, as such strategy is already pushing Afghanistan to the brink of a 1990s-like civil war, a decentralized system of government is highly suggested to on one hand create an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding amongst different ethnic groups to equally see themselves through and on the other, avoid imminent future political instability stemming from such senile policies with dire repercussions to the people and country.
Second Scenario: Afghanistan on the verge of turning into second Syria and Iraq
When the US overthrew Saddam Hussain regime from power in 2003, they helped the Iraqi Shiite to become dominant in Iraq. Saddam was a Sunni and during his rule, he brutally suppressed, killed, and tortured the Shiite who formed the majority in Iraq. Similarly, when the Shiite came to power through the help of Americans, they adopted anti-Sunni policies. They marginalised the Sunni’s from government institutions, isolated and suppressed them. In turn, the suppression and tyranny by the Shiite pushed the Sunni Arabs to first join Al-Qaeda and later pledge allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is also afloat in the same scenario. The Pashtun Taliban have seized and monopolized the whole power and are coercing the Hazara and Tajiks in central regions of Afghanistan to forced migrations. Systematic killing of Tajiks and Hazaras are still rampant in main cities since 15 august 2021. Thus, the long term continuation of such policies will lead Afghanistan toward an Iraq-like scenario. If such hostile policies persist, the Hazaras who are mainly followers of Shiite faith will join the Fatumyoun Army of Iran and Tajik and Uzbek Islamists will most probably join the ISKP and the moderate Tajik, Hazara and Uzbeks will join the National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud the only son of the late guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. As the Sunni Arabs did in Iraq, this will turn Afghanistan into a second Iraq and Syria. As a result, this situation will divide Afghanistan into four different battle grounds and the mentioned groups will engage in fighting against each other.
For avoiding such a worse scenario, the only way out is compromising over establishment of a decentralised and democratic government in Afghanistan letting every ethnic group be the sole handler of their own destiny. Such a government would help all the ethnic groups participate in power hierarchy, otherwise with above said, Afghanistan would move to another bloody chapter of its history.
Third Scenario: Partition of Afghanistan
The failure of compromise between the ethnic groups in Afghanistan will plunge Afghanistan into another conflict, nor the long term instability in Afghanistan will favour the neighbouring countries, regional and trans-regional powers. The continuation of such a situation will pose direct and indirect security threats to the region and world. Its primary spill-over effects will be mass migrations, increase of radicalism and drug trafficking intolerable to regional powers. Hence, such a status que will lead Afghanistan towards potential partition given the failed past governing mechanisms.
Then, the only solution for the regional powers left on the table to end the protracted ethnic-conflict in Afghanistan will be to partition it into north and south. Even today, the discourse concerning the partitioning of Afghanistan is revolving in the national elite circles and world think-thanks. Its true that Afghanistan has never been a united country except during foreign incursions, but soon after defeating the invaders, in lieu of coming to terms with each other and form a stable government, they had always turned the barrel of their guns towards each other’s chest because of unquenchable thirst for power. For instance, after the Soviet Union withdrawal from the country in 1989, the Mujahedeen fought with each other. The same is expected to recur after the US withdrawal. Even, the partition theory was proposed to the Northern Alliance leaders in 2001, but they rejected such an initiative. Needless to say, this time in case of any civil war, the partition will be an unavoidable option.
Fourth Scenario: Disbandment/geographic annexation of Afghanistan among neighbouring countries
Another likelihood is division of Afghanistan into several parts based on their ethnic affiliations. The Tajiks with Tajikistan, Uzbeks with Uzbekistan, Pashtuns with Pakistan Pashtun province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Hazaras who are dominant in central regions of the country will demand forming a separate nation based on their Shiite faith due to lack of geography and their contingency with Shiite Iran. Though, this geographic annexation will be the worst scenario. As it will drag the neighbouring countries directly to engage in a horse-race over geography and natural resources. The annexation or disbandment scenario will revert the region to the 18th century scenario when the geography of today’s Afghanistan was part of the Mughal, Safavids and Shibanid Uzbek empires.
However, the conflicts will never end, since in case of partition to north and south, the people will compete with each other over border disputes, where in the case of disbandment or geographic annexation, the neighbouring countries will directly continue their competition over border settlement and natural resources. Therefore, Afghanistan’s future would unfortunately be doomed to these four scenarios, and the only scenario that can grant a decent survival to Afghanistan is a decentralised and federal form of government, which can produce stability to the country; where the each later three scenarios will end the age of a united Afghanistan as a country in the world map.
*Zahid Aria, PhD. Scholar at the Panjab University, Chandigarh, India