Decoding strands of Afghanistan’s political DNA

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.

Nation-states, like their citizens, have life spans. These depend on political DNA: geography, topography, ethnicity, etc. Malformed at birth, Yugoslavia and the original Pakistan have both disintegrated in recent decades.

What of Afghanistan’s national DNA? A member of the United Nations since 1946, it boasts ministries and embassies abroad, its own currency and flag (both frequently changed) and its own national airline (frequently grounded). Given this mixed reality, it is fair — indeed, vital — to ask whether Afghanistan, as currently configured, has the legs to keep going within the community of nation-states. How long is there likely to be an “Afghanistan?”

Afghanophiles, among whom I count myself, typically duck this question. They claim the existence of a deep, if vague, Afghan identity. And yet any sober examination of Afghanistan’s essential DNA — its topography, its ethnicity, its political origins and its subsequent history — suggests otherwise. Consider its strands of DNA:

Topography: The Hindu Kush mountains, running northeast to southwest and reaching 20,000 feet, split Afghanistan in half and are the natural division between Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Until 1964 no all-weather road linked south and north. Even now, the pass is closed for days each winter. Kabul and Kandahar face south toward what is now Pakistan; Mazar-i Sharif and Kunduz north toward the formerly Soviet “Stans.” And Herat in the west is historically as much Persian as Afghan. Rather than being a topographical unit, Afghanistan represents three separate fringe areas of three distinct segments of Asia.

Ethnicity: Axiomatically a human crossroads, Afghanistan is left with the demographic legacy of many crossings. Pashtuns constitute a plurality of the population, and have been politically dominant since the country’s supposed “birth” in 1747. Their hegemony is deeply resented by other groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkomans, etc.) who have used recent decades of weak central government to reassert some degree of autonomy. Anti-Soviet resistance parties were ethnically based. So are the main political factions today. Kabul University has never been so ethnically tense. Likewise whole sectors of local employees in embassies and ministries and the United Nations. And the fact that the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun makes them more acceptable to their co-ethnics … and anathema to all others.

Political Origins: While not yet known as Afghanistan, the nation-state began as a Pashtun enterprise based in mid-18th century Kandahar. Pashtun forces, led by a princeling, created an empire that reached north across the mountains, west beyond Herat, and east as far as India. These gains were soon squandered, however, by the princeling’s feckless successors. What remained of “Afghanistan” — a term first used in early 19th century British accounts — would likely have disintegrated completely had it not been for superpower politics and the “Great Game.”

Subsequent History: As their 19th century imperial borders crept ominously closer, Victorian Britain and Czarist Russia tacitly recognized the value of a buffer between them. A weak Afghanistan filled that bill. Its current borders, finalized in the 1890s, thus reflect the concerns of London and Moscow more than those of Kabul. Consolidation of internal control was made possible only by sizeable outsider subsidies.

This pattern of buffer-state dependence continued until 1978. Bolsheviks replaced Czarists to the north, and American influence replaced British to the south. Both sides guaranteed Afghan territorial integrity. Soviet rubles and U.S. dollars paid for a modicum of internal security and economic development. Chronically unable to foot its own bills, buffer-state Afghanistan languished but also survived.

With the Marxist coup of 1978, Afghanistan went from accustomed buffer to Cold War proxy. Now only one side — the Soviet Union — provided the money and offered the guarantees. When these proved insufficient, Afghanistan descended into chaos.

National Purpose and the Lack Thereof: Some nation-states, fortunate in their DNA, have a natural, home-grown purpose. Afghanistan presents the other extreme: a nation-state concocted by outsiders as a buffer-state. What happens when this buffer-state need disappears? Yes, “structure” and “stability” are always important to our State Department. But these qualities do not come cheap in Afghanistan. What, long-term, will hold it together and pay its bills?

Its Great Game/Cold War importance gone, Afghanistan is again supported by outsiders — this time because of the confrontation between militant Islamism and the West. What will happen once this conflict subsides? Do current bloodshed and corruption represent merely growing pains of an Afghanistan on the way to eventual success? Or are we witnessing the gradual deterioration and ultimate disappearance of a nation-state that — except for the impulse of Pashtun expansionism — never truly had a rationale of its own?

Whitney Azoy, a former BDN editorial page columnist, has been involved with Afghanistan since 1971 as a U.S. diplomat, anthropologist, relief worker, translator and filmmaker. He is currently co-producing a documentary film entitled “Afghanistan: A Nation of Poets.” He is a speaker at this year’s Camden Conference, Feb. 19-21. For more information, visit www.camdenconference.org. A longer version of this article published by the Middle East Institute and may be found at www.mei.edu.

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