Afghanistan's Prospects in 1997

Afghanistan's Prospects in 1997

The Taliban's achievements have crystalized as well as changed the rivalriesthat dominate Afghan politics. A three-cornered struggle has become more clearlydefined. Rabbani's Islamic government, the Taliban and Dostam (with or withoutthe assets of his allies in the Supreme Coordinating Council) have the materialresources, the regional and sociological bases, the elements of politicalidentity and the foreign support to dominate Afghan politics. (The Shiacommunities have defensive capabilities, but must find allies to have nationalimpact.) Yet none of these three are capable of defeating the others andforcefully uniting the country. Each has demonstrated ability to defend itsregion against attacks from the others.

The combat fault lines running between them are now well defined: roughly theKabul River gorge and upper basin separating the Rabbani government--dominatedby Tajiks and Farsiwans--from the Pushtun region to its south; the highwayrunning through Kunduz between the Salang Pass and Sher Khan Bandar on theTajikistan border which generally separates Uzbeks under Dostam from Tajiksfollowing Massoud and Rabbani; Faryab and Baghis provinces fought over by Dostamand Ismael Khan; and northern Farah and Helmand provinces where Ismael Khanmaneuvers against various Pushtun rivals. In all of these areas combat hasproduced shifting results as one side or another gains temporary advantage.There has been no instance of a major or lasting penetration by one protagonistinto the core area of another, and with Hekmatyar's apparent demise thelikelihood of such a major event has lessened. (Dostam's presence in and nearKabul has depended upon allies in the immediate vicinity--first Massoud, laterMazari and Hekmatyar. With the loss of these allies, as well armed as he is,Dostam's position has become purely regional.)

The Rabbani government appears to be gaining military strength compared withits rivals. In 1994-95 it has demonstrated the ability to defend itself againstattacks from both sides and from Shias within Kabul itself. No longer distractedby Hekmatyar, in early 1995 it devastated Hezb-i-Wahdat, forced Taliban out ofKabul while recovering Kunduz and Sher Khan Bandar from Dostam and successfullydefending Herat in the west. Even so, there are inherent limits in thegovernment's situation. Dostam controls the Salang Pass and has strengthened hisgrip on the north-south highway. Rabbani's government is still subject to attackfrom both sides in addition to assaults from the Iran backed Hazarajat.Geographically and politically it occupies the weakest position for attractingforeign assistance. It would require extraordinary leadership and a remarkableset of circumstances for a Kabul-centered government to defeat all itsadversaries militarily.

The most basic reason why complete victory eludes all the protagonists isthat it would require intrusion into regional communities with clear ethnicdominance patterns and increasingly stronger senses of political autonomy.Moreover, all sides are well armed. In post-Marxist Afghanistan all armies areregionally based and they have all done poorly outside of their own turf.

The Taliban factor increases the possibility of a divided Afghanistan. As aninstrument for rallying the Pushtun community to a degree that was impossiblewhile the widely disliked Hekmatyar attempted to carry the Pushtun banner, theTaliban may yet be able to assemble forces strong enough to drive the Tajikdominated government out of Kabul and perhaps over the Hindu Kush. In effect,this would reduce the number of major protagonists to two. It would oblige theputative minority Tajiks and Uzbeks and probably the Shias into a joint defense.Such a scenario would leave Afghanistan dangerously divided, seriously raisingthe prospect of partition.

A stabilized three-sided stand-off offers a lesser threat to Afghanistan'snational integrity. It provides a better opportunity for balance and flexibilityamong the sides. It removes the temptation of using the Hindu Kush as a physicaljustification for dividing or fragmenting the country. Each protagonist beingsmaller and weaker (than would be the case if Pushtuns were pitted against theminorities) is more likely to find the prospect of being absorbed or dominatedby their cross-border counterparts in Iran, Pakistan of Central Asia lessappealing. The important presence of the Shias, even if they do not constitute afourth major protagonist, obliges their regional neighbors to bargain with themto achieve stability. A tripartite stalemate, offers the eventual prospect ofreconciliation and even consensus which could be facilitated by the UN.

Mujahidin failure to create a semblance of effective national government hasadded immeasurably to Afghanistan's tragedy. Perhaps three million Afghansremain marooned outside their country. Internal conditions make the return ofmany of them increasingly unlikely. In addition, the internecine fighting hasspawned hundreds of thousands of new internal refugees, many clustered in crudetent cities in the Kabul River valley near Jalalabad. Pakistan has attempted tokeep them from crossing the border. With resettlement long delayed, nationalreconstruction has been severely restricted and almost all remaining externalassistance has been funneled instead into the fighting.

Where strong regional and local leadership exists, resettlement and thebeginnings of reconstruction have been evident. Herat, Panjshir valley and thenortheast, and the plain around Mazar-i-Sharif have experienced degrees ofrecovery. Regional marketing, land reclamation, re-opening of schools, somesmall-scale construction and light industry have reappeared.

The rest of Afghanistan, especially Kabul, await peace before measurableimprovements can be expected. Instead, rogue economies based on theft, extortionand smuggling remain rife in many areas, especially the east and south. Untilintervention by the Taliban, agriculture in the eastern Pushtun provinces wascompletely dominated by opium cultivation and processing. Poppy growing forsubsistence consumption had been traditional in parts of Afghanistan, but sincethe late 1980s it became Afghanistan's most valuable commercial export.

The recovery of functional national government is likely to require anevolutionary process involving the progressive reaching of agreements betweenthe three most powerful protagonists. There are compelling reasons for them togrope toward a national union, probably federal in structure. The lack ofnational authority over a medium- or long-term period increases the risk ofdismemberment. Competing ambitions between Iran, Pakistan and the Central AsianRepublics are more likely to escalate toward annexation of contiguous regions ofAfghanistan if there is no progress toward national unity.

So far, despite the turmoil the threat of dismemberment or partition has notmaterialized. However destructive it has been, political energy has beendirected inward, with instances of overlapping alliances and cooperation betweenthe major communities. This has been especially true among the minorities,including the Shias, for example, Muhseni's Harakat Islami as a Shia bulwark of-and-out relations with Dostam and Massoud, Massoud's largely Pushtun seniorstaff in the defense ministry, and Ismail Khan's alliances with Durrani chiefs.

Many of these connections are examples of opportunistic intrigues, yet underthe stress of competing pressures, the qawn, with its pull towardprimordial loyalty can be expected to prevail. Even so, cooperation leading topolitical cohesion offers obvious benefits. National survival and avoidance offurther exhaustion from internal war call for it. Recovery of transportation,communications, law and order, education, and comprehensive economic policyleading to commerce on a national level is impossible without agreement on afunctional center. Regional recovery such as Ismail Khan has led in Heratrequires economies of scale, exchange with the complementary economies ofadjacent regions, and national promotion of international trade to rise abovesporadic local successes.

War and tumult have changed Afghanistan's political landscape, if notpolitical values. For the first time in more than two centuries, Pushtuns do notdominate areas of Afghanistan beyond their own ancestral regions. Meanwhile, itis clear that the Tajiks and Farsiwans, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Ismailis, and thesmaller communities expect equivalent political status in whatever nationalsystem might evolve. Ghilzai political dominance appears to have been shortlived. Given the disarray among the Pushtuns, the "minorities" haveconsiderable opportunity to solidify their claims.

Foreign involvement has long since become a critical factor. Shia politicshave been greatly influenced by Iranian material support and guidance. Dostamhas retained close connections with Uzbekistan. The civil war in Tajikistanspilled into Afghanistan in 1992, bringing more than 100,000 refugees across theAmu Darya, as well as cross-border raids and artillery counterattacks. Russiansupport of the Tajikistan government has brought Russians back to the Afghanborder.

By far the most serious potential foreign issues for Afghanistan concern itsrelations with Pakistan. It continues to be closely involved with the shuras,commanders and perhaps the Taliban inside eastern Afghanistan. The dilemmas rundeep. If Pushtuns refuse to reach a compact with Afghanistan's other communitiesand are unable to dominate them, the implications for their relations withPakistan are ominous. The border they share with Pakistan could become even morevolatile. Denied power and control over Afghanistan's material resources--whichare mostly concentrated in the minority regions--the frustrations ofAfghanistan's Pushtuns could threaten Pakistan's own stability.

If Afghanistan becomes partitioned between north and south, demands couldrise for the creation of either a Pushtunistan separate from Pakistan or agreater Northwest Frontier Province inside Pakistan. Either one of thesepossibilities would generate great political pressure for Pakistan. If itaccepts the status quo it could lose control of its border as Pushtunnationalists from both sides agitate for a new Pushtunistan. If it tries toamalgamate Afghan Pushtuns into Pakistan it would risk creating a Trojan horsethat could cause serious political instability.

A partitioning of Afghanistan would also greatly increase the difficulty ofPakistan's avowed goal of political, cultural, and logistical connections withthe newly independent Central Asian Republics. An independent northernAfghanistan could have less interest in being a conduit for Pakistan's economicrelations with Central Asia than would a united Afghanistan. Much would dependupon the circumstances that might lead to such a partition.

Afghanistan thus presents a series of dilemmas for its neighbors. They havehelped fuel the war over Kabul and the fighting elsewhere. Their good officeshave led to cease fires and temporary agreements between the parties. They playboth roles, fearing the loss of connections with the major Afghan players, lestone of them prevails.

Having developed special relationships with communities inside Afghanistan,its neighbors run the risk of acting as spoilers if Afghans make progress towardpolitical unity. At some point such meddling could ignite a crisis that coulddestabilize the region. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan are closely tied tothe creation of an effective, united and popular Afghan government. Such anoutcome could improve its hopes for strong links with Central Asia. It couldalso lessen Pushtun unrest, with its potential for complicating cross-borderrelations. It is thus in Pakistan's interest to encourage general politicalreconciliation among Afghans, a policy which requires reducing its focus onAfghan regional politics.

Despite Afghans' pride in independence, during the past two centuries theirpolitics have been greatly influenced by foreign involvements. In its presentcondition of great political vulnerability, Afghanistan is again intimatelyaffected by foreign powers. Yet since the founding of its tribal monarchyforeign meddling has been dominated by imperial, alien, and non-Islamic nations.In a new era of political alignments and cultural resurgence, there isopportunity for Afghanistan to revive within a community of Islamic states.Whether that possibility will materialize depends greatly on its neighbors.

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Literature on Afghan politics and government mushroomed rapidly in connectionwith the Soviet war. For the period prior to 1980 the best sources in Englishare Kawun Kakar Hasan's Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign ofAmin 'Abd al-Rahman Khan, Louis Dupree's Afghanistan, LeonPoullada's Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929, VartanGregorian's The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform andModernization, 1840-1946, Richard S. Newell's The Politics ofAfghanistan, and Donald Wilbur's Afghanistan. Among them thesetitles cover the efforts to consolidate central authority over Afghanistan'sdisparate communities and to develop a modern state.

Among the many works that addressed the Marxist seizure of power, Sovietoccupation, the growth of nationalist resistance, Soviet withdrawal, the ensuingcivil war culminating in the mujahidin victory and struggle for power, severalare outstanding and have been important sources for this chapter. For the Saurcoup and the early period of Soviet occupation, Henry S. Bradsher's Afghanistanand the Soviet Union. A thorough examination of the Afghan communism ispresented in Anthony Arnold's Afghanistan's Two-Party Communism. Themost creative and influential interpretation of the social foundations andideological impact of the Soviet war and Afghan resistance is provided byOlivier Roy in Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. An excellentaccount of the Geneva negotiations and the Soviet withdrawal is given in RaizMuhammad Khan's Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating the Soviet Withdrawal.The best comprehensive analysis of the Marxist client government, the end of thewar and its aftermath is The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formationand Collapse in the International System by Barnett Rubin.

Data as of 1997

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