A guest post by Edward Turner
An American Solution for an American Empire?
The traditional story says Afghanistan's problems began around 1993: a year earlier the Soviets had retreated from the mujahidin and in the subsequent anarchy a group of half-illiterate vigilante Madrasa students decided they could do a better job at keeping order and challenged the power of the warlords.
At first it didn't seem significant: a 30-man group of tribesmen, lead by Mullah Omar a Pashtun of the trans-border Ghilzai tribe, took control of Kandahar city from a particularly hated warlord. But it didn't stop there: with the help of Pakistan, the "Taliban" movement snowballed into an unstoppable force for statehood.
By 1996 the ragtag group had conquered most of the country, Pashtun and non-Pashtun. In gratitude to their - as yet uninvited - Arab guests, whose jihadists and cash had helped the disorganised fighters win significant battles, the Taliban allowed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to set up Al Qaeda training camps in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Pakistan, wishing to support an Afghanistan state in which ethnic bonds were suppressed in deference to religious ties, eagerly recognised the new state in 1997.
Using Afghanistan as a springboard, the Arab Al Qaeda committed a string of high-profile terror attacks. This culminated in the 9/11 strikes on America, in New York and Washington, which in turn lead to the War on Terrorism being launched on Afghanistan in 2001.
Soon thereafter all Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan were flattened by bombs and a new Afghan government installed in 2006 - it seemed the Taliban had fled across the border with some remnants of Al Qaeda.
But three years later, while the Americans had stopped calling the war in Afghanistan a "War on Terror" the conflict with the Taliban appeared to have intensified to a terrifying new level and spread to a nuclear state, Pakistan.
Surely now, the traditional narrative of the conflict in Afghanistan has run its useful purpose. In Afghanistan the threat of Al Qaeda has been destroyed, while the Pakistani government support of the Taliban has U-turned into a fight for its life against it.
Rethinking the War on Taliban
The alternative narrative is this: the most significant date before 1993 was 100 years earlier, in 1893. In this year the 1600 mile-plus squiggly border over the barely-explored mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the Durand line, was etched into historical infamy by the most powerful Empire of the age, Great Britain.
After decades of futile conflict with the North Western tribes, the British, like Alexander the Great before, decided conquering the inhabitants along the North West Frontier was too much trouble. The region would be far better left as a natural quagmire for an invading Russian army.
Typical of British divide-and-rule tactics, the Durand line split the Pashtun tribes down the middle: the majority put on a trajectory towards a Pakistan state in 1947; while the historically most influential Durrani and Ghilzai tribes would be out of harm's way in Afghanistan.
The more educated and wealthier Durrani Pashtun, who lived in the urban south west of Afghanistan, would be the most powerful force in the notoriously unstable Afghan state until 1979. It is from this tribe of five million that the 2006 Afghanistan government draws its Pashtun Taliban opposition, including President Hamid Kazai.
The strategic point is this: the British Empire didn't need the Pashtun; they were a nuisance that could most effectively be employed as someone else's nuisance, and ignored. Today the successor Empire forgets about the Pashtun people at its cost.
The Taliban are not just Islamists, they are Pashtun Islamists.
If the conflict against the Taliban is to be won the Pashtun, and specifically the Ghilzai tribe of the Pashtun which forms the core of the Taliban, must be placed at the center of strategy. Everything else, including the need to protect a multi-ethnic "Afghanistan" can be ignored: why fight a British Empire war in the age of American Empire?
A useful strategic concept: Pashtunistan
If Pashtunistan had a capital city it would be Kandahar. At least three times in its history sizeable Pashtun Empires - including the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - have been built upon the initial capture of Kandahar by representatives of the Durrani or Ghilzai Pashtuns. (The other two cases were the Durrani Empire of the 19th Century, and the Hotaki dynasty of the 18th Century).
Mullah Omar is a member of the Hotaki clan of Pashtun nomads from the mountains east of Kandahar. While his traditional enemy is the Durrani - when one side has gained power the other has been excluded from leadership positions, which is the case inside the Ghilzai dominated Taliban - to describe their history as a Hatfield and McCoy act would be an over-simplification.
Though Ghilzai lead, the Durrani and other Pashtun tribes have cooperated under the banner of the Taliban, and so cooperation between them must be crucial for leveraging the Ghilzai Pashtun away from Al Qaeda with the promise of power within a Pashtun state. This cooperation is not due to a developed cultural sense of Pashtun nationhood (though from time to time Pashtuns have planted the Pashtun flag-stick on Pakistan’s side of the Durand line) but mutual interest.
Pashtun society has a "Russian doll" structure which means allegiances are always mixed and forever shifting. From tribe, khel, sub-khel, to kahol and the nuclear family, the koranay, the approximately 350 tribes (all but half-dozen insignificantly small) are united only in being notoriously ungovernable (such as Pakistan's experience with the Waziri tribe within the Federally Administered Tribal Area). Though they share one language and culture, the Pashtun are too much at war within itself to unite as one nation.
The Pashtun share a distinct social code, the Pashtunwali, and it is the strong emphasis on personal freedom within it that provides the basis for rejection of all external authority which is common to all Pashtuns when faced with attack. It also strongly favours a violent honor culture, and, if we didn’t already guess, hospitality and protection for guests. Graft on to this another the binding agent, the Islamic religion, which the Taliban represents, and it could be understood why it is not easy for external authority to overrun Pashtun peoples.
If the lock of peace can be unpicked it is through fostering cooperation on ethnic lines between the two tribes that have spawned Pashtuni Empires and which would provide the basis of Pashtunistan.
As the Taliban has shown, cooperation between Pashtun tribes is not an insurmountable problem. In order to be powerful, Ghilzai nomads must have control over the valuable economic strongholds of Uruzgan, Kandahar and the Helmand river valley (where opium is currently produced). This lies in Durrani Pashtun dominated regions. For their part, in order for the slightly less numerous Durrani to rule they need to be strong enough to rule the fierce Ghilzai warriors.
For one tribe to rule the other must acquiesce; their fates are entwined; there is no other way. Today, the Ghilzai have the upper hand through their Taliban vehicle. The concept of Pashtunistan is a useful one, however, as it might be the only political carrot that could rival the binding cause of the Taliban and make the powerful Durrani and Ghilzai tribes work together in a project that conflicts with the aims of Al Qaeda.
New American Solution: Self-determination for Afghanistan's ethnic groups
The sine qua non of any solution must first be to ensure a multi-national terrorist group can never use the region as a base for terrorist activity and that any new state does not directly sponsor terrorism. Other goals, such as democracy and human rights, should be ignored.
The idea of Afghanistan's Islamic democracy is contrary to the aims of the War on Terror: it encourages peoples of different ethnicities to live together in one state bound not by their shared ethnic ties but by an Islamic mono-culture that will lean toward extremist solutions.
As the Taliban proved, the only way to keep a comically diverse country together as Afghanistan is by a brutal version of Islam that cares neither for human rights or the destruction of foreign cities. States built upon territory, institutions and people can be deterred with force, however nasty. States built upon evil religious ideology and intimidation of out-groups cannot.
In Afghanistan, does America want another Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or Libya or another Saudi Arabia?
To reduce the role of Islamism as a binding agent for “Afghans”, the ethnic groups must be separated and ethnic ties must be used to bind them. Like the British Empire, Afghanistan, which was little more than a Pashtun Empire, must be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Specifically, the Pashtuns, the only group that seems genuinely interested in the Taliban, need a rejuvination of bonds on ethnic lines. For this, cooperation between the Durrani and Ghilzai tribes is paramount. The Durrani can provide the economic base, the Ghilzai the security and political leadership.
Americans believe in self-determination - they demonstrated this in Yugoslavia. There is no reason for Uzbeks or Tajiks to live in the same state as Pashtuns. Likewise the Shia Hazara, whom the Sunni Pashtuns treat as non-believers, require their own state if there is going to be peace.
That old legacy of Empire, Pakistan cannot be allowed to derail the new American solution. It will be a challenge to incorporate parts of Pakistan into Pashtunistan without compromising Pakistan's sense of security. This could be done by lease of land of strategic importance to Pakistan for 50 years, with non-proliferation in mind.
Barack Obama who visited Pakistan in 1981 and whom has friends in high places is the ideal American President to host the Dayton style negotiations. He may recall Afghanistan represented a solution useful to the British Empire but not to the American Empire. It’s time for boundaries to be redrawn so there is never another Afghanistan.