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A Primer for Today’s World

by Michael W. Cotter

Ambassador Cotter, the American envoy to Turkmenistan from 1995 to 1998, discusses in depth not only Afghanistan, which has been in world news of late, but several of its lesser-known neighbors. We know of few individuals anywhere who has a better grasp of the subject than the author.—Ed.

While western media have focused attention on Afghanistan since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been little that sheds light on the history of the country or the region, yet some understanding of the past and of the perspectives of other countries in the region is indispensable to understanding Afghanistan today.

 Afghanistan’s Neighborhood

China • India • IranKazakhstan
Kyrgystan • Pakistan • Russia • Tajikistan
Turkmenistan • Uzbekistan

Located at the mid-point of earth’s largest continent, it’s not surprising that Central Asia has been trampled on by most of the world’s would-be conquerors. Alexander the Great passed through. So did an Asian tribe several centuries later, fleeing the Han consolidation of China. That group, known as the Huns in Europe, built the giant Buddhist statues recently destroyed by the Taliban. Centuries later, Genghis Khan destroyed many of the Silk Road cities. Tamerlane, a Turkic tribesman, created a new empire two centuries later with its capital in Samarkand. One of his successors, Babur, established a kingdom in Kabul and later founded the Moghul Empire in India. The language of culture in most of the region throughout this period was Persian, although rulers and ruled commonly spoke a variety of tongues.The history of modern Afghanistan is generally considered to begin in 1747, when a Persian ruler, Nadir Shah, was assassinated and the Afghans revolted under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Abdali, a Pashtun of the Durrani tribe, taking Kandahar and establishing modern Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah defeated the Moghuls west of the Indus River and took Herat away from the Persians. His empire extended from Central Asia to Delhi, from Kashmir to the Arabian sea, becoming the greatest Muslim empire in the second half of the 18th century.

A familiar sight in Turkmenistan

From Ahmad Shah’s death in 1773 until Dost Muhammad Khan took the throne in Kabul fifty years later Afghanistan underwent turmoil, with continual tribal revolts and pressure from the Persians in the west. Proclaimed “Commander of the Faithful” (in Arabic Amir al-mu’minin– a title more recently assumed by Mullah Omar of the Taliban) in 1836, Dost Muhammad was well on his way to consolidating power in Afghanistan when the British arrived in collaboration with a deposed competitor. Thus began the First Afghan War and the history of British involvement in that country. In spite of pressure from Russia and Great Britain, Afghanistan retained its independence until the Soviet invasion in 1980. In the process, however, significant parts of its territory were lost. Most important from today’s perspective, in 1893 the British imposed the Durand Line as Afghanistan’s southern border, splitting Afghan tribes and incorporating major tribal areas into what is now Pakistan.The tribal areas split by the Durand Line were and are occupied by the Pashtun clans. Also known as Pakhtoon or Pathan, the Pashtun are the peoples meant by the Persians when they first coined the term Afghans. The Pashtun are divided into more than 60 clans, all speaking the common Pashto tongue. They number some 12.5 million in Afghanistan, where the major clans are the Durrani and Ghilzay, and 14 million in Pakistan.

In order to understand what is happening there today, it is important to place Afghanistan in the context of today’s Central Asia. The fall of the Iron Curtain did more than end the Cold War in the west. Although Americans have focused on this watershed event in world history from the perspective of reduced tension in Europe and reduced possibility of nuclear war, for the peoples and countries of Central Asia it has meant both great opportunity and uncertainty.

I define Central Asia in a broader sense than was used during the Cold War, when it was generally limited to the five Socialist Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Rather, I would argue, it is that part of the world between those countries oriented on the Mediterranean Sea on the west (i.e., the Levant and Asia Minor) and the heartland of China in the east; and between the Russian-populated parts of Siberia and the Steppes in the north and the Hindu areas of the Indian subcontinent. It thus includes Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern India, and the Xinjiang region of China, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of each of those countries, particularly in their relationship to Afghanistan.

Pakistan, partitioned from India in 1947, was reduced to its present sizeabout twice that of California when Bangladesh seceded in 1971. Its population is more than 144 million, forty percent of which is under fourteen years of age. Five major ethnic groups live there, of which the largest are the Punjabi peoples. Pashto speakers constitute only eight percent of the population. Not surprisingly, given the basis of its partition from India, ninety-seven percent of Pakistanis are Muslim, the great majority of whom are Sunni.

Pakistan’s ethnic groups are not well integrated, and recent decades have seen significant ethnic fighting and unrest, particularly between the majority Punjabis and the Sindhi in the south, as well as between the Sindhi and the Muhajir, immigrants from India at the time of partition. Although the Pashtun are far from the largest ethnic group in Pakistan, they live primarily in the north along the Afghan border and thus play a critical role in relations between the two countries.

Pakistan wants an Afghan government dominated by ethnic Pashtuns that will provide it both strategic depth in its conflict with India and access to Central Asian resources. However, the rapid dissolution of the Taliban regime presents Pakistan with serious problems. One is its fear that, having taken Kabul, the Northern Alliance will not easily share power. At this point, Pakistan will be fortunate to achieve an Afghan government in which Pashtuns are represented proportionately. A second concern is the fate of perhaps several thousand Pakistani volunteers who joined the Taliban before and after September 11. The Musharraf government needs to avoid having the Taliban defeat spill over into its own unsettled internal dynamic, but its ability to act is constrained by the influence that the fundamentalist Islamic movement has gained in the past two decades.

The current situation is particularly delicate for U.S.-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani elite place a large measure of blame for the current situation on the United States, noting that it not only dropped Afghanistan like a hot potato after the defeat of the Soviets, but then froze its relationship with Pakistan over the issue of nuclear weapon development. Pakistanis fear the same thing happening again, and their concerns were not alleviated when the United States permitted the Northern Alliance to take control of Kabul after assuring them the city would remain open until an interim government could be formed.

Turning to India, in 1947 the subcontinent was divided into the secular, but largely Hindu, state of India and the smaller Muslim state of Pakistan. Slightly more than one-third the size of the U.S., India has a population of over one billion, eighty-one percent of whom are Hindu and, even after partition, twelve percent of whom are Muslims.

Three wars have not resolved the conflict between India and Pakistan, and today the region is one of the principal potential areas of conflict in the world. Although the dispute over Jammu and Kashmiran area largely Muslim in population that was left in India at the time of partitionis the most prominent, it is not the only bone of contention between the two. The potential consequences of further conflict between India and Pakistan is exacerbated by the fact that both possess nuclear weapons.

Center, Amb. Cotter and Mrs. Joanne Cotter. Far left and far right, two Turkmen officials from Dashowuz City in northern Turkmenistan.

Given their origins in conflict, it isn’t surprising that during the Cold War Pakistan and India ended up on opposite sides. India developed a close relationship with the USSR, although motivated as much or more by its fear of Chinese expansion as by its fear of Pakistan. Pakistan, in turn, looked to both the United States and China for help in consolidating its independence from the much larger India. A decade after the end of the Cold War this alignment was only beginning to change, as India and China slowly began to resolve territorial disputes and the United States tried to improve its relations with India. Such moves, of course, raise strategic concerns in Pakistan. They also concern Russia, which finds its influence waning in yet another area of the world, and which is already facing the potential challenge of a rapidly growing China.Now there is concern that India may see both the short-term possibility of solving the Kashmir situation on terms favorable to it by identifying Pakistan with Islamic radicalism and thus isolating that country, and the longer-term potential of securing for itself critical energy resources, perhaps ignoring in the process the danger that an imploding Pakistan might have recourse to nuclear weapons as a last resort to defend its interests.

China’s influence reached as far as the Caspian Sea at various times early in the Christian Era, and Chinese ruled for short periods in Bokhara and Samarkand in the seventh century. The Chinese retreated with the spread of Islam and only reasserted their control of Xinjiang in the late seventeeenthth century. By the mid-nineteenth century Imperial Russia’s eastward expansion had absorbed that part of Central Asia west of the Tien Shan Mountains. Xinjiang, east of the Tien Shan Range, then became another theater in the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain for control of the Asian heartland, and in that theater Russia eventually prevailed. As a result of a number of so-called “unequal treaties” which China was forced to sign with the Western powers after the Opium Wars, China had to surrender nearly 350,000 square miles of territory to Russia, as well as give the Russians special trading privileges and the right to establish consulates in the area.

Just about the size of the continental United States, and sharing borders with seven of the other countries in Central Asia, China clearly has the interest and clout to have a major say on the future of Afghanistan. China, however, is the neighbor with the smallest percentage of Muslims in its population. Only two to three percent of its 1.2 billion people follow that religion, reinforcing the fact that China’s major interests are strategic rather than religious. Its short-term interests do focus on eliminating secessionist desires among the majority Uighur population of Xinjiang, where most Muslim Chinese live, and reducing the influence of fundamentalist Islam in the region is an important part of its strategy. China’s historical alliance with Pakistan and antipathy toward India, as well as its competition with Russia for a dominant position on the Asian continent will color its views of an Afghan solution. In particular its alliance with Pakistan may conflict with its desire to eliminate aggressive Islam from the region. China also has a keen interest in Central Asia’s energy resources, and various plans have been proposed to lay both oil and gas pipelines from the region to eastern China.

Russia, 1.8 times the size of the U.S., but with a post-USSR population of just 147 million, shares borders only with China and Kazakhstan in the region, but its influence remains much greater. From Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia in the mid-nineteenth century through the debacle of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late twentieth century, Russia has been a major player in the region. Going back even further, the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century put a fear in Russian souls that remains a major psychological characteristic of that people yet today.

After consolidating power, the Bolsheviks first left Imperial Russia’s Central Asian colonies remain united as Soviet Turkestan. In the 1920s, however, Stalin, fearing that the region’s Muslims would take seriously Soviet ideals such as equality of all peoples and thus present a threat to Russian dominance in the USSR, divided the region up into five socialist republics. Those republics, firmly under Moscow’s thumb, were formed along ethnic lines in order to divide the peoples of that region. They are today’s five former Soviet Central Asian republics.

Russians resent the loss of control over the region’s energy resources, and some in that country have not abandoned the idea of reestablishing their hegemony over Russia’s former Central Asian possessions. With the fall of the Taliban regime, Russia will try to limit Iranian, Pakistani, and Turkish influence in Afghanistan. Although the Russians want to play a major role in determining Afghanistan’s future, and their military presence in Tajikistan helps ensure that they will, their motives are distrusted by all of the other major players in the regionwhether their former subjects, Afghanistan’s other neighbors, or the various Afghan factions themselves.

Kazakhstan, although the largest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, has few equities in the situation in Afghanistan. It shares no border with that country and ethnic Kazakhs constitute barely fifty percent of the population. In fact, only forty-seven percent of its population is Muslim. The nomadic Kazakhs were never very fervent Muslims, and fundamentalist forms of that religion have made little headway. With Russians making up forty-four percent of the population, and with the country’s industry and agriculture still dependent on trade with Russia, Kazakhstan is likely to take a position on Afghan issues close Russia’s.

Kazakhstan’s major concerns are eliminating drug trafficking, and creating a climate of security that will enhance the possibility of attracting additional foreign investment to develop the country’s significant energy resources and get them most effectively to Asian markets.

Kyrgyzstan, the smallest (about the size of South Dakota) and poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, has borders with Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, sharing the fertile Fergana Valley with the latter two. The most heavily populated area in Central Asia, the Fergana was the site of serious ethnic unrest in the last years of the USSR. It is also the home of the most devout Muslims in former Soviet Central Asia, and has been the target of efforts by Muslim fundamentalists to overthrow the successor, regimes in those countries.

Only fifty-two percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 4.7 million people are ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks comprise another twelve percent, and there is a significant minority of Tajiks. seventy-five percent of the population follows Sunni Islam.

Kyrgyzstan’s future is tied closely to a positive outcome in Afghanistan. Very vulnerable to unrest fomented by Islamic fundamentalism, the Kyrgyz have one main goal in the region: eliminating instability that might be used by its larger neighbors to justify once again swallowing up the smaller countries.

Tajikistan, the second smallest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, is about the size of Wisconsin. It has a 900 mile border with Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent of its 6.5 million people are ethnic Tajiks, and another twenty-five percent are Uzbek. The Tajiks are the principal non-Turkic ethnic group in the former Soviet Central Asia. Descended from the Persians who once controlled the region, their language is very closely related to Persian and Dari, the official language of Afghanistan. Although they are Persians, most Tajiks profess orthodox Sunni Islam, rather than the Shi’a form followed in Iran. This fact differentiates the Tajiks in Afghanistan from the Hazara minority, who speak Afghan Persian, but are Shi’a.

Tajikistan is the only Central Asian republic that still hosts Russian military forces in any numbersa brigade that supported the government during Tajikistan’s own 1993-97 civil war (and, according to many, profited and continues to profit handsomely from drug trafficking). The Tajiks have consistently supported, in a covert fashion, the Afghan Northern Alliance, composed largely of their ethnic brethren. They will support an Afghan solution that ensures the security (and, if possible, dominance) of the Afghan Tajiks. An ancillary benefit to Tajikistan of a stable Afghanistan should be the removal of the Russian brigade, something Russia will resist.End.



Michael W. Cotter
Michael W. Cotter

Ambassador Cotter served as a career U. S. diplomat from 1970 to 1998, serving at eight posts abroad, including three in Vietnam. He holds a B. A. from Georgetown University and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan Law School and Stanford University. In retirement he takes an active role on the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers.


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