by Amb. Michael W. Cotter (ret.)
The media is full of information about the conflict in Afghanistan. Some of the coverage supports the Trump administration’s plan to increase the U.S. military presence in that country; some of it is opposed. Some acknowledges the ongoing cost of our involvement. But very little of it suggests alternatives. It is time to lay out some basic facts about Afghanistan that make it impossible for us to succeed with our current policies, and to suggest a way out. Here are my thoughts.
Afghanistan is a Myth
There is no “Afghanistan.” The area within those borders is a late 19th century creation of the British and Russian Empires. Prior to that, at a time when few people in Central Asia ventured very far from their villages, there were Afghan kingdoms. But they were ruled by Pashtun kings and included territory now part of Iran and Pakistan. The borders created by Europeans include many disparate ethnic groups. Afghanistan’s population is about 33 million. Some 40% or 13 million of those are Pashtun. The remaining 60 percent are Tajiks (35%), Uzbeks (9%), Hazara (9%) and a number of smaller groups. Afghan Persian and Pashtun are official languages. The former, the native language of the Hazaras and Tajiks, is the lingua franca of the country and most speak and read it. However, very few Afghans who aren’t Pashtun speak the Pashtun language. The ethnic divisions are exacerbated by an equally significant urban-rural divide. While Kabul is home to some 3.3 million or ten percent of the country’s population, 74% of Afghans live in rural areas.
This background is absent from our discussion of the conflict in which we have been involved for two decades. Our government and the media identify the “enemy” as the Taliban, but they never make clear that the Taliban represent a significant portion of rural Afghans, the great majority of them Pashtun. Not surprisingly, when the “Taliban” controlled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, their government was composed of rural Pashtun religious figures. The opposition was largely led by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. When we entered the conflict with the goal of ousting that regime and eliminating al Qaeda leaders, we did so through the “Northern Alliance,” Uzbek and Tajik military figures, some of whom had served in the Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan. Although both presidents of Afghanistan since then have been ethnic Pashtuns, the main support for the government continues to be the non-Pashtun ethnic groups. And even that support is fragmented as various Uzbek and Tajik leaders/”warlords” with strong support in their bases are often at odds with the government in Kabul. For instance, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who is nominally Vice President of Afghanistan, has been in exile since last year because of charges that he raped another political figure. Or Atta Muhammad Noor, the Tajik governor of Balkh Province fired by President Ghani in December 2017, who has refused to leave his post in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Most Americans are under the impression that we are fighting a “rag-tag” insurgency. In reality, Afghanistan is undergoing a civil war that began when the last Pashtun king was overthrown in 1973, between the largely rural Pashtun plurality and the other ethnic groups for control of the geographic area called by that name. Basically we are supporting one side of a conflict that we are not in a position to resolve.
Pakistan is a Reality
But it gets worse. The conflict is not limited to Afghanistan. Pakistan is inextricably involved as well. We tend to think of Pakistan as interfering in Afghan affairs and prolonging the conflict for its own purposes. That reflects a misunderstanding of the facts. Few Americans are aware that the Pashtun people are also a significant minority in Pakistan, about 15% of that country’s population, or more than 27 million people. In fact, in 1948, when newly-independent Pakistan applied for admission to the United Nations, the then-government of Afghanistan, ruled by a Pashtun king, voted against Pakistan’s admission on the grounds that the border created by the British divided the Pashtun peoples. The separation of the Pashtun people by an artificial border created by outsiders more than a century ago represents a threat to the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Unless that fact is addressed there little prospect of ending the conflict. The Trump administration’s conclusion that Pakistan is part of the problem just makes the search for a solution more difficult. It also complicates the logistical difficulties of maintaining our forces in Afghanistan. Sixty percent of the supplies necessary to maintain those troops passes through Pakistan, which has been willing to severely restrict or even stop that access. The other logistics route passes through Russia, hardly an ally.
The Solution Must Be Regional
Our original goal of ousting the Taliban regime and eliminating al Qaeda leadership was perhaps justifiable in light of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. And we actually achieved much of it. But in doing so we involved ourselves in the ongoing civil war. It is simply not possible for the U.S., a country located 6,000 miles away, to resolve that conflict by force.
The U.S. does have an important interest in preventing Afghanistan from being controlled by a government willing to harbor terrorist groups. But we are not the only ones with that interest. Afghanistan’s neighbors have equal and even more direct interests. China is concerned about the potential for Islamic fundamentalism gaining ground among its Muslim Uighur population. Russia certainly does not want fundamentalism spreading. Nor does Iran, or the former Soviet Republics, or India. Yet somehow we have been left with (or seized) the responsibility for solving the problem. The Russians and Chinese are perfectly happy to have us spend a trillion dollars and the lives of thousands of our military personnel defending their interests in Central Asia. It is time for them to take on that responsibility.
Although we cannot end Afghanistan’s civil war, there is a way for us to extricate ourselves from sole responsibility for containing it. This will, however, take quiet diplomacy. We should make clear to Afghanistan and its neighbors that our military presence will end in a defined period of time, perhaps 18 months, and that they will have to take over the task of resolving the underlying issues that continue to feed the conflict. We can and should remain involved to help that process politically and financially.