The Role of the Pashtuns in Understanding the Afghan Crisis

The Role of the Pashtuns in Understanding the Afghan Crisis

by Isaac Kfir


The paper reviews the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and argues that the failure to understand the nature and structure of Pashtun society is responsible for a lack of progress towards peace and security. The first section offers a review of Afghanistan and Pashtun society, the second an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan after 9/11, the third concludes with some recommendations as to how to progress.

The West's Afghan policy is in deep crisis, as eight years since the removal of the Taliban regime the country is experiencing rising violence. This is due to internal Afghan politics and history coupled with political and military mistakes made by the international community. The current situation has naturally led western politicians to suggest contradictory approaches to Afghanistan with some calling for talks with 'moderate' Taliban [1] which have largely been rejected, [2]whilst other call for a continued commitment to countering the Taliban and the other armed groups. In reality, the effect of the debate is to emphasize how rudderless the Afghan policy is, whilst the Afghan political system remains moribund. [3]

The international community, with America in the lead, has made Afghanistan and Pakistan key issues in world affairs, and despite rising costs (the US has annually doubled its official defense costs in respect to Afghanistan, moving from under US $21 billion in 2001-2002, to a projected US $ 180 billion in 2009-2010, [4]), there remains a deep failure to understand the underlying dynamics of the area. Policymakers seem to believe that as long as money and soldiers are 'thrown' at the problem it would eventually come to an end. In reality Afghanistan is a bottomless pit. This is something that the Soviets discovered - the more men and money they poured into Afghanistan, the more difficult it became to extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire. [5]

The author argues that new efforts [6] are unlikely to succeed because of the Pashtun culture and the legacy of the Afghan Jihad. For this reason, the international community should - instead of trying to 'fix' the Afghan problem by sending more troops and money - adopt a policy of containment that calls for a redeployment of resources. It is abundantly clear that despite billions of dollars and massive international efforts, many Afghans do not feel connected to their state. [7] If anything, Afghans increasingly see the presence of the international community as an occupying force keeping a corrupt and decadent government in power. On the other hand, in the words of an Afghan man, "They [Taliban] collect 10% tax on all income, even from the government fields… So if you grow 100kg of wheat you pay 10kg and they give you a receipt and never charge extra or more." [8] The Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ,following a meeting with some tribal elders in Kunduz, Northern Afghanistan ,recounts what a local man had told him: "For 30 years we lived under the rule of war. Only in the last six years have we had some peace. The solution is not to send foreigners – the more foreign troops there are, the more resistance they create. The Afghan army and police should secure the villages." [9]

Understanding Afghanistan

The state known as Afghanistan emerged in the mid eighteenth-century, when a jirga of nine Abdali sub-tribes selected a tribal leader by the name of Ahmed Khan to serve as the successor of Nadir Shah. [10] Ahmed Khan was an effective military leader; he expanded and consolidated his dominion. However, Khan's legacy has been a double edge sword: although he forged a state, it was one with deep division between the Pashtun and the other groups that resided in the area such as Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turks. The Pashtun live mainly in the south and eastern parts of the country, with a large portion living on the Pakistani side. The Tajik, making approximately 25% of the Afghan population, inhabit in the northeast of the country and the urban centers. The Hazaras, around 13% of the population, reside in the central mountains area of Afghanistan. The final major group, the Uzbeks and Turkmen (less than 10%) is inhabiting the north-center. [11] Other important differences are linguistic with about half the population speaking Dari, around 35% speaking Pashtu while the rest converse in their own tribal dialects. [12] In addition to ethnic differences, Afghanistan also contends with continuous tensions between the centre (Kabul) and the countryside. This eventually brought down the Afghan monarchy in 1973. [13] Ironically the same situation is occurring nowadays as attempts at legitimizing the Kabul government have created angered in the countryside, where the capital is viewed Kabul as corrupt and decadent.

The second issue affecting Afghanistan's ability to exist, as a viable state is its strategic location with the Hindu Kush dominating its centre. [14] Afghanistan lies at the heart of the ancient silk route of China to the West, with the famed Khyber Pass located between Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing for movement from the Far East to Europe and vice versa. [15] Conquerors have found that to reach the wealth of India they must traverse Afghanistan, which is why they have repeatedly sought control of the country. In religious terms, Afghanistan was the conduit by which Buddhism reached China and Japan. Louis Dupree, the American expert on Afghanistan, described Afghanistan also as "…a bridge between the Persian and Indian worlds, transmitting elements of each to the other."[16] Thus, Afghanistan's importance is that to its north is Central Asia with its vast mineral resources, whilst to its South are Pakistan and Iran, providing access to the Arabian Sea and with it to the world. [17] Moreover, recently there are indications that Afghanistan itself may contain important minerals. The Aynak copper deposit, located 30 kilometers from Kabul is a good example; it has a solid level of grade ore (in November 2006, nine companies from Australia, Canada, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States submitted tender offers for the deposits [18]). Thus, whereas in the past, Afghanistan's importance was as a conduit, now it may have its own natural wealth, which may exacerbate tensions within the country, as individuals and groups will fight over its control.

The Pashtun Factor

The Pashtun inhabit the area between the Indus, Hindu Kush and the Syistan plateau in South Asia and Central Asia. The majority of them are residing along the Afghan-Pakistan border (a combined area of approximately 250,000 square miles) from Dir along the Indus, westward to Dera Ismail Kera and all the way south to Baluchistan. Interest in the Pashtun rose not only because they make up the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan and play a central role in the Afghan Jihad and in the Taliban. In addition, among the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, they are arguably the only ethnic group to have maintained a strong tribal identity. [19]

Legend holds that the Pashtun are descended from a male ancestor known as Qais, making all Pashtun relatives. However, over time, kinship bonds have weakened, leading to a four-tier system. The first is the Pashtun ethnic group, which exists as a confederation that, when needed, operate en masse. This can, for example, be seen in elections when they vote for their 'Pashtun' candidate, opposing a Hazara or a Tajik. The second tier is the quam (tribe), which lives in a specific territory, with its own dress codes, laws, practices and politics. The next dividing element is the Khel (large lineages or clan) with a number of clans making up a tribe. The fourth tier is the Khol (smaller lineages / family groups). The latter is of immense importance for the Pashtun and explains why they have more than seventy kinship terms in Pashto. The head of each Khol is a malik. In theory, there is a malik at each group-level, though in reality they operate as primus inter pares ('first among equal') when it comes to the jirga (importantly different tribes will have different hierarchies [20]). Applying the four-grouping layer to the Pahstun, the system means that one owes allegiance, first to the family, then to the clan, followed by the tribe and finally to the confederation. [21]

The Pashtuns live by to a tribal code – Pashtunwali (Code of the Pasthun), and they generally subscribe to the Hanfi and Deobandi interpretations of Sunni Islam, though Pashtunwali dominates their way of life. [22] At the core of Pashtunwali is badal (honor, though some define it as revenge). Badal is mainly personal but it also has bearing on the group, as it mean that an offense of any form or magnitude demands retaliation, which is not only a personal duty, but a family one that also effects the sub-clan, the clan and the tribe. Characteristics of the Pashtunwali are: melmastia (hospitality) and badragga (safe conduct) and these are linked to badal in that they refer to how one treats one's guests; failure to treat one's guest properly amounts to an offence on one's honor. Syed Abdul Quddus, an experienced Pakistani civil servant with intimate knowledge of the Pashtun, recounts a story told amongst the Pashtun in which an old Pashtun woman loses her sons to a group of bandits who demand hospitality and sanctuary from her. She granted it because even though the bandits killed her only sons, she was honor bound to provide asylum once the bandits claimed it. [23]

The violent nature of Pashtun society is often attributed to the geography of their area, which has some merit especially when one applies the concept of Tarboorwali which refers to the enmity of brother's son / cousin rivalry. The tarbur concept has become synonymous with enemy and has contributed to making the Pashtun so conflict-oriented. [24] The daftar (tribal land) concept and daftari (an individual share of the tribal land) are central to understand Tarboorwali. Daftari means that only those that own land may have a say in the business of the village . A person without a land becomes a faqir – one without a voice. A faqir status affects an individual's position; reducing it to a position of servitude in the village from which it is very difficult to rise above – faqirs have no say in the jirga, which, in turn, prevents them from acquiring land. [25] Tarboorwali becomes a factor when it is time to divide the land. It is in such situations that cousins can become enemies; the family's land is divided amongst male heirs (and cousins tend to marry), and each male wants to acquire land for without it, they and their families are consigned to a faqir position. Thus, land disputes are often at the root of local conflicts leading to bloody feuds and the splitting up of a family line.

In sum, Pashtun society begins with a man, who is the head of the family (malik). The more wealth and land he has the greater the likelihood that he will have several wives. His sons most likely marry their first cousin (i.e. the daughters of his brother – patril-lineal parallel/cousin marriage), in order to ensure that dowries remain in the family. The son will receive a piece of land, making him into a daftari, giving him a say in the village jirga. When the family is small, it resides often in a single house or compound. After a generation or so, the family becomes too big and some members move out and establish their own khol, and the process repeats itself. After a few generations, the family is no longer a khol but a khel and so on (see Figure 1). It is also important to note, that at times, a large Khol or even a Khel would move en masse to a new area in search of land. [26]

Figure 1 - The Breakdown of the Pashtun Structure


The Afghan Jihad Effect on the Pashtun Structure

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 meant that millions of Afghans - mainly Pashtuns - sought refuge in Pakistan and Iran However, the process of crossing the Durand Line began prior to the Soviet invasion, with Afghan Islamists escaping the repressive policies of the Daoud regime. Once in Pakistan, they joined training camps and bases along the Pakistan-Afghan border, where they were trained to fight Daoud's Communist-leaning government. Islamabad supported these Afghan Islamists because Daoud since the 1950s rejected the Durand Line and advocated for Pukhtunistan – a homeland for the Pashtun. Daoud hoped that through Pukhtunistan, which would include the strategically important Khyber Pass, (inhabited by Pashtuns) Afghanistan would gain access to the sea. Daoud's policy of Pukhtunistan manifested itself in "officially organized demonstrations, symbolic postage stamps, and many tracts and other publications intended to further the cause." [27] Donald N. Wilber, an expert on Persian architecture and allegedly a CIA man, writing in 1953, claimed:

"The Afghanistan Government maintains that the livelihood of as many as 5,000,000 nomadic tribesmen, who for centuries have moved seasonally between the high mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of the Indus, has been endangered by an artificial barrier that divides and restricts them. Muhammad Zahir Shah told the writer that Afghanistan feels an obligation to the tribes for the frequent help they have given his country in its struggle for freedom, and that Afghanistan's aim is to see that the Pakhtuns achieve autonomy… Underneath all of this there probably lies the Afghan fear that as a land locked state the national future is insecure; Afghans feel that an autonomous Pakhtunistan, in which Baluchistan was included, would give their country a friendly outlet to the sea." [28]

Once Daoud fell from power, Islamabad saw an opportunity in installing a government that would abandon the idea of a separate Pukhtunistan. Zia-ul-Haq, using the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), worked towards such a goal. Consequently, the refugee camps became important as they provided the mujahedeen with willing young men that wanted to return to their villages as well to resolve the boredom of the camps. Zia, a conservative Muslim, encouraged and permitted Islamic movements such as Jama'at-i-Islami (JI) to enter the refugee camps, where JI engaged in da'wa (conversion), mainly through the camp-based madrasas (religious schools), which provided basic religious instruction, with an emphasis on jihad and obedience to the cause. Marvin G. Weinbaum, who was in Peshawar in the late 1980s writes,

"The presence on Pakistan's soil of large numbers of refugees, most of them cut off from their traditional leadership, economically dependent, and united in belief of the righteousness of their resistance cause, benefitted most the highly conservative domestic religious parties… it was Pakistan's Jama'at-i-Islami that took the lead in assisting the displaced Afghans and promoting their cause…". [29]

The Soviet troop withdrawal in the late 1980s did not end Soviet intervention as Russia continued to provide its ally President Mohammad Najibullah with financial aid. But Soviet withdrawal meant that the Afghan-Pakistan border was left with well-armed, highly motivated, deeply religious men looking for a new cause. These men also believed that they defeated the Soviet Union. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan came at a time when Pakistan itself was experiencing major internal change as the death of Zia-ul-Haq allowed the country to adopt tentative democratic process.

The 1990s were important for Pakistan as the country experienced major political turbulence with ephemeral civilian regimes whose key focus was with political survival. This gave the ISI much leeway in its Afghan policy as seen in the Peshawar Agreement of 1989 - a tentative power sharing agreement between the different mujahedeen groups. The rising level of violence in Afghanistan, the continuous interference of General Nasserullah Babar, who by the early 1990s was Pakistan's interior minister (in the 1970s he served as the Inspector General Frontier Corps [30]) and Jami'at-i Ulema' Islami (JUD) which replaced the JI as the favored Islamic group, [31] facilitated the rise of a new actor in Afghan politics, the Taliban. Pakistanis encouraged the Taliban as a way to promote stability and ensure a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul. Oliver Roy suggests that the Americans and the Saudis were happy to see the change because the mujahedeen groups (mainly the JI-affiliated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) were becoming hostile towards the United States. [32]

Thus, the legacy of the Afghan Jihad was that it began when Islamabad was worried about Kabul's pro-Pukhtunistan stance. The Pakistani government used the opportunity of the Soviet invasion to nurture and foster resistance groups (mujahedeen). Islamabad took this position in the hope of undermining the Soviet-backed regime, which by its very nature of being pro-Communist offended and worried a conservative Muslim like Zia-ul-Haq. Hence Zia used the ISI to support, train, and prop up the Islamic resistance movements by involving Pakistan-based Islamic movements (mainly JI) to instill greater commitment amongst the refugees, while also ameliorating tribal divides in favor of the concept of an umma (Islamic community). Pakistan used the Afghan Jihad to enhance its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United States, who provided money for jihad. At the end of the conflict with the USSR in Afghanistan, Pakistan had to find something to do for the religiously instructed and motivated youth. Two options appeared: first, use them to establish a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul and begin to exploit the opening of Central Asia. [33] Second, use the youths against Pakistan's old nemesis India, by encouraging the groups to head to Kashmir and take on the cause of liberating its Muslim majority from Indian "occupation". The issue, however was that the mujahedeen were increasingly uncontrollable and hostile, as they fought over the spoils of Afghanistan. Therefore, the Pakistan government, with the support of its allies – the United States and Saudi Arabia – turned to a new emerging Islamic player - the dogmatic Taliban.

When looking at contemporary Afghanistan, one must view it through the lens of the militarization and the Islamization of Pashtuns during the Afghan Jihad Although the Pashtun tribes adhered to a militant variation of Sunni Islam, the concept of Jihad weakened tribal ties and, coupled with Pashtunwali, made the Pashtuns more dangerous and unpredictable. Consequently, the Islamization process saw Pakistani-based Islamic groups promote a more strict Deoband/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, in which the umma concept, made one not just a member of a tribe or clan, but of something bigger and with great history – a Muslim Empire. By referring to the great Muslim tradition, the mullahs played on the needs of uneducated, poor tribal persons, showing them that through religion and commitment greatness can be achieved. An important factor in the new Taliban organization was that it provided food and other essentials for the fighters. The mujahedeen did not have to stand in line to receive ration books, a demeaning process, especially to proud tribal men. By becoming a 'Soldier of God,' the men also won new respect; they became the new maliks. [34] Thus, Islam became a tool in weakening tribal bonds, but at the same time strengthened the larger Islamic 'tribe' – the umma (see figure 2). [35] This explains why Brigadier (ret.) Qadir declares, "Today Pakistan is faced with a revolt against traditional tribal leaders and an insurgency in Waziristan." [36]

Figure 2: The effect of the Afghan Jihad; how it led to the creation of 'Soldiers of God'


The Reconstruction Process

There is a general sense that reconstruction in Afghanistan has largely failed, as violence not only prevails but increases, with the Taliban controlling various provinces (mainly in the Southern part of the country). There are many explanations as to the current state of affairs with scholars focusing on security, a lack of understanding of the challenge faced by the international community vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and so on. [37] There has been continuous rethinking in terms of strategy, whether in military terms, as seen with the way the 'Light Foot' (Afghan Model) approach gave way to the 'American Model' or when looking at the non-military reconstruction programs, moving from a Kabul-centric approach to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Thus, since the international community first engaged Afghanistan in 2001, different policies have been adopted to attempt to deal with the challenges brought about by Afghanistan.

The Military Element in the Reconstruction

The campaign in Afghanistan rose out of the need for self-defense, the US had been attacked by Al Qaeda, which operated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Following 9/11, the Taliban regime became a threat not only to US national interests but also to the maintenance of international peace and security, which justified the intervention. Due to the invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and the deployment of NATO forces in support of the American campaign to locate bin Laden, the initial focus was on a military solution. However, very quickly the, international force – ISAF – experienced major divisions as some began to waver in their commitments, with several refusing to station their troops in the more problematic areas in Afghanistan, such as the south; other members placed such demands that the operation was severely undermined. Secondly, NATO was unsure as to what sort of operation it was conducting - a post-conflict nation building operation or a peace-enforcement operation. The Americans, having adopted a 'Light Foot' ('Afghan Model' [38]) approach, focused on Al Qaeda and the Taliban (as well as Iraq) and provided very limited input. The US operation to capture bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives (Operation Anaconda) in March 2002 was conducted by Special Forces and heavily reliant on local forces (Northern Alliance). The strategy rose because there was no desire on the part of the US to re-impose a foreign force on the Afghans. [39] By 2004, having realized that the military approach was not bearing fruits since the Taliban were slowly reasserting itself, Washington changed US strategy to a more activist policy (known as the 'American Model'), demanding an increase in US troops. This led to a change in how the local community perceived the Americans. Astri Suhrke writes in respect to the 'American model' that,

"…US forces created a measure of fear and antagonism that resonated beyond the inner circle of militants and fuelled recruitment to their cause. US soldiers were considered infidels in a countryside that was mostly tribal in social structure, culturally conservative, and closed to the uninvited. The Americans behaved on all accounts like an occupation force. They moved at will in any place their operational plans required and searched villages without asking permission or informing the local authorities." [40]

The year 2004 saw a further change in the international community's approach through the adoption of a unique civil-military program (Provisional Reconstruction Teams, PRTs) in northern and eastern Afghanistan whereby civil and military personnel would help expand the legitimacy of the Kabul government in the provinces. Second, the PRTs would enhance security, and finally facilitate the reconstruction processes. [41] More many reasons, the PRTs had many shortcomings, ranging from manpower and equipment shortages to an awkward agenda that at times was very difficult to implement. There was also a failure to appreciate varying local conditions as well as tensions within the actual PRT, with some problems arising between the civilian and the military wings of the PRT. Consequently, their effectiveness has become a contested issue and there are debates as to whether or not they should continue. [42]

The Tokyo Process and the Afghan Compact

The meeting that took place in Bonn in December 2001 laid down the roots for Afghanistan's reconstruction. The Bonn Accords ensured that Hamid Karzai was elected as head of the Interim government through a usage of a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly). The jirga, though composed of different ethnic leaders, failed to reflect the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. A month later, in January 2002, the international community met in Tokyo with the participants pledging over $5 billion in aid to Afghanistan. Afghans, however, have emphasized that much of the aid, instead of going to reconstruction, ended up back in the donor countries through studies and research as to how to apply the funds, or went to international staff brought to Afghanistan to oversee the program. [43] Any massive reconstruction program has shortcomings and failures, as donors commitments to provide funds fall short of promises. In fairness, the commitments expressed at Tokyo were considerable and while donor countries may have fudged some of their responsibilities, they still provided much aid. Moreover, one needs to remember that there were at one point around 600 non-governmental organizations involved in Afghanistan; they too brought much money and assistance. Four years after Tokyo, and despite its obvious shortcomings, the international community adopted the Afghan Compact which in the words of B. R. Rubin and H. Hamidzada, provided a "…strategy for building an effective, accountable state in Afghanistan, with targets for improvements in security, governance, and development, including measures for reducing the narcotics economy and promoting regional cooperation." [44]When looking at each one of these elements, a near-total failure is discernable, with insecurity being pervasive, governance remaining poor and weak, development uneven and symbolic at the best, whilst the narcotic trade has remained substantial. [45]

The Bonn Process

The recent flurry surrounding Afghanistan's second post-Taliban election emphasized the many shortcomings of the Karzai administration. In 2001, Karzai won support from the international community because he came from an important family, he was a southern Afghan Pashtun, he had fought the Taliban, he was well-educated and spoke English which made it easy for him to communicate with international leaders. When looking at the formation of the 30-members Interim Administration, it exhibited what the international community wanted to see in respect to Afghanistan rather than reflecting the realities in Afghanistan. Firstly, the Interim Authority – the government established by the Loya Jirga –faced some major challenges due to assassinations; Karzai's deputy, Abdul Qadir, died in July 2002 while Karzai himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in September 2002. The |Bonn Process demanded that the Loya Jirga ensure that Afghanistan abide by international obligations, whether in the realm of women's rights, human rights and other international agreements. This was achieved by reviving the 1964 Afghan Constitution, which had already caused major conflict within Afghanistan when it was first proposed in the early 1960s. [46] For a traditional society with a powerful religious class such obligations are unacceptable Many local maliks and mullahs viewed these demands as either foreign intervention or un-Islamic. The new constitution sought to find a balance between the religious aspect of Afghan society and the needs of a modern nation-state that is part of the international community. Secondly, the Bonn Process did not include the mujahedeen groups in the negotiation process, They rejected anyway, as they were determined to prevent its implementation either because they saw it as a Western-imposed process which also weakened their positions. Ultimately, the process of political reconstruction lacked a major component - support from the power-brokers.

From the Radical to the Less Radical: Some Options

As Afghanistan remains in a state of flux, certain questions emerge regarding the ongoing foreign presence in the country, with some voices calling for a withdrawal. Before examining some options, the author acknowledges that Afghanistan must remain a key foreign policy issue, and that it cannot become the safe-haven of Islamic terrorism.

Much has been said about the 2000-plus kilometer long Afghan-Pakistan border; it is porous and unmanageable especially as members of the same ethnic group reside on both side of the border. For this reason the border issue demands more attention, even if some solutions may not be palatable or politically correct. There are several options.

The first and most radical option calls for transforming Afghanistan from a single state to three or more states or entities. The reason why such a choice may work is that the divisions within Afghanistan are so pronounced that there are no deep relations and connections between, for example, the Uzbek-Tajik North and the Pashtu-dominated South. Due to Afghanistan's current state of affairs, the idea of redrawing its borders along national and ethnic lines becomes more conceivable than, for example, in the case of some of the more artificial African countries. [47] In the 1960s, Louis Dupree suggested an Afghan, Pakistan and Iranian Federation. For Dupree, such a Federation made sense in economic, social and political terms and would help reduce tensions. [48] In the twenty-first century, creating an Iranian, Pakistan and Afghan Federation is, however, not viable, as neither Iran nor Pakistan would accept such a process. However, turning Afghanistan into a federal, or better still, a confederated political entity could bring down tensions, improve security and facilitate reconstruction. In its current form the country exists as a divided polity: Kabul has no significant influence over what takes place in a majority of the provinces. This means that transforming Afghanistan into a confederation (a group of independent states) or a federation (states operating within a large federal body, the less attractive option) means making the current situation de facto situation official. The attraction of a confederation is that in the relatively peaceful and secure areas, the international community could do better reduce the security costs, focus on building a stable political polity within a manageable area and facilitate the development of a strong infrastructure. It would also allow for greater participation by the international community as states that are not keen on sending their forces to the insecure areas could be given the responsibility for reconstruction. Ultimately, the new confederation - or a European-style federated entity - would be designed along at least three main lines (Uzbek-Tajik, Pashtun and Hazara). Such a system would also protect the transit routes from Central Asia all the way to the Arabian Sea, as each state (ethnic group) would benefit, and none would be able to seek to dominant areas where it lacks sufficient numbers. In other words, each large ethnic group would be responsible for its own political and social system. As the European Union has shown, one can devise an economic system whereby one drives through different countries while having thee same currency. Put simply, the new confederation would have to develop in a manner that allows for closer economic integration with the prospect that one day it might also lead to closer political integration. [49]

The second option for Afghanistan is to turn it into a federation, whereby instead of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, the country becomes a United States of Afghanistan, whereby ethnic groups form their own state within a much larger federation. Each area would have an ability to legislate, with the center being responsible only for foreign and defense matters while education, health, and the economy would remain in the hands of each area or state. One must recall that this worked in Germany after the Second World War, whereby the Allies had redrawn West Germany's internal boundaries. Afghanistan's current structure might indicate that the federation approach was actually adopted as the country is divided into provinces with governors at the top. However, these governors are very much connected to the central administration in Kabul. This means that the federal experiment, which was envisioned in 2002 as a way to de-warlordise Afghanistan has not worked out. [50] There was no attempt by the international community to create state-based commitments of local people vis-à-vis their own province, as occurred in the United States, the classic and most successful example of a federation. In post-Bonn Afghanistan, the center was made strong, when in reality it needed to be weak.

The third option is derived from a RAND study into nation-building which Ambassador James Dobbins led. It noted that when it comes to nation-building, certain characteristics reappear again and again. The authors of the study argue that the reasons Germany and Japan proved successful was not due to their level of industrialization and their economic power (despite the devastating aerial bombing campaigns), or even their homogeneity. Rather, it was based on the commitment of the United States to rebuild those states. When it comes to Afghanistan, it has been argued that the country did not receive, on a per capita basis, as much financial support as for example Kosovo. Nevertheless the Afghan commitment has been significant, especially when compared to those made for Haiti or Somalia. [51] The AfPak Strategy emphasizes the need for security prior to reconstruction. Such a policy is unlikely to work because of two key principles issues: first is corruption, which is endemic in Afghanistan; and, second, the Taliban will not simply fade into the distance. The Taliban will wait until the international force withdraws from the area and then reenter the village and do as they please. Astri Suhrke noted the situation in the Panjwai District (Kandahar) where the Canadians drove out the Taliban in September 2006 to great international applaud - only to see the Taliban's return to the district a year later. [52] AfPak, which calls for security and 'boots on the ground' is a newer version of the 'American Model' - with the only difference being that the Taliban will have to wait three years before returning to a province as they know that the foreign forces will eventually leave Afghanistan.

All three policy options require a policy of containment, beginning with the Afghan-Pakistan border, whereby troops are to be placed closer to the Pakistan-Afghan border, with patrols taking place along the border. However, at the moment helicopters, which are worth their weight in gold (indicated by the British experience), are not available in sufficient numbers to patrol the border since these are needed to ferry troops around Afghanistan in the hope of reducing IED-inflicted casualties. It would be more effective to use the helicopters to patrol along the Pakistan side as it is relatively safer (certainly when compared to the Afghan side). It would ensure that the Pakistani military and not the militias are located along the border but Islamabad is unlikely to allow Frontier Corps personal to work with international forces. Moreover, the recent campaigns in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have shown that the military can better deal with the Taliban and the insurgents, something that the Frontier Corps has failed to do for several years. In addition, joint foot patrol along the Pakistan side of the border ought to be improved, with regular Pakistani troops operating in tandem with international troops to stem the tide on infiltration. The time for such a strategy is now, since Pakistanis increasingly see cross-border infiltration as a big problem - something that they refused to acknowledge for several years.


This paper aimed to show that the current approach to Afghanistan has fundamental flaws due to its failure to appreciate the complex nature of Afghanistan and its inhabitants. Moreover, the paper rejects the assumption that there is a military solution to the Afghanistan problem. The author maintains that a close look at Afghanistan emphasizes that the nature of the Pashtun makes it highly unlikely that they would cooperate with other ethnic groups for the sake of Afghanistan,. For several centuries they dominated the political system and with the election of Karzai the international community has recognized their supremacy. Moreover, religiously they have unresolved issues with the Hazaras. Men such as Addal-Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf are seen as apostates whose militia killed Hazara civilians in western Kabul in 1993.

Given the Pashtun's tribal history, the legacy of three decades of brutal warfare, and the effects that the Afghan Jihad has had on tribal society, serious consideration has to be given to the idea of devising a Pashtun state within Afghanistan – but one that accepts the Durand Line. A Pashtun state should also accept that such a state (whether an independent entity or part of a confederation) has to co-exist with other ethnic groups. Failure to abide by such a formula would result in a reduction of international support for Afghanistan. Far too often, the international community has shied away from taking brave decisions under the guise of humanitarianism. This has meant that problematic entities have been allowed to continue to exist, causing immense suffering for their inhabitants. Within the field of humanitarianism, scholars have raised the notion that one must consider whether the intervention would cause more harm, which means that - horrid as it sounds - intervention must not be pursued when this is the likely outcome. [53] Afghanistan is not a natural state, and any attempt to make it one might be counter-productive and ensure that Afghanistan not only remains the 'graveyard of empires' but might also become the graveyard of multilateralism and 'nation building.' If the Afghan experiment completely fails, the international community will be hesitant to take on such a project again. In the early 1990s this was the legacy of Somalia, as once the US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) and its successor, the United Nations Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I) failed, Subsequently, the international community was reluctant to prevent the Rwanda genocide which, in turn, led to thee even greater slow motion disaster that is ongoing to this day in the Congo. [54] Policymakers would be well advised to read Robert Kaplan's "Afghanistan Post Mortem" . Kaplan who visited Kandahar in 1989, noted that what defeated the Soviets was not the military capability of the mujahedeen but rather the Afghans commitment to defend their land against foreigners. Kaplan puts it succinctly and crudely,

"While the Soviets killed upwards of a million civilians in Afghanistan, they did it in such a boring, mechanical, impersonal way as to deflect sustained attention. In the end what "worked" in Afghanistan was not reason or negotiation or the advent of perestroika but the Afghans' willingness to die." [55]

A country inhabited by a people willing to endure a decade of brutal bombing, scorch-earth campaign and see a million dead and another third of its population subsisting in make-shift refugee camps, is a country that one should think twice before taking head on. This is why with such a country containment might work best.

About the author: Isaac Kfir is Assistant Professor, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC), Herzliya, Israel Schusterman Visiting Fellow (2009-2010), Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Administration / International Institute for National Security and Counter-Terrorism (INSCT), Syracuse University, New York, USA.


[1] Mark Townsend and Gaby Hinsliff. "Gordon Brown in new Afghan plan: Talk to the Taliban." The Observer.August 30, 2009.

[2] Denis MacShane. "We Can't abandon Afghanistan." The Guardian OnLine. August 21, 2009, []

[3] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. "Face to face with the Taliban: 'The people are fed up with the government'." The Guardian. August 18, 2009.

[4] Amy Belasco. "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations since 9/11." Congressional Research Services. May 15, 2009. [RL 33110] []

[5] Victor Sebestyen. "Transcripts of Defeat." The New York Times. October 28, 2009.

[6] President Obama has made military changes placing General David Petraeus as the commander of Central Command (CENCOM), which gives him responsibility for Afghanistan. He has appointed Richard Holbrook as the AfPak Czar and adopted a new framework for the region known as AfPak. - Thom Shanker, "Petraeus Steps Into New Role as Head of Central Command." The New York Times. November 1, 2008; Jodi Kantor, "Back on World Stage, a Larger-Than-Life Holbrooke." The New York Times. February 8, 2009; "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks a Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Belt." United States Government Accountability Office. April 2008, (GAO-08-622) []; "Needed: A Comprehensive U.S. Policy towards Pakistan." A Report by the Atlantic Council. February 2009; "Ex-CIA Riedel to review Pak-Afghan policy." Daily Times. [Pakistan] February 12, 2009. [\02\12\story_12-2-2009_pg7_11]

[7] This is heavily influenced by the writing of Anthony Hyman. "Nationalism in Afghanistan." International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 299-315; Martin Ewans. Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and its Politics. (New York: HarperCollins, Perennial 2002).

[8] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. "Face to face with the Taliban: 'The people are fed up with the government'." The Guardian. August 18, 2009.

[9] Idem. See also the report by James Hider. "The Taleban: Master of chaos thrive on bombs and charity." The Times. September 25, 2009. [].

[10] Legend has it that it was the intervention of a noted darwesh (holy man), Mohammed Sabir Khan, that led the jirga to select Ahmed Khan who then became Badshah, Durr-i-Dauran (Shah, Pearl of the Age). Adapted from Martin Ewans. Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and its Politics. (New York: HarperCollins, Perennial 2002), p. 214; Anthony Hyman. "Nationalism in Afghanistan." International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 299-301.

[11] Larry Goodson. "Afghanistan's Long Road to Reconstruction." Journal of Democracy. Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 2003), p. 84.

[12] The constitution recognizes Dari and Pashtu as the official languages; however, concessions were made to the Turkic languages (Uzbeki and Turkmen), Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri (Alsana). These are official languages of the areas where those who speak them form the majority. - K. R. Singh. "Post-War Afghanistan: Reconstructing a Failed State." Strategic Analysis Vol. 28, No. 4 (2004), p. 557.

[13] Anthony Hyman. "Nationalism in Afghanistan." International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 299-315.

[14] Tim Youngs. "Afghanistan: The Culmination of the Bonn Process." House of Commons Research Library. Research Paper, 05/72 (October 26, 2005), p. 7. [] .

[15] The international effort in Afghanistan is heavily reliant on the Khyber Pass as it allows supplies to be brought by land from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The campaign in southern Afghanistan would be severely hampered should the pass close, which explains why there have been attempts by the Taliban to control it.

[16] Louis Dupree. "A Suggested Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Federation." Middle East Journal. Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn 1963), p. 386.

[17] Arnold Toynbee. "Impressions of Afghanistan and Pakistan's North-West Frontier: In Relation to the Communist World." International Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April 1961), p. 161.

[18] China's Metallurgical Group won the bid after pledging a $2.9 billion investment. John Shroder. "Afghanistan's Development and Functionality: Renewing a Collapsed State." GeoJournal., Vol. 70, No. 2-3 (October 2007), p. 94.

[19] Oliver Roy. "Afghanistan: Back to Tribalism or on to Lebanon?" Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 (October 1989), pp. 71-72.

[20] For more information, see Bernt Glatzer. "Is Afghanistan on the Brink of Ethnic and Tribal Disintegration?" William Maley (Ed.) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York, New York University Press, 1998, pp. 167-181.

[21] Oliver Roy uses the example of Ismat Muslim, an important tribal leader (some claim: a vicious warlord) who joined Barak Karmal's Government. Ismat always began by looking out for his extended family followed by his clan (Kakozai), his tribe (Atshekzai) and then his confederation (Durrani) followed by his ethnic identity (Pashtun). Oliver Roy. "Afghanistan: Back to Tribalism or on to Lebanon?" Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. (October 1989), pp. 72-73.

[22] Pashtunwali is more prevalent in the countryside than in the large urban centres.

[23] Syed Abdul Quddus. The Pathans. Lahore, Ferozsons Ltd., 1987, pp. 69-70. For a more modern interpretation, see Bijan Omrani who makes the same point. Bijan Omrani. "The Durand Line: History and Problems of the Afghan-Pakistan Border." Asian Affairs. Vol. 50, No. 2 (July 2009), p. 181.

[24] Robert Lane Sammon. "Mullas And Maliks: Understanding The Roots of Conflict in Pakistan's Federally Administrated Tribal Areas." Master Thesis, University of Pennsylvania, April 2008, p. 17; Syed Abdul Quddus. The Pathans. Lahore, Ferozsons Ltd., 1987, p. 83.

[25] Mukulika Banerjee. "Justice and Non-Violent Jihad: The Anti-Colonial Struggle in the North West Frontier of British India." Études rurales. No. 149/150, (January - June 1999), p. 185.

Mark [26] Syed Abdul Quddus. The Pathans. Lahore, Ferozsons Ltd., 1987. pp. 78-79; Mukulika Banerjee. "Justice and Non-Violent Jihad: The Anti-Colonial Struggle in the North West Frontier of British India." Études rurales. No. 149/150, (January - June 1999), pp. 181-198.

[27] Anthony Hyman. "Nationalism in Afghanistan." International Journal of the Middle East, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 299-315.

[28] Donald N. Wilber "Afghanistan, Independent and Encircled." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 31, No. 3 (April 1953), p. 493.

[29] Marvin G. Weinbaum. Pakistan and Afghanistan: Resistance and Reconstruction. Boulder, Westview Press, 1994, p. 86

[30] Hussain refers to an interview that Babur gave in the Defence Journal. (Rawalpindi), April 2001. Rizwan Hussain. Pakistan and the emergence of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005, pp. 79-80.

[31] The JUD had close ties with Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP).

[32] Roy writes: "The United States and Saudi Arabia had belatedly realized that the Sunni Islamist networks they had supported against the Soviets were turning against them. These networks relied on the Jami'at Islami; 'Usama bin Laden, the rich Saudi since deprived of his citizenship who calls for jihad against the Americans; and Saudi and Sudanese organizations in Peshawar. Anti-American attacks after 1992 have been the work of members of these networks, who moreover have no connection to Iran: consider the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York." - Olivier Roy. "Rivalries and Power Plays in Afghanistan: The Taliban, the Shari'a and the Pipeline." Middle East Report. No. 202 (Winter 1996), p. 38.

[33] Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000; Olivier Roy. "Rivalries and Power Plays in Afghanistan: The Taliban, the Shari'a and the Pipeline." Middle East Report. No. 202 (Winter 1996), pp. 38-39.

[34] Louis Dupree. "Afghanistan in 1983: And Still No Solution." Asian Survey. Vol. 24, No. 2 (February 1984), pp. 233.

[35] This is developed from Albert Hourani. "Conclusion: Tribes and States in Islamic History." in Philip S. Khoury and Joseph Kostiner. (Eds.) Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 303-304.

[36] Shaukat Qadir. "Pakistan's Waziristan Problem." The RUSI. Vol. 153, No. 2 (April 2008), p. 43, pp. 42-45. Fouad Ajami takes a similar view though in respect to the Arab world. He argues that the appeal of "Islamic fundamentalism" arose from the failed promise of the Arab regimes which have not delivered on their promised wealth. Fouad Ajami."The Arab Inheritance." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 76, No. 5 (September-October 1997), pp. 138-140.

[37] See, for example, Larry P. Goodson "Afghanistan in 2004: Electoral Progress and an Opium Boom" Asian Survey ,Vol. 45, No. 1 (January-February 2004), pp. 88-97; Barnett R. Rubin, Amin Saikal and Julian Lindley-French. "The Way Forward in Afghanistan: Three Views." International Affairs. Vol. 51, No. 1 (February-March 2009), pp. 83-96; Barnett R. Rubin and Humayun Hamidzada. "From Bonn to London: Governance Challenges and the Future of Statebuilding in Afghanistan." International Peacekeeping. Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 2007), pp. 8-25.

[38] The 'Afghan Model' refers to a strategy described as "…U.S. airpower degrades enemy communications throughout the theater of war. Then, U.S. Special Forces use light indigenous troops as a screen against enemy infantry and force the enemy to mass before calling in precision air strikes." Richard B. Andres, Craig Willis and Thomas E. Griffith Jr. "Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model." International Security. Vol. 30, No. 3 (Winter 2005-2006), p. 127.

[39] Paul L. Hastert. "Operation Anaconda: Perception Meets Reality in the Hills of Afghanistan." Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2005), pp. 11-20.

[40]Astri Suhrke. "A Contradictory Mission? NATO from Stabilization to Combat in Afghanistan." International Peacekeeping. Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 2008), pp. 214-236.

[41] Myriame T. I. B. Bollen, Eric T. Linssen, Ir. Sebastiaan J. H. Rietjens. "Are PRTs Supposed to Compete with Terrorists?." Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 2006), p. 438.

[42] See for example the fascinating account of Touko Piiparinen, a Finish diplomat with the Foreign Ministry. Piiparinen served as the Political Representative of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Provincial Reconstruction Team in Meymaneh, Afghanistan. - Touko Piiparinen "Clash of Mindsets? An Insider's Account of Provincial Reconstruction Teams." International Peacekeeping. Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 2007), pp. 143–157; Myriame T. I. B. Bollen, Eric T. Linssen, Ir. Sebastiaan J. H. Rietjens. "Are PRTs Supposed to Compete with Terrorists?." Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 2006), pp. 437-448.

[43] James F. Dobbins. "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq." Survival. Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter 2003-2004), pp. 87-110; Peter Marsden. "Afghanistan: the Reconstruction Process." International Affairs. Vol. 79, No. 1 (January 2003), pp. 93-96.

[44] Barnett R. Rubin and Humayun Hamidzada. "From Bonn to London: Governance Challenges and the Future of Statebuilding in Afghanistan." International Peacekeeping. Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 2007), p. 10.

[45] The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports (in its Human Development Index) how little progress has been made, as the country has remained so poor that UNDP was unable to measure human development in Afghanistan. "Human Development Report. 2007-2008" United Nations Development Program (New York: UNDP, 2007).

[46] Hasan Kakar. "The Fall of the Afghan Monarchy in 1973." International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 9, No. 2 (April 1978), pp. 195-198; Anthony Hyman. "Nationalism in Afghanistan." International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2002), 299-315; Eden Naby. "Islam and the Afghan Resistance." Third World Quarterly. Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 1988), pp. 787-805.

[47] The African Charter upholds the colonial borders, which arguably explains why Somaliland has yet to be recognized as an independent state.

[48] Louis Dupree. "A Suggested Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Federation." Middle East Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4, (Autumn 1963), pp. 383-399.

[49] See, for example, David Mitrany. "The Functional Approach in Historical Perspective." International Affairs. Vol. 47, No. 3 (July 1971), pp. 532-543.

[50] Larry Goodson. "Afghanistan's Long Road to Reconstruction." Journal of Democracy. Vol. 14, No. 1, (January 2003), p. 84.

[51] James F. Dobbins. "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq." Survival. Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter 2003-2004), pp. 87-110; James Dobbins et. al. America's role in nation-building : from Germany to Iraq. (Santa Monica: RAND, 2003); James Dobbins et. al. The UN's role in nation-building: from the Congo to Iraq. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2005).

[52] Astri Suhrke. "A Contradictory Mission? NATO from Stabilization to Combat in Afghanistan." International Peacekeeping. Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 2008), p. 231.

[53] Nicholas Wheeler. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford , University Press, 2000.

[54] See for example Holly J. Burkhalter. "The Question of Genocide: The Clinton Administration and Rwanda." World Policy Journal. Vol. 11, No. 4 (1994), pp. 44-54; Michael N. Barnett. "The UN Security Council, Indifference, and Genocide in Rwanda." Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 12, No. 4 (November 1997), pp. 551-578; Alan J. Kuperman. "Rwanda in Retrospect." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 2000), pp. 94-118.

[55] Robert Kaplan. "Afghanistan Post Mortem" Atlantic Monthly. April 1989.


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