Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Pashtun Poison
Peace Through Partition in Afghanistan

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 17, 2010 --  

Afghanistan's Pashtuns are more trouble than they are worth. It's time to show them the door.

With Americans' frustration growing at lack of progress in the war in Afghanistan, it is only a matter of time before the regime of Hamid Karzai is abandoned. The 2010 fighting season has brought two straight months record American casualties (60 deaths in June and 65 in July)1 and little to show for them. The Taliban is active in more parts of the country than any time since their government fell in 2001, and Karzai's corrupt and dubiously legitimate government in Kabul is openly defying of its American benefactors and horrifying its countrymen with talk of power sharing with Islamic militants.

Left-leaning American pundits gleefully compare America's failure to pacify Afghanistan with that of the Soviets and the British. While these critics are right to note that the war is doomed given Americans' limited tolerance for continued losses of blood and treasure, their analysis misses a very important point.

The very goal of creating a stable, centralized, and relatively liberal Afghanistan is not just unachievable within these limits, it is not in the interests of either America or most residents of Afghanistan. In short, America is fighting for the wrong goal.

Afghanistan as a country is a dysfunctional and artificial creation of the British, whose colonial authorities arbitrarily drew borders completely out of touch with the situation on the ground. Why Americans are dying over a century later to defend these borders is unfathomable.

The reality is that the bulk of trouble given to American forces in Afghanistan comes from the Taliban and other Islamic militias dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group. While the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, they still form a minority -- only 42 percent of the population.2 Their distribution on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border makes for an especially troubling situation. The lawless Pashtun tribal regions of Pakistan provide safe haven for Saudi-financed militants who have been radicalizing the Pashtun people with the extreme Saudi Wahhabi form of Islam since the war against the Soviets. As a result of this situation, Pashtun society has been so poisoned by radical Islam that it is practically impossible to solve its problems until future generations emerge with a different outlook.

Unfortunately for Afghanistan, it is this poisoned ethnic group that has been anointed as the ruling class. The United States handpicked Karzai to rule the country because it wanted a Pashtun who could gain legitimacy in the Pashtun-populated Taliban strongholds. Karzai was the most palatable Pashtun the Bush Administration could find. Now that Karzai is seeking allies amongst his fellow tribesmen in the Taliban, this bet appears to be going bad.

Fortunately, there is another way. America must recognize that its interests do not lie in propping up a Pashtun despot to rule over the entire country. Ample reasonable alternative leaders exist in other ethnic groups, such as presidential election runner-up Abdullah Abdullah (an ethnic Tajik). While Abdullah's support was limited in Pashtun areas, it is fair to say that the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan are beyond help, anyway. The same is not true with the less radical parts of central and northern Afghanistan where the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek groups dominate.

If Karzai truly wishes to make a peace deal with the Taliban, it should be to form a new Pashtunistan regime with its capital in his home city of Kandahar. The north and central parts of the country, with American support, could effectively declare independence, retaining the capital in Kabul for people of all ethnic groups desiring to live in a civilized society. America could use its bases in central Afghanistan to take on a much more limited mission -- striking against militant groups like al-Qaeda in Pashtunistan.

While this proposal may sound radical, consider that this is similar to the situation prior to the American military intervention in Afghanistan. The Pahstun Taliban controlled the south of the country, and the Northern Alliance (made up largely of Tajik and Uzbek militias) controlled the north. The main difference, in this case, is that U.S. support would allow the northern ethnic groups to maintain control of Kabul, and provide for America a base to ensure that the region is never again used to stage acts of mass terrorism.

To be sure, America's military and political leaders will be reluctant to make this change in strategy. As the Afghan fighting season draws to a close this fall, supporters of the status quo will misinterpret a lull in casualties as vindication of their strategy. But when the war resumes in the spring, American forces will find the situation unchanged, and will ultimately be forced to abandon the approach of countrywide stabilization. Choosing a reality-based Afghanistan policy sooner rather than later means less American blood and less American treasure will be lost along the way.

Related Web Columns:

Lessons for Victory in Afghanistan, July 8, 2008

Forever Taliban, June 27, 2006


1., Coalition Military Fatalities By Year and Month (US Only) August 2010

2. CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan, August 2010