Thursday, August 09, 2007

Pashtun "Time Bomb"

In the category of "unlikely but possible outcomes that we really should put some serious thought into" there's this warning from Selig Harrison about the unification of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

The influence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pashtun-dominated northwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan through their messianic brand of Islam could lead to the unification of the estimated 41 million Pashtuns on both sides of the border, the breakup of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a new national entity, "Pashtunistan," under radical Islamist leadership, says noted South Asian expert Selig Harrison.

According to Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and author of "In Afghanistan's Shadow, both Pakistan and Afghanistan are fragile, multi-ethnic states, and he believes that the United States is inadvertently helping Al Qaeda and the Taliban capture the leadership of Pashtun nationalism.

He believes that Washington's move to pressure Musharraf to bring the autonomous tribal areas under his rule, and its proposal to launch unilateral strikes, could be counter-productive.

As I've noted before, the situation along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border is tense, and delicate. Musharraf can hardly afford to alienate the Pashtuns, who comprise a significant minority and who have made considerable trouble for him in the past. And frankly, neither can we. The Afghan people were rightly weary of the Taliban's heavy-handed rule, and many were more than happy to see us oust them. Unfortunately, by failing to quash the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan, by our self-interested policies and tactics (like the opium eradication campaigns and airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians) and by our general disinterest in the region after the mess in Iraq, we've pushed many of these people-including Pashtuns who were already somewhat hostile to us-further into the camp of the Taliban. And now a guerilla war flourishes where there once was none.

There's another lesson here, about our misunderstanding of ethnic realities and failure to appreciate long-term perspectives. The Pashtun/Tajik division is old, and easily masked by grouping people into categories of people based merely on whether they favor or disfavor the Taliban. The conflict in Afghanistan is largely the result of an arbitrary drawing of borders between states, a fact that we always seem to fail to appreciate. And the time frame for dealing with such a problem is long; decades, not years. And the solution requires more than simply "defeating" the Taliban (whatever that were to mean.) Of course, the problems we face in Iraq are similar to a large degree, and our failure to bring lasting peace is largely a result of our failure to understand the underlying political and ethnic realities of both countries. This may sound trite, but both countries demonstrates why you should never go to war without a heavily-read history book in hand.

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