Is Afghanistan nearing Balkanisation?

The two contending belligerents in Afghanistan hold off their areas under occupation

Shahzad Chaudhry August 06, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at


Ralph Peters may have said it in a different context but the threat looms large. To recollect: he had mentioned the possibility of redrawing maps in the larger middle east, West and South Asia around fissiparity, centrifugal pulls and the inherent hubris of a superpower which seemed unstoppable after its two successful expeditions. All that was needed now was to redraw the maps, once again, just because they could with a little more effort. 2006 seemed like Vietnam-1967 with the US in full control of Afghanistan and the Taliban flushed out to Pakistan. Iraq stood fully vanquished. Saddam downed and out and most of the middle east only dominoes away from an Arab Spring. It gave ideas to the likes of Peters. The course of history changed though as with Vietnam and there was an odd Syria that came in the way and took the brunt but not the fall. Some others too stood their ground as the Taliban reorganized in what was to become the most exemplary turnaround in battlefield history. But that came only two decades later. What it may leave behind could still be telling. I will call it ‘Peters in Reverse’.

The two contending belligerents in Afghanistan hold off their areas under occupation unable to break through the defensive cordon of the other. Kandahar, Helmand and Heart stand out for stiff resistance to what was largely known as the Taliban dominated region. Kunduz and Sheberghan are far from tamed. The Taliban may soon break through and assume control but the signs aren’t good of what might follow, for how long, and where all. This just might trigger in a strategic stalemate where the country may seem divided in control, occupation and administration with two parallel systems of governance as was towards the fag end of the US deployment. We, the neighbours and those invested in a peaceful resolution, may not like the recourse for its geopolitical implications yet must contend with the possibility. Those who dwell in the world of smoke and mirrors though may like it to settle this way for malfeasance to find a footing and nurture to support geopolitical ends.

Taliban 2.0 are not the multiethnic composition they are made to be. They remain a patently Pashtun movement headquartered deep inside the southern and eastern heartland of the Afghan state. International aiders of ANSF and the Afghan government supported by an increasingly growing defiance in the civil society helped by militias and warlords will give it the means to hold on to non-Pashtun north and west in its control. The stand-off, as indicated, will divide Afghanistan on ethnic lines. Over its history the Afghan state has seen multiple mutations in geographical composition — Durranis fixed the boundaries some 250 years ago — but what the British composed on entering the great game has more or less stayed turning it into a buffer between an expansionist Russia and an imperialist British India. A 350 km sliver of the Wakhan Corridor — 65 km at its widest and 13 km only at its narrowest — juts between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan (former British India) as the prime example. Going by the ‘Peters’ principle, with the great game long over, it must be reduced to permit robust, alternate and promising connectivity linking three most prosperous regions of Asia.

Multi-ethnicity is a norm now accentuated over time with even greater migrations of people in a globalised culture. Many states formed after the second world war were multiethnic in composition. What holds such states together despite multi-ethnicity is the role of the state and its dominant culture. Most migrants will assimilate in the dominant culture diluting the impact of ethnic variations. State laws are strong and its ability to preserve national ethos ensures that a nation retains its singularity. The case of Afghanistan under a kingship since 1917 had provided that unifying structure with its benign rule permitting varying entities to thrive within their ambits without the need to subscribe to a dictated cultural order. When that got taken away in 1973 the society lost its moorings and exploded on ethnic lines. The state gradually wilted to non-existence till the first the Soviets and then the Americans wandered over and took charge. That has been Afghanistan’s predicament — a lack of a central order. Afghans may still call themselves a nation but it remains a nation without state and they are nowhere close to forming one. Unless the state regains its central authority acceptable to most, if not all, the rupture along ethnic lines will be permanent. That may then lead to the inevitable ethno-social implosion fragmenting the society into tiny penny-pockets losing both the state and the society.

Peters wields a much broader brush and is sinister enough to credit Afghanistan with parts of Pashtun Pakistan and show Balochistan an independent state — Iran has only a sliver and thus loses a sliver. But this was in 2006. Pakistan as a state has borne the reverberations of a twenty-year long war on its western border which has frequently flowed over in multiple forms, and survived through it all becoming even stronger and resilient to external shocks. Some might point to the second edition of this assault on the state through financial and economic manipulation but even there things just seem to be on the mend. For its structural peculiarities the local economy has held out robustly supporting the society at large. The Arab Spring test too has been handily withstood by the Pakistani society and a strong combination of both the state and the society has meant resolute structures and a well-founded society. Pakistan continues to be buffeted by fifth generation hybrid tools of assault but has held out well. A strong state has enabled a robust society where both have stood the test of time.

So what with the feared rupture of Afghanistan if the people and the state represented by the government are unable to find accommodation for each other? The longer the stand-off persists and two systems of governance are in play more permanent will be the new boundaries leading to a notional if not physical division. Considering that northern groups again are multiethnic it could mean further fragmentation of the north subsumed in the larger neighbourhood around ethnic affiliations. By that logic it is quite possible that even if the 15 million or so Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan even if they retain their physical identity will remain perpetually dependent and connected with their 42 million brothers in Pakistan. How these physical associations might align over time will remain to be seen but a state and a region is likely to go various mutations redefining the neighbourhood. As a society fragments around a lost state it will give cause to newer mutations quite opposite to what Ralph Peters may have ever envisioned. 2021 is just so different. An artificial buffer may just settle into more naturally aligned affiliations engendering sustained stability and prosperity. This long and however unnecessary war may finally deliver some peace.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2021.

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