Originally posted December 2009

Nation-states, like their citizens, have life spans. Some are short. The bumptious Republic of Texas, for instance, lasted only nine years before being absorbed by a larger and even more energetic United States of America. Yugoslavia survived intact for two generations and then fragmented into six parts, seven including Kosovo.

Positive longevity, on the other hand, is epitomized by Iceland. Its nation-state DNA features single island topography, ethnic homogeneity, and distance from acquisitive neighbors. Thus blessed, Icelanders have maintained their united and independent state for more than a millennium.

What of Afghanistan? What can be said of its national DNA? A member of the United Nations since 1946, it boasts (at least in theory) the full panoply of government institutions at home and embassies abroad. There is a national currency (one of the few unequivocal post-Taliban successes), a national flag (the six or seventh since 1973, depending on who’s counting), and a national airline (still flying after half a century … and still considered too risky by most expatriate organizations). In view of this mixed reality, it is fair — indeed, vital — to ask whether Afghanistan, as currently configured, has the legs to keep going within the community of nation-states. How long is there likely to be an “Afghanistan?”

Afghanophiles, in whose number I count myself, typically claim the existence of a deep and real Afghan identity. They note that, whatever warts may appear on the face of the national body politic, Afghans continue to think of themselves as Afghans. The best evidence for that unified sentiment, they say, is the absence of separatist movements over the past three horrendous decades. No other country had a worse last quarter of the 20th century than Afghanistan, and yet virtually there were no calls for its dissolution. The anti-Marxist jihad (1978-1992) was waged — so Afghan leaders proclaimed and expatriate observers believed — in the name first of Islam but then, emphatically, of the country as a whole. Likewise both the Taliban regime (1996-2001) and that of Hamid Karzai (2002-present) have operated as if Afghanistan were unified, both spatially and socially.

And yet any sober examination of Afghanistan’s essential DNA — its topography, its ethnicity, its political origins, and its subsequent history — suggests otherwise. And rather than become, like Texas, part of some grander enterprise, it risks going the dangerous way of quarrelsome post-Yugoslavia. Consider its strands of DNA in turn:

Topography: Unlike rivers whose populations tend to be the same on both sides, mountains truly divide. The Hindu Kush mountains, running northeast to southwest and reaching 20,000 feet, not only split Afghanistan in half but also serve as the natural division between Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Until 1964 no all-weather road linked south and north. Even in mild years, the Salang Pass is closed for days during winter. Kabul and Kandahar face south towards what is now Pakistan; Mazar-i Sharif and Kunduz north towards the Oxus River and the formerly Soviet “Stans.” And Herat, where the Hindu Kush finally dwindles to flatlands, is historically as much Persian as Afghan. Thus Afghanistan, rather than being a topographical unit, in fact represents three separate fringe areas of three distinct Asian landmass segments.

Ethnicity: Axiomatically a human crossroads, Afghanistan is left with the demographic legacy of many crossings. Pashtuns constitute a plurality — but not, as many Pashtuns claim, a majority — of the population, and have been politically dominant since the country’s supposed “birth” in 1747. Pashtun and Afghan were originally synonyms, and thus “Afghanistan” first meant “Land of the Pashtuns.” Their long-standing hegemony is deeply resented by other groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkomans, etc.) who have used the past three decades of central government weakness to reassert some degree of long-lost autonomy. Anti-Soviet resistance parties were ethnically based. So are the main political factions today. Kabul University has never been so ethnically tense. Whole sectors of local employees in embassies and ministries and the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) are known to be the exclusive domain of this or that ethnic group. And the fact that the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun makes them more acceptable to their co-ethnics … and anathema to all others.

Political Origins: While not yet known as Afghanistan, the nation-state began as a Pashtun enterprise based in mid-18th century Kandahar. Pashtun forces under Ahmad Shah Durrani created a short-lived empire that reached north across the mountains, west beyond Herat, and east to Kabul, Peshawar, and even what now is northern India. The capital was moved to more cosmopolitan Kabul, but Ahmad Shah’s successors soon began losing territory during vicious dynastic struggles. What was left of “Afghanistan” — a term first used in early 19th century British accounts — would likely have disintegrated completely had it not been for super-power politics and the “Great Game.”

Subsequent History: As their 19th century imperial borders crept ominously closer, Victorian Britain and Czarist Russia tacitly recognized the value of a buffer between them. A weak Afghanistan — limited by topographical and ethnic divisions — filled that bill. Its current borders, finalized in the 1890s, thus reflect the concerns of London and Moscow more than those of Kabul. And Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Amir,” who consolidated internal control between 1880 and 1901, could do so only by means of sizeable British subsidies.

This pattern of buffer-state dependence continued, with variations, until 1978. Bolsheviks overthrew Czarists in 1917, and America replaced Britain as leader of the West after World War II. Still weak itself, Afghanistan continued to find itself interposed — both precariously and profitably — between the two giants of the age. Neither the USSR nor the US wanted hot war in Central Asia, and together their tacit agreements maintained Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. Soviet Rubles and US Dollars paid for a modicum of internal security and economic development. Chronically unable to foot its own bills, Afghanistan as a buffer-state languished but also survived.

That era ended with the Marxist coup of April 1978. Suddenly Afghanistan went from accustomed buffer to Cold War front-line. Now only one side — the Soviet Union — provided the money and offered the guarantees. When those guarantees proved insufficient, Afghanistan descended into the maelstrom of conflict from which it has yet to recover.

National Purpose and the Lack Thereof: Some nation-states, fortunate in their DNA, have a natural, home-grown purpose. They need no reason for existence except as a viable instrument for the well-being of their own people. Iceland — admittedly an extreme example — exists for the sake of Icelanders, pure and simple. No contrived purpose is required.

Afghanistan, as currently configured, presents the other extreme: a nation-state with fragmented topography, mutually hostile ethnicity, international borders established by outsiders, and a continued existence — until 1978 — maintained by outsiders as a buffer-state. What happens to such a nation-state when the outsider need for it disappears? Yes, the international community has a stake in existing structures, and, yes, “stability” is always important to the US State Department. But the maintenance of structure and stability does not come cheap in Afghanistan. What, in the long-term, will hold it together? Who, long-term, will pay its bills?

Its Great Game/Cold War importance gone, Afghanistan is again in the news — and its nation-state apparatus is again supported by outsiders — because of the confrontation between militant Islamism and the West. What will happen once this conflict subsides? Does the current bloodshed and corruption represent merely growing pains of an Afghanistan on the way to eventual success? Or are we witnessing the gradual deterioration and ultimate disappearance of a nation-state that — except for the impulse of Pashtun expansionism — never truly had a rationale of its own?


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