Afghanistan Table of Contents

The Taliban's achievements have crystalized as well as changed the rivalries that dominate Afghan politics. A three-cornered struggle has become more clearly defined. Rabbani's Islamic government, the Taliban and Dostam (with or without the assets of his allies in the Supreme Coordinating Council) have the material resources, the regional and sociological bases, the elements of political identity and the foreign support to dominate Afghan politics. (The Shia communities have defensive capabilities, but must find allies to have national impact.) Yet none of these three are capable of defeating the others and forcefully uniting the country. Each has demonstrated ability to defend its region against attacks from the others.

The combat fault lines running between them are now well defined: roughly the Kabul River gorge and upper basin separating the Rabbani government--dominated by Tajiks and Farsiwans--from the Pushtun region to its south; the highway running through Kunduz between the Salang Pass and Sher Khan Bandar on the Tajikistan border which generally separates Uzbeks under Dostam from Tajiks following Massoud and Rabbani; Faryab and Baghis provinces fought over by Dostam and Ismael Khan; and northern Farah and Helmand provinces where Ismael Khan maneuvers against various Pushtun rivals. In all of these areas combat has produced shifting results as one side or another gains temporary advantage. There has been no instance of a major or lasting penetration by one protagonist into the core area of another, and with Hekmatyar's apparent demise the likelihood of such a major event has lessened. (Dostam's presence in and near Kabul has depended upon allies in the immediate vicinity--first Massoud, later Mazari and Hekmatyar. With the loss of these allies, as well armed as he is, Dostam's position has become purely regional.)

The Rabbani government appears to be gaining military strength compared with its rivals. In 1994-95 it has demonstrated the ability to defend itself against attacks from both sides and from Shias within Kabul itself. No longer distracted by Hekmatyar, in early 1995 it devastated Hezb-i-Wahdat, forced Taliban out of Kabul while recovering Kunduz and Sher Khan Bandar from Dostam and successfully defending Herat in the west. Even so, there are inherent limits in the government's situation. Dostam controls the Salang Pass and has strengthened his grip on the north-south highway. Rabbani's government is still subject to attack from both sides in addition to assaults from the Iran backed Hazarajat. Geographically and politically it occupies the weakest position for attracting foreign assistance. It would require extraordinary leadership and a remarkable set of circumstances for a Kabul-centered government to defeat all its adversaries militarily.

The most basic reason why complete victory eludes all the protagonists is that it would require intrusion into regional communities with clear ethnic dominance patterns and increasingly stronger senses of political autonomy. Moreover, all sides are well armed. In post-Marxist Afghanistan all armies are regionally based and they have all done poorly outside of their own turf.

The Taliban factor increases the possibility of a divided Afghanistan. As an instrument for rallying the Pushtun community to a degree that was impossible while the widely disliked Hekmatyar attempted to carry the Pushtun banner, the Taliban may yet be able to assemble forces strong enough to drive the Tajik dominated government out of Kabul and perhaps over the Hindu Kush. In effect, this would reduce the number of major protagonists to two. It would oblige the putative minority Tajiks and Uzbeks and probably the Shias into a joint defense. Such a scenario would leave Afghanistan dangerously divided, seriously raising the prospect of partition.

A stabilized three-sided stand-off offers a lesser threat to Afghanistan's national integrity. It provides a better opportunity for balance and flexibility among the sides. It removes the temptation of using the Hindu Kush as a physical justification for dividing or fragmenting the country. Each protagonist being smaller and weaker (than would be the case if Pushtuns were pitted against the minorities) is more likely to find the prospect of being absorbed or dominated by their cross-border counterparts in Iran, Pakistan of Central Asia less appealing. The important presence of the Shias, even if they do not constitute a fourth major protagonist, obliges their regional neighbors to bargain with them to achieve stability. A tripartite stalemate, offers the eventual prospect of reconciliation and even consensus which could be facilitated by the UN.

Mujahidin failure to create a semblance of effective national government has added immeasurably to Afghanistan's tragedy. Perhaps three million Afghans remain marooned outside their country. Internal conditions make the return of many of them increasingly unlikely. In addition, the internecine fighting has spawned hundreds of thousands of new internal refugees, many clustered in crude tent cities in the Kabul River valley near Jalalabad. Pakistan has attempted to keep them from crossing the border. With resettlement long delayed, national reconstruction has been severely restricted and almost all remaining external assistance has been funneled instead into the fighting.

Where strong regional and local leadership exists, resettlement and the beginnings of reconstruction have been evident. Herat, Panjshir valley and the northeast, and the plain around Mazar-i-Sharif have experienced degrees of recovery. Regional marketing, land reclamation, re-opening of schools, some small-scale construction and light industry have reappeared.

The rest of Afghanistan, especially Kabul, await peace before measurable improvements can be expected. Instead, rogue economies based on theft, extortion and smuggling remain rife in many areas, especially the east and south. Until intervention by the Taliban, agriculture in the eastern Pushtun provinces was completely dominated by opium cultivation and processing. Poppy growing for subsistence consumption had been traditional in parts of Afghanistan, but since the late 1980s it became Afghanistan's most valuable commercial export.

The recovery of functional national government is likely to require an evolutionary process involving the progressive reaching of agreements between the three most powerful protagonists. There are compelling reasons for them to grope toward a national union, probably federal in structure. The lack of national authority over a medium- or long-term period increases the risk of dismemberment. Competing ambitions between Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics are more likely to escalate toward annexation of contiguous regions of Afghanistan if there is no progress toward national unity.

So far, despite the turmoil the threat of dismemberment or partition has not materialized. However destructive it has been, political energy has been directed inward, with instances of overlapping alliances and cooperation between the major communities. This has been especially true among the minorities, including the Shias, for example, Muhseni's Harakat Islami as a Shia bulwark of -and-out relations with Dostam and Massoud, Massoud's largely Pushtun senior staff in the defense ministry, and Ismail Khan's alliances with Durrani chiefs.

Many of these connections are examples of opportunistic intrigues, yet under the stress of competing pressures, the qawn, with its pull toward primordial loyalty can be expected to prevail. Even so, cooperation leading to political cohesion offers obvious benefits. National survival and avoidance of further exhaustion from internal war call for it. Recovery of transportation, communications, law and order, education, and comprehensive economic policy leading to commerce on a national level is impossible without agreement on a functional center. Regional recovery such as Ismail Khan has led in Herat requires economies of scale, exchange with the complementary economies of adjacent regions, and national promotion of international trade to rise above sporadic local successes.

War and tumult have changed Afghanistan's political landscape, if not political values. For the first time in more than two centuries, Pushtuns do not dominate areas of Afghanistan beyond their own ancestral regions. Meanwhile, it is clear that the Tajiks and Farsiwans, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Ismailis, and the smaller communities expect equivalent political status in whatever national system might evolve. Ghilzai political dominance appears to have been short lived. Given the disarray among the Pushtuns, the "minorities" have considerable opportunity to solidify their claims.

Foreign involvement has long since become a critical factor. Shia politics have been greatly influenced by Iranian material support and guidance. Dostam has retained close connections with Uzbekistan. The civil war in Tajikistan spilled into Afghanistan in 1992, bringing more than 100,000 refugees across the Amu Darya, as well as cross-border raids and artillery counterattacks. Russian support of the Tajikistan government has brought Russians back to the Afghan border.

By far the most serious potential foreign issues for Afghanistan concern its relations with Pakistan. It continues to be closely involved with the shuras, commanders and perhaps the Taliban inside eastern Afghanistan. The dilemmas run deep. If Pushtuns refuse to reach a compact with Afghanistan's other communities and are unable to dominate them, the implications for their relations with Pakistan are ominous. The border they share with Pakistan could become even more volatile. Denied power and control over Afghanistan's material resources--which are mostly concentrated in the minority regions--the frustrations of Afghanistan's Pushtuns could threaten Pakistan's own stability.

If Afghanistan becomes partitioned between north and south, demands could rise for the creation of either a Pushtunistan separate from Pakistan or a greater Northwest Frontier Province inside Pakistan. Either one of these possibilities would generate great political pressure for Pakistan. If it accepts the status quo it could lose control of its border as Pushtun nationalists from both sides agitate for a new Pushtunistan. If it tries to amalgamate Afghan Pushtuns into Pakistan it would risk creating a Trojan horse that could cause serious political instability.

A partitioning of Afghanistan would also greatly increase the difficulty of Pakistan's avowed goal of political, cultural, and logistical connections with the newly independent Central Asian Republics. An independent northern Afghanistan could have less interest in being a conduit for Pakistan's economic relations with Central Asia than would a united Afghanistan. Much would depend upon the circumstances that might lead to such a partition.

Afghanistan thus presents a series of dilemmas for its neighbors. They have helped fuel the war over Kabul and the fighting elsewhere. Their good offices have led to cease fires and temporary agreements between the parties. They play both roles, fearing the loss of connections with the major Afghan players, lest one of them prevails.

Having developed special relationships with communities inside Afghanistan, its neighbors run the risk of acting as spoilers if Afghans make progress toward political unity. At some point such meddling could ignite a crisis that could destabilize the region. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan are closely tied to the creation of an effective, united and popular Afghan government. Such an outcome could improve its hopes for strong links with Central Asia. It could also lessen Pushtun unrest, with its potential for complicating cross-border relations. It is thus in Pakistan's interest to encourage general political reconciliation among Afghans, a policy which requires reducing its focus on Afghan regional politics.

Despite Afghans' pride in independence, during the past two centuries their politics have been greatly influenced by foreign involvements. In its present condition of great political vulnerability, Afghanistan is again intimately affected by foreign powers. Yet since the founding of its tribal monarchy foreign meddling has been dominated by imperial, alien, and non-Islamic nations. In a new era of political alignments and cultural resurgence, there is opportunity for Afghanistan to revive within a community of Islamic states. Whether that possibility will materialize depends greatly on its neighbors.

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Literature on Afghan politics and government mushroomed rapidly in connection with the Soviet war. For the period prior to 1980 the best sources in English are Kawun Kakar Hasan's Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amin 'Abd al-Rahman Khan, Louis Dupree's Afghanistan, Leon Poullada's Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929, Vartan Gregorian's The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1840-1946, Richard S. Newell's The Politics of Afghanistan, and Donald Wilbur's Afghanistan. Among them these titles cover the efforts to consolidate central authority over Afghanistan's disparate communities and to develop a modern state.

Among the many works that addressed the Marxist seizure of power, Soviet occupation, the growth of nationalist resistance, Soviet withdrawal, the ensuing civil war culminating in the mujahidin victory and struggle for power, several are outstanding and have been important sources for this chapter. For the Saur coup and the early period of Soviet occupation, Henry S. Bradsher's Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. A thorough examination of the Afghan communism is presented in Anthony Arnold's Afghanistan's Two-Party Communism. The most creative and influential interpretation of the social foundations and ideological impact of the Soviet war and Afghan resistance is provided by Olivier Roy in Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. An excellent account of the Geneva negotiations and the Soviet withdrawal is given in Raiz Muhammad Khan's Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating the Soviet Withdrawal. The best comprehensive analysis of the Marxist client government, the end of the war and its aftermath is The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System by Barnett Rubin.

Data as of 1997

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress