In September 2010, Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser, sent the world’s Afghanistan experts into a tizzy with a call to partition the country. “The Taliban are winning,” he told London’s Daily Telegraph. “We are losing. They have high morale and want to continue the insurgency. We need a Plan B.”
He envisioned pulling back U.S. troops to the relative safety of the Dari-speaking north, conceding the turbulent and Pashtun-dominated south and east to the Taliban.
Blackwill is no voice in the wilderness. The distinguished scholar and George W. Bush-era policy adviser engineered a major shift in Washington’s alliance with India and remains a powerful voice inside the Republican party. Outside Republican circles, however, few warmed to his Plan B. “If you want civil war in Afghanistan again,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen retorted, “this would be a good way to get it.”
But the idea wasn’t shelved. In January, a group of Republican congressmen and a coalition of Afghan leaders from the country’s north met in Berlin to discuss it, reigniting debate. This time, the group made sure not the use the dreaded p-word, calling, more vaguely, for the decentralization of power in Afghanistan. The softening tactic fooled no one. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was reportedly furious, accusing the Afghans involved in the talks of treasonous activities and rebuking the U.S. politicians for meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
Since then, talk of partition has dropped to a whisper. The subject is taboo for diplomats and political suicide for Afghan politicians. On the street, however, it is never far from people’s minds. To a growing number of Afghans, it is only a matter of time before the country is divided, not for the first time. At the height of the civil war in the 1990s, Dari-speaking ethnicities took control of the north, leaving the south and east of the country to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Kabul, in eastern Afghanistan, was internally divided, as it is now.
A return to a divided Afghanistan is “the only way there will ever be peace in this country,” says Ashoor Stanekzai, a 25-year-old Pashtun gem trader. “There’s been too much bloodshed for the Dari speakers and Pashtuns to ever trust each other again.” That view is gaining traction at a time of growing Taliban influence and an accelerated withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. French officials, following a deadly attack on June 9 that left four French dead, recently announced its military drawdown will begin next month—two years ahead of the NATO withdrawal. Their hasty departure, along with the exodus of other combat troops, Canada’s included, has left many here wondering if Afghanistan is on the brink of repeating the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Ethnic divisions plague the capital, where the Pashtuns hold the majority. In the city’s newly rebuilt Karte Se district, the primarily Hazara residents retain vivid memories of those horrors. Especially how the Hazara, a Dari-speaking, predominantly Shia population, were terrorized by Pashtuns, who are mostly Sunni.
Sectarian violence dominated until the Pashtun-dominated Taliban took power in 1996. Karte Se, on the city’s southwestern flank near the bullet-ridden ruins of Darulaman Palace, was reduced to rubble, littered with landmines, unexploded bombs, and the occasional skeletal remains of the many who perished under siege.
Over the past decade, its recovery has been remarkable. It is now one of the safest, most exclusive districts in the Afghan capital, its streets lined with palatial homes and thriving businesses. And the Hazara are unwilling to give up what they’ve gained. Armed guards can be found on many street corners, protecting the wealthy and their Hazara compatriots. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion, particularly Pashtuns, so different in appearance from the Hazara, with their distinctive Asiatic features.
For some, it is a safe haven. Outside Karte Se, “we never felt safe,” says Habiba Khalili, a mother of two who moved in last year. “My children were harassed every day because they are Hazara. I’m not racist but for us, it’s impossible to live with Pashtuns.”
Khalili’s sentiment finds its mirror image in Pul-e-Charki district, a bastion of Pashtun nationalism. From there, the rest of Kabul is eyed with suspicion, and the Pashtuns’ newly subordinate position infuriates residents. Dari speakers have “taken all the power for themselves,” says Hafizullah Shinwari, an 18-year-old Pashtun mechanic. They “refuse to share it.”
Once more, civil war is looming. Ask any taxi driver, shopkeeper or labourer what they think will happen after 2014, when Western forces are scheduled to leave, and they will all say the same thing: civil war. Many have already begun making preparations, moving their families to ethnically separate enclaves: Pashtuns to the east and south, Hazara to the south and west, Tajiks to the north.
Kabul itself is equally fractured. Ethnic divides infect the most anodyne activities, even sport. Dari speakers play soccer, the Pashtuns cricket. Dari speakers deride cricket as a Pakistani import while Pashtuns view soccer as yet another example of a Western cultural invasion. Pashtuns complain of the Dari speakers’ penchant for dressing in jeans, accusing them of abandoning their traditions. Dari speakers accuse the Pashtuns of backwardness.
“But this was not always the case,” says Mir Ahmad Joyenda, a former member of the Afghan parliament. “Ethnic tensions really only began in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation when foreign governments began supporting various ethnic-based factions opposed to the Soviet presence. Iran hosted Dari insurgents, Pakistan hosted Pashtun insurgents.”
The U.S. hasn’t helped the situation, Joyenda adds: “During the early days of the U.S. invasion, officials came with bags of money to distribute to Northern Alliance commanders,” creating “powerful warlords.” These warlords became ministers, gaining economic, political and military power. “And they want to keep that power, which for them means a divided Afghanistan.”
A divided Afghanistan would threaten the stability of the entire region, says Mahammod Khan, a member of the Afghan parliament. Each ethnic faction will become the proxy of one regional government or another—Pakistan, Iran, Russia: “It will mean endless war.”
But it is a real possibility. Afghanistan remains deeply divided. Partition, whether engineered or not, seems increasingly likely.