Afghanistan and the coming civil war

Talk of partition is taboo for diplomats and political suicide for Afghan politicians, but it is never far from people’s minds.

The coming civil war in Afghanistan

Nikola Solic/Reuters

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.


Afghanistan and the coming civil war

  1. The “coming” civil war? I’m not sure what else to call the current war, in which an Afghan army is fighting Afghan guerrillas. Partition of the country is no solution to the underlying problems.

  2. An article of an small-mind idiot of a Paki.

    1. Kabul is not a dominated Pashtun province or city. It is dominated and was always dominated by Tajiks and Persian-speakers in general. 80% of the province live today in Kabul city and at least 55% of them are ethnical Tajik, followed by at least 25% Hazaras. The remaining is made by Pashtuns, Uzbeks and other minorities.

    2. Kabul, unlike in the 90s of the last century, is today filled with Northrn Alliance soldiers to which 1/5 of Fahims personal men in the national Army belongs to. 60 000 ”Tajiks” are guarding Kabul. In a case of Taliban attack, they won´t face 2500-3000 Mujaheddins that serve and fight for Fahim like in the 90s, but 60 000 men, plus supportive actions from air, from north and west (Noor Mohammad Atta and Ismael Khan).

    3. All the misery we have is caused by Pashtuns and their ethno-centric policy in Afghanistan. They always want the whole power for themself… in a Tajik land, the capital. Afghanistan´s ethnic hatred has a deep history. Pashtuns oppressed in the past unarmed non-Pashtun population and now things just changed. Non-Pashtuns armed themself and ask for autonomy. That´s not a crime.

    4. The current government of Karzai is a Pashtun government. All they key-positions were given to Pashtuns. Since then, the political decadence of the state began. Pashtuns are not born to lead a nation or a state.. they are natural born barbarians and backward cave-monkies without any experience of culture and civilisation. That´s why Afghanistan was always fucked up in the last 200years.

  3. WOW!!!! this article would be written by a pakistani!!!! ive said before and i’ll say it again, 60 year old pakistan is and will always remain the enemy of afghanistan, with thousands of years of history…. you tried to divide us before, didnt work, wont work again…. daalkhors