The mainstream media has defaulted by its failure to report Afghanistan as basically a civil war in which the US and NATO are intervening powers, cloaking their operations under the cover of the United Nations Assistance Program.
The danger of escalating civil war – perhaps prompting calls for further Western intervention – is the crucial context for understanding the latest crisis, the September 20 assassination of Afghanistan’s former president and chief diplomat in charge of stalled peace talks, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
While the investigation into Rabbani’s murder proceeds, it is time for greater clarity about the clashing forces, which underlie Afghanistan’s pattern of violence.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the initial Western fanfare was about bringing pluralistic unity, Western democracy and even women’s rights to countries long mired in ethno-sectarian conflicts. While the deep sectarian divide became quickly apparent in Iraq, the veneer of Afghanistan as a nation-building project in progress remains the primary narrative in official discourse.
The truth is that Afghanistan is less a nation than Iraq historically, and with unreconciled sectarian divisions. As the US withdraws our combat troops, the endgame in Afghanistan will be a sectarian-based insurgency, a sectarian civil war, or a patched ethno-geographic compromise. Given these possible futures, the path of US withdrawal will be threatened by assertions from some that Obama is “losing” Afghanistan unless he reverses course.
Informed observers need to be clear, Afghanistan is a simmering civil war, one which cannot be won by foreign intervention.
This civil war is between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and, a decade later, those fissures still remain.
Ethnic: 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Uzbek, 9% Hazara, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkman, 2% Baluchi.
Religious: 80% Sunni, 19% Shiite (mostly Hazara), 1% Christian and other.
In a country where 28% are literate, where 40% are unemployed, where 15-20% of the population have access to electricity, where government revenues are $1.7 billion (less than the US spends in Afghanistan every five days), the Pashtun are poorest by any standard of measure. While there have been increases in school enrollment and basic health care coverage since the Taliban era of 1996- 2001, those modest gains are in scattered Northern ethnic areas and must be measured against the massive civilian suffering that has ensued since that time.
The conflict is entrenched. Not only are the Pashtun the largest population bloc in Afghanistan, the Pashtun belt extends from southern Afghanistan across southern Pakistan, and is the base of the Taliban in both countries.
With only 27% of the population, the Tajik are concentrated in four areas: 85% of Herat province, 60% of Mazar-e Sharif, 60% of Ghazai, and 45% of Kabul. Those are the base areas of the Northern Alliance forces.
The 9% Hazara, symbolized by the young boy Hassan who is beaten, raped, and eventually shot by the Taliban in the book and movie, “The Kite Runner”, are Shiite, and are supported by Iran.
The Baluchi numbers are far greater than 2% because they dominate the southern Pakistani border, the heartland of a fierce, long-standing insurgency/independence movement against the Pakistan army and government. The seven million living in Baluchistan are 6% of the entire Pakistan population. The area includes Quetta, the sanctuary of the Afghan Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar.
What lessons can be drawn from this picture?
- The US, NATO and the UN are immersed in a sectarian civil war despite all propaganda to the contrary.
- The civil war cannot be won since 40-50 percent of the populations are on either side of the divide.
- As the US combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban will consolidate their gains and the old Northern Alliance forces will become activated, armed and alarmed.
- Regional powers including Pakistan, China and India will have to play more influential roles in discussing, defining and even dictating a cease-fire, détente and power-sharing agreement.
- President Hamid Karzai will be fighting for his life to avoid the 1963 fate of the Diem brothers in South Vietnam, who were killed by elements of the military with US knowledge. Some say the Diems wanted to make peace with the North; in any event, their killings paved the way for the invasion by US ground troops. President Kennedy was assassinated less than a month later.
All this is background for this week’s high drama, in which Burhanuddin Rabbani, the appointed head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, was assassinated in a conspiracy whose perpetrators are unknown so far. Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik, though not described as such in the New York Times’ account. But the Times’ report is nonetheless revealing:
“...Mr. Rabbani was a former president and onetime leader of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban force made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks. While Mr. Rabbani’s efforts at peace had shown only limited promise, his backing of Mr. Karzai had shored up the president, who was under constant pressure from former members of the Northern Alliance not to sell out to the Taliban...”
Only one conclusion is possible for the moment: there are well-connected forces attempting to destroy the peace process and prolong the war. Rabbani’s killer entered his home “without apparently either a background check or a thorough search.”
Instead of carrying out its drone war and secret operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama might ask what the CIA, headed by former General David Petraeus, is doing to protect the peace process from unraveling completely.
All data in this report is courtesy the Congressional Research Service.