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Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderlands
By David Isby
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2010 David Isby
All rights reserved.
AFGHANISTAN: A COUNTRY DEFINED BY CONFLICTS
"To sum up the character of the Afghans in a few words: their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy; on the other hand they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent; and they are less disposed than the nations in their neighborhood to falsehood, intrigue, and deceit."
—Mountstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, 1815
This one-sentence description is of value today, not just sentimental Orientalism. Today, there is still something remaining of the "Old Afghanistan," though nothing has been untouched by the conflicts of 1978–2001. Despite the current impatience of foreigners and Afghans alike, rebuilding will likely be the task of a generation, and whether it will be completed or not depends on the outcome of Afghanistan's conflicts and the commitments of its foreign friends.
Land and People
Afghanistan is a country of enormous complexity. Isolated by its mountainous terrain and limited infrastructure, Afghanistan is rich in culture, has multiple languages and ethnicities, and has a long unique history of Islamic religious practices and much else. It is harder to generalize about diverse and divided Afghanistan than just about any other country of comparable size and population. Those, usually foreigners, who insist on defining any one fact as "this is how it is in Afghanistan," are likely to be misleading themselves. Attempting to understand Afghanistan means realizing the importance of its nuances and context.
Afghanistan is located at the intersection of three critical regions—Iran and the Gulf; central Asia; Pakistan and the subcontinent—and is where global currents meet and interact. China (and the Pacific Rim) even shares a short land border with Afghanistan in the remote northeast Wakhan corridor. Yet Afghanistan is still distinct from all the regions it borders, even though it is influenced by—and has the potential to influence—all of them.
Afghanistan's remote location on the eastern periphery of the Iranian plateau and mountainous terrain has limited control by outsiders. The mountains divide and isolate Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush bisects it. The Safed Koh lines the border with Pakistan. The tallest peaks are those of the Pamirs, in the extended finger of the Wakhan Corridor that stretches to the Chinese border. The territory is generally arid.
A relatively small percentage of the surface area—mainly in river valleys—is suitable for agriculture, which requires irrigation. Afghanistan is vulnerable to multiyear droughts, including a severe one in the early 1970s and another one prior to 2001. Both of these droughts hurt the legitimacy of the then-current governments in Kabul, which demonstrated they could do little to alleviate the hardships of affected Afghans. A drought in 2008 helped worsen a pre-existing food shortage, as Pakistan and Kazakhstan, the region's primary food exporter, had already cut off food sales to Afghanistan to keep their own domestic prices down. The percentage of Afghans telling pollsters they were unable to afford food increased from 54 to 63 percent in 2007–09. This, along with soaring energy costs. created even more hardship and sowed the seeds for more unrest. Afghanistan's politics are shaped by its geography.
Afghanistan's cities—some of great antiquity—provide regional markets. They are linked by trade routes that also stretch back for centuries. Kabul, the capital, with its surrounding area, has been the historic center since the eighteenth century. Afghanistan can be geographically divided into regions around the major cities. The Northwest includes the ancient Silk Route city of Herat and the Hari River. The North, around the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, includes the northern plains. The Northeast stretches from the Shomali plain north of Kabul to distant and mountainous Badakhshan. The central Hazara Jat is effectively surrounded by mountains. In the South, Kandahar is the major city. In the east, Jalalabad and Khost are the major regional centers on trade routes with Pakistan.
Since 2001, no effective Afghan national economy has emerged to tie these seven diverse and disparate regions together. As a landlocked country, the importance of the port of Karachi as Afghanistan's most important link to the world has meant that the relationship with Pakistan is critical to the economy and future of Afghanistan.
The failure to have an effective Afghan national economy post-2001 and the continued economic reliance on Pakistan reflects that the port of Karachi is vital as Afghanistan's link to the outside world and that Afghanistan lacks infrastructure and established relationships with other countries that would provide an alternative path to markets. Afghanistan has no railroads (though Iran has an ongoing project to build a spur of its national system to Herat). The limited road system has, as a result, taken on a great deal of importance. What foreigners call "the ring road" links Afghanistan's major cities and runs to the international borders. It runs south from the old Soviet border at Termez in Uzbekistan, through the Salang Pass tunnel under the Hindu Kush, down to Kabul. From there it follows the path of the traditional trade routes, running south through Ghazni to Kandahar, then west to Herat and north to the border with Turkmenistan. The ring is closed by a secondary stretch linking the western and eastern north-south routes, through Mazar-e-Sharif. There are also paved routes linking Afghanistan's cities with foreign trading partners. The road from Kabul through Jalalabad reaches the Pakistani border at Tor Kham and from there runs through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Grand Trunk Road that leads over the River Indus to the Punjabi cities Rawalpindi and Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. Kandahar is linked by a paved road that crosses the Pakistan border at Spin Boldak, where it runs through the Bolan Pass to Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Another road connects Herat with Iran. The rest of the country relies on secondary roads.
Afghanistan's population has grown to about 30–33 million, from 15–20 million in the 1970s. The high rate of growth has made the demographic "youth bulge" that affects many Middle Eastern countries even more pronounced in Afghanistan, with about 4.5 million young men aged 15–29 and about 6.7 million boys under 15; 45 percent of all males are under 15, two to three times the percentage in developed countries. In the absence of a recent census—the most recent attempt was in 1979, and security concerns have halted post-2001 plans—all population figures, especially those associated with ethnolinguistic groups, remain politically charged estimates.
The population patterns have not recovered from the effects of the conflicts of 1978–2001, which saw Afghans becoming the world's largest refugee population (especially in Pakistan and Iran) and internally displaced many of the more than 75 percent of the population that had lived in rural areas. The numbers of Afghanistan's internal refugees, despite terrible living conditions, led to a considerable increase in urbanization. Even the heavy fighting in Kabul in 1992–96 did not reverse this trend.
Afghanistan's human resources, like its natural ones, remain tremendously underdeveloped. Afghanistan's level of human development is less than any of its neighbors. An estimated two thirds of the population is illiterate. In Pakistan, only the FATA—where male overall literacy is estimated as less than 30 percent and female literacy at fewer than four percent—is worse off than Afghanistan.
The worldwide Afghan diaspora, while highly motivated and devoted to Afghanistan, is relatively small and lacks resources or political influence in the countries they now largely call home. The ties of blood and affection to Afghanistan are limited, in most developed countries, to small communities of exiles and refugees and to that still-smaller group of foreigners that care about or have an interest in its people and future.
Recent UN development indices have shown Afghanistan near the bottom, ranking 174 out of 178 countries in the 2007 Global Human Development Index. The most important activity is agriculture, with the most profitable crop being the illicit cultivation of opium, which has become concentrated in five southern provinces. Specialty agricultural products (raisins and pomegranates), wheat, and other grains are also widely grown. Afghanistan's undeveloped natural resources, including natural gas and copper, may prove valuable in the future, given outside investment and a functioning infrastructure, all now blocked by the conflict and the political weakness in Kabul. US-provided surveys post-2001 have identified what could become valuable industries if a suitable infrastructure is provided. China has started to make investments in natural gas and copper development.
While in no significant way homogenous, Afghans nevertheless possess a strong sense of national identity that coexists with correspondingly strong Islamic faith and equally strong overlapping and non-exclusive ethnolinguistic, tribal (especially among Pushtuns of which clan or sub-clan identification is often strongest), qawm (affinity group), local (e.g., Panjsheris, from the Panjshir valley), and kinship identities. The Western estimates used to produce ethnolinguistic maps and percentages of population associated with each group have to be used with great care.
There is no one consensus among Afghans on what constitute specific ethnic, religious, or racial groups. Afghans all share some aspects of identity with cross-border groups in their neighbors from all three of the adjacent regions: shared language, religion and religious practice, literature, culture, and, in some cases, tribal structure. But the Afghans generally do not perceive themselves as the unredeemed part of a secessionist group. If others from across the border wish to join them, great, but few want to leave. Afghanistan is not the former Yugoslavia.
The Pushtuns (also called Pathan, Pashtun, and Pukhtun) are primarily Sunni (with a few Shia tribes, mainly in Pakistan). Pushtuns are the world's largest tribal grouping, a tribally subdivided, clan-based society. The Pushtuns have been historically the dominant group in Afghanistan. The most credible Western estimates (such as those produced by the UN or the CIA Fact Book) are that Pushtuns currently represent about 38–43 percent of the population of Afghanistan, although some estimates put the percentage up to ten percent greater than these. However, it is an article of faith among the government and elites of Pakistan and Pushtuns around the world that Pushtuns are an absolute majority in Afghanistan.
Afghan Pushtuns are divided into at least four major tribal subgroupings: Durranis, Ghilzays, Ghurghustis, and the Kharoshtis and Eastern Pushtuns. Each of these is divided further into families of tribes and tribes, each tribe divided into khels (clans) and sub-clans. Afghan's Kuchi nomads, a much smaller group, are also ethnic Pushtuns. Pushtuns primarily speak the Pushtu (also called Pashto) language. While there are significant dialect differences between Pushtu-speakers, they all are mutually intelligible. Complicating the ethnic division is the fact that many ethnic Pushtuns are actually primarily Dari-speakers that use Pushtu as a second language.
The Pushtuns have ties running across the Durand Line, which has proven important for the continued conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan's approximately 13.8 million Pushtuns have 26.6 million counterparts in Pakistan, with the heartland in the FATA, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and Baluchistan, but with substantial populations throughout the country in major cities, especially Karachi. In Pakistan, Pushtuns run the nationwide "transport mafia," "lumber mafia," and other economic activities, making use of their ethnic trading connections.
The largest group of Afghanistan's Persian (Afghan Dari and Iranian Farsi are like British and American English) speakers are Tajiks. Tajiks are defined as Sunni (with some Ismailis), Dari-speaking, and make up an estimated 20 percent of the population. The relatively recent rise of a distinct Tajik ethnic identity shows how these definitions are not fixed in Afghanistan. Many Afghans have said "we only learned we were Tajiks from the BBC." Before that, they were self-defined, perhaps as Heratis, Panjsheris, Badakshis (the natives of Badakhshan province, described by Marco Polo as "Muslim and valiant in war"), or multiple identities.
The Hazara are racially distinct Mongol descendants, predominantly Imami Shia (with a few Sunnis), Dari-speaking, internally divided by tribe and lineage. They make up about eight to ten percent of the population (estimates go to 15–20 percent; their own leaders claim up to 35 percent). Farsiwans are Imami Shia, Farsi (rather than Dari) speaking, closely related to Iranians. Afghanistan's Shia population is estimated at about 16 percent if the urban Qizilbash, Dari-speaking descendants of the Persian Empire's ruling elites that are among Afghanistan's most educated groups, are included. The Aimaqs are less than five percent of the population. They are a Sunni, Dari-speaking, semi-nomadic group, divided into four distinctive clans.
The Uzbeks are the largest group among the speakers of Turkic languages in the north; Sunni, Uzbek-speaking (with Dari as a second language), tribe and clan-based (although this has less military-political meaning than it does for Pushtuns), constituting some 13 percent of Afghanistan's population. In addition to Uzbeks, there are also small populations of Turkmen and Kyrgyz. Unlike the Pushtuns, they have fewer links—economic, political and cultural—with other members of their ethnic groups across national borders in central Asia, a legacy of the decades of the Iron Curtain on Afghanistan's northern border. Many members of these groups, like many Afghan Tajiks, are descended from refugees from Russian or Soviet repression.
Smaller tribes and ethnic and religious groups include Ismaili Shias, called "Seveners," who are primarily Dari-speaking and have their strongest concentration near Pul-e-Khumri on the northern end of the Salang Pass. The Pashai (strongest in Nangarhar and Laghman provinces), Brahui (concentrated in the southern provinces), and Baluchi (in the south, contiguous with their counterparts in Pakistan and Iran) all have their own languages but also speak Pashto as a second language. Other groups include the Nuristanis (whose language is divided into five distinct dialects and use Pashto as a second language) and Gujurs (who speak Dari as a second language). The only non-Muslims are a few hundred Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad, remnants of once-thriving trading communities. Afghanistan's Sephardic Jewish communities that, at their height, had their own vigorous culture and traded with others along the Silk Route had been reduced to two aged gentlemen by the time the Taliban were driven from Kabul in 2001.
All in all, there is no agreement as to the number of languages and ethnic affiliations in Afghanistan, even within the seemingly binary division of Pushtun versus non-Pushtun. Despite the lack of agreement as to what constitutes an ethnic group and the lack of a formal census to determine the population's ethnicity, it is apparent that few of Afghanistan's major regions or even its 34 provinces are ethnically homogenous. There is more diversity in Afghanistan than just about any other country of comparable size and population.
Of the major loosely defined geographical regions, the Northwest is populated mainly by Dari speakers but also includes Pushtuns. In the North, Mazar-e-Sharif and the northern plains are the most multi-ethnic area, with communities of Uzbeks and Tajiks being the primary groups alongside substantial Pushtun and Hazara populations. The Northeast is primarily Tajiks but includes a number of smaller groups, such as the Nuristanis. Pushtun minority populations remain in this region. The Hazara Jat is the most cohesive entity, being, as its name implies, the home of the Hazaras. The South and Kandahar is the Pushtun heartland, populated primarily by Durrani and Ghilzay Pushtun tribes. The East is also primarily Pushtun, but is also where that people's tribal fragmentation is most widespread. Kabul, like most of Afghanistan's cities, including Kandahar, was originally Persian-speaking, but for a century attracted emigrants from the countryside even before the 1978–2001 conflicts led to floods of internal refugees. Other regions have their own unique patterns of ethnic divisions. Kunduz, for example, is a Pushtun-majority city in a predominantly Dari-speaking countryside.
Excerpted from Afghanistan by David Isby. Copyright © 2010 David Isby. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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