Get rid of Afghanistan
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My friend Jack Wheeler has a solution to the problem of Afghanistan. Get rid of it.
Yes, he's serious. No, he's not a crackpot.
An adventurer who's been in almost every country in the world, Jack Wheeler is one of three real life people on whom the fictional character Indiana Jones was based. He's climbed the Matterhorn, swum the Bosporus, parachuted onto the North Pole and lived with a tribe of headhunters in the Amazon.
One of the countries where Jack has spent a lot of time is Afghanistan, mostly during the time Afghans were fighting Soviet occupation. Jack was the father of the Reagan doctrine of providing support to anti-Communist resistance movements.
What's frosting Jack's pumpkin these days is the horse manure which passes for analysis of Afghanistan. He's incensed by the description of Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empires."
The truth, he notes, is that Afghanistan has been the "doormat of empires." The land that is now Afghanistan was conquered, relatively quickly, by Alexander the Great, the Kushans, the Sassanids, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Moguls, the Turkmen bandit Nadir Shah and the British.
The "graveyard of empires" myth is based on just two incidents.
In 1842, 12,000 civilians and 4,500 soldiers, most of them Indian, led by Sir William Elphinstone, perhaps the most incompetent general in British military history, were butchered by guerrillas under Akbar Khan as they retreated from Kabul. But a few months later the British recaptured Kabul.
The second incident was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Jack knows this intimately, since he was close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the "Lion of the Panjshir," the leader of the anti-Soviet resistance.
Ahmad Shah Massoud was a Tajik, as were most -- and the most effective -- anti-Soviet resistance fighters. There is no such thing as an Afghan people. Afghanistan is a colonial construct, cobbled together by the British in the 19th century to create a buffer state between the Russian empire and British India.
As with the colonial constructs in Africa and the Middle East, the British threw together very different peoples who don't like each other much. According to the CIA World Factbook, 42 percent of "Afghans" are Pashtun; 27 percent Tajik; 9 percent each Hazara and Uzbek; the remainder mostly Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch. Only 35 percent of "Afghans" speak the official language, Pashto. Half speak Dari, a Persian dialect. Most of the remainder speak Turkic languages.
The British created Afghanistan as a Pashtun empire, which was resented by the other ethnic groups. We are continuing that effort by trying to build a strong central government around Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai is unpopular because he is incompetent and corrupt. But he would be unpopular with the Tajiks, Uzbeks et al because he is Pashtun.
By continuing British colonial practice, we are acting against our own interests because the Taliban are almost entirely Pashtun, and the Northern Alliance, which assisted us in ousting the Taliban in 2001, was composed almost entirely of the other ethnic groups.
What would be in our interest, Jack Wheeler thinks, is to end the colonial fiction of Afghanistan and restore the different ethnic enclaves to the nations from which the British took them.
Afghanistan and Tajikistan share 750 miles of border. Let the 8 million Tajiks in Afghanistan join the 6 million Tajiks in Tajikistan, which is ruled by a secular Muslim friendly to the United States.
Afghanistan and Turkmenistan share 450 miles of border. Let the 900,000 Turkmen in Afghanistan join the 4.9 million Turkmen in Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan and Uzbekistan share just 85 miles of border. But south of it live 2.5 million Uzbeks. Let them join the 28 million Uzbeks in Uzbekistan.
Even though they'd lose control over the other ethnic groups, most of the 13 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan might prefer being united with the 27 million Pashtuns in Pakistan, either within the Pakistani state, or in a separate Pashtun state. Pakistan is another British colonial construct, dominated by the Punjabis.
Colonialism was a bad idea in the 19th century. For us to fight in the 21st to preserve colonial constructs whose rationale has disappeared into history is insane as well as immoral.
First Published July 11, 2010 12:00 am