Posted by: Christian | March 6, 2007

Why No Ethnic Separatist Movements in Afghanistan?

March 7, 2007.

Yeah! Why no ethnic or sectarian separatist movements in Afghanistan? Everybody else has them! Why not Afghanistan? What factors are depriving Afghanistan from enjoying some sort of separatist related violence? I’m sure you are dying to know why so I’ll put forward a number of reasons. I’m not putting them out there as my concrete beliefs, I’d just like to get people to think about the reasons and maybe come up with some not listed here. Some factors given are original thoughts and others I have stolen from a number of eminent scholars (most of whom get some sort of credit at the bottom of this blog entry).

The opportunity for separatism clearly existed from the Soviet withdrawal until September 11 of a certain year. Yet nobody took this wonderful opportunity. Without further ado, the reasons:

#1 Separatism could mean joining another country; such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen joining Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and an insane asylum, respectively. But really, who wants to be a small fish in another country? During the 1990s, if Rashid Dostum had taken the Uzbek areas and joined Uzbekistan, he would go from being the überlord of northwestern Afghanistan to being a backwater Hokim (governor) in the most backward administrative district in Uzbekistan. And this would only last until the Jizzak-Samarkand government mafia arranged an “unfortunate accident” for him. Plus, everybody would have to learn the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, plus the Russian language, even when speaking Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen. Cross border ethnic groups are not exactly very close. It would be like meeting your weird cousins from the outback. Note: Dostum did once threaten to create the “Republic of South Turkestan.” However, this was likely just a bargaining tactic.

#2 Afghanistan staying together means having a better chance at collective defense. If groups were all separate they could more easily be picked off on at a time. Just ask the American Indians or the Celts all about being picked off one at a time.

#3 Nobody wants a piece of Afghanistan. And not in the metaphorical sense. Would you want, for your country, a warring chunk of land full of dudes with beards and guns? It would be like getting Kentucky minus Louisville and Lexington and the part where Sheik Mohammad has all his million dollar horses. [Disclaimer: I occasionally live in a community full of dudes with beards and guns. I use the term affectionately. But I also realize that the good, clean shaven folks in Boston, Tehran, Tashkent and Moscow do not want people like us.]

#4 Afghanistan needs to stay together for economic reasons. Would more borders help trade? Probably not (so says the European Union). Ideally, an intact Afghanistan means you can drive your jingle truck full of jingle truck ornaments to and from the borders of Pakistan, Iran or the former Soviet ‘stans (I stress “ideally” here).

#5 The international system is pro-state. Nobody is looking to encourage separatists, especially China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Spain, Canada… (just keep reciting names of countries).

#6 This leads to another reason; the lack of support from outside Afghanistan for any sort of separatist sentiments. And I’m not just talking foreign governments. Diaspora communities support, or have supported, separatist groups (i.e., Tamils, Kurds, Eritreans, etc…). But the Afghan diaspora doesn’t seem to be concerned with funding any sort of ethno-nationalist separatist movement. They are more likely to fund kick-ass new rims for their Audi……or donate to an Afghan charity.

#7 As for Pashtuns, they would never be separatists since most of them believe that Afghanistan is the “land of the Pashtuns.” In fact, many are irredentist, meaning that they want a piece of another country joined to Afghanistan. That piece would be the Pashtun tribal areas belonging to Pakistan, plus maybe a big chunk of some Baluch areas since access to the ocean is totally in vogue this year. But mostly that is just a Pashtun fantasy….for now.

#8 There started, during the Soviet-Afghan war, a new sense of an Afghanistan national identity that never existed before. A good comparison would be the increase in the number of Central Asians becoming proud of their “Soviet” identity after fighting the Nazis during the “Great Patriotic War.” For Afghanistanis, this is especially true in the refugee camps and in the diaspora communities.

#9 Separating is hard to do without clear ethno-geographical boundaries. The ethnic themed maps of Afghanistan show the areas in which a particular ethnic group dominates, not the area that is exclusive to it. Visit northern Afghanistan and you will see the exact meaning of this. If any group separated and took a part of the country with it, it would find all sorts of other ethnic groups scattered throughout its new territory.

#10 For the Hazaras, separation would mean being surrounded like one of those countries surrounded by South Africa. And many Hazaras need to trade in or go to work in Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Iran and Pakistan. The Hazarajat is not exactly an economic dynamo that would thrive on its own. And separatism is extra hard for the Hazaras since they are the only ethnic group without indigenous ethnic kin in a neighbouring country.

#11 Separatism would mean more conflict. And word on the street is that the people of Afghanistan are a little tired of conflict.

#12 There is no modern ethnic nationalism in Afghanistan. Ethnic identity is not always a person’s primary identity. Additionally, identity in Afghanistan is flexible depending on the situation. Regional, tribal, qawm, pir, and village identities have a great deal of importance.

#13 During the 1980s and 1990s many regional groups already had de facto autonomy, why bother trying to make it de jure? Kabul is a long ways away and usually exerts little influence in the regions.

#14 The central government, during much of modern Afghan history, supplied aid to local rulers, making them loyal out of greed. Kind of like Alaska, Quebec, Southern Italy, etc…

#15 There is no serious fear of other ethnic groups. OK, maybe a little. But not like Rwanda or Yugoslavia.

#16 The people of Afghanistan mostly want to farm, work, study, trade and have tea with their homeboys. Separatism and ethnic nationalism are for people who sit around with lots of spare time to think about whatever sort of utopia must be created. I’m talking about you, you dilettante intellectual. [I’m just a plain dilettante for now, I’m working on the intellectual part] As for the relevant intellectuals, most Afghan intellectuals live in America, Canada, Europe, Pakistan, etc… Their views are not always relevant to local affairs in Afghanistan.

#17 Although Jamiat/Shura Nazar and Junbesh were (and are) dominated by a particular ethnic group, their leaders never implemented any sort of ethnic nationalist ideology. Even the Pashtun dominated Hizb-i Islami recruited from minorities in the north-east. Hizb-i Wahdat was the closest thing to an ethnic nationalist party, but….see Hazaras above.

And moving along to the post-9-11 era.……

#18 Can you separate from Afghanistan now that Karzai can call in NATO? I don’t think so. I think the opportunity is lost as long as NATO is in Afghanistan.

#19 The Karzai government can control some of the resources that are delivered to the regions.

The two factors above mean that you should play nice and sign up for some honorific government position and lay low…*cough!*Dostum.*cough!*.

Disclaimers: I know that comparing ethnic groups and their motivations in Afghanistan is like comparing apples to oranges to pomegranates. But some generalizations can be made. Also, I wrote this in about 2 hours, mostly steam of consciousness (is that the right term?) based partially on earlier research I’ve done. Anyways, some ideas are original while some are blatantly stolen from men and women of greater talents than I. So I have to give props to my peeps (do people still say that?). Check out these articles and books below for a more in depth discussion:

Barfield, Thomas. (2005) ‘Afghanistan is Not the Balkans: Ethnicity and its Political Consequences from a Central Asian Perspective’, Central Eurasian Studies Review, Volume 4, Number 1 (Winter 2005), pages 2-8. [Available online somewhere]

Canfield, Robert L. (1986) ‘Ethnic, Regional, and Sectarian Alignments in Afghanistan’ in “The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.” Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (Eds.) Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Centlivres, Pierre and Micheline Centlivres-Demont. (2000) ‘State, National Awareness and Levels of Identity in Afghanistan from Monarchy to Islamic State’, in Central Asian Survey, Vol.19, No. 3/4. (2000), pages 419-428.

Dorronsoro, Gilles. (2005) “Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present.” New York: Columbia University Press.

Glatzer, Bernt. (1998) ‘Is Afghanistan on the Brink of Ethnic and Tribal Disintegration?’, in William Maley (editor) “Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban.” New York: New York University Press.

Hyman, Anthony. (2002) ‘Nationalism in Afghanistan’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, pages. 299-315.

Rais, Rasul Bakhsh. (1999) ‘Conflict in Afghanistan: Ethnicity, Religion and Neighbours’, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1999), pages 1-12.

Schetter, Conrad. (2005) ‘Ethnoscapes, National Territorialisation, and the Afghan War’, Geopolitics, Vol. 10, pages 50-75.

If you’ve read this entire post plus the bibliography then you are surely a superstar.


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