Wednesday, 19 December 2001


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By Yuri V. Bossin (12/19/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The persistent western backing of ex-king Zahir Shah may soon tarnish his image among the Afghans, who have always been suspicious of rulers who came from abroad with the help of "fereng" (foreigners). Since the short reign of Shuja al-Mulk (1839-1842), the puppet king who was brought to Kabul by the British, his name has become a scornful epithet for every Afghan politician promoted by outside forces. Despite his popularity among certain Pashtun tribes, King Zahir Shah is at risk of falling into this category.

BACKGROUND: The persistent western backing of ex-king Zahir Shah may soon tarnish his image among the Afghans, who have always been suspicious of rulers who came from abroad with the help of "fereng" (foreigners). Since the short reign of Shuja al-Mulk (1839-1842), the puppet king who was brought to Kabul by the British, his name has become a scornful epithet for every Afghan politician promoted by outside forces. Despite his popularity among certain Pashtun tribes, King Zahir Shah is at risk of falling into this category. Unrestrained support for the Northern Alliance in future state-building in Afghanistan also seems a questionable prospect. The Northern Alliance has already discredited itself by five years of political turmoil, strife and warfare. To endorse the Northern Alliance today means to ignore one of the strongest Afghan historical canons, namely that state power in the country since the formation of Durrani empire in 1747 has never sidelined the Pashtuns. Throughout the turns and twists of Afghan history, the change of kings and dynasties, the short Mohammed Daud presidency, the party dictatorship or the Taliban's Islamic theocracy, this order was never questioned. Only twice in the past have Tajiks (Bachai Sakao in 1929 and Burhanuddin Rabbani in the 1992) managed to seize central power in Afghanistan. Pashtuns regarded both as usurpers and soon toppled them. An axiom of any projects concerning the future of Afghanistan that must be considered is that a non-Pashtun government will have a weak perspective of gaining legitimacy and recognition by the Pashtuns, that still constitute the majority of population. The stake on the Northern Alliance is problematic also on another account. Historically the fight of minorities in Northern Afghanistan has always been focused on maximizing their self-rule, with a low motivation for involvement in the rest of the country south of the Hindu Kush. As soon as their leaders indicated their ambition for the Afghan throne, they were doomed to failure. For instance, this happened with Ishaq Khan's movement in 1888 which was extremely strong in the northern provinces but dissolved immediately after he headed for Kabul. 

IMPLICATIONS: What is essential in a context irrelevant to the immediate prospects of Zahir Shah or the Northern Alliance is that coalitions have never been successful in Afghan society. Afghan rulers, whoever they were, never considered political pluralism or any form of regional autonomy as the basis for the polity. They strictly pursued unitary model of state building and promoted it by all means, never hesitating to resort to brutal military measures to take complete control over population and territory. The Afghan political system, in other words, has never had any toleration for autonomy. Due to the weakness of central power, Kabul maneuvered between ethnic, tribal, clan and religious forces but always regarded them as a positive threat to be suppressed as soon as the government has enough strength to do it. The modest attempts to introduce parliamentary rule in Afghanistan, which were undertaken by king Amanullah in 1923 and King Zahir Shah in 1964, both ended up in deep social crisis and coups that sent the reformers to exile. Najibullah, the last communist leader of Afghanistan, to a great extent repeated this scenario by trying the course of "National Reconciliation" which finally cost him both power and his life.   250 years of autocratic experience, as well as the critical lack of political culture, ensure that pluralistic models of state formation will have a hard time finding roots in Afghanistan. The new government risks to be dead-born if influential figures leave the cabinet or crumble due to internal feuding and dissent.  Another reality is that in spite of American and Russian efforts to manage the situation in Afghanistan, its future more then ever depends on Pakistan's position. Neither the U.S., Russia, or the international community are ready to get involved in Afghanistan deep enough to bolster and guarantee the new government. After the antiterrorism campaign is over, Afghanistan is likely to fall in the priority list of the U.S. and Russian leaderships. Pakistan, however, will always regard Afghanistan as an area of vital interest. The problem is that most post-Taliban scenarios look equally frustrating for Pakistan as they risk leading to the loss or at least the decrease of its domination in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s major concern is the Pashtunistan issue, which can crack the fragile ethnic balance in North-West Frontier Province and in parts of Baluchistan. Only by controlling the government in Kabul can Pakistani authorities feel secure in preventing the rise of the Pashtunistan issue. Even a Pashtun government in Afghanistan, if independent, may be tempted to animate this issue and to make it one of the basic nationalistic elements of state formation as it has been since the 1950s. At the same time, a non-Pashtun government in Kabul cannot satisfy Pakistan as it also inevitably diminishes its influence in the country to the advantage of its adversaries. Besides Moreover, many high-ranking Pakistani military officers that are ethnic Pashtuns can't afford to be indifferent to the destiny of their kinsmen in Afghanistan.

CONCLUSIONS: Without a strong Pakistan commitment to eradicate the Taliban, any plans concerning the new government in Afghanistan will have little effect. It is not an easy decision for Pakistan because it means to ruin what it has backed quite for a long time. Ethnic, tribal and religious solidarity of the great portion of Pakistani population with Taliban make the situation extremely explosive. It is also useful to remember that Taliban is only a label associated with two or three dozens of the most odious personalities. Even if they go away the regime of Islamic extremism can easily revive in Afghanistan under another name and under other leaders. In summary, the success of state building in Afghanistan seems possible under three major conditions - highly centralized power controlling the entire territory of the country, massive economic and humanitarian assistance from abroad and Pakistan's determination to cooperate with the new Afghan government. Missing any of these components may dash all hopes for swift political change in Afghanistan which will stay for decades in chaos, violence and warlordism.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Yuri V. Bossin is Dotsent (Associate Professor) of  Middle Eastern/Central Asian Studies at Moscow State University, Russia. He has  been a Fulbright Research Scholar and has conducted long-term research at Columbia and Harvard Universities, USA.  Dr. Bossin authored over 15 academic articles and chapters focusing on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and post-Soviet Central Asia, as well as a forthcoming book on on Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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