BACKGROUND: Afghanistan has been a prize in the struggle between empires and regional powers since the British-Russian confrontation from early in the nineteenth century. It was thrice at war with Britain, became a battleground for the Soviet Union and the U.S. from the 1970s, and since 1979 has experiences constant warfare and devastation. The attempts to build a stable Afghanistan has brought forward the question of the structure that best suits this multi-ethnic state. Afghanistan consists of 4 major ethno-geographical areas. Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, including the capital city Kabul, traditionally have close political, economic, cultural and linguistic ties with Pakistan. This area is populated by Pashtuns, the largest Afghan ethnic group, who make up between 38% to half of the total population of the country. A significant Pashtun population also lives in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Northeast Afghanistan is populated by Tajiks, including the North to the capital Kabul. This area is the core of Northern Alliance. Tajiks make up around 20-25% of Afghanistan's population, and have had close relations with Tajikistan, especially during the years of war against the Taliban. The Tajiks claim to have contributed significantly to the U.S. victory over the Taliban. Western Afghanistan is populated by a Dari-speaking population, especially in the provinces around the regional center Herat. This area also includes the Hazaras, the third largest ethnic group of Afghanistan. The population of these areas constitutes around 20-25% of the total population, and has close religious, cultural and trade relations with Iran. Finally, Northern Afghanistan is home to Uzbeks and other Turkic-speaking ethnic groups, who constitute around 12 to 15% of the population. They have close language, trade and cultural contacts with the population of the Turkic Central Asian republics to their North. Afghanistan has traditionally not had a strong central government, and local self-rule has always de facto been relatively high. During the much-praised rule of former King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan was characterized by a non-intrusive central government that allowed much leeway for the provinces of the country. The coming to power of a Pashtun-centered communist government in 1978 made a significant contribution to the increasing instability in the country. Ever since, mostly ethnically based Afghan political groups Parts of the present Northern Alliance spared no effort in seizing and holding Kabul in the early 1990s, alienating other groups; in the late 1990s, the Taliban regime, which has accurately been described as Pashtun chauvinist in its policies, assumed control over most of the country. But from the Communists (with 115,000 Soviet troops) to the Taliban, no political force has been successful in effectively extending central government control to the outlying provinces. On the other hand, the attempts by rulers to impose their cultural principles over other groups have ignited tensions, violence, and warfare that has taken an increasingly ethnic turn.
IMPLICATIONS: In particular, the civil war over the last decade took an increasingly ethnic turn, and was characterized by mutual massacres, such as those conducted by the Taliban in Bamiyan. These events are still fresh, and have left traumas in all ethnic groups in the country. Yet in spite of this, field interviews with hundreds of Afghans of different ethnic background indicate that almost all of them, in spite of their ethnicity, consider themselves first and foremost as Afghans, citizens of Afghanistan. Their fight against foreign invaders during recent history shows their patriotism, and it is notable that no albeit ethnic-based political group has advocated secession from Afghanistan. As soon as the Taliban were gone, debate began in the west of whether Afghanistan should adopt a Federal structure. German foreign minister Joshka Fischer was understandably one of the first to argue for this solution, arguing it would be the only way to ensure stability and some form of representation of all groups in the country. However, some U.S. experts strongly voiced their concern that federalism for Afghanistan might hamper efforts to stabilize this country, and cause return to more war as it would imply the balkanization of the country; as it would imply a re-drawing of internal boundaries, which would be certain to raise tensions and lead to war. The debate is still raging; some high-ranking Administration officials, like Secretary of State Colin Powel and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have not ruled out this kind of state structure for Afghanistan. Several American senators and congressmen, during hearings in Capitol Hill, also supported a federal state structure for Afghanistan. The current central Afghan government has faced an uphill battle cementing its position. The international community has largely failed to deliver on their promises of large-scale assistance made in Tokyo, weakening the financial strength of the government and thereby its ability to exert influence in the regions. Moreover, the legitimacy of the central government has suffered heavily from the perception that one minority group, the Panjshiri Tajik Shura-i-Nazar group, is dominating the current government. As a result of these processes, the central government has so far been unable to assert itself, and its influence seems to be declining rather than increasing.
CONCLUSIONS: On the ground today, there is an imperfect version of asymmetric federalism in Afghanistan. The country is factually divided into various zones of influence, with several groups or warlords holding large tracts of territory, over which the central government asserts no control. The dilemma for both Afghans and for the U.S.-led international community is to transform this unruly situation into a workable, functioning system of administration that will ensure that no ethnic group will be able to dominate the others. As long as the current impasse is lingering, advocates of federalism are getting louder. While local power-brokers such as Ismail Khan or Abdurrahman Dostum are realities that cannot be ignored, the question is if legitimizing the current situation will help Afghanistan's stability. Afghanistan looks unlikely to have a strong central government in the near future, and a de facto federal structure is in place. Which of the ideal types of unitarism and federalism is superior is an academic question; what is most important for Afghanistan is that the discrepancy between the de iure and the de facto structure of the state of Afghanistan be bridged.
AUTHORS' BIO: James Purcell Smith is an expert on Eurasian Affairs, based in New York.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.