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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington: Afghanistan's Daunting Divisions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The constantly shifting fortunes of the Taliban militia and its opponents in the Afghan civil war highlight the diversity of divisions within Afghanistan as a whole and the equal diversity within each of the contending factions.

Consequently, all efforts to reduce that conflict to a struggle over a single issue -- be it Islam, ethnicity, or something else -- reflect either simple ignorance or a conscious effort by participants or outsiders to exploit that issue for their own ends.

These conclusions flow from the nature of Afghan society itself.

Few countries in the world are as internally fissured as Afghanistan. Its population is divided by language, religion, ethnicity, economics, and connections to foreign patrons, to name only the most obvious.

Moreover, each of these subdivisions is itself divided by all the other factors, a pattern that helps to explain the extreme fragility and instability within Afghan society as a whole -- save when it is confronted by a foreign threat.

And these complex social divisions are more than mirrored in the various groups that have tried to take or keep power in that country.

Sometimes, for example, a political grouping based primarily on a common foreign tie has been split by ethnicity. Or another united by ethnicity has been divided by religion.

This pattern has three enormous consequences:

No group in Afghanistan that is based on a single source of identity or interest is likely to be large enough or strong enough to take and hold power for long.

Each group is extremely weak and tends to fall apart either as a result of victory or defeat. After a victory, the internal divisions of the winning side become ever more important, while after a defeat, the various subfactions seek new allies.

This pattern means that in the absence of a unifying foreign intervention, political and military turmoil is the norm rather than the exception and in the current case is almost certain to continue.

But few outside observers or even participants are willing to leave things at that. Many of the former, usually out of ignorance, want to reduce the conflict to a single issue.

The current interpretations of the ongoing fighting are a case in point. Many commentators have suggested that Taliban is above all a particular brand of political Islam. In fact, Taliban is divided from its opponents less by Islam than by its roots in the Pushtun linguistic community, a group that has long sought to dominate non-Pushtuns, and by the efforts of the latter, such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks, to escape such domination.

But there is more to some "Islamic" interpretations than just ignorance. Many in Taliban leadership are eager to present themselves as an Islamic rather than a Pushtun force.

Such a stance helps Taliban maintain its existing alliances with non-Pushtuns and to gain credibility and support from other Afghan groups who would otherwise oppose the movement.

And various outside powers with longstanding ties to Afghanistan also have an interest in advancing this "Islamic" interpretation of the current fighting there.

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan each have an interest, albeit very different ones. The Iranian government clearly welcomes the chance to portray itself as moderate compared to what it has called the Taliban "extremists."

And Pakistan wants to portray Afghanistan's turmoil as being about Islam both to win more resources and understanding from Western donor countries.

But the country with the most obvious interest in portraying the Taliban conflict in Afghanistan as "Islamic" is Russia.

On the one hand, such an interpretation helps Moscow to expand its influence there by reminding Central Asian leaders of the threats they face from Islamic groups and of their dependence on Russia for protection.

And on the other, such a reading of the conflict allows Moscow to line itself up with the West by implying that the fault lines running through Afghanistan today are part and parcel of the much-discussed "clash of civilizations."

For better or worse, however, the conflicts in Afghanistan are larger and smaller than that and seem certain to continue despite the misreadings of those hoping to end or to exploit the fighting.