The world began forgetting about Afghanistan against the backdrop of this year’s Great Arab Revolution. The same thing happened after Soviet forces withdrew from the country in February 1989 and in April 2003 while the whole world held its breath during Operation Iraqi Freedom, wondering how long Saddam Hussein would last under the American assault.
A creeping, “boring” Afghan War, which has lasted for more than 30 years, clearly does not hold the interest of the international community. That cannot be said about the countries bordering on Afghanistan; they have been on edge the entire time. For Tajikistan, which has a 1344 km southern border with its troubled neighbor, the fate of this country has a relevance like none other: Afghanistan is home to more Tajiks than the Republic of Tajikistan itself, and an impressive variety of threats and risks emanate from there.
For Tajikistan, the past 10 years have been relatively quiet; the Allied occupation forces brought a measure of calm, at least in the northern part of the country. But that has been accompanied by increased drug trafficking originating in Afghanistan. Enterprising opium dealers increased the areas under poppy cultivation and boosted heroin production at a frantic pace.
However, the Americans are tired of fighting with no obvious positive results. The presidential elections are just around the corner, and even relatively modest casualties (1400 killed and 10,000 wounded) are a big drawback. Indeed, the country is suffering through its third year of economic crisis; and democratic political analysts, in contrast to the Republican “neocons,” are contemplating isolationism as a viable option for the country. Therefore, when the Americans killed bin Laden a month ago, they declared victory and drew a line under Operation Enduring Freedom.
In general, there are sufficient reasons to begin the withdrawal of US troops from long-suffering Afghanistan in early July that was announced in December 2009. Beyond a doubt, the departure of the Americans will kick off the withdrawal of all foreign troops. However, people are trying not to think about what will happen in Afghanistan after the Americans leave, much less about the implications for its regional neighbors. And if we stop talking about “the irreversibility of democratic processes,” “normalization of the situation with healthy and responsible political forces” and “the irreversibility of world progress,” the reality will be the resumption of large-scale civil war between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. The latter are mainly made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Baluchis and a dozen more different ethnic groups numbering about one million each. How strong is the coalition, and what dangers lurk in Afghanistan’s internal squabbles for Tajikistan and the other Central Asian countries in Central Asia?
According to official data, Tajik’s make up 27% of Afghanistan’s population (31,056,997 people). They are the largest ethnic group in northern Afghanistan. Two other peoples in the region—the Uzbeks and Hazaras—account for 9% of the population. However, we need to remember that population censuses have never been conducted in Afghanistan as the concept is understood in Europe, and the size of the country’s population is an estimate.
How might we describe the modern Afghan army (the ANA) that the Americans plan to hand over control of the country to? By order of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, all units, including training units, are “ethically balanced” in accordance with what official government circles believe to be the country’s proportion of nationalities. For example, 42% of personnel in all units are Pashtuns; 27% are Tajiks; and 9% are Uzbeks and Hazaras. The remaining 13% consists of representatives of the “less numerous peoples”—Pashas, Arabs, Baluchis and Nuristanis. In actual fact, the army is mainly made up of “northerners,” and only 3-5% of soldiers are from the south.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has managed to strengthen his position in the north. He did this largely through partial “Pashtunization” of government agencies in northern Afghanistan, personnel changes in the “Tajik” province power structures, transfer of additional army and police units mainly composed of Pashtuns to northern Afghanistan, and a successful series of political deals with certain influential members of opposition groups of the former Northern Alliance.
Northern Afghanistan (particularly the provinces of Jowzjan, Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan) has been perceived as a kind of “island of stability” in Afghanistan ever since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001. Things began to change in summer 2009. Analysis shows that the situation in northern Afghanistan began deteriorating when the Northern Distribution Network for carrying supplies through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan was established in mid-2009.
It is noteworthy that former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad predicted the emergence of an unstable area in northern Afghanistan in March 2009. When he arrived in Kabul to negotiate with the main Afghan political leaders, he predicted that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters would step up their activities in the northern Afghan provinces. The first combat operations by the opposition were reported in Kunduz soon thereafter.
Since June 2009, the extremist groups led by the Taliban (renamed the “Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan” in September 2009) have been fighting constantly in the provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan, Sar-e Pol, Badghis, Kunduz and Takhar.
The military capabilities of the “northerners” in the context of a unified (albeit, largely nominally) Afghanistan that is controlled by the West can only be discussed in general terms. It is appropriate to consider only the various “illegal military formations” belonging to local political leaders. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders alone control illegal military formations comprising 15,000 to 25,000 fighters equipped with small arms.
However, the military-political situation assumed to develop out of a crisis caused by the withdrawal of Western forces would involve the inevitable breakdown of the army and other armed structures along ethnic lines. The size of the ANA is planned to be increased to 172,000 by the fall of 2011, and the police to 134,000. The Afghan leadership will probably increase the size of the army and police to that level by formally incorporating illegal military formations belonging to warlords loyal to the Karzai government.
If that is done, we can say with certainty that the northern leaders will have at least 167,000 armed and minimally trained people (counting the police) with approximately half of the ANA’s military equipment and weapons.
That military capability will be reliant on military supplies and other assistance (food and medical aid, POL, etc.), as a minimum, provided by Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The logic of geopolitical objectives and ally relations suggests that Russia and China will provide varying degrees of support for the political institutions of conflict-ridden northern Afghanistan.
Source: New Eastern Outlook
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