In the United States, Britain, and Pakistan—as well as at the United Nations—the future of Afghanistanis as important as removing the Taliban regime and capturing the leaders of al-Qaida. Yet after 30 years of wars and coups, you might be wondering whether Afghanistan should exist at all. This mountainous nation shows indications of becoming a tribal battlefield. Perhaps Pakistan could rule the Pashtun area while other neighboring states—Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, could share the rest.
Yet there are practical and principled reasons why, after the Taliban have been removed, Afghanistan should exist and why dividing this nation would bring about far more serious problems—especially for Pakistan. First, Afghanistan is an established nation, despite its chaotic past. Second, by adopting Afghanistan’s Pashtuns (about 50 percent of the country’s population), Pakistan might subsequently find itself confronted by a serious problem of its own—namely, a Pashtun separatist movement demanding its own nation, Pashtunistan, which would include large areas of northern Pakistan. Ironically, immediately after the formation of Pakistan in 1947, the country’s leaders demanded that the old border between what was once the British Empire and Afghanistan, the so-called Durand Line, be abolished, and that the Pashtuns of the Northwest Frontier and Afghanistan unite under the flag of Pakistan. Few then disagreed that Sir Mortimer Durand’s 1893 border was drawn using anything other than cynicism—to provide a buffer between the British Empire and its imperial rival, Russia, as well as to divide the formidable Pashtuns. Today, Pashtunistan is certainly not an official Pakistani ambition: Human Rights Watch, for example, even claims that President Pervez Musharrafhas thrown his support behind the Kashmiri independence movement in the hopes that this conflict will serve as a distraction from a potentially disastrous domestic Pashtun skirmish. Yet Pashtunistan has become an ambition among Pashtun-Afghans, including for a time the Taliban, and that eventuality is now—at least theoretically—more plausible than ever. Under the terms drawn up by Durand, the legality of the border that bears his name would last for 100 years. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they, like their predecessors, refused to accept the border’s legality, which may explain why Pakistan has until recently aided a regime it probably fears more than it sympathizes with.
What does all this resemble? The former Yugoslavia, you might say. It’s not an identical situation, of course, yet the break up of Pakistan is probably President Musharraf’s greatest anxiety. To ensure that it doesn’t happen will require an immense effort, since the first thing Afghanistan’s new leaders and their counterparts in Islamabad will have to try to establish is where the border between these two countries lies. How they arrive at such an agreement will surely determine whether Pashtun nationalism (which, as practiced by the Taliban, has proved to be as vicious as Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia) is thwarted or encouraged.