In the Arena

The Pashtun War

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The New York Times has an excellent piece this morning, in which this summer’s Af/Pak fighting season is previewed…from the Taliban point of view. The story is, essentially, an interview with an alleged Taliban strategist, who seems not only credible but remarkably well-informed about U.S. tactics and intentions. And, once again, the Taliban’s strategic advantage is plain: they don’t have to worry about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, they have a different map than we do. 

Our map divides Afghanistan and Pakistan along the Durand Line, the imaginary boundary imposed by Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893. But neither the Afghans nor the Pashtuns accept that. The Afghans believe that the Durand line–which follows geographic markers, like rivers and the mountain lines, rather than tribal realities–was a 100-year fix that expired in 1993 and, according to one Afghan website, see a map that looks like this. But that isn’t quite accurate, either. The real Pashtunistan includes the Pakistani North West Frontier province and tribal areas plus much of Afghanistan’s south and east, including the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. 

The Taliban are, in effect, the Pashtun Liberation Army. They don’t see the same border that we–or the Pakistanis–do. Their motivation is, in part, religious, but very largely nationalist–and traditionally xenophobic. They don’t like outsiders, whether they are Americans, Punjabis (who control the Pakistan military) or Tajiks (Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance). They have made common cause with the “Arabs”–Al Qaeda–because of religious affinity and the existence of common enemies (namely us).

I have not yet heard one credible account of how the U.S. addresses this problem. But I imagine that a plausible solution would ultimately involve the following: We recognize the Pashtun reality, in some form, and the Pashtuns, in turn, decouple themselves from, and kick out, Al Qaeda. That seems quite impossible, of course, given the alternative reality we’ve inherited from the British–Afghan and Pakistani statehood along a ridiculous and untenable line. The only way this situation is resolved, however, is if some way can be found to make those competing realities mesh.