Friday, October 30, 2009

Ethnic traps in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan

I have recently reading a lot about Afghanistan and Iraq and what strikes me is the similarity between America’s problems there and in the Balkans. Americans keep making the same mistakes based on their misunderstanding of ethnic dynamics.

What strikes one in the Balkans first is that the Americans have no idea how compromises are made. As long as the US is supporting one faction one can be sure it won’t compromise, but somehow that doesn’t register in the US and they keep playing favorites. Even more amazing is that those favorites are largely historically determined and have little to do with present US interests. Yet they keep being promoted because somehow it is supposed to be humiliating for the US if a former ally suffered a defeat. Another US addiction is to borders. Partitioning of both Bosnia and Kosovo is taboo. Why? Because somewhere in the past the US committed itself to those borders. In the mean time it keep deceiving itself that within those borders the conditioned for a peaceful multi-ethnic society are present.

What brings me to Iraq. One of the hottest items it Kirkuk. Should it be controlled by the Arabs or the Kurds. Here too the taboos abound. Kirkuk is a province that should not be partitioned. Let alone that one should look for a comprehensive solution that concerns all the borders of Kurdistan. To make the discussion even more abstract the subject of ethnic cleansing by the Kurds is taboo. Just as in the Balkans the pretense must be maintained that no ethnic cleansing happens under US control. And so we see that the discussions about Kirkuk are about abstract voting rights instead of the real issues.

In Afghanistan the absurdity of US ethnic thinking becomes even more visible. Afghanistan is divided between the Pashtus who constitute some 43% of the population and have traditionally ruled Afghanistan and the other tribes who nearly all speak Dari, a Persian dialect. Afghanistan is relatively recent creation that comes from conquests by the Pashtu rulers. The other tribes have rather mixed feelings about Pashtu rule that has included ethnic cleansing and the Taliban.

The US conquered Afghanistan with the help of those other tribes, but then turned its back to them and offered the Pashtus the governance of Afghanistan. To add injury to insult they imposed a hugely centralized government system. This system was imposed by the American diplomat Khalilzad – himself of Pashtu descent. In its defense we are told that otherwise the Pasthus would become angry and not support us. But don’t expect the Pashtus to be grateful. Many of them sympathize with the Taliban and even president Karzai is pushing for negotiations with the Taliban. They know that Taliban rule means Pashtu rule.

A very basic strategy in Afghanistan would be to give the non-Pashtu provinces the tools to get rid of the Taliban. Many would jump at the chance. It would leave us with only the Pashtu provinces in the need of counterinsurgency. But it doesn’t fit in the US imposed system where only national institutions are reinforced. It looks like the US is incapable to discern its friends from its enemies. This reminds one of the dubious US friendships with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

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