Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The AfPak ethnic border

In this blog entry I want to look at the Afghan conflict from a distance. We are regularly told about the fissure in Afghanistan between the Pasthuns and the other tribes (mainly Tajiks). But they speak closely related Persian languages. The real ethnic border is further east between the Indian and the Persian world. It is the Indus.

Pakistan can be divided in three parts. The thinly populated north houses a diversity of tribes, most of whom speak Tibetan languages. The Eastern half speaks Indian languages and the Western half speaks mainly languages related to Persian (Pashtu and Beluchi). The border between east and west is the Indus. Although there live much more people in the east (150 million) than in the west (30 million) the areas have a comparable size. Geographically too the Indus is a border: the area west of it is called the Iranian Plateau. Being a minority the Pashtuns and Beluchi are discriminated somewhat in Pakistan.

This raises the question whether Pakistan has really an interest in a stable Afghanistan. A prosperous Afghanistan might seduce the Pashtun to demand to join Afghanistan (the Beluchi are already fighting for secession). It would result in a more prosperous Western half of Pakistan that would be more oriented towards Kabul then towards Islamabad and Karachi. Pakistan's Afghanistan policy centers on religion for a good reason. Religion is the main thing they have in common and it is also the main thing where Afghanistan (mostly Sunni) differs from Iran (Shiite). However, when you focus on religion you end up supporting religious hardliners like the Taliban. An additional advantage of the Taliban for Pakistan is that its primitivity helps to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a prosperous country.

This raises the question why we ignore culturally more related Iran and Tajikistan and rely on Pakistan in our Afghanistan policy. Iran has good reasons to stabilize Afganistan that is major source of drugs, crime and unrest. Yet the religious division makes it rather certain that Iran never will have real close control over Afganistan. Iran is also a much richer country that has much more to offer to the Afghans than Pakistan.

Involving Iran in Afghanistan would have as an additional advantage that it would reduce Iran's fear for being surrounded and threatened by the US. This could result in more cooperative policies towards Iraq and regarding nuclear matters.

No comments: