The Rise of Northern Afghanistan
The second most interesting story coming out of Afghanistan these days is the rumor that Taliban leaders are putting out peace feelers and may be interested in talking about a negotiated settlement to the war. Any truth to these rumors ? That’s the big question. Taliban spokesmen deride the reports. The Karzai government regularly denies involvement in any secret talks. Denials, however, don’t mean the rumors are false. Let us remember the old saying: “Don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied.”
Personally, I believe the rumors might be true, and not because of anything happening in the south, but because of the most interesting story in Afghanistan, which is developing in the north. The big story, to me, is the possible branching of the one country into two–an ever-more integrated, stable, (non-Islamist) and economically viable non-Pushtoon north and a wildly chaotic, ever-more dysfunctional Pushtoon south.
I call this a “branching,” not a “partition,” because I’m not talking about some political plan being worked behind the scenes by any government, group, or party. I’m talking about an evolutionary development of the sort that happens in history from time to time. I’m talking about a divergence in the territory called Afghanistan, generated by a confluence of many circumstances and beyond the power of any group to obstruct or promote. You don’t have to be a CIA operative with access to secret information to see this event. You just have to read the newspapers and connect the dots.
Here are some dots to consider.
- Afghanistan has never had a railroad, but it has one now. A railroad has just been completed from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The Chinese are building a second railroad from the northern border of Afghanistan down to Kabul—but not on into the violence-wracked tribal territory of the southern Talibanist Pushtoons. These railroads will link Afghanistan to a transportation network north of the country, which stretches east to China and west through Russia into Europe, as well as west and south across the Black Sea into Turkey. The country will be able to export whatever it has to the world without access to the Indian Ocean ports in the south.
Mazar-i-Sharif is growing by leaps and bounds. Capital of the far-northern Balkh Province and one of Afghanistan’s major cities, is growing in wealth, influence, power, and population. The city and province are bastions of security, stability, and economic growth. In the last six years, thanks to cross-border trade with the Central Asian republics, Balkh’s provincial income has jumped from roughly $5 million to $115 million. It has done all this under the stewardship of Atta Mohammed Noor, a former associate of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s. He was known, not too long ago, as “a Tajik warlord.” Now he’s called “governor,” but only because the Karzai government has given de facto recognition to the fact that Noor holds power in the north.
- Afghanistan has major resources. Recent discoveries have confirmed that Afghanistan has about a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth including copper, high-quality iron, uranium, oil, natural gas, lithium, precious gems, and much more. The Chinese have already started developing the copper, the iron is out for bids (which the Chinese will probably win); and Turkmenistan has just signed a deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to build a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, a project to be financed by the Asian Development Bank.
- Investment is flowing to Balkh. Nine years ago, Tajik commander Noor was locked in a struggle with Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who built his own private army within the national army when he was part of the Communist government of the eighties. Dostum lost the contest with Noor; for unrelated reasons, went into exile in Turkey; but now he’s back, and seems to be more allied than at odds with Noor, and Turkish entrepreneurs have begun investing heavily in the industrial development of Balkh. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think Dostum has served as a liason between Afghanistan’s Turkic north and Turkey itself. Turkish money has built factories in Balkh that are producing export goods such as edible oil and pasta, for shipment to the republics of Central Asia and to Turkey itself. The stability and growing prosperity of Balkh has drawn investment from other parts of Afghanistan. For example, a motorcycle assembly plant from Herat has re-located to Mazar-i-Sharif.
- An ethnic rift divides south from north. Afghanistan has long been a multi-ethnic country in which the various groups struck an uneasy equalibrium. The Pushtoons dominated, but the others had enough autonomy and enjoyed sufficient rights to accept Pushtoon dominance. But the last thirty years of war destroyed the balance. Violence exacerbated ethnic rifts and deepened ethnic identities. The rise of the Taliban polarized Pushtoons and non-Pushtoons. Most dramatically, the Taliban pursued what amounted to a genocidal campaign against the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan, a Turko-Mongol ethnic group. Right now, it is hard to envision Hazaras as willing, docile citizens of a new Taliban-Pushtoon Afghanistan. But it’s easy to envision Hazaras, Tajiks, Farsiwans, Uzbeks, and Turkomans as fellow citizens of a single modernist northen nation—especially if that country is peaceful, prosperous, and stable. Where does Kabul fit into all this? Everyone has long taken Kabul for granted as the capital of Afghanistan. After all, hasn’t it always been the capital? Actually, no: In the long course of history, Afghanistan has been culturally centered in the north and west. Balkh and Herat were the great capitals of ancient times. Kabul rose to prominence only after 1500, when it was conquered by the Turko-Mongol warrior Babur, founder of the India’s Moghul dynasty. If the chaos in the south makes economic development impossible, Afghanistan’s cultural-political center of gravity may, I think, move north. Kabul will then become a frontier outpost serving as window and a gateway into the turbulent no-man’s-land that the Talibanist insurgents have suicidally made of their homeland.
All of which brings me back to those supposed peace feelers from Taliban big-shots. Some pundits doubt the Taliban have any interest in negotiations. They’re winning on the battlefield, the argument goes, so why would they settle? The answer might be—because some Taliban see what’s happening in northern Afghanistan. It has dawned on them that they could drive all foreigners off their soil, gain complete cultural hegemony over their local region, and still end up as left-behind, impoverished losers. There is a train departing from northern Afghanistan and it might well leave without them. The famous Great Game of the 19th century was predicated on the absolute importance of those warm water ports on the Indian Ocean. Everyone in the north needed to get to those ports in the south. They Pushtoons straddled the way and could block access to those ports, which gave them strategic power. But if economic, cultural, and political traffic out of Afghanistan starts flowing north instead of south, the southern Pushtoons won’t matter anymore. And that is very good incentive for the Taliban to want to keep Kabul as the center of the country’s power and to trade a few chips for seats in that center.