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Can Afghanistan Remain a Unified Nation? - 2001-11-22

As the Taleban have lost their grip on Afghanistan, regional commanders or warlords have reclaimed the territory they lost. Observers say the country has the look of the early 1990's before the Taleban came to power. The question is, "will the warlords cooperate or will they revert to the kind of warfare that led to breakdown and the Taleban conquest?"

For a while, it looked as if fighting would erupt among contending warlords in the city of Jalalabad after the Taleban left. Then, city elders gathered in a loya jirga or grand council and chose a new provincial governor. His rivals, in turn, were given top jobs in a peaceful transfer of power that could serve as an example for the rest of Afghanistan.

That, of course, remains to be seen. A great rush to fill the power vacuum left by the defeated and retreating Taleban is underway.

Tanweer Ahmad, a former Pakistani top diplomat, says too many Afghans are competing for power with too many guns. "We see a return all over Afghanistan to local warlords," he said. "The killing of four journalists the other day is a dramatic illustration of how things can deteriorate when different fiefdoms, big and small, reemerge. That is the situation in 1992-94, which really led to the emergence of the Taleban as a unifying force in the first instance."

Mr. Ahmad says there is one crucial difference. Today, the international community, in particular the United States, appears determined to help Afghanistan when the war is over.

That point was recently emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who said, "We are going to have an enormous obligation not to leave the Afghan people in the lurch and not to walk away, as has been done in the past."

Thomas Barfield, chairman of anthropology at Boston University, says the promise of aid could keep warlords in line. "There is the possibility of substantial reconstruction aid," he said, "and warlords that either violate international human rights standards or refuse to cooperate with the international community will find themselves and their regions cut out of this. Also there is the possibility of international peacekeeping forces whose major job, in fact, will be warlord control to make sure civil war does not emerge again."

Maybe money can be persuasive, says Richard Dekmejian, professor of political science at the University of Southern California. But if fighting resumes and splits the country, perhaps that should be accepted in fact. That is, Afghanistan should be divided along ethnic lines. Professor Dekmejian said, "The Afghan identity - if it is not shared, then there is no reason why this country should remain a united country. So it should be split into a Pashtun south, and in the north we could have three statelets one for the Tajiks, one for the Uzbeks, one for the Hazaras or have the Uzbeks and the Tajiks rejoin the former Soviet Republics."

That drastic surgery can be avoided, says Professor Dekmejian, if ethnic groups can change their behavior. For example, Pashtun tribal chiefs might reassert their authority. "The tribal chiefs," he said, "have experienced a dilution of their authority because the Islamic preachers who came from the Taleban schools became the leaders of a pan-Islamic confraternity, which does not care about tribes or nations or certainly tribal chiefs. So the chiefs have an interest in reducing the militancy and getting away from the pan-revolutionary ideas of bin Laden."

Nobody is born radical, says Professor Dekmejian. Moderation can also be taught to the benefit of Afghanistan.