Afghanistan's Ethnic Puzzle

Decentralizing Power Before the U.S. Withdrawal

In late 2001,when U.S. forces expelled the Taliban from Afghanistan, the country appeared headed for a breakup. The United States and the rest of the international community feared that Afghanistan's rival ethnic groups would use their regional power bases to pull apart any unitary state, forming in its place independent ministates or aligning with their ethnic brethren across Afghanistan's borders. At the time, such fears seemed credible: NATO troops were still dealing with the fallout from the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The Afghans themselves, however, were less concerned about their country dividing. After all, Afghanistan has been a single state for more than 250 years. If the country were going to split, it would have done so in the 1990s, during its protracted civil war. Yet it did not. No Afghan leader of any political stripe or ethnicity endorsed secession at any time during the last century. Nor did any at the start of this one. Although Afghanistan's various ethnic factions disagreed about how the country's new government should be organized and who would wield power within it, they all proclaimed their support for a unitary state.

A decade later, the anxiety of Washington and its allies has reversed itself. If in 2001 the West was afraid that the absence of a strong centralized government in Kabul would prompt Afghanistan's dissolution, by 2011 the West has come to fear that a dysfunctional centralized government could cause this same outcome. Such a turn of events was caused by several factors, perhaps most of all by many Afghans' dissatisfaction with a centralized national administrative structure that cannot cope with the country's regional diversity or with expectations for local self-rule. The government in Kabul has been further undermined by the country's fraudulent 2009 presidential election, the absence of political parties, poor security, and general corruption.

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