[Note: This article is a continuation of discussion about Afghanistan’s ethnic issues. It would greatly help readers to also read my previous posts, Maps and Misalignment of Political and People-Perceived Boundaries (Part 3) and Afghanistan’s Continuous Struggle With Itself: The Census and Ethnicity Issue, respectively]

Headwaters in the Central Highlands

Rivers always have relevance, but that significance varies based on their geographic context. In countries like Colombia, for example, many rivers are navigable and serve as transportation avenues through or around physical barriers. In countries like Afghanistan they are the opposite; the rivers there are the physical barriers to movement. Their importance, however, is indisputable in regard to agriculture, which directly relates to Afghanistan’s (ethnic) population distribution, peoples’ livelihoods, resource use, and the country’s overall (in)stability.

That a significant number of major rivers have headwaters in the higher elevations of the country’s Central Highlands—in Bamyan, western Maidan Wardak, and western Ghazni Provinces—in proximity to each other often escapes attention. Control over this area, at least in theory, would allow control over Afghanistan’s lifeblood, if the group who controls it is powerful enough. Hence, this is an important issue when considered in the context of ethnic politics and regional stability.


Figure 1. The Central Highlands extend from Kabul city westward and effectively divide Afghanistan into northern and southern regions.

Ethnic Population Distribution and Land Use: Context

The Central Highlands region is not a desirable area in which to live; it is unwanted and undeveloped, even by Afghan standards, and has narrow valleys with little arable land. Ethnic structure is nearly homogeneous: Hazaras live along the headwaters. They reside there because they were forced to, having through time lost better land in the lowlands as they were shunted aside by stronger parties.

With decreased elevation and increased amount and quality of arable land along river valleys (Figure 2), land ownership rapidly changes in favor of other groups. Almost exclusively Pashtuns occupy the southern valleys. Ethnic complexity is greater in the north and northwest, although the areas are disproportionately settled by Pashtuns.


Figure 2 (Source). Note the absence of arable land in the Central Highlands, and the pattern of irrigated land in northern Afghanistan.

This settlement pattern is not incidental. Since the 19th century Pashtun expansion was a state-sanctioned process designed to fortify Afghanistan rulers’ territorial control, and thereby ensuring that the lands were held by groups from their ethnic stock. The result was that in every part of Afghanistan the outcome was similar: with Pashtun territorial expansion the group they encountered retracted resulting in their loss of territory [in eastern Afghanistan, for example, the ethnic population distribution follows a similar pattern in Pashtun versus Pashai relationship in Kapisa, Laghman, and Nangarhar Provinces].

In the north, Pashtun resettlement was to fertile areas and pasturelands spreading from the Kunduz to Murghab rivers (Figure 3). The process of Pashtunization of the north and takeover of good agricultural land has led to strained ethnic relationships between the newcomers and the people who already lived there, particularly the Uzbeks who, with the Tajiks, are the largest ethnic group in the north. Unsurprisingly, most interethnic problems in the north are in the vicinity of major rivers.


Figure 3 (Source). This map reaffirms the importance of the lower Kunduz River plain as a major breadbasket of Afghanistan. Note the location and intensity of agriculture and compare the areas with those of Taliban activity in the following figure.

[For further reading and additional scholarly references on the topic of Pashtunization of Afghanistan’s north and resulting ethnic issues, I recommend the article, State-building, migration and economic development on the frontiers of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan]

North: Geography of the Conflict

 Taliban-caused instability in the north, and the locations of their activity, is directly related to the ethnic population distribution. They cannot establish a continuously strong foothold farther away from the Pashtun-populated areas. This is why the map of their activity never shows a hold over an established continuous geographic zone stretching from Takhar to Faryab; rather, their continuous activity is limited to smaller areas that coincide with those where Pashtuns have been settled and original residents resettled (Figure 4).


Figure 4 (Source). Clusters of Taliban attack zones align with the areas indicated earlier. Equally indicative is the central region where their activity is absent and they lack popular support from their ethnic base.

Pashtun population in general, living in their northern ethnic islands—some larger like in Kunduz basin, other smaller like in Sar-i Pul and Faryab—has lost the support it had from the strong central government in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century and, in essence, has become splintered into a series of isolated minorities. Their political and economic power has been reduced with the advent of election-based ethnic politics, the system that now favors the demographically stronger non-Pashtuns who remember the conditions before colonization. Hence, the decision making process is gradually shifting in their favor. As a result, the polarizing ethnic conditions are now ripe for a larger conflict.

To peacefully ease ethnic tensions by taking power away from the Pashtuns, land along the rivers would have to be re-distributed in a form of reverse Pashtunization, yet such a strategy is hardly realistic. No ethnic group willingly gives away parts of its living space and accepts a minority status (see examples in Iraq, former Yugoslavia, or the Former Soviet Union). The response is usually quite the opposite of a peaceful solution.

In what they perceive to be an absence of help from the central government in addressing their grievances, the Pashtun population now increasingly feels that the Taliban in the north are not just an insurgent entity independent of the population, but the only entity within their ethnic nucleus willing to protect their way of life. This fact is essential in understanding why the Taliban in the north would not and will not go away, despite being physically disconnected from their strongholds in the south.

Response to Culture Change

A century of the south-to-north population relocation process has created significant population problems in Afghanistan’s north. The arrival of an outside group in an already complex physical and ethnic environment, with limited arable land, creates unbridgeable issues.

In a way it is a problem similar to that of the war in Vietnam. When the CIA relocated over a million North Vietnamese Catholics to the Mekong River delta, it introduced an entirely new ethnic group to an already complex environment, highly populated and with limited amount of available land. This did not bring stability. Instead, in their response to forced culture change, the locals supported the Vietcong’s activity, which became more intense in the delta than in close proximity to the North Vietnam’s border where one would naturally expect it to be.

Many villagers who supported insurgency could not spell the word communism—yet were labeled as such for their actions—and only wanted to preserve their way of life. Similarly, many among the northern Pashtuns support the Taliban, or join their ranks, not to pontificate on Islamic intellectual thought, but to protect what they see as a serious attack on their way of life.

Future is Now

The current process of culture change—which includes electoral democracy and will include calls for reform and redistribution of arable land along the rivers—is not something that the Pashtuns in the north can accept without, at least temporarily (in Afghan terms that would mean years), taking up arms. Based on recent developments it looks like they may already have.

If Afghanistan miraculously survives the challenge of ethnic conflicts, and even survives as a country, water and land use will still remain as pivotal issues. Considering the history of divisions in the north, in particular, that will not be possible to distance from ethnic politics. Meanwhile, the Hazaras, who currently are in social and political terms perhaps the best organized ethnic group, may realize that they can project much more power from the Central Highlands than they previously imagined.

[Note: I did not include an ethnic population distribution map of Afghanistan, because at the scale of 1:5,000,000 it would inaccurately display the complexity of the above-mentioned northern areas, and favor large, ethnically homogeneous, yet less-populated, marginal areas over small, densely-populated, and ethnically heterogeneous clusters. Problems with maps I have addressed in “Fixing Intel” (Or Manipulation With Maps)]

Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North
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