The most difficult issue to discuss about Afghanistan’s future is that of ethnic groups, particularly their distribution relevance to political power.  Blindly ignoring it has been widespread among the foreign providers of funds for the country’s security and reconstruction.  Their actions resemble that of land developers near the San Andreas Fault, who hope that an anticipated cataclysmic earthquake will occur after they develop and sell the properties.

People of various ethnicities do exist in Afghanistan and occupy territory they specifically consider to be their homeland.  For a great number of them, the outline of the country’s political boundaries is misaligned with their ethnic homeland’s boundaries; the latter is more important to them.  Depending on ethnic affiliation, one’s perception of ethnic homelands and national boundaries varies significantly.  Ask a Hazara, for example, what he/she considers a boundary of the country and of their homeland, then ask a Pashtun the same question.  The geographic differences in their expressed perception of ethnic space will greatly vary, each of them intruding into the other’s perceived homeland.

[For more on ethnic issues and geography see Afghanistan’s Continuous Struggle With Itself: The Census and Ethnicity Issue, Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North, Maps and Misalignment of Political and People-Perceived Boundaries (Part 3), and Fight for Light in Kabul City and National Implications.]

On the other hand, nearly all Afghans will agree that the capital city of their homeland, and of their country, is Kabul.  Its importance has a practical meaning and cannot be overemphasized in this heavily-centralized country.  All relevant decisions, political and military, originate in the capital.  Kabul is Afghanistan’s microcosm, its functional node, and in that regard the country’s Gordian Knot.  It ties everything together preventing change in the status quo without its permission.

An Alexandrian solution must occur in Kabul City in order to brighten Afghanistan’s future.  Under current conditions, however, even the power of Alexander the Great’s sword could not untie that knot.  Afghanistan’s problems require a different approach, one without the use of weapons.  In another, lesser known version of the story about the Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great solved the problem by pulling the knot out of its pole pin!  With a single action, thinking outside the box, he relaxed the strength of the knot.  He decentralized the knot’s strength and power.

Location Versus Situation

In geographic science, location is an absolute term, i.e., where on Earth’s surface something is specifically located.  Situation, on the other hand, means how that location is relevant in the context of its relationship with other locations, i.e., spatial interaction.  When studying a particular phenomenon, the most useful approach is to analyze it in both absolute and relative contexts.  This allows us to firmly grasp the importance of a studied location, which is essential in the context of Afghanistan’s ethnic geography and the role of Kabul City.

Location answers the what is where question, whereas situation explains why it is there and, ultimately, why should we care? The situation aspect is much more analytically complex and complicated to answer.  In regard to Kabul (location), and its ethnic population distribution relevant to the local and national affairs and significance to ethnic groups (situation), the latter has been swept under the rug for many years.   But it cannot remain there forever.  Sooner or later a house cleaning must occur.

Endless Repetitions in Building Resistance

As I write these words (July 2017), yet another attempt for strategy change in Afghanistan is being considered in Washington, D.C.  A brief review of the current proposals confirms that the new suggestions are little more than a re-introduction of old suggestions.

Admitting that Afghanistan cannot continue under the prevailing conditions would constitute an inconvenient truth.  Meanwhile, the ethnic groups are gradually preparing for the potential reprisal of the 1992-1996 Civil War as a just-in-case scenario.  The war, which devastated Kabul City, is not far back in the memory of its residents.  The Western approach, however, has not changed since 2001; the West continues to strengthen the central (Pashtun-dominated) government.

In fear of finally accepting that modern Afghanistan—dysfunctional in its core—is an artificial conglomeration of peoples, each of whom pursues own disparate agenda, Western (American) strategists and policymakers ignore that part of the overall equation.  They prefer to see everything through unifying lenses and repetitively cling to and focus upon political boundaries; 398 Districts form 34 Provinces into one country.  Figure 1 is what the Afghans see.Figure 1.  Ask yourself, has the most recent U.S. Congressional delegation to Kabul, together with their aides and subject matter experts, analyzed an image like this without any lines and discussed what natural and cultural unifying factors are holding Afghanistan together?  Can you think of any?

Figure 2.  Yellow lines represent national boundaries in the region.  Ask yourself the same question as in the previous figure. What natural features and cultural factors are holding Afghanistan together?

To contemporary Afghans the only space that matters in practical terms, other than personal property, is that of their ethnic homeland.  They individually relate to their kin and, as a collective, they relate to the specific area in which they reside.  The respective homeland core areas for major groups such as Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazara, and Uzbeks are well known.

What neither group currently possess is proof of exclusive demographic dominance over the nation’s capital.  To an outside observer it may seem unimportant, even trivial, that being a majority in Kabul City would hold a role of great significance for any ethnic group.  In a multi-ethnic society, however, control over the capital city (e.g., Beirut, Sarajevo, Baghdad, Damascus, or Jerusalem) can provide a needed degree of political legitimacy not reserved for groups residing in peripheral areas.

[For more about why a physical connection to Kabul City matters, even when a group is not forming a majority, see Hazara’s Choice.]

Unless an ethnic group can attach its homeland to Kabul City, it will struggle to rise from the status of being a second-tier peripheral to a first-tier national contender.  The group’s power will remain concentrated in the countryside.  Uzbeks, who reside in northern and western Afghanistan, are an example of such a group.  Their demographic representation in Kabul area is miniscule today as it was during the 1992-96 Civil War.  Abdur Rashid Dostum’s Uzbek forces could not hold their positions in the city without an ethnic base and eventually had to withdraw.  Conditions are similar today.  If an ethnic conflict breaks out Tajiks, Hazara, and Pashtuns will be the ones to sort it out in the capital, again without the Uzbeks.

Ethnic Population Distribution

Within the Kabul City limits the demographic and geographic conditions have changed since the 1990s.  The urban area has rapidly expanded, both in terms of population growth and spatial distribution.  Self-segregation with sharp boundaries between ethnic neighborhoods is rather evident.

Although the ordinary people do not pontificate much on this matter while conducting daily business, the settlement patterns illustrate their desire to reside among their ethnic kin—a survival mechanism at work.  With memories from the 1992-96 Civil War still not forgotten, people are aware that a neighborhood’s ethnic minorities are the first to experience pain in any conflict.

Administratively, Kabul City—now home to several million residents—is still a single unit and the capital of all Afghans.  In practical terms it is an urban area composed of three major ethnic units.  Among them, the Tajiks form the largest group and occupy the largest area, including the administrative center of the city (and the country).   This is of particular significance in terms of the above-mentioned appearance of legitimacy; what Kabul City is to Afghanistan the city center is to Kabul City.Figure 3.  Satellite image of the Kabul City’s metropolitan area.  Administrative boundaries are all over the place—for the lack of a better word—overlapping with each other, but vernacular (people perceived) and physical (very important in this context!) are well defined.  In terms of the Western approach to this issue, it is appropriate to raise the identical questions here that we considered under the Figure 1.

Figure 4.  Kabul City (largest circle; predominantly Tajik), Jalalabad (medium circle; predominantly Pashtun), and Ghazni City (smallest circle; predominantly Hazara) are three major regional centers in this part of Afghanistan, but only one of them with a country-wide impact and status.  The same can be said for the cities in other parts of Afghanistan when compared to Kabul.

Even if Kabul City is separated by a wall on different zones of control, resembling Berlin during the Cold War, its administrative center would not end up under the control of a single ethnic group—without a prior conflict, that is.  No other group among the contenders, with self-interest in mind, would willingly choose Ghazni or Jalalabad (or Kandahar) as their Afghan equivalent to West Germany’s Bonn.

Bullet Points in 7.62mm

Each time dignitaries from the U.S. Congress arrive to the Afghan capital, they meet a Pashtun-dominated government in a non-Pashtun dominated capital city, to discuss another new strategy in a predominantly non-Pashtun country about fighting the predominantly-Pashtun insurgents. The non-Pashtun political representatives take note of that, as do their constituents.

With time, the demands for change will become increasingly vocal.  Most recently, the representatives of Tajiks (Mohammed Atta Noor and Salahudin Rabbani) and Hazara (Mohammad Mohaqeq) flew to Turkey to meet a representative of the Uzbeks (Abdur Rashid Dostum) to form yet another Afghan-type alliance.  Note the passage in the Washington Post’s article titled “Political storm brews in Afghanistan as officials from ethnic minorities break with president, call for reforms and protests:”

“The most strident voice in the new coalition has been that of Noor, a wealthy northern governor who until recently was negotiating with Ghani to obtain a greater share of power.  During the fraud-plagued 2014 elections, which both [Chief Executive] Abdullah and Ghani claimed to have won, Noor threatened to create violent unrest if Ghani was declared the winner.”

My question for the next election cycle, if Mr. Noor repeats his threats, is where will that violence occur? In the peripheral Balkh Province—where he serves as a governor—or closer to the Presidential palace in Kabul City, located in the predominantly-Tajik part of town?

The answers, perhaps, are in the Alliance’s list of demands.  Most indicative are:

  • Make efforts to decentralize the system’s budget spending in ministries
  • Grant more authorities to provinces in the budget spending
  • Hold the presidential, parliamentary, and district councils’ elections on time
  • Outline a comprehensive security and administrative roadmap for central, northeastern and southwestern regions of the country

All these demands have geographic connotations: removing excessive power from Kabul, i.e., from the Pashtuns, towards predominantly non-Pashtun ethnic homelands, and utilizing that for future purposes.  Today, such areas include the Kabul City, too.

[Side note: I was the first to create a comprehensive ethnic population distribution map of contemporary Kabul City, together with a series of other related products, for the Coalition’s planners and operators.  Details are described in my book Photographic Memory of Kabul City: A Deployed Geographer’s Perspective.  The products, particularly the map, were an eye opener to many of them who, until then, relied on established and entrenched stereotypes.  As did the Afghans!]

Ostrich Solution 

Considering the current conditions, can anyone seriously expect that the fight for power and space in Kabul and Afghanistan will remain peaceful along the ethnic frontlines?  One group can.

The “land developers near San Andreas” have decided to bury their heads in the Afghan sand in 2001 and have yet to take them out.  The fact that the modern Kabul City exists on a seismic zone four, prone to cataclysmic earthquake—physically and culturally—evidently depends on implementing yet another new old strategy.

The new strategy most likely will not include an Alexandrian solution in untying the Gordian Knot without the use of a sword.  Reversing the current trend of centralization of specific (ethnic) power in Afghanistan would already be considered a cataclysmic earthquake in Washington, D.C.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s Gordian Knot