by Stephen Rutman
Amidst the current discord and devastation in the Middle East, scores of analysts, commentators and policymakers have noted the potential value of redrawing the borders of the nations that constitute that region. Indeed, the current political boundaries appear as arbitrary as they do archaic. Proponents of territorial reassignment in the Middle East rightly observe that the borders we identify today are post-Ottoman constructs, heavily influenced by British and French imperial interests. In particular, the covert Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned over 2000 square miles of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, failed to account for the critical ethnic, linguistic and religious divides among the inhabitants of that area. Appeals to update the outdated borders in favor of ones that more adequately reflect the region’s nuanced demographics seem, at first glance, obvious.
Of course, Western scholars and pundits are not the only ones calling for territorial redistricting. The militant group ISIS has reimagined the geography of the Middle East as a confederation of states united as a caliphate, governed by Sharia Law. The leaders of this extremist organization contend that their proposal restores the natural boundaries of Islam’s “Golden Age,” thereby upending a perceived colonial legacy. It comes as no surprise that ISIS’ plan categorically neglects all non-Sunni-Muslims and would further agitate the fractious dynamics of the region. The militant group, for example, seeks to reclaim Spain (or Al-Andalus, as they refer to it), which has not known Muslim rule for over 500 years and is currently home to fewer than two million Muslims, as part of the Caliphate.
The terrorists’ outlandish demands notwithstanding, there may be some merit to strategic division. Although more extensive adjustments to the map are conceivable, the most likely subject of national segmentation is Iraq, where three distinct populations—Sunni, Shia and Kurdish—consistently clash. On one hand, Iraq is a strong candidate for partition because the various ethno-religious groups already inhabit relatively separate areas. On the other hand, defining new borders would likely fuel the tumult and could further endanger the resultant minorities of the three new states. Furthermore, there is little global confidence that the leadership of any of the proposed states could effectively prevent terrorist usurpations of power, which would jeopardize not only the security of neighboring states, but also the entire globe.
While fragmentation may emerge as the most coherent solution to the geo-sectarian strife in Iraq, it bears considering the full scope of impact before sending our cartographers back to the drawing board. Until the dust settles in Iraq, a useful analogue may be another ethnically heterogeneous Middle Eastern nation: Afghanistan.
The notion of Afghanistan as a single national entity is a fairly recent construct. In fact, modern Afghanistan is the remnant of the Durrani Empire, which was formed when Pashtun forces conquered Mogul, Persian and Uzbek communities in the eighteenth century. During three iterations of the Anglo-Afghan War between 1838 and 1919, Afghanistan’s autonomy was tried repeatedly, as the British seized vast portions of eastern Afghan territory and established the Durand line—later adopted as the highly contentious border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the power struggle over Central Asia known as “the Great Game” ended and a buffer state between Britain and Russia was no longer necessary, Afghanistan grappled with its independence. The country experienced a brief interlude of liberalization during the mid-twentieth century before suffering tremendous losses in the Soviet invasion, which further dispersed Afghans into their surrounding states. Within 10 years of the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Taliban had risen to power, imposing virtually unlivable conditions upon the native population.
Once celebrated as the “Switzerland of Asia” for its cultural diversity, Afghanistan has recorded unparalleled friction over the past several decades. Following the September 11 attacks, experts and officials offered an assortment of potential revisions to the map of Central Asia. While specific plans varied, most called for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to absorb the lands of their ethnic brethren in the north, while Iran would assume control over Afghanistan’s western strip. One of three things could happen to the remaining portion according to the various schemes. A smaller Afghanistan could have materialized with a more homogenous, predominately Pashtun, populace. Alternatively, Pakistan could have incorporated the outstanding land into its borders. Finally, a new state comprising the remaining portion of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan might have formed Pashtunistan—an idea that has circulated for over half a century.
These proposals to dissolve or divide a fractured nation were by no means without historical precedent. One need only look to Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union to appreciate the feasibility of partitioning conglomerate countries along ethnic lines. In those situations, as with the Afghanistan proposals, the prevailing logic was that—like squabbling toddlers—the simplest solution was to separate the parties engaged in conflict.
This reasoning begs the more elemental question of whether the globe is safer with many small states representing particular groups’ interests or a few larger, more inclusive states. A scaled down version of the same debate recurs regularly in American politics in considering whether the U.S. functions more effectively as 50 independent states or as one federated unit. Of course, the logical extremes in this discussion—one super-state or separate states for every community—are unsustainable on any scale. In attempting to strike some sort of balance, however, it is challenging to know where to draw the lines—literally and figuratively.
Those in favor of increased segmentation assert that if conflict arises from subjecting different peoples to the same policies, then providing them separate systems of governance ought to mitigate the conflict. In the refigured Central Asia, for instance, the Sunni-Pashtun state could observe their brand of Islam without imposing it on the Hazara-Shiite population, which would now belong to Iran.
Western sensibility, however, suggests that we find strength through diversity. The opposing argument is that forcing various factions to coexist allows them to face and overcome challenges together. This model holds that separating the misbehaving toddlers in fact evades the issue, rather than truly confronting and resolving it. The most recent example of partition in many ways confirms the flaws of the division strategy. South Sudan, which declared independence in 2011 to protect itself from the civil strife it faced while unified with its northern neighbor, has teetered on the brink of collapse since its inception.
Beyond the threat of the preexisting infighting escalating to full-fledged war, another fundamental challenge to segmentation is the potential for failed states. If Afghanistan or Pashtunistan had been stripped of the minorities that resisted the Taliban’s oppressive regime, it seems likely such a state would have devolved into a hotbed for terrorists.
Even if a redistricting plan can manage all of the related security concerns, significant symbolism remains at stake. If every disgruntled sub-national entity breaks off and forms its own country, does it not confirm that people with different ethnicity, race or religion cannot live together in harmony?
It bears noting that the work in Afghanistan is far from over. Infrastructure is in need of reconstruction, and relationships are in need of reconciliation. Perhaps most significantly, terrorism continues to plague the nation. Yet, one can only ponder whether the healing process would have occurred better or faster with Afghanistan divided. The most recent Afghan presidential election, in which two candidates with divergent backgrounds and visions put aside their differences and struck a power-sharing deal, suggests that unity and pluralism are the best means of combating national challenges—a lesson that the region and the entire global community would do well to learn.