Afghanistan is not a country we in the West followed much before 9/11. We focused on it at times while the Soviets were fighting there, mostly in hopes of a Soviet defeat. But we didn’t really understand it as a country or what it offered to the West and the world. After 9/11, the US efforts in Afghanistan centered more on shoring up the country in hopes that it would take care of itself. We helped establish a central government and then acted contrary to that government through our direct support to the warlords. Afghanistan could be a region of warlords and tribes essentially Balkanized and broken up to act as client states to the powers in the region. Although Afghanistan is a very poor country with little influence, its importance in the region is its potential to keep separated the nations whose influence and even borders collide in the region.
Bin Laden is in some ways a product of US support to the Mujahedeen. The man who defeated the Soviets could force the US out of the Middle East and, without US support, could bring down Israel. The man who defeats Israel could be a star in some Islamic circles.
So, ultimately, it was Osama Bin Laden who refocused the world on Afghanistan. Our focus on Afghanistan brought to light the Taliban and their extreme Deobandi interpretation of Islamic rule/law. Where did these Taliban guys come from?
Well, we pretty much know the Taliban were born and nurtured by the Pakistani intelligence service – the ISI. Their purpose was to create a Pakistani client state to deny India inroads into Afghanistan, thereby threatening Pakistan and the Kashmir by almost totally surrounding Pakistan.
The Taliban regions of Afghanistan were those Pashtun areas in the eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. The artificial borders of Afghanistan mean that tribal regions don’t necessarily match political borders leaving shared cultural influences in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Iran shares the long western border of Afghanistan and carries influence with the warlords in the west. The Shi’a Iranians would not like to see an extremist Sunni state bordering it and so are a countering influence to Pakistan.
In the North, the tribes and warlords are more closely aligned with the Uzbec and Tajik populations acting in many ways as Russian client states. To the North also, of course, is Russia cushioned from Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Central Asian states. Russia depends on its buffer states to keep influence out of Russia and its satellites and the Taliban influences in Afghanistan only seem to provoke the insurgencies in Chechya and the other Moslem states of Central Asia which border Russia.
Not to forget, the vast expanse of China also touches the region. China’s far western border is one of the least secure areas of China with its own separatist Moslem population.
So Afghanistan is essentially another artificial country made up of unrelated tribes and peoples who happen to sit on the road between East and West. Its geography is more important than most of its natural resources or agriculture, with the exception, of course, of its poppies — so vital to the international drug trade and a source of wealth to warlords who would have few other sources of income to buy their influence and their weapons.
So what of the Balkanization of Afghanistan? Breaking the country up into its ethnic regions where the influence of the closest neighbor decides its politics and culture? Here too, influence of other neighbors are sought through intrigue and often, today, violence and intimidation.
The country of Afghanistan is important to the world because it exists. It keeps the peace between Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan by its mere existance. But it undergoes a continuous war of Balkanization. The efforts to support warlords and tribes over nationalism tear at the fabric of the country and contributes more and more to a potential breakup.
An independent Afghanistan is vital to the region to keep the conflicting interests separate. Balkanization is the short term solution to those who would capitalize on the instability of the region. Maintaining Afghani sovereignty is the long term solution which promotes stability to all the parties in the region.
Afghanistan must remain an independent country – client to no single state but cooperative participant in the region.
The US policies in the region have contributed to the possibility of Balkanization and now it is up to the international community to build a strong, independent country with a viable central government to prevent a free-for-all in the region.