The Future Emirates of Afghanistan

America and its neglected allies in Afghanistan are in shock and trying to absorb and understand their defeat there. For the moment, the Biden administration is trying to spin their horrific and botched withdrawal as a kind of heroic Dunkirk, where they claim to have saved thousands of Afghani supporters, airlifting them directly to the USA without vetting them.

It is clear that the vast majority of these Afghans were simply looking for an escape from the Taliban. About 95% percent of the evacuees had nothing to do with the government of the USA, or of Afghanistan.

They are simply wise,  crafty, and good at using a crisis to further the best interests of their families, in a successful attempt to get into an America that will give them and their children an enormous opportunity, without having to go through the usual bureaucracy for overseas applicants who want to come to America and become citizens. They are like the Mexicans on the southern border who come to America on foot. But the Afghans arrive in style, by plane.

America will absorb its defeat. The Taliban will become more aggressive and the US and its future allies will somehow return, perhaps gradually, perhaps suddenly to fight the Jihad that is facing the West there and, to show its enemies, China, Russia, and its “frenemies” like Pakistan, that it cannot be toyed with.

But what kind of government will emerge in Afghanistan then? The answer is not obvious, because the West has projected its own experience of the nation-state onto Afghanistan, as they do and have done in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore they do not see what is staring them in the face on the ground, a country dominated by different tribes with competing interests.

Please take a look at the map below. Notice that the Pashtun are the dominant tribe of the south and southeast. They are a tribal federation that straddles the border and spills into Pakistan. They are and often have been, but are not always, the dominant tribe of Afghanistan. They are Sunni Moslems, they look like Northern Italians and they speak an Indo-European language.

CIA map of Afghanistan tribes in 2005

To the north of them are the Hazara. They are Shia Muslims suspicious of the Pashtun and descendants of the Mongol Hordes of Ghenghis Khan and Tamerlane.

To the north of them are a different tribe, the Uzbeks. These are mountain-dwelling villagers who are Turkic speakers and who also are the majority in Uzbekistan. They are part of the pan-Turkic peoples who emerged out of Central Asia and are as fierce as all the other groups.  On the borders of Tajikstan are the Tajiks, Sunni Muslims who speak a form of Persian.

Then there are the Aimaq, the Kirgiz, the Nuristani, and other smaller ethnic groups. Each one of these ethnic groups has a common territory (although many overlap), a common language, a common myth of origin, distinctive music that defines them as well as rituals and customs that give their culture and lives meaning and coherence, despite the fact that 99% of Afghans are Muslim.

The pan-Islamic ideology of the mostly Pashtun Taliban and their allies in the north, underneath the veneer of Jihad, is and will be seen to be as much personal and tribal rivalries as their leaders begin to quarrel and fight amongst each other.

In the past, and before the introduction of telecommunications and modern weaponry into the country, the various ethnic groups of Afghanistan fought amongst each other and then sued for peace. Conflict can start with one family, escalate into clans, move into tribes and then go tribe to tribe, just like the old vendettas of Appalachia, with their Hatfields and the Coys. Think of Afghanistan as a colorful Muslim tribal mosaic of feuding tribes and you have the essence of the place.

The West has spent more than twenty years and billions of dollars trying to weld these tribes into a modern nation-state. It cannot be done and the majority of Afghans do not want it. They prefer to live in a digitally enabled version of 19th-century tribal chaos.

And so, we must ask, what would a future Afghanistan look like if and when the West returns?  It must create a political framework for the country that can reduce conflict, facilitate “political” horse-trading and sharing of resources.

The only way Afghanistan can be ruled is as an almost fictive Federal Republic made up of competing Emirates. These are not necessarily elected units but are led by the “big men” or the “warriors” whose clans and more importantly, whose militias give them power over their fellow tribesmen.

They are all warriors so a new Afghanistan would be made up of semi-independent Emirates, each with its own militia and army, each with its traditional assemblies, and each with its foreign and local development policy. The capital and the center in Kabul will simply be a meeting ground for the powers that be, perhaps facilitated by Western expertise or, even expertise drawn from the Gulf Emirates.

This political model is based upon the musings of an unconventional Israeli political scientist, Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar Ilan University, a man fluent in Arabic and who gets amusement and delight defending and advocating Israel’s position when he appears on Al Jazeera TV, the Qatar government-sponsored anti-Israel and anti-Western news company

Mordechai (Moti to his friends) recently told me that a few years ago he was at a conference in Washington, DC about the future of Afghanistan. There he told a senior State Department official of his Emirates plan as outlined above.  The official brushed him off and accused him of racism. Kedar was flabbergasted and so am I. Kedar’s solution has yet to be tried. One day it will be tried.

The soldiers and development workers on the ground knew that Afghanistan is and was a tribal society run by warlords of different kinds and, they learned to work with them. But the Generals and the US politicians in Kabul and Washington DC were too busy studying the campaigns of Napoleon and Nelson at West Point to understand this most basic truth of Afghanistan.

It is a country of warlords and tribes. Yes, they want modern technology, clean water, digital phones, and anti-biotics. No, they do not want democracy, freedom of speech, rights for women, and secular law. They simply want an updated version of their 19th-century norm. They want to be left alone in their tribal homelands.

The best the West can do in the future is to play one off against the other, creating a dynamic peace or ceasefire that is actually a political stalemate while figuring out a new system of carrots and sticks that will prevent the likes of Bin Laden to have a haven in Afghanistan from which to attack the Pentagon and New York City.

Afghanistan is a country of warring tribes. We must find a way to neutralize them. Nation-building has not been the answer. Kedar’s Emirates, one day, may just do the trick.

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