LONDON—He was an army chaplain serving in the war in Afghanistan.
The Reverend G.H. Gleig had seen battle after battle – and he emerged deeply disillusioned with what he saw. The war in Afghanistan was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity,” he wrote after his return. “Not one benefit, political or military has been acquired with this war.”
Reverend Gleig’s words are more relevant today than ever — which is remarkable since he wrote them almost 175 years ago. Gleig was a chaplain in the British army. The war he participated in was the First Anglo-Afghan War, which lasted from 1839 to 1842. Like countless other foreigners whose warnings about fighting in a country known as “The Graveyard of Empires” have gone unheeded, Gleig’s words had little effect: Britain would go to war in Afghanistan two more times before realizing the futility of its efforts and withdrawing permanently.
I couldn’t help but think of that history three weeks ago when President Donald Trump announced that he would be sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, making clear that to him, “victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.” Strong words—but as the British (and much later, the Soviets) found out the hard way, more troops won’t change a thing in a war that has already lasted more than twice as long as World War II.
The real problem in Afghanistan isn’t the battlefield. It’s the border.
Running roughly 1,600 miles through the rugged peaks of Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan, the border was imposed on Afghanistan in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of then-British India. Drawn at the time to prevent the influence of Tsarist Russia, the Durand Line arbitrarily split the ancestral homeland of millions of Pashtun tribesmen. Even as Afghan Amir Rahman Khan reluctantly accepted the line, he was secretly preparing to fight it. In 1897, Khan and a group of Pashtun leaders radicalized by the border supported a violent rebellion across it in British India – what historian David Rose calls “the start of a Pashtun challenge to the frontier that has continued with few interruptions ever since.”
Those Pashtun warriors would eventually become known by another name: the Taliban.
While it is said in Afghanistan that “all Taliban are Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban,” there is one thing that all Pashtun have in common: complete disregard for the Durand Line. Pashtuns regularly cross back and forth as if the border doesn’t exist – because, in reality, it never has. In fact, on many Taliban maps, the length of the border with Pakistan is actually labeled “Pashtunistan.” The only thing the nearly 35 million ethnic Pashtuns native to the region (23 million in Afghanistan, and 12 million in Pakistan) dream of—the only thing they have ever dreamed of—is independence.
As I wrote back in 2012: “Though their daily lives are little hindered by Durand’s doodling, these members of the world’s largest tribal society chafe at any directive from Kabul or Islamabad. In fact, some argue that self-rule is so central to Pashtun identity that they are not true Pashtuns without it. They resent the corruption in both capitals, and agitate for greater development and more equitable treatment.” And, as the BBC recently put it, “The Taliban’s promise—in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan—was to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power.”
History tells us that this artificial division of the Pashtun territory makes controlling Afghanistan all but impossible, but that certainly hasn’t stopped foreign powers from trying. A quick look at a map makes it clear why that’s the case. With India and China to its east; Iran to its west; and the central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as well as Russia to its north, Afghanistan, as The New York Times puts it, “has been blessed—or cursed, more likely—with a geopolitical position that has repeatedly put it in someone or other’s way.”
As long as Afghanistan remains a geopolitical battleground, foreign powers will always fight over it in destabilizing ways. And as long as the Pashtuns remain without a country, separated by an artificial border, they will always try to destabilize the government in Kabul. The current situation is a recipe for permanent instability in the region and within the country. No number of U.S. troops can fix that.
Are there any ways to fix Afghanistan in the long term? What would constitute solutions well outside the current box? I have three ideas.
First, we should facilitate the creation of an independent Pashtunistan that voids the Durand Line and formalizes the reality on the ground. Working with the U.N., in concert with a loya jirga—a grand council of the tribes—the international community could offer development assistance in exchange for the Pashtuns abiding by international conventions and policing the Taliban within their borders. As I wrote in 2012, “both Afghanistan and Pakistan would lose territory—a thought that petrifies Islamabad—but left to their own devices, the Pashtuns could begin building their own nation, rather than destabilizing their neighbors.”
I have a suggestion about who could lead the new Pashtunistan: Imran Khan, the international cricketer turned Pakistan’s opposition leader, who happens to be a Pashtun. Khan – who, as The Guardian puts it, “has promised that he will shoot down drones, look Americans in the eye, sit down with the Taliban over a cup of qahwa and sort this mess out” – is ideally suited to Pashtunistan. Proposing that Khan lead Pashtunistan would also sweeten the pot for Pakistan’s politicians; after all, this would take a popular politician – widely expected to run for president of Pakistan—out of the political equation in Pakistan and give him a separate outlet for his ambitions.
Second, it’s time to change Afghanistan’s role as a permanent battleground by neutralizing Afghanistan in the region’s politics, effectively making it, as the recently retired Indian Vice President, a Muslim, suggested to me, the Switzerland of Central Asia. That requires an Afghanistan that is strong, stable, and regionally integrated. The U.S. should work with regional partners to link Afghanistan with existing trade networks and infrastructure, building up Afghanistan’s economy. Good economics make good politics—and a more prosperous, regionally connected Afghanistan is most likely to remain stable and avoid threatening its neighbors.
In the meantime, the U.S. should replace its troop presence in Afghanistan with a temporary multinational peacekeeping force authorized by the UN Security Council. Peacekeeping operations are more suited to long-term stabilization than U.S. troops, and making a multilateral force responsible for peacekeeping rather than a great power would help reinforce Afghan neutrality as Afghanistan develops the economic strength and regional interdependence to stand on its own.
Third, and finally, the U.S. needs a lever to get regional players to support these plans. Countries like Russia and China—both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council—have a vested interest in the stability of the region. But they are, understandably, content to let the U.S. take the responsibility for Afghanistan, sapping troops and power that could be used elsewhere. Why would they support a permanent solution in Afghanistan when their leading geopolitical foe seems trapped there?
Washington should make it clear that, absent regional support for a permanent solution, the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan. Pakistan, Russia, and other Afghan neighbors would work with America on these solutions that will benefit everyone by taking Afghanistan out of the region’s geopolitics—or they can deal with the consequences of renewed instability in Afghanistan when the United States goes home.
Obviously, none of this will be easy. But for those who believe it’s pure fantasy, I’d ask: is it any more far-fetched than believing that additional American troops will make anything more than a momentary blip in a centuries-long struggle?
Five hundred years ago, it was a Pashtun warrior-poet named Pir Roshan who not only invented the Pashto written language—allowing Pashtuns to develop a culture separate from Arabic—but inspired Pashtun tribesman to take up arms against invading Mughal armies. One thing that has united Pashtuns ever since is the simple desire to be left alone. As Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has said, “If you don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you.”
Maybe it’s time to let a direct descendent of Pir Roshan’s—Imran Khan—turn that hopeful desire into a reality. Maybe that’s where, once and for all, we should draw the line.