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Robert Fisk: Forget the cliches, there is no easy way for the West to sort this out

17 November 2001

Afghanistan - as the armies of the West are about to realise - is not a country. You can't "occupy" or even "control" Afghanistan because it is neither a state nor a nation.

Nor can we dominate Afghanistan with the clichés now being honed by our journalists. We may want a "broad-based" government, but do the Afghans? We may regard cities as "strategic" - especially if reporters are about to enter them - but the Afghans have a different perspective on their land.

As for the famous loya jirga, a phrase which now slips proudly off the lips of cognoscenti, it just means "big meeting". Even more disturbingly, it is a uniquely Pashtun phrase and thus represents the tribal rules of only 38 per cent of Afghan society.

The real problem is that Afghanistan contains only tiny minorities of the ethnic groups which constitute its population. Thus, the 7 million Pashtuns in the country are outnumbered by the 12 million Pashtuns in Pakistan, the 3.5 million Tajiks in Afghanistan are outnumbered by the 6 million Tajiks in Tajikistan. The 1.3 million Uzbeks are just a fraction of the 23 million Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. There are 600,000 Turkmens in Afghanistan - but 3.52 million in Turkmenistan. So why should the Afghan Pashtuns and Tajiks and Uzbeks and Turkmens regard Afghanistan as their country? Their "country" is the bit of land in Afghanistan upon which they live.

Indeed, Afghan Pashtuns have long disputed the notorious Durand line - the frontier which divided Afghanistan from British India and which now forms the Afghan-Pakistan border. In 1897, Sir Mortimer Durand took no account of the fact that the Afghan Empire once included much of what would become present-day Pakistan.

Hence, today, the constant fear for Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, is not so much an Islamic revolution but a rebirth of the notorious demand for "Pushtunistan" in the North-West Frontier province.

A remark by a victorious Northern Alliance official - that his men might push on to "the Pashtun city of Karachi" - caused a minor political heart attack in Islamabad. In similar fashion, the journalistic idea that Taliban leaders might "flee over the border into Pakistan" seems a lot less odd to the Taliban themselves - who would merely be moving across an artificial British-made border into another part of the Pashtun tribal area.

Of course, it's not difficult to see how we Westerners like the idea of a loya jirga. All we have to do is supervise a massive congress of Afghan tribesmen - forgetting that the loya jirga is totally unrepresentative because women are banned - in order to produce a power-sharing government of the kind that the British created in Northern Ireland.

Only it's not like that. The loya jirga became part of Afghan tradition when, in 1747, Ahmed Abdalli took 4,000 soldiers to Kandahar - which was then just two small towns - and brought together the leaders of the eight major Pashtun tribes. They chose Ahmed Durani as the king. But since then, despite the inclusion of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, Pashtuns have ruled Afghanistan for all but three brief periods of the 20th century.

It's easy to see why. The Uzbeks never had loya jirgas. The Tajiks are an urban, non-tribal group. How can they obtain equal or proportionate weight in such a meeting when they do not have tribal leaders? Will the Tajiks have one representative for the Pashtuns' eight or more?

Nor can history be excluded. The Shia Muslim Hazaras - who may or may not owe their origins to Genghis Khan's invading hordes - were the victims of savage repression at the hands of Pashtun forces under the "Iron Emir", King Abdur Rahman, in 1880. Abdur Rahman, it should be added, repressed his own Pashtun people as well. He had been invited to rule Afghanistan by - you guessed it - the British government.

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