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The Glue That Holds Afghanistan

Government: Its peoples share a bond even though regional loyalties intrude on central rule.


KABUL, Afghanistan — In a country lacking a postal system, paved roads and a telephone network, the newly empowered authorities in this capital couldn't exert their influence over the far-flung regions and rebellious warlords even if they tried.

But the patchwork of ethnic fiefdoms that, stitched together, form Afghanistan are beyond the reach of central rule for more reasons than poor logistics. Power-hungry regional kingpins and hidebound local traditions provide more comforting refuge to many Afghans than does the lofty concept of a united, multiethnic nation.

Still, there is some nationalist mortar that holds together the ethnic blocks and makes Afghanistan and its varied peoples one country. Unlike Europe's failed multiethnic federations--the Yugoslav union of Balkan peoples and Czechoslovakia's myriad Slavs--the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others in this jigsaw puzzle of a nation take pride in their shared Afghan label.

Much as Americans can embrace being Southerners, New Yorkers, Angelenos or Kansans and still be moved by the sight of the Stars and Stripes, so, too, Afghans feel that more binds them than breaks them apart.

"I think the common Afghan man does see himself first as an Afghan. Do you think this country would still be around if the average Afghan man hadn't been so much devoted to his home country and identity in these 23 years of disasters here?" incoming President Hamid Karzai replies when asked what unites his disparate people. "It's precisely because of the strength of the common Afghan's identity with it that keeps this country together."

The past week's loya jirga, a traditional gathering of regional delegates to decide the nation's future, reflected this collective will to project Afghanistan and Afghans as a single entity, says Ashref Ghani, Karzai's chief advisor and a delegate to the freewheeling forum.

Government officials acknowledge that central authority doesn't yet reach much beyond Kabul. Ethnic clashes between rival chieftains in the north are impervious to appeals from officials here to unite in the daunting effort to rebuild a country largely reduced to rubble. The opium politics of the east still promise a better life for poppy farmers than the fledgling government in Kabul. And in the conservative south, especially around Kandahar, the ousted Taliban still enjoys much allegiance from Afghans who reject any notion of being ruled by leaders seen as Western puppets.

Although Karzai acknowledges that his reach remains limited, he blames the gaps in national reconciliation on the legacy of foreign interventions. The 1979-89 Soviet occupation forced the fiercely independent Afghans to wage armed resistance from the fringes, often with the aid, arms and counsel of self-interested neighbors and Soviet foes.

The invasions are over and the internecine fighting that has ravaged Afghanistan for the last decade also appears to be in check following a six-month power-sharing agreement worked out in Germany late last year.

The challenge now, as Karzai and his government colleagues see it, is to rapidly repair the damage so Afghans can again trade and travel, restoring the cultural and commercial bonds that made this country the heart of the fabled Silk Road.

Afghanistan, unlike European multiethnic states forced together by peace treaties, emerged to unite ethnic enclaves at the behest of the peoples guided by 18th century king Ahmad Shah Durani. Despite subsequent invasions and resistance, it has largely retained its original borders. United in their triumph of ousting intruders--first the British in the 19th century, then the Soviets and most recently the Taliban's collaborators from Al Qaeda--Afghans tend to see their shared nationality as a geopolitical strength rather than a weakening of their cultural identity. But with so much destruction around them, rivalries and resentment can easily flare as aid is doled out disproportionately. It will take as much domestic initiative as foreign assistance to solidify Afghans' commitment to living in a cohesive, multiethnic state.

"I always tell my Afghan friends that they can't expect foreigners to love their country more than they do," the U.S. special presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says of his former countrymen's frequent appeals abroad for more peacekeeping troops to keep armed factions apart.

Key advisors to the central government insist that their dependence on foreign protection is temporary. Like the U.S. officials providing the training for the fledgling national army, Afghan leaders say the freshly minted domestic troops will gradually fill the security vacuums that have allowed regional warlords to thwart central rule.

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