Sunday, March 05, 2006

Overheard on CNN

Last night on CNN, senior Pentagon correspondent and globe-trotter Jamie McIntyre was reporting on his recent trip to Afghanistan when he said an astonishing thing. Speaking about Afghanistan's chances for a successful post-war state relative to Iraq's, McIntyre made the following comment:
...Afghanistan actually has a better chance over the long term. It doesn't have the same ethnic divide.
Anybody who knows even a little bit about Afghanistan—hell, anyone who's read The Kite Runner—knows this is false. Iraq has two major ethnic groups, Arabs (75-80%) and Kurds (15-20%), with a scattering of other ethnicities making up the remaining 3-5%. Arabic and Kurdish are the two commonly-spoken languages. The most significant division in Iraqi society is not ethnic, it's the religious divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

In contrast, Afghanistan is a patchwork of different ethnicities cobbled together to form a state that makes little sense as a single polity. The dominant ethnic group, Pashtuns, make up about 42% of the population. The rest of Afghanistan is spread between a number of significant ethnic minorities: Tajiks (27%), Hazaras (9%), Uzbeks (9%), Aimaqs (4%), Turkmens (3%), Baluchis (2%) and several other groups making up the remaining 4%. Pashto and Dari are the official languages (with over 1/3 of the population speaking the latter), but Turkic languages like Uzbek and Turkmen are spoken in the north of the country (Tajik, which is also spoken in the north, is virtually identical to Dari/Persian and is likely counted as such in demographic studies).

Afghanistan is not only made up of many different ethnic groups, it is geographically divided largely along ethnic lines. The Pashtuns take up the broad middle section of the country, including the capital of Kabul. Hazaras dominate the central and north-central regions of the country and Turkmens, Uzbeks and Tajiks are concentrated in the north along Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Adding to Afghanistan's precarious ethnic identity is the fact that the current government of the country is strongly dominated by the Pashtuns, who have long been the ruling caste of Afghanistan. (If you've read The Kite Runner, you may remember that the Pashtuns used the Hazaras as servants.) There are a number of Central Asia experts who see the dominance of Pashtuns in the government as a significant source of friction and discontent among the statistical majority of the population that is not Pashtun. To complicate matters even further, years of war have prevented a full and accurate Afghan census from being taken since sometime in the 1970s. There are some who believe that the size of the Pashtun population has been deliberately inflated to justify their dominance in the political sphere.

I'm just a regular guy with an Internet connection and an inquiring mind, and I know this. How does CNN's Jamie McIntyre, an alleged expert, get away with talking such nonsense? There's a clue in his CNN biography:
Working out of CNN's office inside the Pentagon, McIntyre finds most of his stories by roaming the building's 17.5 miles of corridors...
It turns out that McIntyre spends much of his time hanging around with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and his reporting must reflect thinking inside the Pentagon. In fact, his analysis from last night is actually his uncritical regurgitation of the opinion of General James Jones, the U.S. European commander and supreme allied commander, who McIntyre calls a "very impressive person."

This kind of base-level ignorance seems to be endemic in the U.S. military and among the wonks who craft our War on Terror policies. They didn't anticipate the issues that are facing Iraq now and it looks like they aren't paying attention to one of the major challenges Afghanistan faces in its transition to a functional state. If they don't realize that Afghanistan is more than just Kabul, it's going to be a hard road ahead.
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