Nation, identity, and the future of Afghanistan
In 2018 a multimillion-dollar plan to issue new electronic ID cards sparked a heated debate among some sectors of the population, who objected to the use of the term “Afghan” as a common nationality. Some people, in fact, argued that historically this term was synonym with Pashtun and that its use would therefore be discriminatory if applied to the entire population. The controversy surrounding the concept of “Afghan” continues still today. Rather than a cause of social division, this could be considered the effect of historical and political issues that have been neglected for a very long time on a domestic and international level.
On the Afghan side, those in power feared that recognizing existing power imbalances could have led people to challenge the status quo of the dominant elites, while on the international side, the fear of deepening existing social fractures in an already fragile environment had the opposite effect to miss important clues about major social and political dynamics.
This diatribe has seen people split between those who find in ethnicity the main source of identity, and those who claim that national identity has to override all the other differences because favoring individual ethnic identities could lead to the disintegration of the country. Usually, to understand and analyze a complex issue, the first thing to do is to break down the problem into smaller parts. For this reason, in the first place, we should try to define what is a nation. The concept of nation, in fact, is more complex than it might seem at first sight.
It should be remembered that nations are a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Egypt and China, for example, were not nations at all. Nor was the Assyrian Empire or that of Alexander the Great. According to the political historian Karl Deutsch, a nation is “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors”.
Another interesting definition of a nation comes from the French historian Ernest Renan, who took the example of nations such as England, France, and Italy, where ethnicities, religions, and languages are multiple and mixed, to underline how these aspects (precisely ethnicity, religion, language, and even geography) cannot be counted among the foundations of nationality. According to Renan, a nation is a spiritual principle consisting of past and present. The past is the common possession of a rich heritage of memories, while the present is the desire to live together. As a social construct, the existence of a nation is not something given and immutable but, as Renan argues, “it is a daily referendum”, the desire to remain part of a nation.
Those who dispute the use of the name of “Afghans” wish, first of all, to have their national identity recognized in a multinational state because as noted above, a nation is not simply an ethnic group, but a polity interested in the structuring and organization of political agreements.
It is undeniable that in Afghanistan such political communities exist and that their existence affects the country's political and social situation. Paradoxically, some promoters of this etymological-national unity reject the existence of a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, claiming that the Durand Line is just a cruel colonial legacy that divides the Pashtun population. United by a common past and by a desire to live together as a unitary group, the Pashtun people, represent in all respects a nation. But if the Pashtun population can be considered a nation, so can be all those polities united by different myths, pasts, collective traumas, and visions for the future.
The issue cannot be reduced to a simple etymological problem but to a lack of a shared historical past and vision of the future. For this reason, an effective nation-building process cannot fail to consider these aspects.
In the past few years, the government of Ashraf Ghani included the exponents of some of these polities in the State institutions, preventing in this way dangerous sources of rivalry.
Today, the fear of a new Taliban obscurantist regime, the damages brought by a government affected by endemic corruption and unable to protect its citizens, combined with an increasing level of violence, have ended up alienating large sectors of the population. These sectors have now begun to resort to a shared past and common narratives to imagine futures different from the one prospected for them by the international community, the Taliban, and the Afghan government itself.