Twenty years ago this month, United States ground forces entered Afghanistan, charged with toppling the Taliban government that was hosting al-Qaeda and capturing Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
It would take a decade to locate and kill bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, and two decades for the Taliban to outlast the occupying power and resume control. In the interim, the U.S. exhausted itself in a failed effort at building a stable government in a nation riven by historic conflicts between ethnically diverse people gathered within borders imposed by Europeans more than a century earlier. When the United States withdrew in August, that government immediately collapsed, and a human catastrophe ensued as desperate Afghans swarmed the airport in Kabul, crying to be taken aboard transport planes carrying Americans away.
From his present location in Luang Prabang, Laos, Ronald Petocz watched the chaotic scenes with a blend of horror and sadness. Petocz is a protected areas management specialist who has been working in wildlife conservation and lands preservation around the globe for decades. He spent the 1970s in Afghanistan, and his ties to the war-torn nation remain deep. Hoping to help others make sense of the situation, he turned to his computer and began typing a letter at the request his longtime friend and fellow sheep hunter, Fairbanks artist Sandy Jamieson.
“I first arrived in Kabul so many years ago in 1971,” Petocz wrote. “Afghanistan was then a kingdom ruled by King Mohammed Zahir Shah who at the time presided over one of the most geographically and culturally diverse countries in the world.”
Petocz describes himself as a kid from New Jersey who came north to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he was awarded the school’s first PhD in geology in 1968. What he found in Alaska was beyond the dreams of his suburban boyhood. “One of my great fortunes was to study under [famed paleontology] Professor Dale Guthrie at the University of Alaska, and it was from him and hunting together that I learned to love mountain sheep,” he told me by email (quotes in this article have been slightly edited for clarity).
Having swapped urban pavement for wilderness precipices, he dreamed of studying the many species of sheep that make such mountainous places their home. After post-doctoral studies in Banff, he looked towards Afghanistan, where he wanted to study Marco Polo sheep. “What could be a greater challenge?” Petocz asked. “Spectacular argali mountain sheep living in the highest elevations of the Pamir Mountains, in one of the most remote and reclusive counties, generally closed to foreigners. Sounded just the right recipe for me.”
In 1971 it was still possible to drive from Europe to Southeast Asia, and the road went through Afghanistan. Petocz arrived in Kabul at wheel of a a VW van he’d bought in Amsterdam and stayed, conducting studies and working with the Afghan government establishing wildlife reserves and conservation programs. It would be years before he left.
Despite spending two decades at war there, Americans have remained remarkably incurious about Afghanistan’s history and culture. Petocz feels this leaves them incapable of grasping the security situation, and unable to comprehend why the conflict ended in failure for the United States. To understand how America’s nation building dream collapsed, he said, one must know why the internationally recognized borders of that nation are not recognized by the people living within them. America was building a nation that doesn’t see itself as a nation.
Petocz was on hand for the upheavals of the seventies that commenced when Zahir Shah was toppled in a coup instigated by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan. After five years of autocratic rule, Kahn was himself deposed and assassinated by communists and members of the military. This led to further instability, triggering the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Afghanistan is a complex of cultures and ethnicities that has never been easy to impose order on. While viewed from beyond its borders as a nation, the people within the country identify with their ethnic heritage, not as Afghans. Petocz told me that Zahir Shah “understood his people, loved his country and allowed them the freedom to govern themselves,” which maintained a level of peace not known since his ouster.
The largest ethnic group in the region is the Pashtun people, who also predominate the Taliban. They are heavily concentrated in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Though never formally recognized as their own nation, they see themselves as such, and, Petocz said, they disregard the governments they live under.
Petocz recounted a famous moment to illustrate this. “In 1975 when he was asked by a Punjabi critic whether he was a Muslim, a Pakistani or a Pashtun first, Wali Khan, The National Awami Party leader, gave a much quoted reply that he was ‘a six-thousand-year-old Pashtun, a thousand-year-old Muslim, and a 27 year old Pakistani.’”
For Pashtuns, Petocz said, self-governance is the objective, a dream denied by the geopolitical reality on the ground. The modern day border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as the Durand Line, was initially drawn in 1893, ostensibly to define the border between British India and what was then the Emirate of Afghanistan. For Britain, the underlying goal was to create a buffer zone between British imperial holdings in South Asia, and Czarist Russia, which was expanding into Central Asia.
Lost in the negotiations were the Pashtuns, whose traditional lands were divided in half by the agreement. “The Durand Line as slightly modified by the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, was inherited by Pakistan in 1947, following the partition of India,” Petocz explained. “All this history has percolated and reinforced many antagonisms along the border in present day.”
“One of the major political and regional concerns is the whole issue of a united Pashtunistan which was widely discussed and supported by many Afghan scholars in Kabul from the time when I first arrived in the country in 1971 and even long before that,” he said, expanding on his explanation. “The Durand Line, the current respected geographical boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, tears the geography of Pashtunistan apart and displaces families and communities on either side of the line and totally disrupts and disregards the culture and geography of Pashtunistan since 1893, as it does today in 2021.”
The idea of a nation of Pashtunistan is all but unknown in America, but in the tumultuous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s a dream many hope to one day turn into reality. “Understand that people living on either side of the Durand Line have, in their hearts, always thought of themselves first as Pashtuns in the Land of the Pashtuns, Pashtunistan,” Petocz stressed in his letter to Jamieson.
The border has always been porous. During the Soviet war, Mujahideen fighters crossed back and forth as Afghan refugee communities took form on the Pakistan side. “The Pashtun tribes have shown little respect for the “border” and why would they,” Petocz said. “Talibs (students) educated, or better said, indoctrinated by the orthodox conservative mullahs and other tribal leaders on the Pakistan side of the border have been continually sent to bolster Taliban troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban depend on this recruitment.”
On the Pakistani side, Saudi-funded religious schools known as madrassas that sprang up during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan radicalized the generation of Afghans that would create the Taliban. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the country descended into chaos as regional warlords fought over real estate while a weak central government slowly crumbled. Exploiting the situation, Taliban fighters gained control over most of Afghanistan in 1996. Their alliance with the emergent terrorist organization al-Qaeda set the course for 9/11 and America’s subsequent foray into a nation that had already long been known as the Graveyard of Empires.
Petocz had left Afghanistan following the Soviet incursion when it ceased to be safe for a white man who could easily be mistaken as Russian by resistance fighters. But he kept tabs on the country, had no use for the Taliban, and supported America’s initial involvement. “I figured we were out to get Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “And I think like most Americans, I also felt let’s put an end to him and his associates.”
It wasn’t long before he began to question U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, however. For him, the continued free movement of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces back and forth across the Durand Line domed efforts at stabilizing the country. “When the US failed to deal with the Pakistan problem and did not dampen the religious conservative footprint of Saudi Arabia on the madrassas on the Pakistan side of the border, I thought it was time to evaluate and change course.”
In Petocz’s view, the Pashtun dream of a united Pashtunistan carved out from Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the lynchpin for understanding the region. “Pashtuns are by far the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and number some 4 million people in the Durand Line transboundary area of Pashtunistan in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said. He feels American military planners never fully took the overriding Pashtun sense of national identity into account despite being a primary driver of regional geopolitics. Pakistan certainly opposes the idea of giving up territory, especially since it would challenge that nation’s stability. How the question is viewed by the provisional government in Kabul, Petocz said, will determine future events in the volatile borderlands.
“Above all, what is the Taliban allegiance to a united Pashtunistan? In Pakistan, the Pashtun population consists of two to three dozen different tribes of the Durand Line border hinterlands and have a history of continuous animosity even hostility towards the governing provincial Punjabis. Prior to Soviet interference, governments of King Zahir Shar and Daoud Khan in Kabul have all challenged Pakistan’s right to rule over its Pashtun areas. Alternatively, they espoused the goal of an autonomous Pashtun state to be created within Pakistan, an independent Pashtunistan to be carved out of Pakistan, or a Greater Afghanistan [by] directly annexing the lost territories.”
Petocz told me he expects continued turmoil to result from an unwieldy government in Afghanistan at odds with its neighbors. “I hope no more wars,” he said, “but there will definitely be conflicts. In that respect I refer to the current conflict between the Taliban and Tajikistan. Can the sentiment spread?” He feels other nearby nations, including Russia, could become drawn in.
Petocz doesn’t expect the restored Taliban government to bring needed stability. “I never trusted the Taliban to form any kind of a representative government no matter how much time is given to them and the limited talent available within the Taliban Pashtun community to offer good governance to the people of Afghanistan. I especially feared and continue to fear that there will be unacceptable difficulties for women and the Shia Hazara ethnic communities throughout the country.”
In the concluding paragraph of his letter to Jamieson, Petocz said the Pashtun conflict with the border that was drawn through their lands will continue to fester. “The big question as it pertains to the current situation is how a Pashtun government in Afghanistan will deal with the overall question of Pashtunistan and how this will be received by the powers that be in Pakistan and in turn affect the regional stability of the surrounding border areas to the north. For the Taliban, there is no border that divides Pashtunistan between the two countries. Pashtunistan is one country.”
Now 80, Petocz, returned to Afghanistan several times during the U.S. occupation to follow up on his earlier work. He expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for some of Afghanistan’s wildlife, including the sheep he studied. “Conservation crosses all political boundaries,” he said, explaining that work continues despite the return of the Taliban. “Integrated conservation and community and regional development can be a very positive way forward for Afghanistan.”
For the moment though, as he sits out the pandemic in Laos, he views Afghanistan’s present through its long history, and feels that events Americans by and large neither ignore will likely keep us tangled up in the region well into the future, even if our troops have left and our longest war has finally come to an inglorious end.
“The world is likely to see more of Pashtunistan in the future,” he said.
David A. James is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks. Ronald Petocz is coauthor with Khushal Habibi of the 2011 book Journeys in the Hinterlands of Afghanistan: The Golden Years of Wildlife Conservation, about his time in Afghanistan.