America's unwinnable war in Afghanistan, after exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure, is finally drawing to an official close. How this development shapes Afghanistan's future will have a significant bearing on the security of countries located far beyond. After all, Afghanistan is not Vietnam: the end of US-led combat operations may not end the war, because the enemy will seek to target western interests wherever located.
Can the fate of Afghanistan be different from two other Muslim countries where the United States militarily intervened - Iraq and Libya? Iraq has been partitioned in all but name into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish sections, while Libya seems headed towards a similar three-way, tribal-based partition. Will there be an Iraq-style "soft partition" of Afghanistan, with protracted strife eventually creating a "hard partition"?
Afghanistan's large ethnic minorities already enjoy de facto autonomy, which they secured after the Northern Alliance played a central role in the US-led defeat of the Afghan Taliban in late 2001. Having enjoyed autonomy for years now, the minorities will resist coming under the sway of the ethnic Pashtuns, who formerly ruled the country.
For their part, the Pashtuns, despite tribal divisions, will not rest content with being in charge of just a rump of the eastern and southeastern provinces. Given the large Pashtun population resident across the British-drawn Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, they are likely to revive their long-dormant campaign for a Greater Pashtunistan - a development that could affect the territorial integrity of another artificial modern construct, Pakistan.
The ethnic minorities are actually ethnic majorities in distinct geographical zones in the north and the west, which makes Afghanistan's partitioning possible and more likely to last, unlike the colonial-era geographical lines. The ethnic minorities account for more than half of Afghanistan - both in land area and population size. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities alone make up close to 50 per cent of Afghanistan's population.
The US effort for an honourable exit by cutting a deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, paradoxically, is deepening Afghanistan's ethnic fissures and increasing the partitioning risk. With President Barack Obama choosing his second-term national security team and his 2014 deadline to end combat operations approaching, the US effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is on the front burner.
This effort, being pursued in coordination with Afghan President Hamid Karzai amid the gradual withdrawal of US and Nato troops, is stirring deep unease among the Afghan minorities, who fought the Taliban and its five-year rule fiercely and suffered greatly. The Taliban's rule, for example, was marked by several large-scale massacres of members of the historically persecuted Hazara.
The rupturing of Mr Karzai's political alliance with ethnic-minority leaders has also aided ethnic polarisation. Some non-Pashtun power brokers remain with Mr Karzai, but most others now lead the opposition National Front.
The minority communities are unlikely to accept any power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban. In fact, they suspect Mr Karzai's intention is to restore Pashtun dominance across Afghanistan. Mr Karzai, however, does not belong to the mainstream Pashtun tribes, whose traditional homeland straddles the Durand Line; rather, like key Taliban leaders, he is from the tribally marginal Kandahar region.
The minorities' misgivings have been strengthened by the "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015" put forward recently by the Karzai-constituted Afghan High Peace Council, empowered to negotiate with the Taliban. The document sketches several striking concessions to the Taliban and to Islamabad, ranging from the Taliban's recognition as a political party to a role for Pakistan in Afghanistan's affairs.
The ethnic tensions, which threaten to undermine cohesion in the fledgling, multi-ethnic Afghan Army, are breaking along the same lines as when the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, an exit that led to civil war and the Taliban's subsequent capture of Kabul. This time, though, the minority communities are better armed and prepared to defend their interests after the US exit.
A new civil war, however, would likely tear Afghanistan apart, Balkanising the country into distinct warlord-controlled zones. This raises a fundamental question: is the territorial unity of Afghanistan essential for regional or international security? In other words, should the policies of outside powers seek to keep Afghanistan united?
First, the sanctity of existing borders has become a powerful norm in world politics. Border fixity is seen as essential for peace and stability. Yet this norm, paradoxically, has allowed the emergence of weak states, whose internal wars spill across international boundaries and create serious regional tensions and insecurity.
Second, outside forces, in any event, are hardly in a position to prevent Afghanistan's partitioning along Iraqi or Yugoslavian lines, with the bloodiest battles expected in ethnically mixed strategic areas, including Kabul.
A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best outcome. Yet it will be far better than an Afghanistan that dissolves into chaos and bloodletting. And infinitely better than one in which the medieval Taliban returns to power and begins a fresh pogrom. Indeed, it may be the only way to thwart transnational terrorists from rebuilding a base of operations there and to prevent the country from sliding into a large-scale civil war.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the forthcoming Water, Peace, and War