I have spent some time recently reading a lot of predictions for the likely outcome of the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014, and in the course of doing so I was struck by many similarities with a conflict that began one hundred years earlier and for all intents and purposes, set the twentieth century on the course that it followed. In this post I will attempt to explain where I feel the similarities lie between the Balkans in 1914 and a post NATO Afghanistan and why this fills me with a certain feeling of trepidation and why I believe it should fill the reader too with a similar emotion.
First of all, I would like to clarify that in writing this I do not see some divine hand involved here or anything else other than sheer dumb luck that one hundred years exactly separate the First World War and the withdrawal from Afghanistan that I believe has the potential to spiral into a much greater regional conflict. I will begin then by pointing out however that the eerie similarities do not end with both of these events, one in the past the other in the future, falling on years ending in the number 14, this in itself would have made this post too tenuous even for my liking . No, there are several similarities between the events of 1914 and the likely events of 2014 that I feel it is worth my while in pointing them out, Not as a prediction, but as a warning from history. As a postscript to this also I would like to add that any predictions I make later on in this post are loose ones at best made with tacit understanding that they are just some of a wide range of possible futures that we face.
I’ll begin here by describing in a very brief summary (for reasons of space) the situation that lead to the outbreak of the First World War and then will progress to describe the ways in which it is incredibly similar to the position we may find ourselves in come 2014. The spark that began the inferno that was the First World War was a region of Eastern Europe known collectively as the Balkans, It is a region where the territories of the countries therein are largely defined by their placing in the border regions of two former European empires, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rather than as a result of self determined borders as is often the case in Western European History. Consequently within these somewhat haphazard borders is contained a region of Europe that is particularly famed as being a multi-ethnic environment where conflict along nationalist lines was not unknown. In fact, in the years leading towards the outbreak of World War 1, twice the countries in this region became embroiled in a series of complex conflicts with each other for the right to govern the land and the right to self determination.By the time the First World War begins the situation in the Balkans looks like this on a map.
This map shows that of those nations that went on to form Yugoslavia, prior to the outbreak of the First World War that only Serbia and Montenegro were sovereign nations and that before the start of hostilities that Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia were still firmly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However what this simplistic map does not show us is that throughout the region there was a common ethnicity shared by many of the inhabitants of these countries and it is this ethnic groups’ striving for a unified nation that inadvertently started the First World War. After the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire a student movement named Young Bosnia began that advocated for a unified nation for the South Slav peoples of the Balkans, backed by an independent Serbia with ties to other more radical pro-Serb movements such as Black Hand. Utilising these ties to more radical groups active in the region, Young Bosnia were able to infiltrate weapons and men into Sarajevo where a plan was in motion to assassinate the visiting heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This plan succeeded and accordingly a chain of events was set in motion that led ultimately to the beginning of the First World War. The chain of events that ultimately precipitated the firing of the first volleys of that conflict is referred to as the July Crisis which was a month of back and forth diplomacy that aimed to diffuse the situation between Austro-Hungary and Serbia and prevent a hot war. It failed to do so and due to the complex net of alliances and treaties between the many European nations, all of the major European powers, and for that matter, world powers, were dragged into an arguably unnecessary conflict with each other that had a major and arguably defining impact on the progression of history throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century and the world in which we live now.
It is my contention that right now we stand on the precipice of a frighteningly similar moment in time that could see a web of inter-connectedness in Asia spin wildly out of control into a global conflict that could forever rewrite the narrative of history. I will now discuss the similarities between the situation in the Balkans prior to the First World War and the situation most expect Afghanistan to find itself in upon NATO’s withdrawal.
The first striking similarity is that both the Balkans prior to the First World War and Afghanistan in the current day and age are ethnically diverse territories where multiple ethnic groups live in close proximity to each other and as a result of competition for resources or due to poor governance, grievances between communities are often defined along ethnic lines rather than for example along class lines. See below for a map of first the Balkans and then Afghanistan and notice that on each map more than 8 ethnicities are listed as existing within the same national borders.
As well as being divided along ethnic lines, another way in which the people of both of these regions are divided is along religious lines, Yugoslavia was famously divided between Christianity of both the Catholic and Orthodox branches and Islam, Afghanistan like much of the Muslim world is racked by divisions between Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam, such as the Shi’a Hazara who already suffering from persecution from more fundamentalist Sunni islamists are reportedly extremely worried about what NATO’s withdrawal will bring in 2014. Here we can see that both the Western Balkans in the lead up to the First World War (and still to this day) and Afghanistan are regions that can be defined by their incredible mixture of peoples and religions and further more defined by their potential to divide along these lines in times of strife.
Another somewhat obvious similarity between pre WW1 Yugoslavia and a post NATO Afghanistan is the presence of an ethnic group that does now have it’s own functioning nation state and instead straddles two national borders. In the example of Yugoslavia the ethnic group in question was that of the South Slavs who I will point out at the time did have their own state in the form of the nations of Serbia and Montenegro however more southern Slavs lived in the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia who desired union with their ethnic cohort rather than languishing under the auspices of Austro-Hungarian Rule. Similarly in Afghanistan one of the majority ethnicities is the Pashtun who also form a large part of neighbouring Pakistan’s ethnic make-up and many would argue similarly have long suffered at the peripheries of Afghan and Pakistani society . I seriously wonder what kind of destabilising effect an organised Pashtun separatist movement might have on the long term chances of peace for both sides of this border especially considering what some such as the San Francisco Chronicle would argue is a plausible imminent collapse of the state in Pakistan before NATO even leave the region. See a map of the area that could one day choose to break away below.
The reason that my former point about the multi ethnic nature of both states in question and my latter point about the existence of one particular ethnic group that straddles borders are relevant is that they serve to highlight an issue about the formation of the states that went on to form Yugoslavia after the First World War and Afghanistan in its current form. The issue that they highlight is that, unlike in Western Europe where centuries of gradual warfare and population movement served to create relatively speaking ethnically homogeneous and therefore peaceful nation states, both the regions of the Western Balkans and the country of Afghanistan have borders which are defined not by self-interest but instead by the arbitrary definition of frontiers and borders by Imperial powers. The borders of the nations of the Western Balkans were created in the spaces left to some degree unoccupied by either the Austro-Hungarian empire or the Ottoman Empire and similarly Afghanistan is surrounded not by borders which it defined for itself by those arbitrated by the Russian and British Empires. Whereas Western European powers who defined their own borders are able to thrive in a relatively peaceful environment, Nations whose borders were decided for them by others are told by the European powers that they must share the territory they own between their constituent parts regardless of any prior issues between peoples. This as a method of nation forming is not necessarily doomed to fail but when nations in this situation do fail, the divisions between people are ready made along ethnic, sectarian or classist lines and so conflict as opposed to reconciliation becomes that much easier to embrace.
In the years leading up to the First World War, a significant trend is noticeable in the history of the Western Balkans. This trend is the gradually increasing decline of the Ottoman Empire and its withdrawal from its former European dominions. As this trend occurred these same European political spaces were, in the place of the former imperial powers, filled with nations as actors such as Serbia or Albania. This creation of a power vacuum brought on by the withdrawal of an imperial power from a territory is an inevitable occurrence in post 2014 Afghanistan when American neo-imperialism leaves along with its armies with the only question left to be asked whether the nation that will fill this void will be a strong and united Afghanistan or several separate statelets supported by other nations within the region.
One more notable similarity that these regions share is the existence within their borders of several powerful non state or semi state actors that are in touch with state level actors that are capable of driving agendas for that state. In the example of the Western Balkans we have the example of the Black Hand movement and then also Young Bosnia both of whom were in contact with Serbian state level actors and under the guise of southern Slavic separatism collectively aided the Serbian state in a covert war against the Austro-Hungarian empire. And in the case of Afghanistan if any readers need reminding who was harbouring World Public Enemy Number 1, Osama Bin Laden at the time of his death it was highly likely that it was elements within Pakistan’s ISI who did some of the harbouring as a means to continually secure large amounts of military aid from Washington. For those not convinced then there are also the Taliban, a religious movement that was originally created as a proxy force by the Pakistani government to fight in the Soviet-Afghan war. In all seriousness the list of possible actors who could cause all manners of chaos in a post NATO Afghanistan who are currently residing in Pakistan that I could write a supplementary post alongside this listing them and it might even run to a greater length than this effort.
Part of the reason that these sub-state actors driving the agendas of different countries are so prominent within Afghanistan, and were so prominent in the lead up to the First World War is that because of arbitrary borders created at an empires convenience both of these regions of the world are blessed with the scourge of irredentism. For those less versed in overly complex sounding yet surprisingly simple concepts to understand irredentism is the desire of states to annex adjoining territory that belongs to another nation on grounds of common ethnicity or shared histories etc. Now if the reader cares to look back at the maps I posted earlier to demonstrate the incredible variety of ethnicities present in both Afghanistan and the Western Balkan region they will see that in the centre of both maps there is a nation filled with ethnicities that define the neighbouring countries. In the case of Afghanistan there are significant Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Kyrgz populations within its borders, each of whom may feel affinity to a neighbouring country where their ethnic group form a majority rather than feeling love for a nation where they are simply one amongst many. In the case of the Western Balkans the nation that is most blighted with irredentism is Bosnia Herzegovina were the population can be divided into Croats, Serbs and “Muslims” (read Bosniak). The spark that caused World War 1 in this environment was created by Serbian irredentism and I have no reason concretely to believe that given the even greater level of potential irredentism in Afghanistan that a similar sparked caused by sub-state or non-state actors with the backing of just one neighbouring state will not eventually cause a continent wide inferno.
One more glaring similarity between the lead up to the First World War in the Balkans, but also in the wider context of pre-war Europe and modern day Asia as things currently stand in the lead up to withdrawal in the prevalence of powerful state actor such as who are more responsible for driving state agenda than they should be considering normal democratic process. In many discussions about how World War 1 began, it is often claimed that if the war was inevitable it was not as a result of the complex system of treaties and alliances between both the triple entente nations and the central powers but instead it was due to the heavy handed politics of several key figures within each countries government who desired war with opposing nations. On a similar note what we currently find in Asia, certainly the region of Asia where Afghanistan is located is a bevy of autocratic rulers who arguably are the sole source of their nations policies as opposed to delivering sane and sensible policies crafted by democratic consensus.
You’d be surprised how much these three have in common when it comes to driving state agendas.
On another note perhaps amongst the most striking similarities between both the historic situation in Europe before the First World War and modern day Asia is the sheer level of complex inter-connectedness between all nations in Asia, the world too but particularly in Asia. Many lay the blame for World War 1 entirely at the door of the complex series of treaties between the two conflicting sides which in a step by step process dragged every major European power into the war. The step by step process in which each empire was dragged into the conflict is a little too dry ever for me to bother retyping so those seriously interested would do well to indulge themselves by doing a Wikipedia search on WW1. But when focussing on the modern day, if anything with more sovereign nation states in Asia than ever before the level of complex relations between Asian powers, other Asian powers and then the rest of the world is mind boggling. For example Japan is all of these things at once … friendly with Afghanistan and giving a lot of aid, Extremely friendly with the USA, still yet to resolve some issues with Moscow and almost at the brink of war with China since Abe started the race to debase the Yen . Russia is increasingly attempting to cosy up to all its former Soviet dominions , possibly in anticipation of NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, standing stalwart alongside China in defending the right of the Syrian Government to defend itself against attack despite condemnation from the wider world and ramping up the bitchiness factor with the USA over somewhat trivial issues such as adoption which increasingly hint at the fact that Obama and Putin do not see eye to eye. I go could go on for a whole post the length of this one about how China is engaged in a war of words with almost all of its bordering states over the rights to certain territories or maritime borders and is the focus of a radical attempted shift in US foreign policy policy to compensate for growing assertiveness on the part of Beijing. We can see from this brief summary that many nations in the region are A) holding a knife to the throat of at least one other Asian nation just as Europeans were 99 years ago and B) very good friends with another nation whose qualms are with the same power that their antagonism is. For example, India is friendly with Afghanistan based presumably entirely around the premise that an alliance between Afghanistan and India is inconvenient for India’s main enemy Pakistan whom some Afghans blame entirely for the destabilisation of their country, further to this India is also somewhat closer to China as a result of the US alliance with Pakistan. What we have here is an even more convoluted and multi-directional system of agreements between nations, which on one hand could serve to pour water on any hot conflicts between the nations as there a greater variety of incentives to be peaceful as opposed to embracing war. However on the other hand what we might have is a system which in the right climate, just as before the First World War, will simply serve to escalate an emergent conflict into something far more complex than it need be.
What could such a climate be I think the reader will ask and is there a similar one in Asia right now ? perhaps even out loud. How about an almost identical situation where what is taking place in the wider region is an increasingly competitive arms race between several of the major players. This happened in the lead up to World War 1 and is arguably the reason that the war was one of the most bloody known to mankind. Right now in Asia the spending of several major regional powers is incredibly high (select spend in $ in top corner of graphic) and perhaps more worrying is that in several clusters the arms race between two nations is increasingly competitive. Examples of this include recently both China and Japan beginning programmes to bring their navies up to speed in the wake of the growing crisis between them over the Senkaku/Diayo Isles or India increasing its intelligence technologies to make any future war with Pakistan more efficient while Pakistan to counter is investing more in tactical nuclear weapons. This highly competitive military build-up is perhaps the most worrying similarity between pre-war Europe and post NATO Afghanistan as while it may not necessarily yield to the doomsday scenario of World War 3 that I fear it has the potential to create, it could easily in a best case scenario still lead to a devastating conflict in one of the worlds most sensitive regions spelling disaster for many.
After looking at what I feel are the most notable similarities between the two regions in the past and in the not too distant future I hope the reader will agree with my argument that there are a worrying number of similarities between both moments in time and feel a similar degree of concern for the fate of all innocents concerned. Make no mistake about it, I might be wrong but if I’m even close to being right I expect the next decade to be the most hideous mankind has ever seen and likely will ever see. I repeat that I am not making a bold prediction about the future, simply stating that I’m a little worried about a plausible outcome if the situation in Afghanistan next year isn’t handled well. In the mean time please excuse me while I stock up on the following items: