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A frequently asked question is whether Afghans will be able to hold their country together or whether it will disintegrate along ethnic lines as most NATO forces withdraw by the end of this year.

The answer is that Afghanistan will avoid fragmentation because of political and geographic realities, social cohesion, economic imperatives, and history.

Despite its troubled past, Afghanistan has never faced a credible secessionist threat. This is a good omen for its future as a home to Afghans of all ethnicities and denominations.

During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the subsequent civil war in the 1990s, Afghans of all ethnicities fought to rule the country according to their ideology. But no communist faction or mujahedin leadership advocated separatism. On the contrary, all wanted to conquer the capital, Kabul, to rule the entire country.

The blending of ethnicities across the Afghan landscape also makes a territorial division implausible. It is true that Pashtuns predominate in the southern and eastern regions, while Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen form the majority in the northern provinces beyond the Hindu Kush mountains.

But none of these ethnic groups has an outright majority in their respective regions. At the height of the civil war, the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks had the Taliban as a common enemy. But they battled separately against the hardline militia. In addition, the presence of large Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan complicates the image of this region as a distinct ethnic zone.

Afghan ethnic groups have a long history of cooperation and coexistence. The degree of integration among them is one of the country’s most underreported facts. Cross-cultural marriages are common and most Afghans are bilingual. Economic imperatives make landlocked Afghanistan's division into smaller countries impractical.

A look at the upcoming presidential race shows that the risk of disintegration is negligible. Ten out of the 11 presidential hopefuls are Pashtuns. All have built cross-party and multiethnic alliances. Former foreign minister and frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah is half Tajik and half Pashtun. His running mates include a Pashtun Islamist, Khan Mohammad, and a senior Hazara leader, Mohammad Mohaqiq. His main rival, Pashtun technocrat Asharaf Ghani, is partnering with Uzbek general Rashid Dostum and Hazara former justice minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish. None of the candidates are advocating separatism. Even federalism is a taboo in Afghan politics.

While elections in other countries generally divide populations along ethnic, sectarian or regional lines, Afghan presidential candidates in this year’s race are keen on brandishing their patriotic credentials. "How can a person who fought for every inch of his country work for its disintegration?" Mohaqiq recently told an Afghan journalist after he was accused of advocating Afghanistan's partition.

Given Afghanistan's ethnic intricacies none of its neighbors would favor the idea of its partition. The country is too big and diverse to be absorbed into the relatively small Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan's Pashtun would strongly resist absorption into Pakistan. Kabul has never recognized the Durand Line, which bisects the Pashtuns into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran's identity as a Shi'ite majority country makes the absorption of Afghanistan’s largely Sunni population unrealistic.

A credible and transparent presidential election in April will contribute to national unity and help establish the norm of a peaceful, democratic transition of power. It will prove to the world that Afghans today are ready to leave the past behind and embrace the vision of a peaceful future.

Muhammad Amin Mudaqiq is the director of RFE/RL Radio Mashaal. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.
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