Why have one Afghanistan

…when you can have two?

The call for the partitioning of Afghanistan is not new. In December 2003, for instance, Randall Parker of the ParaPundit blog argued that “(it) would be less trouble in the long run if Afghanistan was just split up with the Pashtuns getting their own country while the other groups either form a single country for a few separate countries. The other groups could even take pieces of Afghanistan and merge them with their ethnic brothers who speak the same languages and have much the same cultures in bordering northern countries.”

Yet, despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.

So what should we make of the recent debate that started after Robert Blackwill, one of the most astute American strategists, called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan?

The least worst option for the United States, Mr Blackwill contends, is to give the south to the Taliban, and concentrate on holding and building the north and the east of Afghanistan. This will not only turn the Pakistani military establishment’s dream of “strategic depth” into the nightmare of Pashtun nationalism, but also upset the tenuous ethnic balance in Pakistan by weakening Punjabi dominance. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is to prevent the collapse of Pakistan, this is heretical. However, since this is also a time when the Obama administration is looking for ways out of the mess it is in—not least in terms of domestic politics—heresies might stand the best chance of gaining acceptance.

Mr Blackwill has already succeeded in exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his critics. Ahmed Rashid points out that partition won’t be popular with Afghans (as if a Taliban takeover will be) and otherwise points to the bloodiness that accompanies a redrawing of borders (as if the status quo is bloodless). The “only solution” according to him, “is dialogue between the genuine Taliban leadership, Kabul and Washington for a power-sharing deal at both the centre and in the provinces.” This, from the man who wrote the book about the genuine Taliban leadership!

Chimaya Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth reject the partition proposal and propose, instead, that “the solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan’s affairs.” That is a very good idea. The question is how? The authors propose “that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”

Now this might sound convincing if you are an optimist with faith in the United Nations, but the authors are silent about just why the Pakistani military establishment will play along? Pakistan might even sign such a treaty if the price is right, but if the force of US arms didn’t prevent the Pakistani army from interfering in Afghanistan, a piece of paper and the UN Secretary General’s platitudes are, to put it mildly, less likely to.

Perhaps the best critique of Mr Blackwill’s proposal comes from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He charges the strategic establishments with hubris where “the relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.” His case for caution is well-made: that India “should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control.”

However, this injunction must be balanced against the concern that India should not be lulled into inactions whose consequences, likewise, it cannot control. What ultimately is likely decide the issue is the nature of the strategic cultures. Washington, with its action bias, ends up suffering the consequences of its action. New Delhi, with its (in)action bias, ends up suffering not only the consequences of its own inaction, but also the consequences of the actions of others.

For now, the call for the partition of Afghanistan, as both K Subrahmanyam and Mr Mehta note, is likely a shot across the bow, a warning for General Ashfaq Kayani. Even so, New Delhi would do well to prepare for such an outcome too.

9 thoughts on “Why have one Afghanistan”

  1. It’s not a good thing to simply partition a country like that. What does it solve really? What it will lead to is one extra state added to the confusion with it’s own formal separate army, ideology and aims.

    It’s like pouring oil on a fire.

  2. BJP:”It’s not a good thing to simply partition a country like that. What does it solve really? ”

    All of it contributes to the Pakistani terrorist problem all Indians face because of unremitting hostility from the Pakistani Armed Forces that actually run the country. As it is now commonly known, Pakistani army uses hate towards India to unite Pakistanis against a common enemy and to distract the attention of the Pakistani public from their large hand in the misgovernance of Pakistan.

    Most importantly, such a partition will put pressure on Pakistan’s western borders so they won’t be able to focus their energies on terrorism eastward towards India. A Pashtunisthan emerging from a partitioned Afghanisthan may not be all that friendly to the Pakistani Punjabis who currently dominate them.

    1. But what I want to understand is, how will it benefit the Afghan people themselves? It may be better for India, but that’s hardly the point we need to look at.

  3. BJP”But what I want to understand is, how will it benefit the Afghan people themselves? It may be better for India, but that’s hardly the point we need to look at.”

    There are two sides to the issue: benefit to Afghans and Damage to India. For Indians, the priority will always be limiting damage to India (and maximizing benefit), but that need not mean the Afghans will not be winning. Both can be achieved simultaneously.

    The problem really is that one faction of the Taliban groups that is inimical to Karzai in Afghanisthan is also the same faction supported by the Pakistani army/ISI, so India’s interest is to strengthen Karzai’s hand, and that is obviously for the interest of the Afghan people.

    Currently, India is unable to help Afghanisthan because of the lack of proper land route for trade, and to move things forward in a positive way, and a Pashtunisthan that is not under the control of the Pakistani Army, may very well be more amenable to a trade route overland connecting India than the current dispensation in control of Pakistan.

  4. First of all Taliban is a non-entity if there is no Pak military support like prior to 2006. Partitioning Afghanistan doesnt necessarily means UN recognition of a separate entity. Its not like Kosovo or Abkhazia. Its a line in the sand& its a containment option of Taliban to a geographical area for the timebeing. I’m sure by Pew polls & all, there are enough nutjobs natively in Pakistan itself that more jehadis wont upset any apple cart. So,I dont see much merit in argument of Ahmed Rashid that partition will de-stabilize Pakistan. I think Ahmed Rashid, Shuja Nawaz, Mosharafzaidi, Haider mullick are Pak lobby plants in US masquerading as experts to confuse Americans. Its a bad idea even to speculate upon their nonsense.

  5. It rubish to says that there is a sense of nationhood amongst the Afghans. Don’t borrow cheap words from Ahmad Rashid who exageratingly claim that not single Afghan wants partition. Rashid knows that Afghanistan partition will serve as curse for Pakistan thats why he is out scaring others off. Over the last few years, Rashid is actively promoting Pakistan’s interest at the cost of a just solution for the population of Afghanistan.
    vist an Afghan website (www.Jawedan.com) For an opinion poll on the partition. Out some 7,600 voted in three days, over 41 per cent call for full partition and 29 per cent for decentralized federal system. The rest are not sure.

    1. Jawidan website is full of hate messages towards Pashtune and their comments are very similar to the comments that were used by the proxy armies of foreign countries ( the 10 Jahadi groups that were created in Pakistan and the three groups in Iran and the Tablian movement).
      These groups leveraged the social re engineering techniques of their sponsored countries to create an illusion of disunity among Afghans in order to create support bases for themselves and provide a foothold for their sponsors in Afghanistan.
      These groups happily demolished Kabul and killed over 60,000 of their own countrymen in order to protect Pakistan, Iran, India, United States, British, Saudi Arabia and many other foreign countries. These groups can be traced to clearly to their sponsors is one would trace a dog’s leash from its neck to its owners hand.
      Afghans were united, are united and will be united. Any attempt at partitioning Afghanistan will destabilize the region and endanger world security.

  6. @Hamed,
    Those are fighting words – but please let us look at the reality of “Afghanistan”.

    It has not been a country by any standard definition for the last 30 years. It has been the direct client state of Pakistan from the early 90’s to 9/11 – currently its a client state of the US.

    It has fought innumerable civil wars that has made any talk of stability, normality or progress virtually nil.

    The problem with Blackwill’s solution is that it is too late – its a desperate last grasp that the US is trying to cling to so that it can avoid a total and a humiliating defeat.

    Also keeping 40,000 troops eternally in the region is not some thing that US tax payers are thrilled about. Heck, they wanted the troops back home yesterday.

    The ISI/Paki military has calculated that it can get away with bloody murder because it knows that the Obama admin is weak need and when push comes to shove, does not have the necessary resolve to go after Pakistan/Afghan Taliban,

    I would like for Afganistan to be partioned.

  7. Afghans see(at least now) India as a friend, Though such fantasies never worked before nor will they work later- as the destiny of Afghanistan is only in the hand of Afghans…one thing is for sure getting on the enemy list of Afghans is not a good idea. Indians and Pakistanis have not learned anything but hate from the partition, and I remind you that Afghans played a role in the independence of India, and such fantasies lack knowledge of Afghans history and geography. In these times where Neutral Afghanistan is looking at who is enemy and friend, I advise Indians and Pakistanis to stop interfering in Afghan affairs…We are not among those who issue threats, but know we have many options to destabilize Pakistan and Hindustan(let along deny you Kashmir, the current insurgents would see like a cake walk compare to want we really are capable of. Thus, Pakistan and India hands of Afghanistan.

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