…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.