By D Suba Chandran
In an article published in the Times of India, titled ‘Plan B in Afghanistan’, Ambassador Robert Blackwill concludes, “Accepting the de facto partition of Afghanistan is hardly an ideal outcome in Afghanistan. But it is better than the alternatives” and “de facto partition offers the Obama administration the best available alternative to strategic defeat.”
Blackwill’s suggestion is that although this may not be the ideal solution, it is the best available for the Obama administration. Perhaps for Obama, but is this the best available solution for Afghanistan and the region’s security? This suggestion is also based on the assumption that alternative strategies have become impossible to achieve.
An analysis of Blackwill’s assumptions will clearly highlight that his diagnosis is correct, but prescription wrong. He makes three significant diagnoses of the situation from an American perspective. First, the “US policy toward Afghanistan involves spending scores of billions of dollars and suffering several hundred allied deaths,” but the “United States and its allies will not defeat the Taliban militarily.” Second, he also diagnoses that “Karzai’s corrupt government will not significantly improve,” and that the “Afghan National Army cannot take over combat missions from ISAF in southern and eastern Afghanistan in any realistic time frame.” Third, based on the above reasoning, he also concludes that “Washington should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun South and East and that the price of forestalling that outcome is far too high for Americans to continue paying.”
Not many would disagree with Blackwill’s above diagnosis of the Afghan situation. But the problem is with his prescriptions. His first prescription is ‘de facto partition’ of Afghanistan as it “offers the Obama administration the best available alternative to strategic defeat.” Second, he also prescribes that Obama “should stop setting deadlines for withdrawal and instead commit the United States to a long-term combat role in Afghanistan of 35,000-50,000 troops for the next 7-10 years.”
Third and most importantly, he prescribes, that the “United States and its partners should stop fighting and dying in the Pashtun homeland and let the local correlation of forces take its course – while deploying US air power and Special Forces to ensure that the north and west of Afghanistan do not succumb to the Taliban. The United States would make clear that it would strike al Qaeda targets anywhere; Taliban encroachments across the de facto partition line, and sanctuaries along the Pakistani border using weapons systems that were unavailable before 9/11.”
In short, the Blackwill plan expects to withdraw troops from the ground but deploy air power and Special Forces to go after the al Qaeda, wherever they are, and partition Afghanistan into three regions – North, West and South, with an aim to protect the non-Pashtun North and South, while quarantining the Taliban-infested Pashtun South. Can this be a long-term solution, leading to stability in the region?
First and foremost, a quarantined Southern Afghanistan with a predominantly Pashtun population will be a greater recipe for disaster for regional and international security. Such an entity will not be acceptable to either the Pashtuns or the Pakistanis. Islamabad will be alarmed, for any Pashtun political entity on the west of Durand Line will have serious political repercussions for its own Pashtun region – the FATA and the Khyber Pakhtunkwa. Second, as Pakistan is doing now, it would prefer an Islamic (read Taliban-led) regime in such an entity, rather than a secular regime which may lead to the revival of any cross-Durand Pashtun demands. As a result, a quarantined Pashtun region in the South of Afghanistan will be a greater threat and source of Taliban radicalism.
A united Afghanistan not only provides the much needed space for different ethnic communities of Afghanistan to coexist, it also provides an opportunity for the regional countries to ensure a balance of power within Afghanistan. Iran’s support to the Shias of Afghanistan and Central Asian support to the Uzbeks and Tajiks are likely to have a greater influence on any future regime in Kabul (including the Taliban) to reach some kind of an agreement with other ethnic communities. Even if the Taliban overrun Afghanistan after the exit of American troops, Iran will never accept a strategic defeat in Kabul with the Taliban ruling and Islamabad calling the shots. If the US plans to go after the al Qaeda, wherever they are (even within Pakistan), one could expect lesser cooperation from Islamabad. Or perhaps, due to internal pressure, they may even stop cooperating!
The non-Pashtun North and West of Afghanistan in fact provides a space for all non-Taliban entities (including the non-Taliban Pashtun groups) to come together and form a coalition, as is happening under the present regime. This will also provide space for the non-Pakistan regional neighbours of Afghanistan to exercise influence over Kabul.
So what would a partition (of Afghanistan) achieve and lead to? Perhaps a completely monolithic ‘Pashtunistan’ under the total control of a radical Taliban, who in turn, would be under the complete patronage of Pakistan. Sounds familiar? This is what happened in the 1990s, leading to 9/11. So what Ambassador Blackwill prescribes as a solution, is in fact, the original problem.
D Suba Chandran, Deputy Director, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]