Partitioning Afghanistan Is a Terrible Idea

by Joshua Foust on 12/27/2010 · 10 comments

Robert Blackwill has a Really Good Idea for Afghanistan: Partition!

At the same time, however, 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 the United States to continue paying. To be sure, the administration should not invite the Taliban to dominate the Afghan Pashtun homeland, nor explicitly seek to break up Afghanistan. Rather, the United States and its partners should simply stop dying in the south and the east and let the local “correlation of forces” there take its course — while deploying U.S. air power and Special Forces for the foreseeable future in support of the Afghan army and the government in Kabul, to ensure that the north and west of Afghanistan do not succumb to the Taliban as well.

In short, President Obama should announce that the United States and its Afghan and foreign partners will pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in Pashtun Afghanistan and a nation-building strategy in the rest of the country, committing to both policies for at least the next seven to ten years. Reluctantly accepting such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to the United States’ ten-year Afghan investment. But regrettably, it is now the best result that Washington can realistically and responsibly achieve.

(Read the whole thing, as I won’t clutter this with lots of blockquotes.) This is a substantial expansion on this idea, which Blackwill first floated in Politico. I agree fully with re-allocating resources to arrest the slide of the North and West, but Blackwill takes this a few steps too far. For one, he uses the sacred “P” word—”partition”—which is about as poisonous in Afghan politics as “social security reform” is in American politics. The mere mention of it almost always shuts down debate. Despite all the vacuous rigmarole on hears about how Afghanistan has never been a state, in reality many, if not most Afghans are firmly invested in the idea of the current Afghan state. Even a de facto partition is a fundamental attack on that very idea.

For another, I’m lost as to how withdrawing entirely from the South will somehow not be inviting the Taliban to take over the “Pashtun heartland.” I’ve addressed this before in my posts on withdrawal from areas of no strategic value (more on that later tonight), but you cannot pretend Kandahar has no strategic value, nor can you pretend that withdrawing from an entire region will not be seen as inviting Taliban takeover.

My biggest problem with partition, as a distinct thing from strategic withdrawal, is it tacitly punishes an entire ethnicity for the crimes of a very small group largely composed of that ethnicity. The reason Blackwill says, explicitly, that we should not ask the Taliban to dominate the “Pashtun heartland” is, I suspect, because he, too, is sensitive to such a charge. Yet that is precisely what his idea would instrumentalize: by assuming an exaggerated geographic and/or ethnic component to the Taliban, rather than a social, cultural, or political one, he leaves ethnic and geographic separation as the only remedy to an ascendant Taliban.

This cannot be further from the truth, starting with the obvious realization that the Quetta/Karachi Shura Taliban are not the only insurgency group that calls itself the Taliban, and ending with the equally obvious realization that the majority of Pashtuns in the south probably don’t care for the Taliban. Blackwill’s plan will, in effect, punish the innocent majority in RC-South and RC-East for the crimes of a very small minority.

Hard choices exist in war, I get it. And to Blackwill’s credit, he explores alternative options. But here, too, things call apart. I share Blackwill’s distaste for total withdrawal, and his disdain for a forever-COIN mission (and if you use the search tool in upper right part of this page to search for both terms you can find a trove of posts detailing why). But Blackwill firmly rejects a negotiated settlement with the Taliban for very curious reasons:

NATO could seek to entice the Afghan Taliban to stop fighting and enter into a coalition government in Kabul. As CIA Director Leon Panetta has said, however, so long as the Taliban think they are winning, they will remain intransigent: “We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. We have seen no evidence of that, and very frankly, my view is that, with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful.” Despite the intensification of drone attacks, the United States cannot kill the Taliban into meaningful political compromise. As a senior Defense Department official told The Washington Post in late October, “The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,” adding that if there was a sign the momentum was shifting, he did not see it.

Ignore the zaniness of quoting intelligence officials who have been on-record rejecting a policy option you’re attacking. If, as Blackwill says, “the United States cannot kill the Taliban into meaningful political compromise,” then we must wonder why a partition agreement has any greater chances of success than a full negotiated settlement. Furthermore, in a succeeding paragraph, Blackwill notes that U.S. officials believe there are few, if any al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and those that are there are no threat to the United States. This, too, builds the case for a permanent, negotiated end to the war, and not the reduced status quo of a partition. Blackwill says the U.S. can maintain its right to strike any al-Qaeda target on either side of the Durand Line in a partition situation; why can it not do the same while processing a negotiations regime?

This is one of my fundamental concerns with Blackwill’s rejection of negotiations and endorsement of partition: it presents almost the exact same downsides as negotiations, but offers substantially smaller upsides. Under both regimes there is no guarantee the Taliban will adhere to its agreements, but the partition regime we’re left with a split country, continuing the civil war (a point Blackwill explicitly acknowledges), and no ultimate change in the strategic stalemate of the war; under the negotiated settlement regime, however, we would be left with substantially reduced tensions, a continuing avenue for further talks of de-escalation, a substantially increased reintegration of armed groups and insurgent commanders, and the possible start of a settlement of long-standing political disputes between various factions. Same downsides, massively larger upsides.

Blackwill discounts this with a single quote from Leon Panetta and a note from the D.I.A. saying that the Taliban are “resilient.”

Lastly, a style note. There’s no other way to say this: for a former Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill sure doesn’t know much about India’s interests in Afghanistan. This is a perfect excuse to revisit the substantial research The Century Foundation has been publishing on Afghanistan in its regional dimensions—there are significant, difficult, and complex issues to incorporate when it comes to Afghanistan’s neighbors, and its regional partners. Here is what Blackwill says about all of this:

Would this course lead to a proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan or destabilize the region more generally? At this point, intensified competition between New Delhi and Islamabad in Afghanistan is probable no matter what policy the United States pursues. But so long as Washington maintains a long-term military commitment there, India will not put troops on the ground, and so the possibility of a major or direct conflict between India and Pakistan will be reduced.

China, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, meanwhile, all have their own interests and perspectives, and none of them currently supports a de facto partition. But none of them wants to see the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan either, and so as current U.S. policy proves unsustainable, they should be open to other ways of heading off that worst-case scenario. Their self-interest should therefore lead them to consider seriously a plan such as the one laid out here (although bringing them on board would require sustained and artful U.S. regional diplomacy, which is now absent).

C. Christine Fair, for example, wrote a really interesting exploration of India’s specific interests in Afghanistan, and how they relate to Pakistan’s interest in the same area (a topic fleshed out in terrific detail by Hassan Abbas). And allow me to plug my own contribution, discussing the national interests of each of the post-Soviet Central Asian states in Afghanistan’s future. These issues matter tremendously, and must be considered with the utmost seriousness, but they are, essentially, waved away in Blackwill’s partition scheme.

Look at that sentence I bolded above. It is, all by itself, all the evidence you need to ponder the feasibility of Blackwill’s plan. Partition is not in the interests of Afghans, any of its neighbors, its supporters (like India), or its friends. Literally, no one with a stake in the matter, except maybe the U.S., wants such an outcome (and to reiterate: we should not be aiming for a slightly less violent continuation of the status quo, which is how Blackwill describes his plan without explicitly saying so). All the “shoulds” he writes afterward are assumptions based in fantasy and not evidence. Any plan that goes against the six border countries’ national interests is doomed to failure.

Or, we could flip it around: Americans know that our own national interests are relatively inflexible: we do not arise one morning and think, “oh hay, my interests changed!” Yet that is precisely the demand upon every border and regional state if we were to enact a partition and hope it won’t create incredible bloodshed. It is, simply, a ridiculous proposition.

I’m afraid Blackwill’s “Plan B” for Afghanistan isn’t much better than the other “Plan B” that is on the table: the Afghanistan Study Group. Both rest of unjustifiable assumptions, and arrive at questionable conclusions that seem appealing until you really think about them. We can (and will!) do better.

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Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Naheed December 27, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Blackwill needs to look further back than six minutes into history to know that a “de facto partition” is not only untenable but would lead to the almost immediate implosion (explosion?) of the region. Ask any six-year-old and he will tell you there are fewer ideas out there more stupid than this. Nicely done Mr. Foust.

Nikhil January 1, 2011 at 11:07 pm

As a hypothesis, redrawing borders, is not a bad idea. The region is destined to implode, given the uncertainities, the turmoil, and the contradictory interests of the neighboring countries.

Rahim December 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Typical Colonial and immoral thinking of Blackwill….Many “experts” spend years in Afghanistan but still absorb reality of Afghanistan…Set aside the fact it is impossible to divide Afghanistan, set aside the disrespect for Afghanistan, the 3 million dead, millions homeless and displaced as the powers lured into Afghanistan making it their playground…Let just assume, If you force it and draw it on a map like the durand line, the region and world will have instability for hundreds of years to come, with eventual reversal of such evil design-inevitable.

We should really study the likes of Blackwill, such mentality has left African, Middle east and Asia into a mess…his thinks the US will be able to have some bases in the north with a puppet regime- wishful thinking….even attempt on this will mobilize 40 million Afghans along with their Pakhtuns from across the Durand line, does the US really want 70 million Taliban to fight?

This only proves to Afghans the true face of the west.

Soviet Union thought it could humilate Afghans by attempting division of Afghans, but the Union itself was divided.

Afghanistan carries a curse, Empire really die there….from Economy, strenght to influence of, all who try to destroy Afghanistan have stamped their own destruction. HISTORY is proof.

Rahim December 27, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Joshua you have done a great job and it is people like you who understand the reality of Afghanistan and its people.

HINT: If we are to look into Blackwill Iraq deals and his connection to lobby groups of countries and certain people, we will connect the dots.

Madhu December 28, 2010 at 12:24 am

On the whole nuclear deterrence thing:

So, when you go and try to look at the literature on South Asia and nuclear deterrence, it seems that there is far less than on the old Cold War deterrence and experts seem to disagree as to whether nuclear weapons have promoted stability or acted against it.

Anyway, it seems a more complicated topic than the soundbites thrown out in articles, like: “OMG, X action will definitely lead to Z outcome!”

Also, the proxy war is always continuing, Afghanistan or no. If it’s not Afghanistan, it’s Kashmir. If it’s not Kashmir, it’s supporting some other internal Indian insurgency, like to old Punjabi insurgency.

If it’s not that, it’s China. That’s why I liked your term strategic imperative. It don’t go away….

shama zaidi December 28, 2010 at 1:37 am

maybe we all need to work on partitioning up the united states of america into smaller less aggressive states. this will solve many problems besetting the world today.

Nikhil January 1, 2011 at 11:55 pm

The option to redraw borders in Afghanistan, however extraordinary it may appear for some, is a plausible outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The other feasible option, which also appeals to the regional countries, is an unending American presence in Afghanistan with or without the help from sections of the Taliban. In other words, run Afghanistan like an American colony until it’s capable to govern itself; all this while balancing the ever-changing and, often contradictory interests, of other countries in the region.

anan January 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Nikhil wrote “an unending American presence in Afghanistan with or without the help from sections of the Taliban. In other words, run Afghanistan like an American colony until it’s capable to govern itself”

This is completely impractical. The Karzai government has sovereignty and power and will not give it up. The Karzai government often sabatoges ISAF, UNAMA or NGO missions it does not fully support.

For example the “Presidential Palace” tightly controls the Afghan MoI and MoD. They are scared to do anything without the support of the “Presidential Palace.” Even relatively junior appointments and transfers of ANA and ANP officers goes through the presidential palace, not to speak of the palace’s micromanagement of ANA and ANP operations.

It is almost impossible to discuss Afghanistan seriously without discussing the 150 thousand ANA and 122 thousand ANP in the fight.

Similarly the Presidential palace interferes with other GIRoA civilian intitutions.

Fighting Pres Karzai is almost always counter productive. It seems that the best solution is to surge ANSF and civilian GIRoA capacity, as well as international grants; and leave it at that.

Rahim January 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm

You fail to understand the Afghan people, they are neither Indian or Arabs to allow for their lands to be occupied, conquered through partition in order for submission…I remind you Indian owe their Independence to Afghans as Afghan were instrumental in removing British empire from India- we stood in front and encourage Indians to liberate the region, If it weren’t for Afghans, Indians would be still be a British colony …. To partition of Afghanistan into North, East, South, West is demographically impossible and laughable to Afghans- The west are studying Afghans from their bases. 3 million Afghan lives were not given for a portion of Afghanistan, the sacrifice was for every inch of Greater Afghanistan.

anan January 9, 2011 at 2:17 am

Rahim, could you elaborate on what you believe Afghans are? How are Afghans different from other Aryan people, such as Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis?

Until Nadir Shah’s passing in 1747, there was no Afghanistan. In 1747 there was the partition of Iran. Nadir Shah’s great general Durrani got eastern Iran. This became Afghanistan. Between 1747 and the Brits, Afghanistan included North India (including Kashmir), all of Pakistan and part of the former USSR.

For more than 5 thousand years before 1747, Afghanistan was often allied with or part of larger international confederacies and empires.

You might also remember that the Brits took most of Afghanistan away from it, and made Afghanistan a rump state that was allied to the British Indian Raj much as the kingdoms of Bhutan, Sikhim, Nepal, Kashmir, Hyderabad [Nizam], Gujarat, Bangalore, and Mysore were.

For the most part, Afghanistan’s time as a British protectorate was pretty calm and peaceful, much like other kingdoms that were protectorates of British India.

The British let Afghanistan go in 1919 because of WWI, and possibly because they didn’t want to make an India with dominion status [as was widely expected after WWI] too powerful.

Why you think British India [Pakistan, India, Bangladesh] owes Afghans her freedom?

Afghanistan was an ISI/Pakistani Army protectorate and pseudo colony between 1994-2001.

I don’t understand what you mean when you imply that Afghanistan hasn’t been partitioned and colonized.

Rahim, if ISAF leaves before the GIRoA/ANSF have defeated the Taliban and if internationals don’t sufficiently fund/train/equip/advise the ANSF, Afghanistan will almost certainly devolve into civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans are likely to die. De facto partition during the civil war is also possible . . . with GIRoA/ANSF holding the North, West, Center, pockets of the East, and the Taliban holding large pockets of Afghanistan’s South and East as well as large parts of Pakistan.

Nikhil, Rahim is right that Afghans will fight tooth and nail to avoid partition. Which is why the notion among many Pakistanis and western leftists that the ANA would somehow fold is unlikely.

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