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.