Partition no panacea for Afghanistan

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Niccolo and Donkey
Partition no panacea for Afghanistan

Asia Times Online

Ehsan Azari Stanizai

July 24, 2013

As the fog of weariness over the war in Afghanistan grows thicker, some political analysts have suggested that partition is the best route forward. In theory, it may seem a panacea, but in practice the results would be disastrous.

This idea was first put forward by Robert Blackwell, former US ambassador to India and a presidential envoy to Iraq, during the George Bush administration. Writing in a Politico Online article in July 2010, Blackwell argued that since the present battle plan was not going to weaken the Taliban - and given the Pashtun support for the US in the south - that a "partition of Afghanistan is the best policy option available to the United States and its allies".

In the same month, former UN and EU envoy to Kabul Francesc Vendrell also said that the then approaching September parliamentarian elections could play as a mechanism by which "the south is handed over to the Taliban and the north to Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik warlords".

Moreover, an essay co-authored by three experts in the August 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs advised that the division of Afghanistan on ethnic lines was the best option for the US to implement its core security interests. The authors concluded that a "mixed sovereignty", not the present policy of centralized democracy, will place the country on a path towards stability.

Under this approach, the Taliban will take over the south, but if they try to welcome al-Qaeda back or seek to attack the north, the United States will retaliate using air bombing, drones and surgical operations by its elite forces.

There are implications from the plan - the partition could have an adverse impact on the Pakistani military in that it will likely have to break ranks with the Taliban. As a result, Pakistan would reverse its current policy, largely for fear that partition of Afghanistan could turn its own Pashtun Taliban into a Baluch-like separatist movement for forming a greater Pashtunistan.

However, the reality is that these scholar-officials who proposed the partition have only a run-of-the-mill local knowledge. They perceive Afghanistan still in terms of Afghanistanism - the American newsroom argot of the 1960s, which was used as a metaphor for a far-away, obscure and negligible place or situation.

In real life, however, Afghanistan is as Richard Nixon put it in The Real War , "a cockpit of great-power intrigue for the same reason that it used to be called the turnstile of Asia's fate".

Afghanistan has been an apologia for imperial miseries throughout its history. In his quest for empire, Alexander the Great was the first European emperor to ride across the Afghan mountains. After conquering Persia in six months, he found his army bogged down in an endless war in Afghanistan.

"I am involved in the land of a leonine and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers. You have brought one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called Alexander," he wrote in a famous letter to his mother in 330 BC.

However, for all that toughness, Afghanistan has a history of partition. The country suffered the pains of partition when the British Raj drew a border (known as the Durand Line) between Afghanistan and the British India of 1893. The aim of the partition was to divide and weaken the Afghan tribes. More than a century later, the Durand Line remains one of the most disputed borders in the world.

Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan have never recognized this line. In the Afghan narrative, this border represents the greatest national disgrace. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, ingeniously predicted this by calling the border "the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war and peace, of life and death to nations".

This explains why Afghanistan was against the formation of Pakistan in 1947, calling it an evil strategic colonial conspiracy to weaken and divide Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.

The British Raj worked for 10 years to create Pakistan. In 1930, the British began to polarize irreconcilable enmities between Hindus and Muslim. Britain used agents working among Ismaeli Shi'ites and the Ahmadyya sect to pioneer the creation of an artificial country - by yoking together independent ethnic groups such as Pashtuns and Balochis.

The ongoing armed ethnic conflicts and wars inside Pakistan are indicative that Pakistan still remains an unsettled country and a nationless state. Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists is the last weapon used by Punjabi generals in Rawalpindi to keep Pakistan as a country.

On the contrary, Afghanistan's recent history offers ample evidence of resistance against the old colonial motto: divide and rule. During the past three decades, Afghanistan has had no functioning government, but it remained united against foreign invasions.

Afghanistan is indeed an ethnic mosaic. Except for two or three out of the 33 provinces of the country, you can hardly find a place identified with one ethnic identity. Separatism has never been an issue of concern in Afghanistan. During Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, when a fierce internal competition for control of Kabul was raging, no ethnic group and no warlord ever called for partition. The anti-Soviet resistance in the north remained always as strong as in the south. And let's not forget that there are millions of Pashtun in the north as well.