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Ehsan Azari Stanizai

Ehsan Azari Stanizai

Posted: August 24, 2010 05:30 PM

As the fog of weariness over the war in Afghanistan is growing thicker, some political analysts have come up with the idea that the partition of Afghanistan might be the only alternative to the present counterinsurgency war. In theory, it may seem a panacea but in practice, it could be a frivolous adventure.

This idea was put forward first in an article by Mr. Robert Blackwell, former US Ambassador to India and a presidential envoy to Iraq during the George Bush Administration, in Politico Online on July 7th and then backed up favorably by The Financial Times, Newsweek, The Washington Times and The Economist.

Mr. Blackwell argues that since the present battle plan is not going to weaken the Taliban, and the Pushtun support for the US in the south is unwinnable, a "partition of Afghanistan is the best policy option available to the United States and its allies". In the same way, as reported by The Economist on July 22, 2010, a former UN and EU envoy to Kabul, Francesc Vendrell, has also held out that the 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, in an essay co-authored by three experts, Foreign Affairs (July/August) advises the division of Afghanistan on ethnic lines is the best option for the US to implement its core security interests. The authors conclude 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. Partition could have an adverse impact on Pakistani military in that it will likely break ranks with the Taliban. As a result, Pakistan would reverse its current policy largely for the fear that partition of Afghanistan could turn its own Pashtun Taliban into a Baluch-like separatist movement for forming a greater Pashtunistan.

The reality is that these scholar-officials have 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, "has long been 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 who rode 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 (loin-like) 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," in a famous letter, he wrote 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 Durand Line) between Afghanistan and the British India in 1893. The aim of the partition was to divide and weaken the unruly 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".

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. In a final attempt, before leaving Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union nurtured the idea of Afghanistan's partition to win the war. In 1987 when I was working with The Kabul Times, the news leaked out that the Russians wanted to shift the Afghan capital from Kabul to Mazari-I-Sharif in the north and cede the south to the US-backed anti-communist guerrilla fighters. However, the Soviet leaders backed out from this strategy and accepted an unconditional withdrawal, even though by then they were in a stronger position for only Amu Darya divided the Soviet territory from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is indeed an ethnic mosaic. Except for two or three out of 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.

Afghanistan's partition would be an invitation to a Russian roulette in the regional nuclear club. It will strengthen the Taliban beyond imagination and hearten Al-Qaeda for exploiting the crisis. Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, and Iranian unpopular mullahs have their hearts set on. The ripple effects will reach China and Russia, who are already keen on play their parts in the great game.

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizi is an Adjunct Fellow with the Writing & Society Research Group, University of Western Sydney (UWS)