“Plan B in Afghanistan: Why a De Facto Partition is the Least Bad Option” by Robert D. Blackwell appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Blackwell argues that a De-Facto partition with Taliban forces controlling the Southern and Eastern parts of Afghanistan, while the central government in Kabul backed by the Afghan National Army and a force of up to fifty thousand U.S. troops controls the rest of the country at least until the national army is strong enough to take back the south and east is the least bad U.S. policy option. Under this option, the United States should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control much of the Pashtun South and East and that the U.S can’t afford the cost of forestalling that outcome and should stop fighting in the South and East allowing the national “correlation of forces” to take its’ course. The U.S. would then use its’ air power and special forces to support the Afghan army and government in Kabul to prevent the North & West from falling to the Taliban. The United States would also make clear that it would strike against any Al Qaeda targets anywhere, any Taliban encroachments across the de-facto partition line, and sanctuaries along the Pakistani border.
Much to Mr. Blackwell’s credit, he describes partition as the least bad option. In Afghanistan, there are no good options for a country that because of economic realities simply cannot go on affording the eight billion dollar a month price tag. As much as the United States would love to claim the victory of a centralized and democratic Afghan government, we can’t wait forever for security to take hold. But yet, we also can’t afford to leave it a chaotic mess, noting that we’ve lost several thousand men and woman to the cause of uprooting Al Qaeda from their base of operation and building a better Afghanistan, we can’t just let them die for nothing. Although I applaud Mr. Blackwell’s contribution to the endless debate, I feel that his analysis misses or grazes briefly some key points on the Afghan and worldwide reality.
Harmid Karzi heads the second most corrupt government in the world (in front of only Somalia) and has been described as a gangster state. If the central government in Kabul is so corrupt than whose to say the Taliban cannot just buy them off or make other promises of security in exchange for greater access in the North and West? Corrupt men frankly have multiple masters and will often say whatever it takes to get the money at any given moment. Which leads us into the even more distressing possibility of having the United States engaging in a bidding war against elements in Pakistan that support the militancy and groups throughout the region otherwise sympathetic to the jihad cause for the loyalty of central government, which is not a good recipe for a country in such perilous economic shape like the United States.
Who manages such a partition? There’s clearly a deep mistrust of the Karzi government and I’m not sure Americans are going to win any popularity contests either. There must be some management so that Afghanistan of 2012 doesn’t become a repeat of Kashmir 1947 where people where literally trampled to death in the panic of it all. Given that the United Nations has proven good at rhetoric and poor at action through multiple genocides and bloody civil wars, I certainly don’t trust them to perform the deed. Blackwell admits that we’d have to leave behind the people of South and West Afghanistan who helped us to whatever their fate be courtesy of the Taliban. If we do that what are the chances, if we have to invade another country in the future, we’ll find people willing to help us, knowing that we left the last people who helped us to be slaughtered by the Taliban.
For Blackwell’s approach to be effective it needs 35,000-50,000 troops over the long term. This worries me because both globally and within the United States war fatigue has set in deeply with international coalition partners disembarking quickly because of the pressures on prime ministers and presidents back home. Furthermore, with the American economy shaky at best will the American public be accepting of such an approach? Few Americans have the stomach to just leave Afghanistan without some sort of order in place, but billions of dollars not spent in Afghanistan would be a relief. I have to say I question whether the general public will have the staying power in Afghanistan. Blackwell argues that a partition effort will require the cooperation of foreign regional partners: China, Russia, India, Pakistan. How is President Obama going to get any of these countries onboard with such a strategy when he has so far failed to get Congressman in his own country to come to an agreement on the debt ceiling.