Flashbacks November 2006

Iraq: Is Partition the Answer?

Articles by Hitchens, Kaplan, Gellhorn, and others make clear that if history is any guide, then probably not.

As Iraq continues to devolve into violence and chaos, officials around the world are wringing their hands over what to do. Given the extent to which the country is plagued by sectarian animosities, some have suggested that attempting to unify these warring groups under a single government is hopeless. Perhaps, some say, partitioning the country into separate Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni polities might solve the problem.

Could such an approach work? Its logic is certainly tempting. But a survey of the fallout from previous partition attempts suggests that it may lead to difficulties more intractable than those it is intended to solve. In "Hindu and Muslim: The Sensitive Areas” (February 1958), Frederic M. Bennett considered the strife that had grown out of Britain’s division of India, eleven years earlier, into a primarily Hindu nation (India) and a primarily Muslim one (Pakistan). Vicious disputes had since arisen over the division of assets and resources. The question of whether certain provinces would revert to India or Pakistan became matters of violent contention. Perhaps nowhere was that contention more visible than in Kashmir, a province that to this day is claimed by both countries. In attempts to secure control over Kashmir, both India and Pakistan had sent troops to the province. Since then, Kashmir had served as a battleground for a series of wars between the two powers, throughout which the will of the Kashmiris—who were supposed to have been given the opportunity to make the decision themselves—had been completely ignored:

India has sought to evade the obligations to hold a plebiscite that she solemnly affirmed between 1947 and 1949. Argument and counterargument have raged over who was the original aggressor, the number of troops of each side that would have to be withdrawn before a fair test of public opinion could be held, and the terms and timing of the plebiscite.

The frustration of the Kashmiris toward this subjugation, Bennett explained, manifested in a brutal insurgency against the mostly Hindu forces stationed in the province. The troops, supposedly there to "preserve an outward calm," in reality more closely resembled—and continue today to resemble—an occupation force.

The detrimental effects of partition are also discernible along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1893, British colonialist Sir Mortimer Durand delineated a boundary between Afghanistan and India (later Afghanistan and Pakistan). This arbitrary boundary, known as the Durand Line, was never accepted by Afghanistan, however, because it ran straight through areas inhabited by a tribe known as the Pashtoons. This division led to Pashtooni demands for an independent state, and fueled social unrest and turmoil along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In "The Lawless Frontier" (September 2000), Robert Kaplan described the anarchic conditions along this border, and chronicled the unsuccessful efforts by a succession of Pakistani governments to assert control there. As Kaplan learned in the course of his reporting, laws written in distant government capitals simply did not apply to this anarchic Afghan-Pakistan border region. He quoted a Pakistani political agent stationed in the border town of Parachinar. “Whether the government in Islamabad is military or democratic doesn’t matter. We have no civil law here—only Pashtoon tribal law."

Social unrest in the region was compounded by the Afghan-Soviet war, during which many Afghans fled to refugee camps along the border. Kaplan pointed out that young Afghans living in these refugee camps were mostly educated in Pakistani madrasses, where they were taught a radical and militant version of Islam. This network of madrassas, which continues to thrive on both sides of the border today, has caused religious extremism to spread between the two countries.

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Zaina Arafat is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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