Should Afghanistan Be Broken Into Smaller Countries?

A desperate measure for desperate times

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A handful of Afghanistan experts are proposing a drastic measure to salvage a country that has been devastated by three decades of war: splitting up Afghanistan. The approach, they say, could separate the country's ethnically distinct regions, allow more localized rule, and hopefully stabilize the South Asian nation that has resisted all efforts at stabilization. But the proposal also has its critics, who warn such a move would only worsen the situation. Here's what they have to say.

The Case for Partition

  • Salvage Northern Afghanistan  In Politico, former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill insists we "accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of its historic stronghold in the Pashtun south. But Washington could ensure that north and west Afghanistan do not succumb to jihadi extremism, using U.S. air power and special forces along with the Afghan army and like-minded nations. ... De facto partition is clearly not the best outcome one can imagine for the United States in Afghanistan. But it is now the best outcome that Washington can achieve consistent with vital national interests and U.S. domestic politics."
  • This Is Our Route to Withdrawal  Robert Blackwill elaborates in the Financial Times, "[some] worry the Taliban would not adhere to the rough boundaries of such a de facto partition, and would seek to reconquer the entire country. But US and allied military might and growing Afghan army capabilities could stop that from happening. Indeed, without such a long-term US military presence, a renewed civil war is probable. With such a commitment, it is unlikely. ... the spectre of de facto partition in Afghanistan might even produce the change of heart in the Pakistani military’s attitude to the Afghan Taliban that successive US administration have failed to achieve."
  • The Case for Decentralization  In Foreign Affairs, Stephen Biddle, Fotini Christia, and J Alexander Thier argue not for full partition for but decentralizing the Afghan state so that local regions have greater autonomy. "Afghanistan has been a failing experiment in centralized democracy, heading toward de facto partition, with Taliban control in some areas and unstable, ill-regulated strongman governance in many others. This trend can be reversed. But clinging to the original, centralized model will not help. Centralized governance matches neither the real internal distribution of power in Afghanistan nor local notions of legitimacy. There can be no effective military solution if the intended political goal is so badly misaligned with the country's underlying social and political framework."

The Case Against Partition

  • Afghan Nationality  Indian journalist Nitin Pai writes, "despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project."
  • Would Worsen Situation in Southern Afghanistan  The Hindu's Chinmaya R. Gharekhan and Karl F. Inderfurth warn that partition "will leave many non-Pashtuns at the mercy of the Pashtuns in the southern part" and risks "the complete denial of human rights to women in Pashtunland." They say such a plan "smacks of a colonial attitude. Instead of the classic 'divide and rule,' [its proponents are] recommending 'divide and depart;' the British practised them both in the sub-continent with disastrous consequences."
  • Stoking Nationalism Way Too Unpredictable  The Indian Express's Pratap Bhanu Mehta brings the real talk. "What strikes you most about this argument is its unrepentant sense of hubris. Does anyone have a credible basis for saying what the character of successor states in Afghanistan will be like? Is there any reason to think that stoking more nationalisms may not create unintended instabilities in the region, including the demonstration effect it might have on Kashmir? Is there any reason to think that this solution will make a dent in the thicket of cultures of violence that now characterise the region? Has any power in the region been able to control the consequences of its own actions?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.