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counterargument have raged over who was the original aggressor, the number of troops of each side that would have to be withdrawn before a fair test of public opinion could be held, and the terms and timing of the plebiscite.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.

In recent years, General Musharraf of Pakistan has cracked down on those responsible for the border chaos. But many fear that his efforts are in vain. "There is just too much poverty and ignorance,” Kaplan wrote, “too many ethnic and sectarian rivalries, too many pan-Islamic influences, too many weapons filtering back from Afghanistan, and too many tribal smugglers' mafias able to challenge the military…. Musharraf may simply be a good man who arrived too late."

In the same year that Britain partitioned India and Pakistan, the UN put forth a partition plan for Palestine as a solution to dueling claims over the land by Jews and Palestinians. It was the rejection of this plan by the Arabs that led the Jews to unilaterally declare the state of Israel, leading to the first Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent displacement of thousands of Palestinians. The issue of Palestinian refugees remains unresolved, and the inability to reach a consensus over their status has been a major obstacle to achieving a lasting peace. Thirteen years after the 1948 war, Martha Gellhorn traveled to the Middle East to conduct a case study of the Palestinian refugees. In “The Arabs of Palestine” (October 1961), Gellhorn conveyed their acute awareness of having been subjugated by outside powers. Although she expressed skepticism about some of their assertions, she vividly captured their sense of frustration and despair. She quoted one embittered refugee:

We refused Partition. We did not want the Jews here; we wanted the whole country for ourselves, as is right. We only lost because of the United Nations and the Western powers. The Ottoman Empire crushed the pride of the Arabs. The Western powers divided the Arabs into many nations, after the First World War, to keep them weak.

Finally, in “The Perils of Partition” (March 2003), Christopher Hitchens took stock of the practice of partition and its repercussions and concluded that its track record was grim. "As a general rule,” he wrote, “it can be stated that all partitions except that of Germany have led to war or another partition or both.” He pointed out that most of the world’s famously intractable trouble spots—Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, and so on—“are astonishingly often the consequence of frontiers created ad hoc by British imperialism.” He quoted a 1959 poem by the American writer and critic Marya Mannes:

Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.

Though he dismissed the poem itself as “somewhat trite,” its message, he suggested, was one worth heeding. If America today is something of an empire, then we would do well, he warned, to learn from the lessons of empires past. “However we confront this inheritance of responsibility,” he wrote, “the British past is replete with lessons on how not to discharge it.”

Zaina Arafat