Before I start, let me just acknowledge that I might have an unreasonable bias against any solution to a US occupation that involves the word “partition,” mainly because of the Biden-Gelb plan for Iraq and the even more outlandish ideas for redrawing Iraq’s internal borders that emerged around the same time. I admit to having harassed undeserving people far too much for using this word or concept.
I’d also like to note that articulated alternatives such as Blackwill’s, with explanations of what sort of ugly things will happen when we take them, should be welcomed and encouraged. The modesty of his proposal is refreshing.
That said, I still think it is the wrong option. Firstly, de facto partition will seriously strengthen the narrative of the Taliban that the US just wants to antagonize the Pashtuns, does not care about helping Afghanistan, and wants to undermine Afghan nationalism, and it would be hard to prove them wrong.
Pulling out of the south and east removes any leverage the US has over what goes on in those areas – period. However fickle they may be, there is at least the Pakistani army to deal with FATA and the NWFP. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, there would be nobody capable of reining in the Taliban or other insurgent groups, even if they had the political willpower. The Afghan National Army in such a context would never be able to retake control of the countryside. Without US forces on the ground, local intelligence and knowledge would be severely impeded, and without that we are headed for a lot more friendly fire and mass civilian casualty incidents if we expect the Afghan troops and the Air Force to do the heavy lifting. Uniting the Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks against the Pashtun would only further undermine the already rotten and ambiguous foundation of Kabul’s authority and capacity to govern, and deepen ethnic divides to our disadvantage. Yes, some Pashtun will support us, but as a recent study by Antonio Giustozzi and Christopher Reuter shows, non-Pashtun are joining the Taliban in increasing numbers in the north, this trend will accelerate as it becomes clear to them that the enemy stands for dismembering Afghanistan and waging a cowardly war from the air.
Perhaps paradoxically, a strategy to defend the north and avert the high cost in blood and treasure of COIN will undermine the security situation further. From the south and east, the Taliban will be able to mobilize a base of support to throw even more resources at the north, and without US ground presence, our aerial attacks will be futile at best and counterproductive at worst, as civilian casualties increase. Blackwill’s faith in airpower seems to stem mainly from its technological advantages rather than its strategic ones. Yes, fewer Americans will die, but will all our bombing accomplish anything? We bomb the NWFP and FATA plenty enough, as do the Pakistanis, and it has not stopped the insurgency there. Trying to fight insurgencies from the air does not work well when you do have little ability to find the insurgents, you will kill a lot of civilians and the rest will support the insurgency, more than enough to make up for the confirmed insurgent kills. Without US ground presence, our ability to spin the IO on the mistakes we will make will be even more limited.
Blackwill also notes that Pakistan and India will both object to this solution. In my view, an alternative that angers everyone, undermines the war effort, kills a lot of Afghan civilians and increases the threat to the regions it does try to protect is not a desirable one, nor even necessarily better than the alternatives of COIN or further withdrawal. Nevertheless, because it’s a substantive proposal that’s politically plausible, it’s a good effort at what most of COIN’s critics-come-lately (thanks, Michael Hastings, for making COIN criticism in with the hip crowd), have largely ignored.