The Case for Partitioning Afghanistan
By Tom Ordeman, Jr.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally prepared for submission in mid-August of 2021, during the projected withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan. However, submission was ultimately pre-empted by the abrupt collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. As the international community continues to engage in an after-action review following twenty years of operations that ultimately ended in failure, this case for a partition of Afghanistan is presented with minimal edits. This essay is presented as a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how the international community could have avoided the eventual outcome, and created a state of lasting stability that continues to elude both the Afghans and their former coalition partners.
On April 13th, 2021, the Biden Administration announced their decision to extend the Trump Administration’s previously established Afghan withdrawal deadline by four months. The White House ultimately failed to describe what the additional four months were meant to accomplish, nor were officials able to enunciate any sort of strategy that might have accomplished anything of substance in the dwindling weeks. The withdrawal ultimately took place independent of nearly twenty years of disparate, unrealistic, and often contradictory coalition objectives. No shortage of failed suggestions for securing peace in this war-torn country were mooted during the preceding two decades. In the end, the coalition’s haphazard withdrawal proved catastrophic, unfolding on live television and across social media platforms in real time.
During his tenure as Vice President, Biden infamously advocated for a de facto partition of Iraq. While the international commentariat revisits some new incarnation of Biden's vision whenever Iraq is in the news - notably after 2014, owing to internal tensions over the Islamic State debacle - only very rarely, and then almost silently, did comparable suggestions for partitioning Afghanistan percolate into the international conversation. In fact, a partition of Afghanistan could very well have reconciled many aspects of Afghanistan that made little or no sense either before or since 2001, and continue to cause instability and friction today.
The Context for Partition
Proponents of Iraqi partition commonly observe that Iraq is the artificial dividend of French and British diplomats drawing arbitrary lines across their maps in 1919 and 1946. In fact, most Middle Eastern borders that match this description typically divide barren, uninhabited deserts, rather than separating long-standing population groups. Instead, this description applies more aptly to Afghanistan. Given Afghanistan's status as a patchwork of old imperial frontiers, inhabited by physically and politically disunited ethnic groups, the case for a perpetually unified Afghanistan is weak, whereas the case for resolving Afghanistan's strategic challenges through partition merits discussion.
The Afghan-Pakistani border, for example, was drawn by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893 to delineate the boundary between the northwestern extremities of British India, and what fell beyond British control. Afghanistan's western border was, similarly, delineated over the course of several decades through British arbitration between Afghanistan and Qajar Persia. Contrary to its reputation as a "Graveyard of Empires," Afghanistan comprises a colonial era Caledonia: the collective frontiers of several competing empires, perfectly adequate for punitive campaigns in the event of border unrest, but beyond the line at which imperial expansion ceased to make strategic sense. Thus, Afghanistan as a sacrosanct nation state is an anachronism.
Proponents of Iraqi partition also cite Iraq's diversity: two major and several minority religious traditions, two major and several minority ethnic communities, and other examples of ethnic and cultural diversity. However, Iraq's diverse population exists under vastly more cosmopolitan conditions than Afghanistan's diverse population. With the exception of Iraq's Kurdish population, Iraq's national borders separate neither ethnic nor religious communities from their compatriots in neighboring countries. By contrast, only one major Afghan population group exists almost entirely within Afghan borders: the Hazaras, an apparent Turco-Mongolian ethnic group who comprise the bulk of Afghanistan's Shiite community, in whose defense Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998, and who have been infamously conscripted to fight on Iran's behalf in Syria. Aside from the Hazaras, the remainder of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups - Baluchis, Kyrgyz, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks - straddle Afghanistan's national border at one point or another.
Figure 1 2005 CIA map of Afghan ethnic groups (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
These factors result in constant political disunity. When foreign intervention commenced in late 2001, control was divided between two competing factions: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban), a largely Pashtun organization; and the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance), a faction comprising mostly non-Pashtuns from Afghanistan's northern regions. Even when the Taliban held Kabul, Mullah Mohammed Omar governed from Kandahar. One could easily make the case that Afghanistan actually consists of two ad hoc nations: the northwestern half of a bisected Pashtunistan in the south, and a loose multi-ethnic confederation in the north.
And what about the Taliban and their allies? Partition recognizes a truth that, owing to his textbook implementation of the French "taches d'huile"/”ink spots” theory, General Stanley McChrystal appears to have misunderstood: the Taliban's center of gravity is the rural areas of southern Afghanistan from whence he withdrew troops, not the cities where McChrystal consolidated them. Despite their typical characterization as dogmatic Islamists, the Taliban are every bit as Pashtun nationalist as they are Islamist. Partition might risk a return to pre-9/11 behavior for the Taliban, but it would effectively end Taliban legitimacy elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Post-partition, "taches d'huile" could also succeed on a strategic level. Once partition went into effect, the Taliban and their allies would own the aftermath in North Pashtunistan: very likely, a stable and prosperous Islamic confederacy across the border, and a wholesale withdrawal of foreign investment and return to pre-9/11 austerity for North Pashtunistan. And for what? Two decades of Taliban violence, driven by a gang of foreign interlopers, for the sake of Pashtunwali? On occasion, Taliban spokesmen have also admitted to their own pre-9/11 excesses. Partition might lead the Taliban's new generation of leaders might conclude that extending their hospitality in this manner a second time would be unwise, or otherwise moderate their conduct.
Drawing the Lines
So, what form might a partitioned Afghanistan take? The most drastic change could be a hard border between the new North Pashtunistan, and a new Central Asian Confederacy (CAC). North Pashtunistan would represent an exclusive homeland for the Pashtun people, sandwiched between the CAC and northern Pakistan in a configuration similar to Mongolia's juxtaposition between Russia and China. The CAC would neighbor Pakistan in Nuristan and Nimruz provinces, stretching like a vast crescent to flank its new neighbor to the southeast.
Presumably administering from Kandahar, a government of the Pashtuns' choosing would see to both domestic and foreign concerns. Meanwhile, the CAC would likely operate as a confederacy, allowing disparate ethnic communities to see to their own domestic concerns while cooperating within the framework of a weak federal government on matters of national interest from an existing city. This could be an existing city, such as Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, or Herat; or possibly from a purpose-built capital city.
Among other mistakes, international troops attempted to rebuild an Afghan National Army to field modern equipment, and did so with amalgamated units of troops from around Afghanistan. This attempt to build a modern, nationally cohesive military contributed to that force’s eventual collapse, particularly because it played to the Afghans' weaknesses. Both of these new countries would, instead, field local militias levied by tribal leaders. As North Pashtunistan, more so than the new CAC, has consistently embodied the 2010 U2 lyric, "the road refuses strangers; the land, the seeds we sow," the CAC would stand to inherit the bulk of the international community's aid. Since 2001, analysts have celebrated the manner in which Western special operations force (SOF) units, in concert with Western intelligence and air assets, facilitated the Northern Alliance's sweeping victory against the Taliban; post-partition, international forces would train with regional militias to do this again if necessary.
The current, unified Afghanistan is not a rich country; neither would North Pashtunistan nor the CAC be rich. However, the unified nation possesses reserves of coal, copper, iron, lithium, gold, gems, and rare earth elements; Helmand province may also be a source of uranium. Afghanistan's modest stocks of petroleum and natural gas are in the process of being exploited. On the rare occasions when not being used to cultivate opium, Afghanistan's arable land has been known to cultivate wheat, as well as lucrative saffron, and arguably the finest pomegranates in the world. Some regions produce high quality cashmere wool. Even opium cultivation could, theoretically, be repurposed for legitimate pharmaceutical use. Upon partition, the two new states would possess sufficient natural and human resources with which to build two independent economies, in addition to what remains of countless billions of dollars in foreign investment from the preceding two decades.
Any nation, fledgling or long-established, faces challenges. So, too, would North Pashtunistan and the CAC.
In one case, Afghanistan possesses only two major land shipping routes into or out of the country: one through Pakistan, and the other connecting Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Each new nation would acquire one apiece, relying upon these, other minor crossings, and aerial supply routes.
Neither would partition be a panacea. It would, of course, alter the region's strategic calculus. Pakistan, for example, might decide that its interests are best served by offering to dissolve the existing Durand Line in favor of unification with North Pashtunistan. Iran might be compelled to offer its own assistance to the CAC, with which it would share a border as well as linguistic and cultural traditions. One could make as strong a case for an independent Baluchistan as for an independent Kurdistan, but given the sparsity with which Nimruz province is populated, its retention by the CAC would likely help to calm both Iranian and Pakistani anxieties about the restive tri-border region that divides Baluchistan's constituent parts.
A persistent, albeit modest, international military presence in the CAC might very well be tenable. The same is clearly impossible in North Pashtunistan, but one might expect that two decades of operations would offer a useful baseline of imagery, signals, and human intelligence, with which to compare new activity for the purpose of tracking terrorism and other hostile activities. International forces have more than distilled SOF raids and air strikes into the realm of operational science. Pashtun isolationist tendencies notwithstanding, if al Qaeda attempted to re-establish an operational base in North Pashtunistan, the international community is vastly better prepared to address the issue in short order than it was in 2001. Again, as Vice President, Biden was credited with advocating for a light military footprint of air strikes and SOF raids; and again, this was the wrong solution for the time and circumstances, but could be viable as part of the international community's post-partition toolkit.
The Season for Unorthodox Solutions
A casual Google search reveals that this suggestion isn't entirely novel. However, most traces date back at least a decade, and at no point do the U.S. Department of Defense, nor the ISAF coalition, nor any other intervening authority, appear to have mooted the option - at least, not publicly. Given the countless billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives spent in a perpetual attempt to achieve a vague set of goals that seemed to shift like the sands of the Dasht-e-Margo, why wasn’t partition investigated as an option? Carving two countries out of what is now Afghanistan may or may not have been the best available option. However, given the alleged total lack of coalition progress since 2001, the eventual catastrophic collapse of the internationally-recognized Afghan government and security apparatus, and the horrific Taliban march on Kabul, partition and other options merited sober study by serious analysts, and serious consideration against a variety of other unorthodox options.
After all, by 2021, splitting Afghanistan into two countries in 2011 would have proved no more asinine than suggesting that international troops should stay in Afghanistan for another decade for the sake of incomprehensible goals. And, if alternatives to withdrawing without having accomplished a vague set of goals were worth investigating a decade ago, they were certainly worth discussing in the context of achieving international strategic goals on the coalition's way out.