Faced with rising opposition at home, diminishing political support, increased casualties on the battlefield and growing reluctance of allies to continue with the war in Afghanistan, the United States is looking for a way to cut losses and reduce its presence in Afghanistan. Different solutions are advocated on how to contain the Taliban war machine after the drawdown of US forces. However, it is feared that suggested remedies may end up destabilising not only Afghanistan but much of Central and South Asia.
One proposal recently mooted is by a former US Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill. In his “Plan B: The de facto Partition of Afghanistan,” Blackwill argues that the best alternative for the US is a de facto partition of Afghanistan. According to this proposal, Afghanistan’s Pakhtun areas will be cordoned off from the rest of the country by a ring of garrisons that will act as fire-bases.
Blackwill thinks that such a division of Afghanistan will allow the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces to consume themselves. To conduct the military aspect of this plan, he advocates the retention of a 40,000-50,000 strong US force as compared to the existing 120,000. Blackwill suggests that the US should continue to target al Qaeda and the Taliban within the indicated ‘killing zone,’ and in their safe havens in Fata and other parts of Pakistan.
This plan has dangerous consequences. It would leave the Afghan Taliban in control of most of their historic stronghold in the south and the east. At the same time, regional powers like Russia and its former Central Asian Republics will form a ring to the North to prevent the outflow of violence towards the soft underbelly of Russia. If the Taliban break through this northern ring, then the situation in the Caucasus will change drastically to the detriment of Russia. The US hopes that Iran too will join this plan so that the Taliban are precluded from influencing the Afghan western and central provinces where there are Shia populations. This plan foresees the Chinese cooperating to prevent radicalisation of the Sinkiang (Xinjiang) region.
Blackwill advocates targeting the Taliban along Pakistan’s border. In other words the Afghan war will shift into Pakistan and thus have dangerous implications. Blackwill’s creation of a ‘killing zone’ in Afghanistan will affect Pakistan’s Pakhtuns in Fata, KP and Balochistan. The Durand Line that is the international border, extending some 2,240 kilometres dividing Pakistan from Afghanistan, will disappear as the killing zone extends east and southwards from Afghanistan. Therefore, the plan will not only strangle Afghanistan but also Pakistan.
If Blackwill’s policies are implemented, the existentialist threat to Pakistan will increase. The resulting chaos and violence may force the 40 million Pashtuns who reside in Pakistan to consider the dynamics of establishing a separate state. Given Pakistan’s ethnic fragility and simmering discontent in Balochistan, Blackwill’s prescription will destabilise Pakistan.
A larger risk is also inherent in the Blackwill plan. If the writ of the Pakistani state deteriorates, it is likely that Pakistani jihadi outfits will emerge as international agents in their own right. Their narrative will not be that of Pan-Islamism like Osama’s but more embedded in the subcontinental religious rivalry between Hindus and Muslims. Their obvious target will be India.
As local jihadi organisations emerge, they will direct their efforts against India. In the event of such a likelihood India will strike Pakistan. Pakistan, threatened with disintegration, will likely opt to use the nuclear option. In the absence of a US restraint as in December 2008, such a situation could lead to a nuclear Armageddon. On the other hand, India is fast developing into a future great power of the 21st century and thus has much more to lose from the Blackwill plan. This will force her to be more forbearing and patient. However, there is also a rabid anti-Pakistan lobby in India. How this insane hate-game will roll out is anyone’s guess. Pakistan must strategise early to prevent the actualisation of the Blackwill plan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2010.