With mounting US casualties in Afghanistan and General Petraeus current counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy heading for near certain failure there has been increasing calls for a new plan in Afghanistan. The united states finds itself in an extremely unenviable position, it can not stay in Afghanistan (due to a combination of factors including Taliban military success, US public opinion and the poor state of the economy) yet it cannot afford to leave either (for fear that victory for the Mujahideen would undermine the stability of other key US allies in the Muslim world).
The new strategy?
As a result of these unfavourable conditions some policy experts have been calling for what amounts to a de facto partition of Afghanistan, separating the Pashtun south from the north which is populated predominantly by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. One advocate of this strategy is former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush Robert D. Blackwill, who in a recent article in Politico ('A de facto partition for Afghanistan') stated the following:
“After the administration’s December Afghanistan review, the U.S. polity should stop talking about timelines and exit strategies and 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”
The strategy in essence means that the US would cede the south of country to the Taliban by withdrawing to north where they would use their allies from the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras to fight against the Taliban. Supplementing this would be the permanent establishment (similar to Iraq) of between 40-50,00 US troops. From their bases in the north the US forces would then using a mixture of air power and special forces attack the Taliban government (both its military and civilian components) .
“the sky over Pashtun Afghanistan would be dark with manned and unmanned coalition aircraft— targeting not only terrorists but, as necessary, the new Taliban government in all its dimensions. Taliban civil officials— like governors, mayors, judges and tax collectors— would wake up every morning not knowing if they would survive the day in their offices, while involved in daily activities or at home at night”
The Reality on the ground
This strategy ignores the current reality on the ground in Afghanistan. Firstly as pointed out in an article (Empire going mad) by Thomas Ruttig (co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network) there is a significant Pashtun population in the north, which would represent a major obstacle to the successful implementation of this strategy.
“In contrast, for him [Robert Blackwill], the rather large "Pashtun pockets" in the West (Farah, Nimruz, parts of Herat and Badghis) and even the North (Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, etc.) simply represent a Pashtun "fifth column." He doesn't articulate what he has in mind for them. Does he want to put barbed wire around their villages and bomb them like the rest of the Pashtun South? Or does he envisage a "population exchange," with ethnic massacres as "collateral damage"? “
Furthermore the situation is rapidly changing in the north with decreasing support for the kleptocratic government of Karzai and an increase in support for the Taliban which cuts across the tribal division in the north. A report by Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter (The Northern Front, the Afghan insurgency spreading beyond the Pashtuns) examined this trend in more detail, the report concluded:
“It seems clear that the attempts of the Taleban leadership in Quetta to destabilise the Greater North is beginning to have an impact.‘Cadres ’from the south are being sent northwards to help train and organise and the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] seems to also be playing a role in this effort. In many parts of the Greater North, the insurgency has advanced well beyond the original phase of infiltration by political agents and in quite a few areas the insurgency is even entering the phase of violent military operations. This does not mean that the destabilisation cannot be stopped, but it does mean that time is running out in order to prevent it from spreading.”
” The support of the clergy, together with financial and advisory support from Quetta, could be enough to spread the insurgency, particularly in the absence of any effective counter-‐mobilisation of those sectors of the population most opposed to the Taleban. “
Lastly this strategy like other strategies which envision a permanent US presence in Afghanistan (likewise for Iraq) ignore the perilous state of the US economy. By adopting strategies like this the US plays into the hand of the Mujahideen who have long stated that their aim is to bankrupt the US by engaging it in long drawn out gorilla wars, just like they did, once upon time to another 'superpower' in Afghanistan.