The Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan seems headed for failure. Given the alternatives, de facto partition of Afghanistan is the best policy option available to the United States and its allies.
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.
Enthusiasts for the administration's counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, are likely to reject this way forward in Afghanistan. They will rightly point out the many complexities in implementing de facto partition.
De facto partition is clearly not the best outcome one can imagine for the United States in Afghanistan. But it is now the best outcome that Washington can achieve consistent with vital national interests and U.S. domestic politics.
There are many reasons for this.
Even if President Barack Obama adds a year or two to his timeline for major progress, the COIN strategy appears unlikely to succeed. Given the number of U.S. combat forces now fighting, the Taliban cannot be sufficiently weakened in Pashtun Afghanistan to drive it to the negotiating table on any reasonable timeline. True, the Afghan Pashtun are not a unified group. But they do agree on opposing foreign occupation and wanting Pashtun supremacy.
“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation,” CIA Director Leon Panetta said on June 27, “where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. ... Unless they're convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful.”
With an occupying army largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, language, customs, politics and values, the United States cannot, through social engineering, win over, in the foreseeable future, sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom COIN depends.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's deeply corrupt government — as unpopular as the Taliban — shows no sign of improvement, and Afghanistan has no history of a robust central government. Allied efforts to substitute Western nation building for Afghan nation building will continue to fall short. The Afghanistan National Army is not expected to be ready to vanquish the Taliban for many years, if ever.
Moreover, Pakistan's military and intelligence services, with their dominating optic of India as the enemy, have shown no willingness to end support for their longtime Afghan Taliban proxies — or accept a truly independent Afghanistan.
Decisively, the long-term COIN strategy and far shorter U.S. political timeline are incompatible.
The lack of progress in substantially pacifying Pashtun Afghanistan before Obama's July 2011 decision date will become increasingly clear — though proponents are sure to focus more on the costs of failure than on the likelihood of enduring success.
What then? If the COIN strategy cannot produce the desired results in the next 12 months, the administration has six broad policy alternatives:
1) It can stay the course with the failing COIN strategy or even “double down” on the U.S. commitment — despite the lack of intrinsic U.S. vital national interests tied to Afghanistan.
2) It can seek other ways to entice the Afghan Taliban to end violence and enter into a coalition government. Karzai now seems to be pursuing this, but his efforts cannot alter the grim realities on the Pashtun battlefield or the enemy's sustained intransigence. As Panetta says, why negotiate if you believe you are winning?
3) It can try to save parts of Pashtun Afghanistan, locale by locale — in an ink-blot strategy — fighting in some areas and acquiescing in others. But this would mean continuing major U.S. and NATO casualties in the south. It would also allow the Taliban — like the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese — to concentrate its forces, ink blot by ink blot, among a sympathetic or intimidated local Pashtun population. In any case, it only delays the inevitable when U.S. forces depart.
4) It can opt, as Vice President Joe Biden reportedly counseled before Obama's surge decision, not to fight the Taliban in the countryside. It can, instead, defend Kabul and Kandahar (epicenter of the Pashtuns and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace), intensify efforts to lure Taliban who can be bought with money or political power and work with local warlords rather than the central government.
5) It can initiate rapid withdrawal of all American forces, which would produce a strategic calamity for the United States. For it could lead, first, to all-out Afghan civil war; then, to the Taliban's probable conquest of the entire country. Since Afghanistan's neighbors would very likely be drawn in, it could ultimately destabilize the entire region.
It could also dramatically increase likelihood of the Islamic radicalization of Pakistan, which then calls into question the security of its nuclear arsenal. It might also weaken, if not rupture, the budding U.S.-India strategic partnership.
In addition, it would profoundly undermine NATO, perhaps persuading the alliance to never again go “out of area.” It could trigger global support for Islamic extremist ideology and increased terrorism against liberal societies everywhere.
And worldwide, friends and adversaries alike would see it as a failure of international leadership and strategic resolve by an ever weaker United States, with destructive aftershocks for years to come.
6) Or it can adopt new U.S. policy goals for Afghanistan that, realistically, have a better chance of succeeding. This means accepting a de facto partition, enforced by U.S. and NATO air power and special forces, the Afghan army and international partners.
After years of faulty U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, there are no quick, easy and cost-free ways to escape the current deadly quagmire. But with all its problems, de facto partition offers the best available U.S. alternative to strategic defeat.
Announcing that we will retain an active combat role in Afghanistan for years to come and that we do not accept permanent Taliban control of the south, the United States and its allies could withdraw combat forces from most of Pashtun Afghanistan (about half the country), including Kandahar, over several months.
We would stop fighting and dying in the mountains, valleys and urban areas of southern Afghanistan — where 102 coalition soldiers were killed in June, the most in any month of the war and almost three times as many as a year ago. But we could be ready to assist tribal leaders on the Pashtun periphery, who may decide to resist the Taliban.
We would then focus on defending the northern and western regions — containing roughly 60 percent of the population. These areas, including Kabul, are not Pashtun dominated, and locals are largely sympathetic to U.S. efforts.
We would offer the Afghan Taliban an agreement in which neither side seeks to enlarge its territory — if the Taliban stopped supporting terrorism, a proposal that they would almost certainly reject.
We would then make it clear that we would rely heavily on U.S. air power and special forces to target any Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan Taliban leaders who aided them. We would also target Afghan Taliban encroachments across the de facto partition lines and terrorist sanctuaries along the Pakistan border.
Though careful analysis is needed, this might mean a longtime residual U.S. military force in Afghanistan of about 40,000 to 50,000 troops. We would enlist Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and supportive Pashtun in this endeavor, as well as our NATO allies, Russia, India, Iran, perhaps China, Central Asian nations and, one hopes, the U.N. Security Council.
We would continue accelerating our Afghan army training. We would devote nation-building efforts to the northern and western regions, where, unlike the Pashtun areas, people are not conflicted about accepting U.S. help and not systematically coerced by the Taliban.
There might even come a time when a stronger Afghan National Army could take control of the Pashtun areas.
Such fundamentally changed U.S. objectives and strategies regarding Afghanistan would dramatically reduce U.S. military causalities and thus minimize domestic political pressure for hasty withdrawal. It would substantially lower our budget-breaking military expenditures on Afghanistan — now nearly $7 billion per month.
This would also allow the U.S. Army and Marines to recover from years of fighting two ground wars; increase the likelihood that our coalition allies, with fewer casualties, might remain over the long term; encourage most of Afghanistan's neighbors to support an acceptable stabilization of the country and reduce Islamabad's ability to parlay the U.S. ground role in southern Afghanistan into tolerance for terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
In addition, it would allow Washington to focus on four issues more vital to its national interests: the rise of Chinese power, the Iranian nuclear weapons program, nuclear terrorism and the future of Iraq.
There are certainly problems with this approach:
The Taliban could trumpet victory or not accept a sustained status quo and continually test our resolve. It is likely that lower-level violence would persist in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, especially in the south. Pashtun Afghanistan could again become a hotbed of international terrorism, a dangerous outcome that probably could only be avoided by U.S. combat forces fighting there for years — and, in any case, the current Al Qaeda epicenter is in Pakistan.
In the context of de facto partition, 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.
But there would be no mountain caves in which they could hide and, at the same time, do their jobs. Over time, that could produce some degree of deterrence against Taliban support for terrorism.
Pakistan would likely oppose de facto partition. Managing Islamabad's reaction would be no easy task — not least because the Pakistan military expects a strategic gain once the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan.
Indeed, Islamabad might need to be persuaded to concentrate, with the United States, on defeating the Pakistan Taliban and containing the Afghan Taliban to avoid momentum toward a fracturing of the Pakistan state.
There might be potential pockets of fifth column Pashtun in the north and west. Karzai and his associates would almost certainly resist partition — and might not remain in power. Fearing a return of Pakistan dominance in Afghanistan, India would likely encourage Washington to continue ground combat in the south for many years to come — and would have to be told that was not in the cards.
Human rights in the Taliban-controlled areas would also probably be abysmal, including for minorities.
Putting together a coalition of like-minded nations to implement this strategy would be a daunting diplomatic challenge — not least with Tehran.
But even with all the challenges, it is better to accept defacto partition sooner rather than persist until our current COIN strategy has failed, triggering a domestic political eruption and, perhaps, a disastrous total U.S. military withdrawal.
Washington should not wait to change its objective and strategy in Afghanistan until even more U.S. blood and treasure have been lost in a fruitless quest among the Afghan Pashtun and the enemy proclaims that it has mighty America, like the Soviets, on the run out of Afghanistan.
Robert D. Blackwill served as U.S. ambassador to India, deputy national security adviser for strategic planning and presidential envoy to Iraq in the George W. Bush administration.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.