Monday, August 20, 2007

Afghanistan/Iraq: Twin Case Studies for Partition

In recent months, many interested people have pondered solutions for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most of those who are familiar with the two conflicts recognize that there will be no such thing as a miracle cure for either case. Yet, in ignorance of the most basic facts of each case, some people have dreamed up such a miracle cure:


Some observers have, over the past few months, been advocating for the partition of both Iraq and Afghanistan; Afghanistan to be split between Pashtun and non-Pashtun regions, and Iraq to be split between Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish regions.

The partitioning of a state cannot possibly come without serious consequences.

While similar in many regards, there are also numerous differences that make Iraq and Afghanistan compelling case studies in proposed partition.

Afghanistan: Excising the cancer?

Similar to Iraq's Sunni/Shi'ite division, Afghanistan is divided amongst a Pashtun majority, and assorted minorities.

This has historically divided Afghanistan, as only 47-50% of its population (the aforementioned Pasthun majority) favour centralized government, while the rest have historically tended to resist it. Even the Taliban never managed to set up a centralized government in Afghanistan, as it was stringently opposed by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, who comprised mostly of Tajiks, Hazra and Uzkbeks.

Historically, these factions were accustomed to fighting one another, but formed the Northern Alliance in order to resist the Taliban.

In the aftermath of the Taliban's ouster, the various factions comprising the Northern Alliance have come to favour centralized government, so long as that doesn't entail domination by a Pashtun majority.

A geographical anaylsis of Afghanistan's ethnic distribution reveals that the Khandahar and Helmand provinces that are currently the hotbeds of conflict in Afghanistan, are largely Pashtun regions.

The Taliban is largely a Pashtun group, although it has benefited from an influx of internationally-based Islamic fighters who favour the reestablishment of the Taliban as an Islamic theocracy, or the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in general.

Yet there has been a degree of tension between the Taliban and some of its pro-theocracy allies, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently declared a cease fire, angry at the Taliban for its targeting of civilians.

The Taliban had previously banished Hekmatyar from Kabul when they overran it in 1996. Hekmatyar bunkered down in the north, and refused to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government.

Partitioning Khandahar and Helmand could prove to be an expedient method of exploiting the long standing tension between Hekmatyar and the Taliban. Provided with a southern territory to establish a theocracy over, Hekmatyar and the Taliban may well turn on one another. There would likely be very little protest in northern Afghanistan, as Afghan nationalism has always been a historically weak force.

There are numerous problems with this tactic. First off, it's a very Machievellian tactic, condemning southern Afghanis to live in a state of civil war while the engineers of that civil war retire to the north to rebuild in comparative peace. Negotiating with Hekmatyar to recognize his faction as the legitimate government of southern Afghanistan could pose problems in future should his regime become a threat to the North.

Frankly, there is no guarantee that Hekmatyar could be convinced to live in peace with a neighbouring secular Afghan state.

Should the Taliban manage to defeat Hekmatyar (who would likely refuse any western aid in the conflict), and take control of southern Afghanistan, the problems posed by the partition would only be worse. It can pretty much be guaranteed that the Taliban will refuse to live in peace with a neighbouring secular Afghan state.

Allowing the Taliban to establish centralized control over southern Afghanistan would only allow it to return as a stronger force. While this could buy the Kabul government the time necessary to develop its own strengths, it would only underscore the risk of future warfare, with no guarantee that nothern Afghanistan would be able to defeat its antagonists.

If Hekmatyar (a fellow Pashtun) could be wooed to the side of NATO against the Taliban in exchange for the opportunity to establish the theocracy he so desires, then the partition of Afghanistan would be a very viable option.

But because he likely can't, partition is probably best considered a moot tactic.

Some would likely view the partition of Afghanistan as excising a cancer from the Afghan state. However, if one metaphorically considers Afghanistan as akin to a siamese twin, it really only represents the ill-concieved separation of one twin from the other.

Iraq: Everything old is new again

Iraq, on the other hand, is very much the quagmire that Afghanistan isn't. While partitioning Afghanistan (at least temporarily) could narrow the scope of the conflict, potentially confining it within Khandahar and Helmand provinces, partition does not offer the same hope for Iraq.

This is ironic, because the partition of Iraq may actually be the most natural thing in the world.

Consider the case of Kurdistan, described by some as "the Iraq that works". Since the end of the 1992 Gulf War and the establishment of the no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq, Iraq's Kurds have actually managed to meld Iraqi Kurdistan into a secure, stable and functioning state.

In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff portrays the Kurds as a defacto nation state living on the edge, already practically partitioned both from Iraq, but also from Kurdish regions of Iran, Syria and Turkey.

As such, officially partioning Kurdistan from Iraq as an independent state could potentially broaden the conflict, increasing regional and global tensions with Iran, Syria and Turkey, possibly introducing new players into the Iraq war.

In fact, the case against partitioning Iraq (at least south of the Kurdish region) is very strong. This was tried once by the British in the 1920s, when they tried to meld Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into a merchant republic.

This has little in common with the current proposal of separating warring sects of Sunnis and Shi'ites. The original partition attempt was a multi-ethnic movement, involving Arabs, Persians, Jews and Indians.

In the end, the entire movement was deep-sixed by a weak Iraqi central government, not much unlike the one that exists there now, that was incapable of containing a Basran youth movement that opposed the partition. Nationalism, the same thing that separates Kurds from Iraqis, was the same thing that bound Iraq together.

So while the partioning of Iraqi Kurdisan may seem perfectly natural (although purely a gambit in terms of Iraq and the United States' relationships with Iraq's neighbours), partition simply does not solve the problem of the civil war raging between Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq, with which the Kurds are almost entirely uninvolved.

While still able to identify their sectarian enemies due to their religious differences, Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis still identify themselves as Iraqis. Disrupting that sense of nationalism could prove very foolhardy indeed, as both groups would likely unite just long enough to protect that sense of nationalism, before turning on one another again.

Like the case of Afghanistan, partitioning Iraq offers no guarantee of success. Unlike the case Afghanistan, however, it offers a near-guarantee of failure.

For all their differences, Iraq and Afghanistan share one key similarity: in neither case can the government assert control over its territory.

Many of those who oppose the partition proposals oppose them because they are seen as a threat to the sovereignty of each state. Yet sovereignty only exists where it can be asserted. The ability of western-backed governments in Kabul and Baghdad to assert sovereignty over the total span of their territory is obviously not complete.

In the end, the partition of Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be inevitable. However, it's clearly preferable to allow that partitioning to unfold under "natural" historical processes, rather than as an ill-defined act of political engineering.

If Iraq and Afghanistan are to be partitioned, it will have to be Iraqis and Afghans who make that particular choice.

In the meantime, those other global powers engaged in each country will simply have to make do.

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