Ambassador Robert Blackwill has proposed an intriguing strategy to split up Afghanistan. The United States would recognize a de-facto partition of the country that would grant the Taliban control of areas in their tribal heartland and concentrate Western development efforts in the rest of the country. Taliban dominion would be contingent on promises of good behavior, with unmanned drones and special-operations forces on hand to punish the jihadists when they don’t play well with others.
Afghanistan is already partitioned and always has been. It is one of the most partitioned countries in the world. It is divided by geography, ethnicity, tribe, clan, creed and village. Those who disparage President Hamid Karzai as being only the mayor of Kabul miss the point: There’s not much more he can be. Afghan traditions of local self-rule are too powerful to accept a unitary state. The current strategy doesn’t seek to centralize power in Afghanistan, nor should it. The Taliban were only able to impose their will over 90 percent of the country by the most brutal and primitive methods imaginable, and with ample foreign backing.
Strategies that seek to augment local control, such as the “Sons of Iraq” program implemented successfully in Iraq’s Anbar province, are likely to bear fruit. Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum worked in the 1980s with the Soviets to stabilize the parts of northern Afghanistan in which he held sway; that was one of the few Soviet success stories. He currently backs the Karzai government. Mr. Dostum is an authoritarian provincial ruler with no use for the Islamist ideology that is the root of all evil in the region, and so long as the United States has no problem working with anti-Taliban warlords, this can be a successful approach.
Ceding authority to the Taliban in any area is a mistake. It grants them the kind of legitimacy the United States should be seeking to undermine and sends a message to moderate tribal leaders in the Pashtun tribal areas, as well as farmers and villagers facing Taliban oppression, to abandon all hope. The last thing America should do at this critical time in Afghanistan is reward the Taliban for bad behavior.
Promises of cooperation from the Taliban are a recipe for failure, even if violations will theoretically be met with a punishing U.S. response. This was the lesson of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which President Nixon said would bring “peace with honor” to Vietnam. On paper, the deal made sense: North Vietnam agreed to a durable cease-fire, and the United States committed itself to backing up the South Vietnamese military with air power and materiel support should Hanoi attack. However, the communists never abandoned their strategic objective to take control of all of Vietnam, and after antiwar Democrats in Congress defunded military assistance to Saigon in 1974, the North attacked and conquered the South. The accords brought no peace to Vietnam, and only shame to America.
The Taliban, likewise, will never abandon its strategic objective of controlling all of Afghanistan, regardless of pledges they make to the contrary. Committed Islamic radicals, like communists, see agreements with unbelievers as simply nonbinding, temporary expedients. Even if such an agreement is backed by the threat of force from the United States, patient Taliban leaders need only wait for American attentions to drift elsewhere and repeat the model used by the Vietnamese communists. Meanwhile, the Taliban will have a functional safe haven in which to rest, reconstitute and prepare for the inevitable next phase of the jihad.
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