Is retreating from the south a solution to the stalemate?
Robert Blackwill, a former foreign policy advisor to both presidents Bush, came to London today to deliver his arguments for a de facto partition ofAfghanistan. He made his case in Washington and in the Financial Timesearlier in the summer, and appeared in London this afternoon at the invitation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies to rebut some of the criticism his ideas have received, and presumably because his ideas reinforce a similar argument made last week by the IISS itself. The same week, a group of pundits and ex-officials calling themselves the Afghanistan Study Group delivered its own challenge to the conduct of the war.
The timing of all this seem to be determined to a large extent by the approaching US strategy review in December, which is expected to pull British strategy in its wake, and the seeming absence so far of any major challenge to the current counter-insurgency orthodoxy inside the US and UK establishments. In that context, Blackwill is an interesting voice as a Republican arguing for a partial retreat, although he doubtless represents an small minority of the party.
This is his argument as laid down at the IISS this afternoon. The counter-insurgency is failing, and is unsustainable in terms of its cost in blood and treasure ($100 billion a year). It is entirely disproportionate in relation to the original objective of the Afghan mission – to eliminate al-Qaida. Blackwill cites the CIA as said there are 50-100 AQ fighters in Afghanistan, perhaps 300 in Pakistan. He asked: “Is it worth $100 billion to keep them on one side of the Durand line rather than the other?”
On the other hand, he rejected the suggestion that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, quoting the CIA chief Leon Panetta as asking why should the Taliban negotiate in good faith, if they believe they are already winning.
Blackwill’s proposal is to cede control of the “Pashtun homeland” in the south and east to the Taliban and instead defend the north, west and Kabul with a smaller US-led foreign force of 35,000 – 50,000, which would continue to strike against AQ targets either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
To the objection that the Taliban would simply invite AQ back into its zone of control, he argued that it is just as possible that they would have “learned the lesson” of 2001, and if they did not, “the skies over the south and east would be dark with Predators”.
He admitted that it was “tragically true” that the de facto partition plan would be a defeat for women in the ceded area, but said that was not why the US went to war in the first place.
Blackwill said the residual foreign force would be enough to prevent all-out civil war which would inevitably break out if there was a total withdrawal. To fears of the emergence of an irredentist Pashtunistan on both sides of the Durand Line, threatening Pakistan, he responded by saying that the US and its allies could not be more concerned with Pakistani territorial integrity that Islamabad itself.
For some reason, Blackwill declined to answer a question on what happens when a Taliban south fights on under the stirring banner of a united Afghanistan, buoyed by its strategic victory, and by the outrage caused by a strategy heavily reliant on Predators and other air strikes. That would also be a recruiter for AQ worldwide.
Joshua Foust raises the same sort of objections on Registan.net to the Afghanistan Study Group’s (ASG’s) similar proposals.
Gerard Russell, who ran the British government’s outreach to the Muslim world from 2001 to 2003 and who is now based at Harvard, was also doubtful, raises objections as follows:
Economically the northern side would be dependent on trade with Iran. Its roads with the Stans are very poor. But it really makes no sense. You’d need to reconfigure the whole Afghan road network.
It would stoke conflict. Iran and Russia will be drawn into supporting the north, and Pakistan into supporting the south, creating a potentially lethal proxy war that would be worse than the civil war of the 1990s, because the stakes will be higher.
..I doubt any neighbour will want this – Pakistan in particular dislikes the idea of ethnic separatism, and the central Asian states show little enthusiasm to open their borders with Afghanistan. In any event I don’t see how it solves the fundamental problems of leadership which beset both the north and south of Afghanistan.
Advocates of a negotiated settlement also argue that there are ways of scaling down the foreign presence in Afghanistan without handing the Taliban a huge strategic victory and taking the ground away from war-weary moderates in the insurgent leadership who might accept a deal.
As things stand, it seems unlikely the Blackwill/IISS/ASG argument will have much impact when President Obama approaches his December review. The word out of Washington is that the administration will stick to its counter-insurgency strategy, notwithstanding Joe Biden’s well-publicised reservations, and will listen to General Petraeus when he asks for a relatively slow drawdown of troops from next July.
Then again, things could always get even worse, and make Plan B look no so much attractive as unavoidable.
Posted byJulian Borger Monday 13 September 2010 – guardian