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Stabilisation of Afghanistan

AT the Nato conference in Lisbon last November, the alliance resolved to start withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning 2014.

One proposal gaining attention is mooted by a former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, the neoconservative mainstay of the US think tank establishment and a lobbyist for India. His security framework is called `Plan B: The de facto partition of Afghanistan`. However, the suggested solution is likely to create further destabilisation not only in Afghanistan, but South and Central Asia as well.

Blackwill argues that since President Obama`s strategy in Afghanistan has failed the best alternative will be a de facto partition of Afghanistan to enforce a security plan. According to this proposal, Afghanistan`s Pakhtun areas will be cordoned off from the rest of the country.

This isolation zone will be policed by counter-terrorism forces stationed in the north of the Pakhtun belt, reminiscent of the British policy, put into effect in 1923, of controlling the Indian tribal belt through the strategic location of military forces. In the Blackwill proposal, drone technology and the presence of Special Operation Forces will be adequate for the sealing of this area.

Blackwill believes that such quarantine of Afghanistan`s Pakhtun areas would allow the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces to consume themselves and thus the spread of the contagion will be stopped by this anti-terrorist Maginot Line.

To conduct the military aspect of such a plan, Blackwill advocates the retention of 40,000-50,000 US troops compared with the existing level of about 110,000. He advocates that the US will continue to target the Al Qaeda and Taliban within the designated `killing zone` as well as in the terrorist safe havens of Fata and elsewhere in Pakistan.

This plan does not imply that the US will completely cut itself off from the Taliban areas; rather it would be in command by shaping policies and events related to Taliban control, so that the capabilities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are kept within manageable limits and they are reduced to insignificance over time. He adds, “We would also target Afghan Taliban encroachments across the de facto partition lines and terrorist sanctuaries along the Pakistan border.”

Blackwill argues that his plan, “would allow Washington to focus on four issues more vital to its national interests: the rise of Chinese power, the Iranian nuclear programme, nuclear terrorism and the future of Iraq”. Unfortunately, US foreign policy is not clear. I believe that Blackwill`s plan is a panacea for a long war that will find support amongst US hawks. But it will be financially crippling in the long run.

Secondly, the creation of a Pakhtun `killing zone` in Afghanistan will affect Pakistan`s Pakhtuns in Fata, Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Balochistan.

Thirdly, such a plan will shift the strategic momentum along Pakistan`s border with China, Iran, India and Afghanistan. The Durand Line that is the international border extending some 2,640 kilometres and dividing Pakistan from Afghanistan will disappear as the indicated zone extends east and southwards from Afghanistan. Therefore, the plan will not only destabilise Afghanistan but also engulf Pakistan.

Fourthly, the plan will shift the war deeper into Pakistan. Thus Blackwill`s strategy will increase the existentialist threat to Pakistan and its military will be stretched to curb the Taliban revival in its core areas of Waziristan, Swat, Bajaur and Orakzai.

Naturally, the fallout from Fata will increase insecurity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. However, one of the biggest dangers is that about 40 million Pakhtuns who reside in Pakistan will at some stage be pushed into the dynamics of establishing a separate identity as the Blackwill plan opens the issue of ethnicity in Pakistan.

A bigger nightmare also piggybacks on the Blackwill plan. If the projections highlighted above transpire, the writ of the Pakistani state will deteriorate. It will permit the Pakistani jihadi outfits to emerge as international agents in their own right.

In this scenario, it is to be expected that their narrative is not likely to be of pan-Islamism like Osama bin Laden`s but more attuned to the subcontinental religious rivalry between Hindus and Muslims. Their obvious target will be India — that is the only way they will be able to be consumed by martyrdom.

As the local jihadi organisations emerge they are likely to direct their efforts against India. If these projections occur and the US is not fully engaged any transgression by the jihadi outfits will encourage India to react. Pakistan facing dire consequences would be likely to threaten the use of the nuclear option for state protection.

In the absence of US restraint on India, as in December 2008, such a situation could lead to a nuclear Armageddon. It will be a huge tragedy for the subcontinent particularly when India is fast developing into a future intermediate power and will thus lose the promise of what it could become. How this will actually unfold is anyone`s guess.

At another level, the creation of a security wall around Afghanistan will engage Afghanistan and Pakistan`s neighbours. As in the past, both Iran and Russia will support the northern Afghan tribes, and Pakistan will support the Pakhtuns. This will lead to the start of another disabling proxy war that could be worse than the civil war of the 1990s in Afghanistan.

It is likely that Afghanistan and its immediate neighbours will oppose the acceptance of this plan — Pakistan in particular would not want to see it as it would encourage ethnic separatism. The Blackwill plan is thus a recipe for greater trouble and is not a solution. Pakistan needs to concentrate on getting its steps right in the next sequel of the Great Game.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

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