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Afghanistan’s Unavoidable Partition

NEW DELHI – The United States, still mired in a protracted war in Afghanistan that has exacted a staggering cost in blood and treasure, will formally open peace talks with the Taliban, its main battlefield opponent, in the coming days (apparently despite last-minute opposition from Afghan President Hamid Karzai). With the US determined to withdraw its forces after more than a decade of fighting, the talks in Doha, Qatar, are largely intended to allow it to do so “honorably.”

How the end of US-led combat operations shapes Afghanistan’s future will affect the security of countries nearby and beyond. Here the most important question is whether the fate of Afghanistan, which was created as a buffer between Czarist Russia and British India, will be – or should be – different from that of Iraq and Libya (two other imperial creations where the US has intervened militarily in recent years).

Foreign military intervention can effect regime change, but it evidently cannot reestablish order based on centralized government. Iraq has been partitioned in all but name into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, while Libya seems headed toward a similar tripartite, tribal-based territorial arrangement. In Afghanistan, too, an Iraq-style “soft” partition may be the best possible outcome.

Afghanistan’s large ethnic groups already enjoy de facto autonomy, which they secured after their Northern Alliance played a central role in the US-led ouster of the Taliban from power in late 2001. Having enjoyed virtual self-rule since then, they will fiercely resist falling back under the sway of the Pashtuns, who have ruled the country for most of its history.