New Delhi: Donald Trump is making the mistake of his predecessors to trust the Taliban and Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan and hinder anti-US Islamists from establishing bases in the country. While US troops could make no further contributions to Afghan peace and stability, removing them altogether, without alternative strategies in place, would make the United States vulnerable again to 9/11-like attacks. The United States will likely station some special forces and keep attack drones to hand to secure American interests but these could never be adequate. Leaving Afghanistan, besides, with no solution to the core problem that caused US intervention eighteen years ago will dent US image as a superpower and permit Islamists in Afghanistan and elsewhere to proclaim victory over a second military colossus after the former Soviet Union. This cannot be good news to either the United States or Russia with its “soft underbelly” of Central Asian Republics abutting Afghanistan nor even China faced with Uighur separatism and violence.

The problem really has to do with treating Afghanistan as a single geographical entity containing a homogenous population when the opposite is the case. To secure the British Indian Empire from the Russian Empire and the nineteenth century Great Game, Britain divided Pashtuns along the Durand Line leaving them split between what became Pakistan after Partition and today’s Afghanistan. The northern frontier of Afghanistan with the Russian Empire was established under British guidance. The idea of this artificial construct was to keep Afghanistan as a buffer between the two empires with pacificatory expeditions being mounted from the British side from time to time with limited success. After independence, Pakistan’s biggest fear was Pashtun irredentism for dissolution of the Durand Line and the incorporation of North West Frontier Province (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Baluchistan into Greater Pashtunistan. Attempting at pre-emption, Pakistan injected Islamism into Afghanistan’s early progressive monarchy and republicanism, and the practise started by Z. A. Bhutto was expanded and perfected by his murderer, the late martial law administrator, Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. Pakistan seeks strategic depth in Afghanistan against India. Pakistan is the single-biggest stumbling block to Afghan peace. As a nuclear power, there are limits to international action against Pakistan. However, the narrative that has favoured Pakistan so far to the detriment of the United States, Russia, indubitably China though it would not readily accept it, the Central Asian Republics, Iran and India, could be altered by one decision. And this is the partition of Afghanistan into southern/ eastern and northern/ western parts, one left to Pashtuns and the other held by Hazaras, Tajiks and other Afghan sub-nationalities who have lost at the hands of Pakistan-backed Pashtun nationalism.

The partition of Afghanistan is an idea that goes back to the Partition of India but it enjoyed a brief revival through the writings of Robert Blackwill, the former US ambassador to India and deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration. While Blackwill readily admitted that it was not an ideal solution, it was still the best one in the absence of any military means to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan. With the second administration since Bush’s admitting to the tremendous odds in Afghanistan, and Pakistan celebrating the imminent departure of US troops from the country, so to speak, by orchestrating the Phulwama massacre in Jammu and Kashmir, Donald Trump cannot hand victory to the Taliban and to Pakistan by withdrawing. Sooner than Trump can imagine, Islamists indulged by the Taliban and tolerated by Pakistan will regroup in Afghanistan and target the US homeland. This will happen as surely as night follows day.

Partitioning Afghanistan will stop the Taliban/ Pakistan juggernaut in its tracks. Once Pashtuns are confined to central and eastern Afghanistan, their irredentism, fired by territorial constriction, will compel Pakistan to make a break with the Taliban. This will bring a marked change in the terroristic complexion of Pakistan with benefits flowing to surrounding countries. In the interim, Pashtun women and girls fleeing Taliban’s medieval rule could be accommodated in northern and western Afghanistan, in Iran, and pressure will mount on Pakistan to accept them as well. Hemmed in from all sides, Islamism in Pashtun Afghanistan will burn itself out over time without overly destabilising the region. Exhausted, the Taliban will try to make the best of what’s left with it of Afghanistan, and should the northern and western regions of the partitioned country progress and modernize with US, Russian and Iranian influence, it will compel transformation in Taliban rule.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan is capitulation for the United States, while partitioning the country suddenly leaves the Taliban and Pakistan with few cards. If the graveyard of empires is itself divided formally and permanently, Afghanistan will cease being a disruptor of world peace. There is no other means to pacify Afghanistan and contain Taliban nationalism. It was done with Germany. And Japan has been deprived of Kurile Islands as a price for waging war.