New Delhi: Sometimes in geopolitics, discretion is the better part of valour. The Narendra Modi government has taken needless umbrage at Donald Trump’s dig at India’s nonexistent peacekeeping role in Afghanistan. This writer has long pointed out that India’s infrastructure and humanitarian contributions, while being noteworthy for the size of the economy, are ultimately meaningless as long as peace, security and stability are denied to Afghanistan. It looks civilized in seminar rooms to moralize about Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace processes. But peace has often to be fought for to obtain and keep and even war shan’t fetch peace and stability unless thought is given to partitioning Afghanistan. There was an old scheme to partition Afghanistan which has fallen into desuetude. It needs revival and reappraisal.

Afghanistan has a well-deserved reputation as a graveyard of empires. In the Great Game between the British and Tsarist empires in the nineteenth century, Britain fought three wars with Afghan rulers to prevent a Russian foothold, and its object was achieved at great expenditure of blood and treasure. Partitioning Afghanistan was considered but dropped in favour of adopting the Durand Line as the British India-Afghan border while the Afghan-Russia frontier to the north was also settled under British oversight. Russia acknowledged minimum British interests in Afghanistan where a prior British “forward policy" was increasingly abandoned for a mildly interventionist policy called “masterly inactivity” in a bid to make Afghanistan a buffer state.

The Durand Line, however, stuck in the throat of Afghan rulers then and continues to do so. From the Durand Line to the Arabian Sea, Afghanistan lost nominally-held Baluchistan and present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to British India. And the loss was made permanent by their incorporation into the post-1947 state of Pakistan. Till the British departed India, conflicts with Afghanistan were a regular feature, and the British tried to overcome Afghan nationalism by promoting conservatism and radical Islam. These came to haunt the country and the region once more in the late 1970s with the Soviet invasion and the “mujahideen” counter set up by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The partition plan, all the same, kept cropping up through the wars and skirmishes, the dramatic externally-induced radicalization of Afghanistan, the fruitless occupation of the country by imperial Britain, the Soviet Union and the continuing one by the United States, and the failed attempts at modern and progressive nation-building. After the radicalization of Afghanistan, nation-building with the end-aim of establishing a liberal-democratic Afghanistan was always something of a chimera. The United States has reached a bitter realization of this after a long war of eighteen years. India is persisting with the pipe dream for want of another means of contributing to the Afghan peace process having ruled out military intervention long ago.

But for that matter, neither is straightforward war-fighting a solution to the Afghan crisis. The US military has admitted defeat. At the most, its presence could sustain the stalemate. The Taliban and other insurgent forces get to keep the territories they control. The Afghan central government with US backing holds the rest. But US backing cannot be open-ended as Donald Trump has made amply clear. US forces may be reduced by seven thousand to half soon which would leave the Kabul government less capable to hold on to the country.

History is repeating itself but its lessons remain unlearnt. Afghanistan’s partition was considered several times in the past century and a half but parties concerned stoked radicalization instead, took half-measures or abjectly submitted to the status quo. Leaving India, the British were all for the “disappearance” of Afghanistan in which they were supported by the French. Quitting Afghanistan a few decades later, apparently the Soviet Union toyed with splitting the country into distinct northern (Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik) and southern (Pashtun) halves. In 2010, it was the turn of US officials, baffled by the Afghan question, to revisit the partition scheme, and they won widespread support for it from across the Atlantic. Like always, the scheme slipped away from public and official consciousness.

The incumbent US president tends to think and act out-of-the-box and he is deeply concerned about the Afghan no-win situation. In conventional military terms, Afghanistan is lost to the United States: as indeed it was lost to other Great Powers prior. But a partition of Afghanistan would make it passably governable. The poison of terrorism and Pashtun nationalism would be concentrated in the southern half of Afghanistan. A southern Pashtun half-state would compel Pakistan to recognize the Taliban for what it is and genuinely contribute to global counterterrorism efforts. Russia and China would see in the partition arrangements a viable means to insulate their territories from terrorism. And all the three Major Powers, the United States, Russia and China, would be easy in their minds that the “graveyard of empires” has finally met its demise. India was always close to northern Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, a fine fighting force, was partly propped up by India. India’s modest nation-building plans may yet meet with success there.