Partition and liberation - Rafia Zakaria - January 19, 2011

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LAST week, while Pakistan was enveloped in its own disasters, another region of the world long wracked by war saw a development few could have predicted a decade ago. On Jan 9, 2011 voting began in Sudan over the question of whether the Muslim-majority north should secede from the oil-rich south.

While definitive results have not yet been released, early reports indicate that the two will indeed separate. According to a report published in The New York Times, nearly 95 per cent of voters in the southern Sudanese city of Juba voted to form a separate country. If the partition does occur, President Omar al-Bashir of the north has promised that “sharia will be the only law and Islam the only religion of the north.”

The agreement to hold a referendum, part of the conditional peace that was negotiated in 2005, seems to have provided a solution to what was for decades termed an intractable conflict. In the midst of the bloody genocide in Darfur, few analysts would have banked on the likelihood of the north ever acquiescing to turning over the oil-rich south. Why on earth would the central government of a struggling nation ever accede to handing over territory that would likely be its best source of export revenue? And yet this is exactly what seems to have taken place in these early days of January 2011. Sudan, the site of genocide and wracked by a seemingly endless war, has demonstrated its capacity to chart a peaceful future for itself.

The denouement of the Sudanese referendum provides important lessons to those scratching their heads for solutions to another intractable conflict whose dismal prognosis currently confounds pundits and generals alike. Afghanistan, ravaged by three decades of war, tribal and sectarian divisions, and a near-ineffectual central government, is, in loose comparative terms, South Asia’s Sudan. The country’s south is home to the Taliban, now the world’s most notorious villains, and seems to have little in common with the Hazara- and Uzbek-dominated north.

Reports from the northern cities of Hazara and Mazar-i-Sharif report markedly different realities from those of the south, including strong support among the population for development projects, indigenous initiatives to improve infrastructure and a genuine proclivity towards supporting a sustainable state. The problems afflicting the south are too well-known to restate but represent in loose terms the opposite of the north: a burgeoning and seemingly unstoppable insurgency, lack of interest in supporting a central government, and a markedly different vision for governing Afghanistan. All of these factors present a compelling if not indubitable set of parallels to Sudan, where the north and south had irreconcilable differences that could only be supported by charting separate identities.

The argument for partitioning Afghanistan has most recently been championed by Robert Blackwell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. In his essay, ‘Plan B in Afghanistan: Why a De Facto Partition Is the Least Bad Option’, Blackwell argues that given the current inability to make inroads into stabilising the Afghan south, a partition of the two swathes of the country may be the elusive panacea for a costly war.

Enumerating the other options, the unlikelihood of stemming corruption in the Karzai government, the inability of the Afghan National Army to take on the pestering Taliban insurgency with any degree of success and, most troublingly, the presence of an occupying army largely ignorant of local mores and customs, Blackwell presents a good case. Nato forces in Afghanistan currently number 150,000, or 30,000 more than the Soviets had in the region at the peak of their military presence. And yet, despite the huge number of troops, a barrage of drone attacks in neighbouring Pakistan and the deaths of hundreds of militant leaders, the conflict has failed to yield a viable state to which power can be handed over.

Creating north and south Afghanistans also makes sense from the Pakistani perspective. If, as many analysts have suggested, much of the conflict in that region is a proxy war between India and Pakistan, separating the two may provide arenas of influence to both countries without distorting the delicate balance of power in the region. A partition of Afghanistan would also deliver Pakistan from its increasingly entrenched reputation as the reason for Isaf failure in Afghanistan.

While giving the south away to a Taliban-dominated set-up could well be characterised as an Isaf defeat, it would be a bounded one, offering territorial containment of a problem that could then be addressed with more precision. Concentrating military efforts on Taliban-controlled areas would better fit into the model of conventional conflict instead of the largely failed hearts-and-minds model that supposes it can win over civilian populations while killing off insurgents enmeshed within them.

From a global perspective the idea of creating new states with few resources, decrepit infrastructure and many hungry mouths to feed seems like an idea doomed from its inception. The future of states like southern Sudan and the imagined southern Afghanistan will undoubtedly hinge on the ability of other states to prop up their governments. The populations of these states are likely to get little else than the purported high of finally having achieved ‘liberation’. While such a recipe would not whet the palates of those imagining well-functioning democratic states, they may well be the only way to thwart cancerous conflicts that have been destabilising all those around them.

The reversal of roles, where those used to the relatively easy task of perpetuating insurgencies are suddenly forced to confront the onerous challenges of actual governance, could deflate zealotry and force the evaluation of utopia against a poverty-stricken reality. The burdens of liberation, delivered via partition, may in this way teach lessons that may not be learned in any other way.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political

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