By M K Bhadrakumar
When Robert Blackwill, who was former United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's deputy as national security adviser and George W Bush's presidential envoy to Iraq, took the podium at the International Institute of Strategic Studies think-tank in London on Monday to present his "Plan B" on Afghanistan, readers of the Wall Street Journal would have wondered what was afoot.
Blackwill is wired deep into the bowels of the US establishment, especially the Pentagon headed by Robert Gates. And the IISS prides itself as having been "hugely influential in setting the intellectual structures for managing the Cold War". Thus, the setting on Monday was perfect.
Blackwill has remarkable credentials to undertake exploratory voyages into the trajectory of US foreign policy. In a memorable opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in March 2005 titled "A New Deal for New Delhi", he accurately predicted the blossoming of the US-India strategic partnership. He wrote:
The US should integrate India into the evolving global non-proliferation regime as a friendly nuclear weapons state ... Why should the US want to check India's missile capability in ways that could lead to China's permanent nuclear dominance over democratic India? ... We should sell advanced weaponry to India ... Given the strategic challenges ahead, the US should want the Indian armed forces to be equipped with the best weapons systems ... To make this happen, the US has to become a reliable long-term supplier, including through co-production and licensed manufacture arrangements.Blackwill's construct almost verbatim did become US policy. Again, in December 2007 he penned a most thoughtful article titled "Forgive Russia, Confront Iran". He wrote:
To engage Russia, we need to substantially change our current policy approach to Moscow ... This is not to underrate the difficulties of interacting with Moscow on its external policies and its often-raw pursuit of power politics and spheres of influence ... But there are strategic priorities, substantive trade-offs and creative compromises that Western governments should consider. The West needs to adopt tactical flexibility and moderate compromise with Moscow.Again, he hit the bull's eye in anticipating the US's reset with Russia. So, an interesting question arises: Is he sprinting indefatigably toward a hat-trick?
There can be no two opinions that the crisis situation in Afghanistan demands out-of-the-box thinking. Blackwill's radically original mind has come up with an intellectual construct when hardly 10 weeks are left for US President Barack Obama to take the plunge into his Afghanistan strategy review.
Blackwill foresees that the US's Afghan counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy is unlikely to succeed and an accommodation of the Taliban in its strongholds becomes inevitable in the near future. The current indications are that the process is already underway. (See Taliban and US get down to talks Asia Times Online, September 10, 2010.)
The Blackwill plan probes the downstream of this "accommodation". Blackwill flatly rules out a rapid withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan as that would be a "strategic calamity" for regional stability, would hand over a tremendous propaganda victory to the world syndicate of Islamist radicals, would "profoundly undermine" the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and would be seen as a failure of US leadership and strategic resolve.
Therefore, he proposes as a US policy goal a rationalization of the tangled, uneven Afghan battlefield so that it becomes more level and predictable and far less bloody, and enforcement of the game can come under new ground rules.
Prima facie, it appears scandalous as a plan calling for the "partition" of Afghanistan, but in actuality it is something else. In short, US forces should vacate the Taliban's historic strongholds in the Pashtun south and east and should relocate to the northern, central and western regions inhabited by non-Pashtun tribes.
Blackwill suggests the US should "enlist" the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras to do more of the anti-Taliban resistance, instead of COIN. And the US should only take recourse to massive air power and the use of special forces if contingencies arise to meet any residual threats from the Taliban after their political accommodation in their strongholds.
A striking aspect of the Blackwill plan is that it is rooted in Afghan history and politics, the regional milieu and the interplay of global politics. Since 1761, Afghanistan has survived essentially as a loose-knit federation of ethnic groups under Kabul's notional leadership. The plan taps into the interplay of ethnicity in Afghan politics. The political reality today is that the Taliban have come to be the best-organized Afghan group and they are disinterested in a genuinely broad-based power-sharing arrangement in Kabul.
Unsurprisingly, the non-Pashtun groups feel uneasy. Their fears are not without justification insofar as the erstwhile anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has disintegrated and regional powers that are opposed to the Taliban, such as Russia, Iran and India, have such vastly divergent policy objectives (and priorities) that they cannot join hands, leave alone finance or equip another anti-Taliban resistance.
The Kabul government headed by President Hamid Karzai is far too weak to perform such a role. (Blackwill, curiously, doesn't visualize Karzai surviving.) According to Blackwill's plan, the US offers itself as the bulwark against an outright Taliban takeover. It envisages the US using decisive force against any Taliban attempt to expand beyond its Pashtun strongholds in the south and east, and to this end it promises security to non-Pashtun groups.
If it works, the plan could be a geopolitical coup for the US. It quintessentially means the US would hand over to the Taliban (which is heavily under the influence of the Pakistani military) the south and east bordering Pakistan while US forces would relocate to the regions bordering Central Asia and Iran.
The US would be extricating itself from fighting and bloodshed, while at the same time perpetuating its military presence in the region to provide a security guarantee to the weak Kabul government and as a bulwark against anarchy and extremism - on the pattern in Iraq.
The US's and NATO's profile as real-time providers of regional security and stability can only boost their influence in Central Asian capitals.
Seemingly recent random "happenings" mesh with Blackwill's plan, including:
(Blackwill said in an interview with the British Telegraph newspaper last week, "How many people really believe that Kandahar is central to Western civilization? We did not go to Afghanistan to control Kandahar.")
As a seasoned diplomat, Blackwill argues that China and Russia will choose to be stakeholders in an enterprise in which Washington underwrites Central Asia's security. True, China and Russia will be hard-pressed to contest the US's open-ended military presence in Afghanistan that is on the face of it projected as the unfinished business of the "war on terrorism". Central Asian states will be delighted at the prospect of the US joining the fight against creeping Islamism from Afghanistan.
The Blackwill plan brilliantly turns around the Taliban's ascendancy since 2005, which had occurred under Pakistani tutelage and, in retrospect, thanks to US passivity.
Blackwill admits 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 program, nuclear terrorism and the future of Iraq".
Without suffering a strategic defeat, the US would be able to extricate itself from the war while the drop in war casualties would placate US opinion so that a long-term troop presence (as in Iraq) at the level of 50,000 or so would become sustainable. This was exactly what General David Petraeus, now the top US man in Afghanistan, achieved in Iraq.....