Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Seduced by the Map, Introduction (Part 1)

It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. In January 2022, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[i] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. Few experts anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel and material from the country before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse; it is still a shambles. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.

Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica[ii] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.

It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[iii] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.

The Fallacy of the Nation-State

The central argument of this work is that such common ground does exist and can be found in a fundamental misperception of what polities such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria actually are. According to the prevalent model of global geopolitics, these countries—like all others—are fully realized nation-states. The hyphen signals the idea that the nation, a self-conscious political community, precisely aligns with the state, a sovereign government ruling a clearly demarcated territory. In this view, the residents of any given country are assumed to feel a profound bond with their co-nationals, regarding them as fellow members of an imagined mega-community. By the same token, it is taken for granted that almost all of them view their state as the legitimate container of that national community, regardless of what they think of those running their government at any given time. Notionally, the nation-state earns such respect by serving its people, gaining legitimacy by providing security, infrastructure, and other public goods.

But commonplace though these expectations may be, cases abound where they simply do not apply. Over large swaths of the earth, the nation-state is more of an aspiration than a historical fact,[iv] and in some places it is little more than a cruel charade. To be sure, many nation-states are firmly established and highly functional; a country like Denmark or Japan has sufficient cohesion to survive even an extreme crisis. But others, including Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, are far less united. While not lacking national foundations entirely, their nation-stateness is continually contested; when push comes to shove, centrifugal forces can easily prevail. In practical terms, viewing all countries as members the same geopolitical species turns out to be a fallacy.

Yet this fallacy is just the tip of a deeper problem. If the nation-state is questionable, so too is the larger concept in which it is embedded: the sovereign state. Quite a few members of the United Nations do not function as coherent countries governing their full territorial endowments, regardless of whether they are nationally cemented by sentiments of common belonging. Somalia has been essentially a diplomatic fiction since 1991. Or consider Iraq in early 2003, just before the regime-change gambit. Most of the Kurdish northeast had been a de facto independent polity for a dozen years, abiding no governance from Baghdad. Although Iraq appeared on the map as a normal country, crisply cut at its borders, it did not function as one. Yet the optimistic post-invasion scenario of the U.S. war-planners was apparently predicated on the idea that Iraq’s division was merely a temporary aberration caused by inept and autocratic governance: remove the powers-that-be and install a representative government, and Iraq would quickly be restored to its rightful shape and place.

One could argue that effective Iraqi statehood was eventually restored, even if the cost was high and the reunification process prolonged. The country today has a functioning national government and ranks well below the worst position in the Fragile State Index.[v] But to the extent that Iraq has been patched back together, it has been accomplished through a combination of raw force and pretense, carried out largely at the insistence of the international community. Tellingly, the U.S. government believes that it must retain troops in Iraq to maintain security. Non-state militias remain potent, omnipresent corruption corrodes trust in the government, and sectarianism regularly overrides national identity. More important for the long term, the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the northeast accepts its membership in Iraq on a mostly notional basis, its people overwhelmingly rejecting membership in the Iraqi nation. In 2017, the KRG even fought a brief war with Iraq’s central government over what is supposedly a mere internal border. As it achieved victory, Baghdad expelled the Kurdish Peshmerga military from Kirkuk,[vi] the city constitutionally deemed by the Kurdish Regional Government to be its rightful capital. Needless to say, this is not how a sovereign state, let alone a nation-state, is supposed to function.[vii]

Iraq may be an extreme case, but it is not the only one, and even stable countries often fail to fulfill the expectations of the sovereign state. Many do not extend their effective power and legitimate authority across all their lands. A few do not enjoy the complete independence that sovereignty ostensibly entails. Defying diplomatic conventions, ultimate authority is not always fully lodged in the 193-odd sovereign states that formally constitute the global political community. To the contrary, it is often intricately distributed among a variety of polities and networks of varying characteristics. The global political architecture of our day, in other words, is more ambiguous and convoluted than conventional models would have it. It is also far less modern than we think.

The idea that the world is (and should be) neatly divided into a set number of equivalent independent nation-states that embrace their position in a structured international order is a recent one, fully globalized only in the mid twentieth century. The new geopolitical structure was designed to facilitate a transition away from a world of warring empires into a more just, equal, and peaceable interstate system. At its core was an earlier premise that sovereign states enjoy the status of personhood, allowing them to function as individual members of a cozy community of their peers. As spelled out in the influential 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, each sovereign state “constitutes a sole person in the eyes of international law,” and each is “juridically equal, enjoy[ing] the same rights and hav[ing] equal capacity in their exercise…”[viii]

There are good reasons for classifying sovereign states as fictitious persons of equal standing for juridical purposes. Recasting an anarchic realm of global politics into one of rule-bound community relations has no doubt helped ease global strife. But it is one thing to embrace state personhood as a legal ideal, and quite another to treat it as reality. In their most important attributes, independent countries are nothing like persons. To begin with, they vary in size by more than five orders of magnitude. More important, countries, unlike human beings, are eminently divisible. Their (geo)bodies periodically break apart, merge with others, or exchange appendages with their neighbors. Although great efforts have gone into stabilizing the post-war geopolitical system by guarding against such territorial changes, those efforts have not always been effective.

In short, while we tend to treat countries as singular entities, in fact they are composite constructions. Geopolitical stability and popular legitimacy are noble ideals well worth supporting. But to the extent that we regard them as achieved, we delude ourselves about how the global political system really works. Mistaking norms for facts can easily lead politicians and foreign policy experts astray.

All these problems are compounded when the nation-state is assumed to be the product of an ineluctable evolutionary trajectory, one that culminates in representative governments the world over. This idealistic vision, closely associated with the United States, is also attractive, and there are good reasons for pursuing it. But in an age of rising autocracies and faltering democracies, the notion of its inevitability can no longer be taken seriously. More important, trying to force such an outcome on a resistant society can backfire spectacularly, as Afghanistan so well demonstrates.

Yet the ill-fated Afghanistan venture was predicated precisely on the idea that a modern democratic state can be compelled into existence by a combination of raw force and money, even one as seemingly ill-fitted for the role as Afghanistan. What had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II could supposedly be replicated anywhere. All nation-states, after all, are commonly regarded as entities of the same fundamental kind, subject to the same forces of social development that can quickly lead, with adequate prodding, to the same destination.

When the Afghan war was initiated, such an overweening worldview had recently been reinforced by global events. The first Gulf War had been a walkover, fanning greater ambitions. At the same time, the stunningly rapid yet wholly unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union and of its Warsaw-Pact allies encouraged over-confidence. For many, political evolution clearly pointed in the direction of the neoliberal nation-state; for some, that was nothing less than the preordained destination of history’s grand arc. A decade before the invasion, Francis Fukuyama, drawing on the grandiose ideas of Hegel, gained global renown for arguing that humankind’s central story was coming to its culmination, as there was no longer any real rivalry between competing economic and political systems.[ix] The market-oriented nation-state had vanquished all rivals, and likely for all time.

Although such a teleological view of history had long been thoroughly debunked by philosophers and historians alike,[x] it has evidently retained more than a little intellectual appeal.[xi] Widely celebrated in foreign-policy circles, the “End of History” thesis had clear implications for military interventions. If the final results are inevitable, why not jump-start the process? Surely the Afghan people would quickly learn to appreciate the benefits of living in a self-determining developmental state and would come to thank the Americans and their allies for their sacrifices and generosity in bringing it to fruition ahead of schedule. For many foreign-policy mavens, the regime-change fantasy was compelling if not intoxicating. Neoconservatives reveled in the power of war to create a geopolitical playing field more advantageous for the United States, while their neoliberal allies warmed to its purported ability to install representative governments that would build globally integrated national economies.

The manifest failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in pervasive if inconspicuous reassessments of foreign-policy options. Regime-change is no longer on the table, and neoconservatism has lost its luster. Global events and trends have thoroughly undermined the “end of history” thesis. But for all of this, the underlying geopolitical model on which such dysfunctional ideas rest has not budged. It is now time to dislodge it, as it thwarts our ability to understand the globe and deal with its problems effectively. Misconceptions and maladaptive actions are inevitable if we view the world as a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle[xii] divided into 193 basic units, all of which are characterized by the same essential features.

(Note: Many of the endnotes refer to a bibliography, which will be posted separately)

[i] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022.

[ii] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue.

[iii] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.

[iv] As Arnold Hughes (1981, 122) argued, “Though we loosely refer to the recently created countries of [sub-Saharan] Africa as ‘nation-states,’ and their peoples as ‘new nations,’ it is by no means certain that such formal appellations have any substance.”

[v] In 2020, it was slotted in the 17th position:

[vi] According to a report in ArmyTimes, U.S.-donated Abrams tanks were crucial in this Iraqi victory over the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. The article concludes by noting that its reportage “counters much of what U.S. officials have said about the incident.” Furthermore, it highlights the unintended consequences of  “U.S. weapons in the region that may have upended the balance of power between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” See “US Abrams Tanks Sway the Battle in Kirkuk,” by Shawn Snow, ArmyTimes, Oct. 19, 2017.

[vii] Relations between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional government improved significantly after this event to the extent that by 2021 Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi could reasonable claim that “Now is the golden age of relations between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” In strictly logical terms, however, this formulation implies that the Kurdistan region is not part of Iraq. See: “Erbil-Baghdad relations in a ‘golden age’: Kadhimi to Rudaw.” Rudaw, May 5, 2021.

[viii] The quotations are from Article 2 and Article 4 of the declaration. See

[ix] Fukuyama 1992.

[x] See, most notable, Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957).

[xi] See Graeber and Wengrow (2021) on the ubiquity of teleological reasoning in accounts of geopolitical evolution.

[xii] Evidently, the first jigsaw puzzle, made U.K. in 1766, was map-based. According to Linda Hannas (1972) jigsaw puzzles were originally used to teach students political geography.

Further Problems with the “Ethnolinguanymic State” Concept: The Case of Afghanistan

Map of Underfit StatesLast Saturday’s post on “ethnolinguanymic states” generated pointed criticisms, especially from Maju, whose frequent comments on GeoCurrents are much appreciated. I realized afterward that the main problem was a lack of clarity in the initial post. The ultimate point was not to argue that “ethnolinguanymic” countries (those whose names incorporate the names of their main language) should be regarded as solid nation-states, with a close match between state boundaries and national identity. If anything, it was to argue the opposite: although ethnolinguanymic states might seem to form solid nation-states, reality is often quite different. Hence the framing of the concept in the English language: I am interested here primarily in misconceptions that I commonly see circulating in the English-language media and among my English-speaking students.

The case of Spain, discussed intensively in the GeoCurrents forum, illustrates the central issue well. American students generally expect to find a high degree of linguistic commonality and national solidarity in Spain, assuming that virtually all citizens of Spain are Spanish-speakers Spaniards who identity themselves as such. But that is not the case, given the strong sense of separate national identity found among the Catalans and Basques, and to some extent the Galicians as well. In my experience, students who have spent time in Barcelona or the Basque country participate enthusiastically in classroom discussions on this topic, often stressing how surprised they were to find such strong anti-Spanish-national sentiments in these areas.

The identification of the Spanish (or Castilian) language with Spain is further challenged by the fact that most native Spanish (or Castilian) speakers reside not in Spain but in Latin America. Ibero-Americans, of course, do not identify themselves with the Spanish nation. In general terms, national identity in the Western Hemisphere did not develop on ethnolinguistic grounds, although in the officially “plurinational” state of Bolivia, current-day “nations” are defined on such a basis.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, several “ethnolinguanymic” countries are potentially challenged by the fact that a higher percentage of the people in the ethnolinguistic group on which the state is supposedly founded live in a neighboring country, a phenomenon introduced in a previous GeoCurrents post under the label of the “underfit nation-state.” Each case has its own complexities and deserves a post of its own. For the sake of simplicity, I will note here only that more Mongols live in China (mostly in “Inner Mongolia”) than in Mongolia itself, more Lao live in Thailand than in Laos (to the extent that Isan is synonymous with Lao), more people who speak Malay as their mother tongue live in Indonesia than in Malaysia, more Azeris (or Azerbaijanis) live in Iran than Azerbaijan, and more Southern Sotho speakers, Swazi speakers, and Tswana speakers live in South Africa than in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana respectively.

Map of Ethnic Groups in AfghanistanAfghanistan is doubly compromised on this score. “Afghan” is generally taken to be synonymous with Pashtun (or Pakhtun, in the “hard” dialect of the Pashto language), yet more Pashtun people live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. By the same token, more members of the Tajik ethnic group live in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The latter imbalance is even more striking if defined on strictly linguistic grounds. The Tajiks of Tajikistan supposedly speak Tajik whereas those of Afghanistan supposedly speak Dari, but Tajik and Dari are merely different names of the same language. Two other major ethnic groups of Afghanistan, the Aimaks and Hazaras, also speak Dari, and Dari has long been the prestige language as well as the main language of inter-ethnic communication across the country. Taken together, Afghans who speak Dari probably outnumber those who speak Pashto, perhaps by a substantial margin. And to add to the confusion, Dari itself is a dialect of Persian, inter-intelligible with Farsi as spoken in Iran. In fact, as stated in the Wikipedia, “native-speakers of Dari usually call their language Farsi. However, the term Dari has been officially promoted by the government of Afghanistan for political reasons…”

Map of Major Languages by District in AfghanistanAfghanistan is thus merely a seeming ethnolinguanymic state; in actuality, the name of the country does not follow the name of the majority ethnolinguistic group, as the country has no majority population. And as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post, the identification between the term “Afghan” and the modern country called Afghanistan is further challenged by geo-historical considerations.

Thomas Friedman’s Afghanistan Fantasies

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid Empire

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid EmpireOn November 1, 2011, noted New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman implicitly placed the United States in “a long list of suckers,” a roster composed of countries that had been foolish enough to invade Afghanistan. Friedman came up with the idea while on a tour of historical sites in northern India. When told by a guide that in the late 1500s a “great battle” had followed a Persian attempt to conquer the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, Friedman “had to laugh” at the foolishness of the endeavor. Iran, in his mind, had just been added to the register of feckless “countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.” Friedman concluded his column by arguing that the United States would be wise to pull out of Afghanistan and attempt instead to influence local military contingents and regional powers from afar. Such a course, he claims, would be both more cost-efficient and more effective than trying to maintain U.S. armed forces in the country indefinitely.

I have no complaints against Friedman’s recommendations, but that is beside the point, as advocating or criticizing specific policies is beyond the scope of GeoCurrents. I do, however, have major objections against his use of historical and geographical evidence to bolster his position. Rather than engaging in serious geo-historical reflection, Friedman merely trots out the hackneyed idea that Afghanistan is the perennial graveyard of empires, a country singularly resistant to foreign rule. In reducing the complex history of the region to a crude stereotype that pertains at best only to the 19th and 20th centuries, Friedman discredits his own analysis.

Map of Persian Safavid EmpireThe basic errors in Friedman’s historical reconstruction are pervasive and deep. Let us begin with his initial paragraph. Following his Indian tour guide, Friedman states that in the late 1500s “Afghanistan was part of India and the Moghul Empire.” Actually, in the late 16th century “Afghanistan” was nothing at all, as the country did not exist until 1747. More to the point, the western and northern portions of the territory that now forms Afghanistan generally remained outside of the fluctuating boundaries of the Moghul Empire. Through most of  the late 1500s and 1600s, the western region was part of the Persian (Safavid) Empire, which at times controlled most of what is now Afghanistan. As the map of the Safavid Empire shows, the Uzbek Khanate also vied for power across much of the region. In cultural and historical terms, however, Persian-speaking Herat—the “Pearl of Khorasan”— is much more a Persian city than an Afghan one. Herat was not permanently annexed by Afghanistan until the mid-1800s, and without British military assistance the Afghans might have lost the city to the Qajar Dynasty of Persia on several occasions.

In the final analysis, any late 16th century battles over Herat and Kandahar were simply typical struggles along the frontiers of expansive empires, rather than examples of the pointlessness of invading the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. Friedman’s secondary contention, that “Afghanistan” was “part of India” in the late 1500s makes even less sense. In the 16th century, “India” was merely a vague geographical expression used by European that included Southeast Asia (“Farther India”) and in some circumstances extended across East Asia to encompass the Americas. Subsequently, India came to be defined (in certain circumstances) on physical grounds as the South Asian subcontinent; “India” in this sense includes southern Afghanistan up to the crest of the Hindu Kush, but not northern Afghanistan, which has instead been classified as part of Central Asia.

Map of the Growth of Afghanistan in the 1800sFriedman’s column moves on from the Persian-Mughal struggles in the late 1500s to the so-called Great Game of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British and Russian empires vied for influence in the borderlands between Central and South Asia. Once more, Friedman takes a limited historical episode and transforms it into a permanent geo-historical feature: “it is worth … recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.” Yes, “great powers” have often “wrestled for supremacy” in the region under consideration, but the same thing can be said about many other parts of the earth. And the notion that Turkey is now seeking “supremacy” in Afghanistan is too outlandish to merit discussion.

After discussing “the Great Game,” Friedman rapidly segues to the US decision to remove its armed forces from Iraq, writing as if it were part of the same story: “Just as I don’t buy the notion that we need to keep playing The Great Game in Iraq, I also don’t buy it for Afghanistan.” Here he unmoors the concept of the “Great Game” from its Central Asian geographical context as well as from its late 19th century historical milieu, framing it as a permanent, trans-historical, trans-regional dynamic. I “don’t buy” this analogy: although there are many similarities between the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, differences also abound. In the end, understanding is not advanced by forcing these conflicts into a common mold based on regional competition between the British and Russian empires in the late 1800s.

As regular GeoCurrents reader have seen, I am suspicious of the idea of the nation-state. In particular, I find the commonplace notion that all countries are automatically united across their territorial extents by the common bonds of national solidarity both simplistic in conception and dangerous when used to guide foreign policy. Afghanistan has never formed a coherent nation-state. It originated in the 18th century as the conquest empire of the Pashtun warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani, founded on the military subjugation of diverse peoples scattered across an vast area that had never previously been politically united. This “Durrani Empire” subsequently weakened and was whittled back to its Pashtun core. Its successor state, the Emirate of Afghanistan, saw its boundaries drastically fluctuate, as mid- and late-19th century conquests brought in Tajik, Uzbek, and other non-Pashtun areas, while British advances subtracted significant areas in the southeast. Borders were finally stabilized in the late 1800s, but they remain contentious to this day; Afghanistan does not recognize the validity of the Durand Line that separates its territory from that of Pakistan. Equally pertinent, many Tajiks, Uzbeks and members of other minority groups in the country have at best marginal loyalty to any entity called Afghanistan, which they continue to suspect as a potential vehicle for Pashtun domination.

If the idea of intrinsic unity is problematic when applied to a state as feeble and disunited as contemporary Afghanistan, it is positively pernicious when retroactively applied to the territory of modern Afghanistan as it existed in previous centuries. Such an idea is implicitly deployed, however, whenever anyone describes the country as the “Graveyard of Empires,” a geo-historical cliché that will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post.


Violence In Nuristan, Formerly Kafiristan

The province of Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan has recently emerged as one of the most insecure regions of the world. On January 13, 2010, a fourth delegation sent to negotiate the return of kidnapped Greek social worker Athanasios Lerounis returned home empty-handed. In October 2009, the United States abandoned its four key outposts in the province after attacks by hundreds of insurgents killed eight soldiers. As U.S. forces withdrew, so did aid officials, including American agriculture and forestry experts. The usual winter lull in fighting has not been pronounced in Nuristan this year.

Winter fighting in Nuristan is no easy matter.The extremely rugged province often receives heavy snowfall, unlike most of Afghanistan. The combination of fierce storms and on-going fighting has brought desperate conditions to the civilian population. So far, somehow, the World Food Program and World Health Organization have been able to deliver emergency supplies to parts of the region. But with the U.S. pullback, Nuristan essentially came under the rule of the Taliban, and now seems to form something of a haven for al Qaeda and the violent Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Toiba.

From a historical perspective, Nuristan would seem an unlikely refuge for radical Islamists insurgents. Until the 1890s, the region was known by a different name: Kafiristan, or “land of the infidels.” Up to that time, the people of Nuristan practiced a polytheistic animism, as recounted in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would Be King (later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine). Religious practices varied considerably from valley to valley, as Nuristan is noted for its extreme linguistic and ethnic complexity. In fact, what we call Nuristani is not a single language but rather a linguistic subfamily of its own, encompassing at least five separate tongues.

After the governments of British India and Afghanistan settled on the Durand Line border in 1893, the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan (the “Iron Emir”) determined to establish his authority over all areas on his side of the demarcation line. In 1895-96 his forces conquered and subdued Kafiristan. Once Afghan rule was established, the Emir forcibly converted the local people to Islam, despite the fact that compulsive conversion is contrary to the tenets of the faith. As a result, animism in the area survived only on the British side of the Durand Line, in what is now the Chitral region of Pakistan. There the Kalash, a related group who number some 6,000, retain their polytheistic faith and practices.

On the Afghan side of the border, Islam spread quickly despite its violent introduction. The province was renamed “Nuristan,” meaning the “land of light” – the light being that of the Islamic faith. In the 1980s, Nuristan was one of the first parts of Afghanistan to rebel against the Soviet-imposed regime, founding its resistance on strict Islamic ideals. Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, large areas of Nuristan formed the self-declared fundamentalist Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan. This “state” was recognized as a distinct geopolitically entity by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Incidentally, because the people of Nuristan tend to have light skin, hair, and eyes, the myth has spread that they are descendants of a contingent of Alexander the Great’s army. More likely, such features derive from the much earlier and larger migration streams that brought Indo-European languages to the region. After all, blue eyes and blond hair are hardly unknown among the Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

For more information, see Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site: