Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 1)

Chapter Two:

How the Government of the United States Maps the World

Among all the global maps in circulation in the United States today, one has special status: the CIA’s map of the world. Endorsed by the government, handsome in design, comprehensive in coverage, regularly updated, and (most seductive of all) free to download, this digital map can be readily accessed on the website of the Central Intelligence Agency.[1]

At a glance, what this world-image conjures is an attractive vision of a stable international community, with sovereignty and representation for all. How exactly does it do this? For starters, the Agency’s (anonymous) cartographers, like almost all their contemporary counterparts, divide the land area of the globe into colored blocks that snap together cleanly at their borders. While obviously differing in size, these units are all depicted in the same way, implying that they are all the same species of thing: independent countries (or, in popular short-hand, nation-states). With just a few exceptions, generally noted in fine print, each territory shown is a sovereign state with voting rights in the United Nations General Assembly.[2]

On closer inspection, to be sure, a few anomalies crop up. The CIA does not actually depict all its puzzle-pieces as polities of the same kind, nor do all of them have seats in the UN.[3] Small-font labels signal a two-level hierarchy, distinguishing sovereign states from dependencies. Most dependencies are too small to be readily visible on the world map, and only become legible when one zooms in or looks at the more detailed regional maps found on the same website. We will look more closely at formal dependencies toward the end of this chapter, after considering a number of other geospatial categories that go unmarked altogether.

The main reason for this extended critique of the CIA world map is straightforward. Having seen how this document is routinely handled—cited and reproduced as if it simply translated an agreed-upon international order into visual form—I am convinced that a sustained critical conversation about its premises is overdue. To jump-start that conversation, the present chapter is structured as a guided tour of sorts, alighting on a succession of places where the contours of power on the ground belie the picture on the page. We begin with de jure countries that appear only on the map, followed by de facto governments that appear only on the ground. Zones of contested sovereignty come next, including a handful that are shown as well as more that are hidden. While scores of borders around the planet are contested, only a few of those conflicts surface on the CIA map—and when they do, the signaling is often ambiguous. Finally, we will examine entities that exercise territorial control without taking the form of sovereign states. Whether colonial remnants or military installations, these areas of para-sovereignty barely get a cartographic nod.

All of these slippages and oversights are well known to regional specialists and local journalists. What has been missing until now is a thorough-going critique of the map as a whole: a comprehensive overview of the anomalies that have accrued to it over time, and an assessment of the cumulative challenge that they represent to its image of the international community. Proceeding from presence to absence, we begin with visible puzzle-pieces that are not quite what they seem.

Quasi-states and Cartographic Figments

Some of the most striking anomalies in the CIA world map today are a product of inertia. Although the map is annually revised in minor ways (and occasionally in major ways, when newly recognized countries are ushered into the UN), the geopolitical model on which it is based is essentially stuck in the post-WWII settlement and the subsequent decolonization movement. A lot has happened in global geopolitics since then, but those changes have been only selectively sanctioned by the U.S. diplomatic establishment. As a result, by the early twenty-first century, a number of countries on the CIA map could no longer claim the integrity that they once took for granted.

Consider Somalia and Yemen. In the terms of political scientist Robert Jackson, both today are “quasi-states”[4]that have lost control over most of their putative territory. While it is theoretically possible for Somalia or Yemen to experience a renaissance in the coming years, that scenario seems unlikely. Somalia disintegrated decades ago, at the end of the Cold War in 1991;[5] since then, most of its territory has been under the control of autonomous regional governments, shifting separatist groups, clan leaders, and Islamist insurgents. Although Somalia periodically veers toward stability and reunion, such conditions have never lasted long; prompting firm opposition from the almost fully autonomous regions of Puntland and Jubaland.[6] Yemen fell apart more recently, but its situation is equally fluid. At the time of writing, Yemen’s nominal territory was effectively divided among half a dozen factions: Houthi rebels (backed by Iran), the Hadi-led government (backed by the Saudis), a secession-minded Southern Transitional Council (supported by the United Arab Emirates), and various tribal coalitions and Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. Nonetheless, both Somalia and Yemen continue to occupy the seats in the United Nations that were assigned to them decades ago. Likewise, both continue to be mapped by the CIA as though they controlled lands that their current governments can only dream of regaining.

Iraq and Syria are also cleaved by governmental rivalries that remain invisible in the cartography of the CIA. In Iraq, the Kurdish northeast remains a land apart, its people overwhelmingly devoted to independence[7] and its military force, the Peshmerga, refusing to take orders from Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has essentially been extirpated, and although other Islamist groups in the interior northwest hold substantial territory, their days seem numbered. But Turkey maintains its own zones of occupation in this area, confounding hopes for easy unification. More significant, northeastern Syria seems firmly detached from the rest of the country. Outside the Turkish “security belt,” the northeast is mostly controlled by Kurdish-led forces who have declared the de facto autonomous area of Rojava. Rojava is governed under markedly different principles from the rest of Syria: an unusual amalgam of libertarian-socialist principles (originally espoused by Brooklyn-born Murray Bookchin[8]) along with the Kurdish feminism (jineology) of Abdullah Öcalan (the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Considering the Kurds’ military prowess – theirs was the primary force that defeated ISIS in Syria – it is unlikely to be vanquished any time soon by the Assad regime. Rojava’s leaders advocate a united Syria governed under their own framework of socialist decentralization,[9] a vision that effectively precludes accommodation with the Damascus regime.

A handful of other countries have serious gaps in their territorial sovereignty that the CIA map similarly passes over. Consider the interior of Africa. Central African Republic (C.A.R.) is a large but notoriously weak state, roughly half of whose lands lie beyond the scope of its struggling government. As of 2019, ten percent of the population had been internally displaced, while another fifteen percent languished in refugee camps beyond its borders.[10] If the CIA were to publish an empirically accurate map of territorial control in C.A.R., its lawless zones and refugee encampments would need to be marked. Neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R. Congo) is also severely compromised. Having temporarily lost control over half of its territory in the 1990s and early 2000s – much to forces from little, genocide-wracked Rwanda – D.R. Congo has again been threatened with meltdown in the last few years. Some 1.4 million of its people were forced to flee their homes in the diamond-rich Kasai region in the summer of 2017, yielding an alarming total of 3.8 million displaced persons in the country as a whole.[11] Kasai continues to suffer from the so-called Kamwina Nsapu Rebellion, marked by campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Throughout eastern D.R. Congo, ethnic violence and warlord-led resource conflicts remain rife. In the first seven months of 2019, this region experienced more than 200 attacks against clinics and health workers struggling against Ebola.[12]

Equally troubling is the armed conflict in the adjoining state of South Sudan, which was granted independence in 2011. Split between the closely related Dinka and Nuer peoples, South Sudan has been so plagued by ethnic conflicts that it ranked in 2018 as the world’s most fragile state.[13] In the area where it converges with the C.A.R. and the D.R. Congo, so little formal governmental authority is exercised that the infamous warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has been able to shelter there for years, protected by as few as 100 soldiers.[14] Here is a stark case of what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the “sovereignty gap”: “the disjunction between the de jure assumption that all states are ‘sovereign’ regardless of their performance in practice — and the de facto reality that many are malfunctioning or collapsed states … .”[15]

It is possible that some of these countries will be patched back together in the coming years or decades. Whether such reassembly will prove enduring is another matter, as evidenced by Libya. For a decade after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was wracked by civil war. From 2014 to 2020 it was geographically split between the UN-supported Government of National Accord (backed primarily by Turkey and Qatar) and so-called Tobruk Government (supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia), with remnant Islamists and tribal militias contending for power as well. In early 2020, a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia collapsed within hours. But in December of the same year, a “permanent” ceasefire agreement was signed, followed by the creation of an interim unity government in March 2021. Two months later, militants stormed the hotel used as the Presidential Council’s headquarters.[16]

The post-“Arab Spring” chaos in Libya attracted mercenaries and militants from other countries, destabilizing its geopolitical neighborhood. Chad saw the battlefield death of its long-serving President, Idriss Déby, an almost unimaginable event in the modern world. Déby was killed by forces of the Chadian rebel group FACT that had just surged out of their haven in southern Libya, protected by Libya’s Tobruk Government. In subsequent fighting, FACT forces were apparently rebuffed, although the rebel group did proclaim the independence of the Tibesti region of northern Chad,[17] a proclamation that was barely noticed by the global press.

If fractured countries like Libya can sometimes be reassembled through negotiations, seemingly stable countries can collapse with alacrity. In 2019, Ethiopia was a rising star of economic development, its prime minister (Abiy Ahmed) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for patching up relations with neighboring Eritrea. A mere two years later, a prominent U.S. political journal warned that Abiy’s actions against the restive Tigray region had “condemned Ethiopia to dissolution.”[18] At the same time, an opinion piece in al Jazeera claimed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were jointly “engaged in systemic ethnically cleansing, rape, starvation, and massacres on an unprecedented scale” in Tigray.[19]


[2] International law goes further, granting each the status of personhood. As is spelled out in Article One of the influential Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933), “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The full text of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States can be found at:

[3] The CIA maps Kosovo as a sovereign state, but it is not recognized as such by the UN.

[4] Jackson 1990.

[5] Ahmed and Green 1999.

[6] “Why Is Somalia’s Political Crisis So Difficult to Solve?” by Corrado Cok. Fair Observer, May 24, 2021.

[7] In the 2017 referendum, the vast majority of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan opted for independence. See “More than 92% of Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan Back Independence,” by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, September 27, 2017.

[8] See “How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy,” by Debbie Bookchin, New York Review of Books Daily, June 15, 2018.  How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy

[9] As spelled out in preamble to The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons:

“In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.

Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life. In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.)”

[10] “Central African Republic Situation,” UNHCR: Central African Republic situation

[11] “DC Congo Violence Displaces 3.8 Million: UN,” Al Jazeera, August 26, 2017. DR Congo violence displaces 3.8 million: UN | DR Congo News

[12] “An Epidemic of Violence: How do you reform a country where gunmen torch Ebola clinics?The Economist, August 3, 2019. Pages 35-37.

[13] Fragile State Index: (see data for South Sudan)

[14] “Uganda Ends Its Hunt for Joseph Kony, Empty-Handed,” by Zach Baddorf, New York Times, April 3, 2017:

In 1990, Robert Jackson (1990, p.149) portrayed neighboring Chad in even starker term, writing that it amounted to little more than a violent arena “where rival ethnic warlords preyed upon innocent bystanders and laid waste to the countryside in a perennial struggle to seize control of a nominal state represented by the capital city.”

[15] Ghani and Lockhart 2008, p. 21.

[16] “Libya: Gunmen storm hotel used as Presidential Council HQ,” al Jazeera, May 8, 2021

[17] See “Over 300 Rebels Killed in Northern Chad,” by Peter Kum and Rodrigue Forku. Anadolu Agency, April 19, 2021.

[18] “Abiy Ahmed Has Condemned Ethiopia to Dissolution,” by Michael Rubin. The National Interest. May 16, 2021.

[19] “The Tripartite Alliance Destabilising the Horn of Africa,” by Goitom Gebreluel. Al Jazeera, May 10, 2021.