Ralph Peters

Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East

Robin Wright's Remapped Middle EastI was taken aback this past Sunday (September 29) by Robin Wright’s colorful map of a politically re-divided Middle East in the New York Times, which illustrated her article “Imagining a Remapped Middle East.” The map, entitled “How 5 Could Become 14,” shows a hypothetical future division of Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia into 14 potential new countries along with two additional city-states. I was immediately reminded of Ralph Peters’ troublesome remapping of the same region. As explained in a previous GeoCurrents post, Peters’ intriguing mental exercise in redrawing national boundaries was widely misinterpreted across the Muslim world as indicating a nefarious plot to enhance US power. As a result, the region’s pronounced anti-Americanism was further inflamed.

Ralph Peters' Remapped Middle EastWright’s article, however, shows that her purpose is different from that of Peters. Whereas Peters sought to depict a more rationally constituted political map, Wright rather speculates about a map that might be developing on its own, regardless of her personal preferences, much less her country’s geo-strategic designs. In this regard, the map has much to recommend it. Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq could well be in the process of disintegration, splitting into de facto states or state-like entities that might bear some resemblance to the territories depicted by Wright’s map. The likelihood of Iraq and Syria regaining stability as effective states within their internationally recognized boundaries seems remote, given the viciousness of the conflicts currently being waged. As things already stand, the non-country of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost as much of a state as Iraq itself, and arguable more of a nation. Whether Libya and Yemen can politically reintegrate is also an open matter. Mapping how the Middle East appears today, rather than how the international political community thinks it should be configured, is thus an essential task. Thinking about where such processes might lead is equally important. Wright’s thoughts on the subject are generally insightful, and her map has many pertinent and intriguing features. I commend the New York Times for publishing such a provocative piece.

French Mandate of Syria MapBut that said, I do have a few quibbles, and a couple of serious misgivings, about the manner in which Wright has remapped the region. To take the minor points first, the Jabal al-Druze could not form a realistic city-state simply because it is too large and too rural (under the French mandate of Syria in the 1920s, the semi-autonomous Druze state was roughly the same size as both Lebanon and the semi-autonomous Alawite state). A second minor issue concerns Wright’s division of Yemen into two rather than three states; the Houthi rebellion among the Zaidi (sometimes mistakenly called “Fiver” Shiites) rebels of northwestern Yemen has as much pertinence as the rebellion that that would revive “South Yemen” in the southern and eastern parts of the country. A final quibble concerns Wright’s “Alawitestan,” which would actually be a minority Alawite state, barring the massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Christians.

Saudi Arabia Remapped by Robin WrightMy serious misgivings concern Wright’s  treatment of Saudi Arabia. She realizes that she goes out on a limb here, noting that “The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia…” Unlike the other countries that she remaps, Saudi Arabia is a relatively stable state, with no serious challenges to its territorial integrity. Imagining the division of this country thus does not involve speculating about the possible end-points of processes already in motion, as is the case in the other countries considered. It is not at all clear, moreover, why Wright has divided Saudi Arabia as she has, as her article is largely silent here. Presumably, her division is based on the idea that the non-Wahhabi peripheries of the country could detach themselves from the Wahhabi core, potentially resulting in the emergence of the new states of North Arabia, Eastern Arabia, South Arabia, and Western Arabia.

As a purely mental exercise, there is nothing wrong with imagining the possible division of a relatively stable country such as Saudi Arabia, even if it will—as Wright herself admits—“infuriate Arabs who suspect foreign plots to divide and weaken them…” Saudi Arabia’s stability, moreover, might not be a solid as it appears. The entire country, after all, is something of an anachronism; as the personal domain and namesake of the Al Saud family, its essence is premodern. The lack of a regular system of succession in an absolute monarchy based on the 15,000-strong House of Saud further clouds the country’s future. (Similar problems exist in neighboring Oman, as explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.) Saudi Arabia’s religions minorities, moreover, are sternly repressed and deeply restive in several peripheral areas. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s main Shiite zone along the Gulf is also the site of its main oilfields is an added complication, one that provokes Saudi fear about Iranian power and political-religious design.

The possible future division of Saudi Arabia is thus conceivable if unlikely, but it is a much further stretch to imagine that it would split into the units that Wright has mapped. Detaching the core region of the country, homeland of both the Saud family and the Wahhabi religion establishment, from the peripheries does make a certain amount of sense, but one must wonder whether such a maneuver is based more on rational analysis or wishful thinking. Considering the harsh nature of Wahhabi beliefs and practices, coupled with the fact that Saudi state struggles to spread those beliefs and practices across the Muslim world, it is understandable that an American scholar such as Wright would want to see the territorial reach of the Wahhabi establishment cut down to size. (Note that her map results in a landlocked “Wahhabistan,” unlike that of Peters, which at least gives her hypothetical rump “Saudi Homelands” access to the sea.) But shorn of its oil revenues as well as those stemming from the Hajj, it is highly questionable whether this region could maintain a stable state. Local resources and enterprises would not be nearly large enough to support central Arabia’s current population.

M. Izady's Arabian Religion MapA deeper problem stems from the fact that much of Wright’s Wahhabistan is not actually majority Wahhabi, as can be seen in a comparison of her map with that of M. Izady (who idiosyncratically excludes Wahhabism from Sunni Islam). The key area here is Ha’il province, a historically non-Wahhabi area nonetheless ceded by Wright to Wahhabistan. Not only do most of the people of Ha’il practice a more mainstream version of Sunni Islam than those of Riyadh and Al-Qassim, but their province was the historical center of resistance in central Arabia against both the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics. Ha’il was the seat of the Rashidis, historical enemies of the Saudis, who were noted for their friendly tolerance of Shiites, a branch of Islam despised by the Wahhabis. Ha’il would thus fit much better with Wright’s “North Arabia” than with her “Wahhabistan.” Nor is it clear why Wright divides her North Arabia from her Western Arabia, as both regions are mostly mainstream Sunni in orientation.

Greater Yemen MapWright’s “South Arabia,” composed of four Saudi provinces and small section of a fifth, is also problematic. This region is indeed distinctive from the rest of Saudi Arabia, and is thus occasionally claimed as part of a would-be “Greater Yemen.” Yet little exists that would potentially hold this region together and provide glue for a new national identity. Most of this region is majority Sunni, but important Zaidi Shia communities are found near the border with Yemen (although Izady’s map might exaggerate their extent). Of all the sects of Shiite Islam, Zaidiyya is closest in form and content to Sunni Islam, but it also has a heritage of political autonomy that has nurtured the protracted rebellion across the border in northern Yemen. In Najran Province in the eastern portion of Wright’s South Arabia, however, a different religious community is demographically dominant: Ismaili Islam. This sect is invisible on Izady’s map, as it also falls into the general category of Shiism. But the Ismaili sect is quite distinctive from other varieties of Shiism, noted globally for its cosmopolitanism, devotion to secular education, and relative liberalism and gender egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, Ismailis in Najran have been deeply persecuted by the Saudi establishment. As noted by Human Rights Watch:

The Ismailis, a religious and ethnic minority with historic roots in Najran province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, face increasing threats to their identity as a result of official discrimination.  With the arrival of Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud as the governor of Najran in 1996, tension between local authorities and the Ismaili population increased, culminating in a confrontation between armed Ismaili demonstrators and police and army units outside the Holiday Inn hotel in Najran city in April 2000. The ensuing crackdown continues to reverberate throughout the region to this day.

Official discrimination in Saudi Arabia against Ismailis encompasses government employment, religious practices, and the justice system. Government officials exclude Ismailis from decision making, and publicly disparage their faith. Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.

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Saudi-Iranian Tensions and Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia

Map of Shia Islam and Oil in Saudi ArabiaAfter the United States accused Iran of hatching an elaborate and ill-conceived plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, a number of commentators expressed incredulity, some wondering why the Saudi diplomat would be so targeted. The most common response to such questioning was to outline the history of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and to stress the mutual antipathy between the Shia (Shiite) Islam dominant in Iran and the harsh Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Deeper analyses delve into Saudi Arabia’s recent support for the brutal crackdown on Shia protestors in nearby Bahrain, a small Shia-majority country ruled by a Saudi-aligned Sunni establishment. More comprehensive inquiry also highlights the unofficial Saudi response to Iran’s nuclear program, as revealed in diplomatic cables posted by WikiLeaks: “cut off the head of the snake!” King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States, hoping for US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Less often mentioned is the Saudi fear of Shia insurrection in its own territory, which the Riyadh government links to potential Iranian subversion. Although Saudi Arabia officially estimates its Shiite population at around five percent, informed sources peg it closer to twelve percent. Most Saudi Arabian Shiites, moreover, live in the eastern region of the country near the Gulf—a relatively poor part of the country that contains the major share of its oil resources. Inexplicably, unrest in this area tends to be overlooked by the US media. Rioting in the town of Awwamiya in early October, 2011, for example, was almost entirely ignored—as was the Saudi government’s reprisal. The fact that the Shia-inspired Houthi rebellion of northern Yemen, reportedly aided by Iran, also sets its sights on Shia communities across the border in southwestern Saudi Arabia is also routinely disregarded by the media. It is thus hardly surprising that the depth of Saudi-Iranian animosity continues to surprise many American observers.

The early October disturbances in Awwamiya arose after Saudi authorities arrested two elderly men in a bid to find and detain their sons, who were both wanted for organizing demonstrations in solidarity with the recent Shia protests in Bahrain. (More than twenty Saudi Shiite protestors had already been arrested, including two bloggers.) According to the Saudi news agency, the subsequent incident involved “assailants, some on motorcycles, us[ing] machine guns and Molotov cocktails” to attack authority figures. Fourteen persons were injured in the resulting melee, including eleven policemen. Saudi official immediately blamed the disturbance on “a foreign country.” An amusing understatement in one news report tells us that, “Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Texas, suggested the statement regarding foreign interference could be a reference to Iran.” Not surprisingly, the Saudi Arabian government vowed to suppress any further unrest in the region with “an iron first.”

An excellent assessment of the Shia situation in eastern Saudi Arabia, circa 2005, is found in the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Report N°45, “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The report emphasizes the efforts of King Abdullah to reduce the disabilities long imposed on the Shia minority. It also details the deep discrimination that the community has faced, while showing that its situation could have been much worse: after the Saudi state conquered the eastern region in 1913, “The ikhwan [religiously impassioned tribal warriors] exerted considerable pressure on the future King, Abd al-Aziz, either to forcibly convert or kill [the Shiites]. His refusal led in part to the ikhwan‘s 1926 uprising, which the al-Saud ultimately crushed.”

Saudi Shiites began to agitate for greater rights in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but their aspirations were crushed. Shia leaders subsequently urged their followers to work patiently with the country’s authorities to improve their situation. Many Sunni leaders, however, remain skeptical of such an accommodating stance. According to the report’s authors, “The belief remains strong among Sunnis that Shiites are merely biding their time, banking on external support — U.S. or other — to establish their own independent state. Such views regularly find their way to internet sites and chat rooms; some clerics have explicitly warned of a Shiite-U.S. connection.”

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Shia leaders again pressed the government to relax religious restrictions and to establish a constitutional monarchy. The Saudi government responded by arresting the activists. When Abdullah gained the throne in 2005, however, some constraints on the Shia community were eliminated. Such cautious movements toward religious pluralism have not pleased all members of the country’s religious establishment. As recently as 1991, the report specifies, “a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, issued a fatwa designating Shiites as apostates and condoning their killing.” The Crisis Group’s document also notes that many Saudi radicals who fought in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein did so precisely in order “to kill Shiites.”

Ralph Peters Blood Borders  MapThe Crisis Group’s report concludes by noting that “sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia are far from the boiling point, and the risk of imminent violent confrontation is low,” adding the opinion that “King Abdullah’s accession offers cautious reason for hope.” Such assessments now seem a bit premature. The widespread Saudi theory that the United States is abetting Shia unrest, however, seems unreasonable if not paranoid, considering the American fear of spreading Iranian influence in the region. The publication of Ralph Peters’ “Blood Borders” map of 2006, however, did seemingly lend credence to such conspiratorial thinking.

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Support for the Baloch Insurgency: Right-wing or Left-wing?

Ralph Peters Alternative Map of the Middle East

Ralph Peters Alternative Map of the Middle EastA recent (May 14) discussion thread in GeoCurrents takes on the one-dimensional left/right political spectrum. Jim Wilson perceptively notes that he “always like[s] watching political commentators trying to decide whether those who want to roll back the reforms of Deng Xiaoping are the right wing or the left wing of the Chinese Communist Party.” Another instance in which it can be difficult to distinguish left from right is the debate over the role of the United States in the Balochistan conflict. Several recent articles exemplify the difficulties involved.

The first case in point is a recent article by Tony Cartalucci, entitled “US Government is Behind the Baluchi Insurrection.” Cartalucci blames the United States, along with oil companies, international financial firms, and “corporate-financier funded NGOs,” for inciting violence in Baluchistan. The nefarious goals of such intervention, Cartalucci argues, are to partition Pakistan, to “hobble the development” of India, Iran, and China, to weaken Asia more generally, and thereby to secure the US-led “international system.” His conclusion is extreme:

For those wondering why America is attempting to escalate tensions in Pakistan over the “Bin Laden” hoax instead of using it as an excuse to leave the region, the Balkanization of Pakistan and the permanent disruption of Pakistan’s, Iran’s, and China’s development is your answer. It isn’t a matter of if, it is now only a matter of how big the insurrection can be grown.

On the face of it, Cartalucci’s article might seem to be on the far left of the political spectrum. The periodical in which it is published, Salem-News, carries article with such provocative titles as “Military Rape: (SOP) Standard Operating Proceedure.” On further examination, however, the situation is not so simple. Cartalucci, it turns out, traffics with the far right, working with Liberty News Radio, which features the infamous White-supremacist show, The Political Cesspool. Just below a recent Cartalucci piece on the LNR website is an article claiming that “Martin Bormann, the man who signed Hitler’s paycheck was a Soviet i.e. Illuminati agent.” Perhaps, in the end, Cartalucci is simply an extremist; as the French saying puts it, “les extremes se touchent” (“the extremes meet”).

A seemingly more conventional left-wing take on Balochistan is found in a recent Michael Hughes essay in the Huffington Post. Hughes comes down on the United States almost as hard as Cartalucci does, finding it complicit in the slaughter of 10,000 Pakistanis. His premises, however, are effectively the opposite of Cartalucci’s. In his perspective, the US has unconscionably sided with the vile Pakistani government against the “brave and noble” freedom fighters of Baluchistan. As Hughes puts it:

The Pakistani state has misused billions in U.S. military aid (belied by its harboring of the world’s most wanted terrorist) and has used U.S. military hardware—including F-16s, Cobra helicopters and CIA listening devices—to oppress the Baloch people on a daily basis, an oppression that features emotionally torturous tactics such as what the Baloch refer to by the literal euphemism “kill and dump” along with enforced disappearances at a clip that rivals Pinochet’s Chile…

Yet Michael Hughes presents his own admixture of left and right; he not only advocates the independence of Baluchistan, but calls openly for the “Balkanization” of Pakistan. He would like to see Sindh and Punjab become independent countries and the Pashtun areas of Pakistan appended to Afghanistan. Proposing such a division of a sovereign state is by no means common on the left. Most advocates of Pakistani partition are conservative, and most leftists would probably regard the idea as a “divide and rule” neo-imperial ploy.

Hughes begins his article with a nod toward seasoned journalist/scholar/ statesman Selig Harrison, who has been writing on Balochistan since the 1970s. Harrison is not easy to peg, either. Most of his positions, such as favoring normalization with North Korea, would be considered left-of-center. He does seek to enhance U.S. security, however, and one of his recent articles on Balochistan appears in a conservative journal, The National Interest. Yet even here his arguments begin on the left. In regard to Pakistan, he wants to end drone attacks and military subsidies while maintaining development support and the flow of IMF funds. Harrison would also like to increase market access in the US for Pakistani exporters. But in the end, Harrison too calls for the division of the country. His reasoning here hinges on US national security:

Most important, [the United States] should aid the 6 million Baluch insurgents fighting for independence from Pakistan in the face of growing ISI repression. Pakistan has given China a base at Gwadar in the heart of Baluch territory. So an independent Baluchistan would serve U.S. strategic interests in addition to the immediate goal of countering Islamist forces.

Such a position is difficult to square with Harrison’s other recommendations, which focus on calming the relationship between the Washington and Islamabad. From the Pakistani perspective, drone strikes are minor irritants compared to the possible secession of Baluchistan.

By advocating the break-up of Pakistan, Harrison and especially Hughes move into the territory of the right-wing strategist Ralph Peters, whose 2006 article “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” contemplates the wholesale rearrangement of the region’s geopolitical order. (I have reproduced Peters’ map here, adding the outline of Pakistan; see the previous GeoCurrents post for a longer discussion.) The publication of “Blood Borders” provoked outrage from Pakistan to Turkey, as many local commentators assumed that it represented a secret US plan for dismembering their countries to enhance American and Israeli power.

Regardless of Harrison and Hughes’ ideological proclivities and political bedfellows, their portrayal of the Baloch insurgency should be taken on its own terms. Both authors find the rebellion essentially secular, arguing that its success would help counter radical Islamism. Such a depiction may fit the Pakistani side of the border, but not the Iranian side. And even in Pakistan, some skepticism is warranted. Hughes views the Baloch people uncritically, claiming that they form “a society that believes in a traditional nonviolent version of Islam” and that “respect[s] the natural rights of each individual.” Such an appraisal may be a tad naïve. Baloch culture is usually described as deeply hierarchical, highly conservative, and suspicious of individual rights, especially where women are concerned. So-called honor killings are relatively common. In a particularly infamous 2008 case, five Baloch women—including three teenagers—were tortured and then buried alive for the “crime” of attempting to marry men of their own choosing.

Map of a Partitioned PakistanThe desire to dissect Pakistan, by the way, is not limited to Baluchi insurgents and American political writers. The view is probably most widespread in India. The most extreme partition scheme is the one seen on this map, which also divides Afghanistan. I have not traced the map’s provenance, but I can only assume that it is Indian. Note that the author’s rump Pakistan would not even include south Punjab.

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Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable?

Ralph Peters’s “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” is more than a troubling and provocative work. The article and the controversies surrounding it illustrate the central paradox of contemporary geopolitical discourse: as malformed as existing borders may be, mere talk about changing them can be harmful. Peters prods us to “think the unthinkable,” but to write the unthinkable is to provoke fast fury abroad.

For all of Peters’s miscues, many of his core ideas are sound. His initial assertion – that misplaced boundaries often generate injustice and strife – is spot on. And he is right to point out that the foreign policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the violence engendered by geopolitical misalignment for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of separatist demands. Because of that fear, any suggestions for alternative arrangements tend to be dismissed out of hand. Such a stance, Peters argues, is intellectually dishonest. New countries sometimes do appear on the map without ruffling the international order. Think of Montenegro, 2006. Such neophyte states must, however, come into being through the channels of global diplomacy if they want international recognition. Should they emerge on their own, their existence will be denied by the powers that be. In this way the system of international diplomacy that Peters mocks can indeed become a masquerade. Grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, the only effectively administered territory in the bedlam called Somalia? Impossibly destabilizing: surely anarchy would be loosed across the Horn of Africa!

The existing geopolitical framework—the division of the world into recognized sovereign countries—is indeed, in many areas, an unwholesome mess. Misplaced boundaries, stateless nations, and nationless states spawn perennial violence or repression. Iraq does not mend, regardless of the lives lost and the monies squandered. But if Iraq is, as Peters argues, “a Frankenstein’s monster of a state sewn together from ill-fitting parts,” does his conclusion necessarily follow: that Iraq should therefore be divided in three? That is a different question altogether. But even if the answer is a firm “no,” surely one would allow that the case for partition can at least be made. Should we not question poorly functioning structures, asking how they might be improved? Might curiosity not lead us to entertain alternative schemes of geo-division? Aren’t scholars, if not diplomats, almost duty-bound to “think the unthinkable” when confronting a quandary like Iraq?

Yet almost any suggestion for changing a particular geopolitical structure will generate troubles of its own. However problematic they may be for the larger society around them, all existing state boundaries serve one or more interest groups, which are bound to fight change. Moreover, modifying geopolitical structures to resolve one ethno-national dispute often spawns another. Hitherto stateless nations gaining sovereignty frequently find their own minority groups pining for independence or union with another state, as happened with the Serbs in Kosovo. There are good reasons, in other words, for deeming certain ideas unthinkable.

Going beyond merely imagining geopolitical restructuring to actually advocating it raises the stakes, especially when such recommendations come from a former U.S. military intelligence officer. For Ralph Peters to remap the polities of the Middle East was a perilous undertaking. The publication of “Blood Borders” intensified anti-American sentiments across the greater Middle East, especially in Turkey. Telling the Turks that justice demands ceding a quarter of their country to Kurdistan was bound to rouse fury. According to one poll, Turkey—a NATO ally traditionally known for its Western orientation—is now one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Only 12 percent of Turks reportedly maintain favorable views of the United States—a figure below even than that of Pakistan, another ostensible U.S. ally that Peters would seek to dismember.

Yet as Ralph Peters reminds us, borders do change and new countries do appear, regardless of what diplomats want and are willing to acknowledge. The world political map seemed stable enough in 1990, but how many new countries have emerged since then? The number is 26, higher than most people realize. In addition to the fifteen republics that gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, seven new countries appeared in the space of the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia gave rise to two, Eritrea split from Ethiopia, and East Timor hived off from Indonesia. Countries also disappear occasionally; South Yemen, for instance, was annexed by Yemen in 1990 (although many South Yemenis seek its rebirth). In all probability, the official map will continue to change; next year may see the birth of Southern Sudan. But any changes that will occur will likely be piecemeal and gradual, worked out not by audacious scholars ready to redraw the map at one stroke but by cautious government officials, persistent separatist leaders, and wary international diplomats, negotiating on a case-by-case basis. Wholesale restructuring of the kind envisaged by Peters is a pipedream. As the response to his thought-experiment has shown, imagining alternative geographies may be a useful exercise, but trumpeting any single alternative as a blueprint for change is something else altogether.

Next week we will examine Somaliland, the real but unmapped country that exists within the unreal but mapped country of Somalia. But first we must take one more look at the Iranian-Azeri issue that initiated this discussion of Ralph Peters. Why do Iranian Azeris identify so much more closely with Persians than with their fellow Azeris of Azerbaijan?

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Blood Borders and Their Discontents

In 2006, Armed Forces Journal published a short, map-illustrated article by retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, novelist, and pundit Ralph Peters. In “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look,” Peters argued that “unjust borders” drawn by “self-interested Europeans” were generating many of the Middle East’s problems. Changing state boundaries to reflect the “organic frontiers” of religion and ethnicity, he suggested, would reduce tensions and enhance justice. Peters insinuated that only radical remapping would allow the United States to withdraw its military: “If the borders of the greater Middle East cannot be amended to reflect the natural ties of blood and faith, we may take it as an article of faith that a portion of the bloodshed in the region will continue to be our own.”

“Blood Borders” did not make a major impression in the United States; few Americans have even heard of it. The same cannot be said for the greater Middle East. In the countries that Peters would pare down, his article generated widespread – and on-going – outrage. Iranian nationalists point to “Blood Borders” when arguing that the United States seeks to dismember their country. Sentiments are if anything stronger in Pakistan. A professionally produced Pakistani map entitled “Operation Enduring Turmoil” (see above) portrays a slightly modified Peters scheme as part of a conspiracy to thwart China and diminish Pakistan, allegedly masterminded by the Project for a New American Century (a defunct neoconservative think-tank). The general tenor of Pakistani public opinion is reflected in the first two sentences of a March 24, 2010 article in The Dawn: “Ralph Peters of ‘creating-the-map-of-independent-Balochistan’ and then getting it published in a Defense journal, continues to write. It seems like Mr. Peters is still living in the 80s, and can [only] see Iran and Afghanistan through the eyes of an old decrepit Cold War protagonist.”

It is worth examining the logic behind this infamous map more closely. One might imagine the “blood” in “Blood Borders” to connote genetic ties, but Peters’s groupings are founded on commonalities of language and religion, not those of genes. In his schema, four new countries would emerge: two—Kurdistan and Baluchistan—based on language, and two others—an Arab Shia State and an Islamic Sacred State—on largely religious grounds. The latter two do not have strong national roots. Very few Gulf Shiites have ever sought to build a single nation-state around their faith. Peters’s Islamic Sacred State, moreover, deviates completely from his cultural-nationalist foundation. The criterion for independence here is apparently instrumental: to remove Mecca and Medina from the Saudi state and the Wahabbi religious establishment.

Kurdistan is surely Peters’s most favored nation. The lack of a Kurdish state, he argues, is the “most glaring injustice in the notoriously unjust lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas.” Yet his own Kurdistan would do injustice to the Iranian Azeris, who would have to give the Kurds their core territory in and around the city of Tabriz. The logic behind such a maneuver is blatantly one of geopolitical advantage for the United States: “A Free Kurdistan, stretching from Diyarbakir through Tabriz, would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan.” Peters does not indicate what would happen to the Azeri-speaking inhabitants of the area, but he does offer a hint: “Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works.”

The rest of Iranian Azeri territory would go to Azerbaijan, roughly doubling its population. This “Greater Azerbaijan,” however, also has a weak national foundation. Although the northern Azeri and the southern Azeri speak the same language, they do not tend to see themselves as forming a single political community. The people of Iranian Azerbaijan, by and large, consider themselves to be Iranian, despite their irritation with Persian education. Peters’s expanded Azerbaijan would also apparently include a sizable non-Azeri region, Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but is currently under the control of a break-away “republic” closely linked with Armenia. Peters’s map implies that Azerbaijan should reclaim this area.

Contrary to Iranian and Pakistani claims, Peters’s geopolitical strategy is not that of the United States. U.S. foreign policy here, as elsewhere, rests on the assumption that boundaries between countries should stay as they are. Peters detests this idea: “the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure … [is] the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.” In rearranging the geopolitical framework, Peters would reward several US allies, but he would punish others. Pro-U.S. Jordan would gain a substantial slice of northwestern Saudi Arabia, but Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would suffer. Turkey would lose its east to Kurdistan – even its far northeast, which is not Kurdish speaking. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would not so much lose territory as be dismembered. Peters views the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as false friends scheming against U.S. interests while cooperating on the surface. The dissection of Saudi Arabia in particular is depicted as necessary for future regional peace and stability: “The rise of the Saudis to wealth and, consequently, influence has been the worst thing to happen to the Muslim world as a whole since the time of the Prophet, and the worst thing to happen to Arabs since the Ottoman (if not the Mongol) conquest.”

Peters’s assertion that an independent Kurdistan would be pro-US may be plausible. I am not so sure, however, that an independent Baluchistan would ally with the United States, except perhaps out of necessity. The same can be said for a potential Arab Shia State, in which anti-American sentiments would run strong. Such a country would be both wealthy and powerful, encompassing most of the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and southern Iraq, while virtually encapsulating oil-rich Kuwait. The creation of such an oil giant would likely terrify and infuriate Sunni Muslims, as well as Persian and Turkic Shiites, across the region.

Note that Peters’s Arab Shia State also deviates from his ostensible ethno-religious basis of division. Arabic-speaking, Shia-majority Bahrain, for example, would be excluded, while substantial Persian-speaking areas would be included (in the map above, such areas are mapped as “Bandari,” speaking the coastal or port-city form of Persian).

“Blood Borders” is obviously a problematic and provocative article, as we shall see in greater detail in tomorrow’s post.

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