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GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

(Note: GeoCurrents is a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, particularly in reference to current global events. On rare occasions, however, opinion pieces are posted on the site. This is one of those occasions. As I regard this issue as extremely important, this post will remain at the top of the GeoCurrents page for at least the next week.)

Now that Joe Biden is a possible candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attention is again falling on a 2006 editorial in which he and Leslie Gelb advocated dividing Iraq into three ethnically based regions. At the time of its publication, the Biden-Gelb essay was widely misinterpreted as a call for dismantling Iraq altogether and replacing it with independent Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish states. But Biden, Gelb and their defenders were quick to insist that their intention was actually that of saving Iraq by restructuring it as a federation, giving substantial autonomy but not outright independence to these three regions.

 

As this controversy made clear, any proposal for the actual dismemberment of Iraq was essentially unthinkable at the time for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The existing geopolitical order had to be maintained, such thinking had it, in order to preserve stability. If the Kurds of Iraq were to acquire their own country, what would prevent countless other disgruntled ethnic groups from demanding the same? If the international community were to consent to Kurdish desires and recognize their independence, anarchy could spread across the region and eventually, perhaps, the entire world. As a result, the mere mention of partition was generally dismissed out if hand.

Kurdistan Independence InevitableMore recently, this inflexible consensus seems to be yielding, although in an understated manner, with little discussion of underlying principles. Major media sources are now wondering whether the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not inevitable, regardless of the warnings of international-relations experts. Some writers have taken a step further, advocating the immediate recognition of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq. Consider for example, Andrew Stuttaford’s offhand remark in a recent National Review essay on the ISIS threat: “The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory.”

But despite such rumblings, most foreign-policy analysts still shudder at the thought of breaking up Iraq. Certainly the current U.S. administration remains committed to the country’s unity. As the indispensable Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on August 1, 2015: “The White House has reconfirmed its position on maintaining a unified Iraq in a firm rebuttal to a 100,000-strong petition asking the United States to support Kurdish independence Tuesday.”

http://rudaw.net/english/world/01082015

geopolitical anomalies map 10Fusing Iraq back together would require considerable force and would probably result in massive bloodshed, as well as the suspension of the dream of democratic governance. Can we reasonably imagine that the Peshmerga would be willingly folded into the Iraqi military, as would be demanded if a truly unified state were to reemerge? Does anyone who understands the actual situation think that the Iraqi Kurds would voluntarily submit to Baghdad and allow the dismantling of the essentially sovereign state that they have struggled so hard to create? By the same token, is it reasonable to assume that the Sunni Arabs of the northwest would acquiesce to a united, democratic Iraq in which the Shia majority holds electoral sway? The events of the past 12 years certainly indicate otherwise. I, for one, would be willing to bet a considerable amount of money, and at unfavorable odds, that Iraqi unification will not occur within the next 10 years — or any other time period that one might specify.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

Bosnia and Herzegovina MapThe best hope for rebuilding some kind of state within Iraqi’s recognized boundaries would be something on the order of the Biden-Gelb plan, allowing the three main regions to enjoy de facto but not de jure sovereignty, sharing little more than membership in international organizations. The result would be a largely fictional country, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the main groups maintain largely peaceful relations mostly by limiting their interactions. But any such arrangement would be viewed by most Iraqi Kurds as a temporary expedient, a mere a way-station on the route to actual independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, moreover, does not make a good exemplar, as it is more a sliced-up protectorate than a real country. As GeoCurrents reader Vatroslav Herceg writes, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have coffee bars that are for Croats, coffee bars that are for Bosnians, and coffee bars that are for Serbs in the same city.” Given this situation, Herceg foresees the return of political violence:

I am not a nationalist, but if Bosnia and Herzegovina is left like this there will be another war in the Balkans. I don’t want another war, my family already suffered in the 1990s war. Just look at the artificial flag* of Bosnia and Herzegovina, [which] shows that this entity is a EU and USA protectorate.

 

Put differently, the diplomatic charade embodied in the creation of an artificial federation that forces mutually hostile groups into the same “country” might buy time, but it will not solve the underlying issues. This is not to argue, it is essential to note, that there was anything historically inevitable about the mutual antipathy found among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (or, for that matter, among Iraq’s Sunnis Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds.) Given different historical circumstances, a sense of Yugoslav identity might have prevailed, leading to the perpetuation of Yugoslavia. But that did not happen, and the events of the past quarter-century cannot be wished away. Yugoslavia is gone for good, and Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be headed in the same direction. A curiously vegetative state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is kept alive only by the artificial life-support system of the international community. Should we wish the same for Iraq?

The Delusion of Reunification

Iraq and Syria Political Situation MapThe insistence on maintaining the superficially existing geopolitical framework flows from an exhausted doctrine that has itself become a major obstacle to peace. Recent events have made a mockery of the idea that the partition of Iraq could be dangerously destabilizing, as complete destabilization—and far worse—has already occurred. The terror state of ISIS that has spread its tentacles over a vast swath of Syria and Iraq draws much of its strength from the international community’s insistence that these imperially imposed entities remain inviolate regardless of the desires of their residents or the realities on the ground. The break-away state of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a refuge of stability and effective governance, not the font of insecurity imagined by those who sanctify preexisting borders. The idea that rewarding such success with diplomatic recognition would somehow prove disruptive to some imaginary Iraqi peace process is laughable.

Somalia Political Situation MapNor is Iraq the only country in the larger region that has collapsed beyond the point of reconstitution. Yemen and Libya might remerge as coherent states, as their fall was recent, but I would not count on it. Syrian reunification is even more of a long shot, as its national unity is too weak and its mutual antipathies too entrenched. And what of Somalia? Like Iraq, Somalia ceased functioning as real country nearly a quarter-century ago. Since then, its geopolitical contours have remained in flux, with territories passing among its weak provisional government, Islamist forces, and autonomous warlords. But Somalia also contains, like Iraq, one relatively well-run, stable government that acts as a sovereign power despite its lack of international recognition: Somaliland. The reunification of Somalia, difficult as that is to imagine, would probably require the crushing of Somaliland, as Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital) would be no more willing to submit to Mogadishu than Erbil (Hewler, in Kurdish) would be willing to give in to Baghdad. Attempting to revive the moribund states of Iraq and Somalia would, in all likelihood, prove far more disruptive than acknowledging the functioning states of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

World Political Map ProblemsIn the end, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the dream of reunifying Iraq and Somalia is deadly delusion, a mirage generated by viewing global political geography not as it actually is, but rather as the diplomatic establishment thinks it should be. Such a blinkered worldview is unfortunately ubiquitous, encoded in our basic world-political maps. In the United States, these ideologically laden documents not only show a country that collapsed decades ago (Somalia), but even depict a country that has never existed, other than in the imaginations of diplomats and insurgents (Western Sahara). How many years—how many decades—have to pass before we can acknowledge reality and drop our geopolitical illusions? Abandoning pretense and facing the truth is a necessary precondition for achieving peace and stability.

The Matter of Precedent

Those who fear the recognition of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan usually invoke precedent. If a precedent is set by the division of officially recognized countries, they ask, where will the process end? As dozens of countries are plagued by secession movements, they dread the opening of a veritable Pandora’s box of anarchy and rebellion.

The precedent argument, however, fails from the outset. It greatly exaggerates the power of the international order while ignoring key events of the past thirty years. In that period, newly independent countries have sprouted over much of the world, while a number of states dissolved completely when their constituent divisions all gained independence. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia no longer exist; Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have successfully detached themselves from the countries to which they formerly belonged. Other new states could easily emerge in the near future; as has been made clear, both Scotland and Quebec will be allowed to gain sovereignty if a majority of their voters so decide. If these occurrences somehow inspired militant secession movements, resulting in an uptick of violence and anarchy across the globe, it somehow escaped notice.

Yet as it so happens, a precedent has been established: the partition of countries is perfectly acceptable provided that it occurs in a certain manner. The general conditions are that the government of the country slated for losing a particular territory must agree to it, while the people of the seceding region must voice their support, preferably through the ballot box.** But as South Sudan clearly shows, violent resistance to the existing geopolitical framework can be the precipitating process. South Sudan gained independence largely though warfare, grinding down resistance in both Khartoum and the international community through decades of struggle. Gaining sovereignty in such a manner may have set a bad precedent, but set it was, with no way of being erased. That precedent, moreover, was largely created by the same foreign-policy establishment of the United States that vigorously opposes the independence of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. As The New York Times reported in 2014, “South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.”

 

But South Sudan makes a fraught example, as its independence has hardly been successful. Indeed, the Fund for Peace currently ranks South Sudan as the world’s most “fragile state,” considerably more fragile than even Syria. Although this particular claim is difficult to take seriously, given that Syria has been shattered beyond recognition, it does indicate the severity of South Sudan’s challenges. One might therefore conclude that independence was a major mistake, and perhaps even extrapolate this insight to the rest of the world, reckoning that it is best to maintain the world political map exactly as it is, discounting any possible benefits that might result from the partition of failed states.

Many solid reasons, however, can be found for dismissing any conclusions drawn from the debacle of South Sudan. I retain some hope that the “world’s youngest country” can repair its cleavages and begin to heal and develop. I am also relieved that its unfortunate people are no longer under the thumb of the Khartoum government, unlike those of Darfur and South Kordofan (the Nuba Hills), who still suffer attacks of almost genocidal intensity. But regardless of its dire predicament, South Sudan makes a poor comparison with either Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan. The people of South Sudan made their case for independence on the basis of the oppression that they had long endured along with their tenacious military resistance. They had no experience, however, in running an effective government, holding elections, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on, all of which have been accomplished with some success by both Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of these entities have successfully built their own states over the past several decades, doing so in a chaotic regional environment and with little help from international developmental agencies. In the case of Somaliland, Peter J. Schraeder, persuasively argued years ago that such accomplishments merited the recognition of sovereignty. In the intervening years, little has changed.

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

1995 Divided Iraqi Kurdistan MapIn constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order. Much the same, moreover, can be said of the government of Somaliland. Such achievements deserve acknowledgment, ideally by the recognition of full independence.

The recognition Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan would, of course, generate its own diplomatic complications. The African Union would take quick offense at any country offering formal ties with Somaliland, while Turkey would be furious at any state proposing to do the same with Iraqi Kurdistan. If such a newly independent country were to include any of the Kurdish territories of northern Syria (Rojava), Turkey might even threaten war. But no major foreign-policy initiatives are ever risk free, and all necessarily generate irritation and anger among some interested parties. Considering the horrific and seemingly interminable conflict that has chewed up Iraq, Syria, and much of the Horn of Africa—generating a refugee crisis of global scope—a new approach is required, even if it carries risks of its own. I would suggest that such a new policy begin by abandoning the fantasy map of the foreign-policy establishment and instead recognize the global geopolitical framework as it actually is. Unlike the internationally recognized but non-functional country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan are genuine states, taking orders from no other power and running their own affairs as they see fit — and doing so with more capability and liberality than most of their neighbors. As such, they deserve immediate recognition.

Flag of Bosnia*As noted in the Wikipedia article on the flag: “The three points of the triangle are understood to stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.[2] It is also seen to represent the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is shaped like a triangle. The stars, representing Europe, are meant to be infinite in number and thus they continue from top to bottom. The flag features colors often associated with neutrality and peace – white, blue, and yellow. The colors yellow and blue are also seen to be taken from the flag of Europe; the color blue was originally based on the flag of the United Nations. The present scheme is being used by both the Council of Europe which owns the flag and the European Union which adopted the Council of Europe’s flag in 1985.”

** Exceptions exist, as the first condition was not met in the case of Kosovo. As a result, many countries do not recognize the Kosovo’s independence.

 

 

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten: An Island Divided

(Note: Today’s post is by Claire Negiar, a Stanford senior, soon to graduate. Claire will be writing a few posts over the coming weeks, many of them focused on France and French dependencies.)

Saint Martin. Sint Maarten. A crossroad between North and South, split between France and the Netherlands, Saint Martin has known a different fate in the aftermath of decolonization than most other Caribbean islands. Although the European colonial powers of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even some of the Nordic nations usually battled it out for sovereignty over Carribbean islands in long back-and-forths, on the island of Saint Martin, the two main contenders chose a different path: that of peaceful coexistence. But what enabled Saint Martin to be successful in its division, while so many other attempts at dividing territory across the world have failed? And how have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build a coherent island community despite this division?

One hypothesis would be that the early colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to smooth over the conflicts and the disputes that resulted from this dual presence. Indeed, borders were disputed for some time before matters were settled: between 1648 and 1816, conflicts changed the border sixteen times. In the end, the French came out ahead with 54 km2 to the 41 km2 of the Dutch side. The French and Dutch had both coveted the island: while the French wanted to colonize all the islands between Trinidad and Bermuda, Dutch interest in Saint Martin stemmed from a desire to have a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (today New York) and Brazil (temporarily taken from Portugal). Because there were few people inhabiting the island, the Dutch easily founded a settlement there in 1631, erecting Fort Amsterdam as protection from invaders. Soon after, the Dutch East India Company began salt mining operations. French and British settlements sprang up on the island as well, which attracted the Spanish conquistadores’ attention: taking note of these successful colonies and wanting to maintain their control of the salt trade, they suddenly found St. Martin much more appealing than it had been. What is more, the Eighty Years’ War, which had been raging between Spain and the Netherlands, provided further incentive to attack. The Spanish forces captured Saint Martin from the Dutch in 1633, seizing control and driving most or all of the colonists off the island. Although the Dutch retaliated in several attempts to win back the island, these were unsuccessful.

Sans titre3However, fifteen years after the Spanish conquered the island, the Eighty Years’ War ended and the Spanish lost their inclination to continue defending the island. They deserted the island in 1648 and, when this happened, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts.

After some initial conflict, both sides realized that neither would yield easily and, preferring to avoid an all-out war, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two. In spite of the treaty, relations between the two sides were not always cordial. We can therefore see that Saint Martin’s history was off to a rocky start as well, and that things were not always as smooth as they are today.

Sans titre2

Some elements of the initial partition of the island may, however, help explain why it has largely been successful. Indeed, the French and the Dutch realized it was in their interest to sign a treaty giving each of them roughly half the territory. In a game of prisoner’s dilemma, the French and the Dutch would therefore both have chosen the option of “lying low,” resulting in the most beneficial split for both, instead of choosing the “equilibrium” strategy of attacking behind the other’s back, resulting in a sub-optimal resolution where there is also an intense mistrust.  All of the provisions of the 1648 Treaty of Concordia are still in force on Saint Martin today, thus showing that it has at least passed the test of time.

Another interesting point is the fact that the native population of Saint Martin was minimal, and that the population of the island has grown from both colonial settlements. That is to say, the indigenous peoples were overpowered and vastly outnumbered by the colonial powers, and that today the population is roughly split at 50% between the French and the Dutch sides, with 35,518 in Saint Martin and 37,459 in St. Maarten. Overall, the island’s population is highly mixed, with people from over 120 countries, speaking English, French, Haitian/Guadeloupe/Martinique Creole, Papiamento (a Portuguese-based Creole from the Netherland’s islands of the southern Caribbean), Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Italian. It seems that this intense melting pot helps defray cultural tension, as the island is not just a split between forty thousand Frenchmen and forty thousand Dutch. On Saint Martin/St. Maarten, languages, cultures, religions, and ethnicities mix and mingle, and as a result the fact that the island is split between the Netherlands and France has taken a secondary place.

Though initially a part of the French region of Guadeloupe, French Saint Martin more recently experienced a major geopolitical change. The constitutional reform of March 28th 2003 on the decentralization of the French Republic brought about transformation in the status of the overseas territories. The new law laid down a framework for developments in the status and administration of overseas “Collectivités”. In December of 2003, at the request of the municipal council, a referendum was held on Saint Martin on the island’s constitutional status under the framework of Article 74 of the Constitution (which allows the creation of a “collectivité” with a special status); a clear majority (76.17%) of the Saint Martiners voted in favor of this change. Since December 2007, Saint Martin has been a leader of the French decentralization process under this new article of the constitution.

A somewhat similar change occurred on the Dutch half of the island.  In 1957 the Netherlands excluded the Netherlands Antilles from European Territory at the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Council, forerunner of the EU, cementing its status as a colonial possession. On October 10th, however, 2010, Sint Maarten however became a constituent (i.e., non-sovereign) country within the Dutch Kingdom, giving it an equal status to Aruba, Curacao and, theoretically, the Netherlands itself. Today, the government of the “Country of St Maarten” is a parliamentary democracy.

As such developments show, the two mother countries on the island have been willing to loosen their grasp on the island and offer a certain degree of self-rule to the local population. Such accommodation is rooted in part in the island’s demographic diversity, but mere distance probably plays a role as well. If Saint Martin were closer to France and the Netherlands, would these two countries be more inclined to resist this slow relinquishing of control?  The island’s small size, and its lack of resources, has probably played a role as well.

The fact that Saint Martin has gained substantial autonomy is also synonymous with a loosened fiscal policy, which is advantageous to many wealthy French citizens. The same situation is found in other French dependencies, although the French government claims that it wants to crack down on the resulting financial irregularities. Because of their special status, Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélémy, Tahiti, and Wallis-et-Futuna all function, to a certain extent, as tax havens and money-laundering hubs. These « Collectivités d’Outre Mer » all benefit from complete autonomy in terms of fiscal and customs policies. The political division of the island of Saint Martin complicates this situation, although sovereignty is divided, no formal border separates the two parts of the island;  one can weave in and out of the two countries without even knowing it.

Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is that of scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, while the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and, in true French form, a few topless beaches. What is more, financial institutions on the Dutch and the French sides have a policy of cooperation, thus making money-laundering relatively easy. Indeed, according to UN and European Commission consultant Michel Koutouzis:

“You arrive with black-market money in a Casino on the Dutch side. You are told to sit at a given table for an hour. The casino makes you win a pre-arranged sum, which is a common practice in tax-havens. Once you collect your winnings, you can go invest them on the French side in real-estate or marina projects.”

Today, two main issues have been plaguing the island, French and Dutch sides alike: drugs and disease. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the dispersion of the chikungunya mosquito-borne virus across the Caribbean, fearing its spread to the United States and throughout the Americas.

Sans titre1

The virus, originally from Africa and southern Asia, causes fever and intense muscle and joint pain for weeks and, in some cases, years. There is currently no vaccine or cure. On December 10, 2013, the WHO confirmed the first two cases of chikungunya that were acquired locally rather than imported, on the French part of the island of St. Martin. As of Feb. 21, the Pan American Health Organization, a regional WHO entity, had confirmed 2,238 cases of the disease in the Caribbean—from Martinique to the British Virgin Islands.

Drug consumption and ease of access has been another concern for the island: both cannabis and heroin are relatively cheap on the island, and are thus prevalent and heavily consumed. Reducing the drug consumption and creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to seek out help remain top priorities for the local government.

Although the island of Saint Martin is divided, it benefits from surprising synergies between its two sides, with a shared but diverse cultural background, and a reputation for delicious food and beautiful beaches. However, the two sides of the islands also share the common challenges of disease, drugs, and regulating financial institutions to avoid money-laundering and tax evasion. Today, although politically divided, Saint Martin largely functions as a unified country, with the minor anomaly of having two separate official languages in different areas. Although not necessarily an example of perfect governance or exemplary policy, Saint Martin provides lessons for other regions of the world about successful coexistence. But is this model reproducible anywhere else in the world, perhaps in such a conflict-ridden and divided country as Cyprus, or is it too idiosyncratic of a situation to be generalizable to any other parts of the world?

 

http://www.stmartinisland.org/destination-st-martin/saint-martin-island-life.html

http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2008/10/17/ces-petits-paradis-fiscaux-francais-quon-laisse-prosperer

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304071004579409532322280294

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/one-island-two-countries/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Martin

Russian Envelopment? Ukraine’s Geopolitical Complexities

The current issue of Time magazine features an article by Robert Kaplan that emphasizes the geographical aspects of what he refers to as “endless chaos and old-school conflicts,” especially in regard to Ukraine. In general, I appreciate Kaplan’s insistence on the abiding importance of geography and I am impressed by his global scope of knowledge, although I do think that his analyses tend to be a bit too simple. My reaction to his most recent article is much the same.

Ukraine Not Encircled MapHere Kaplan stresses Ukraine’s military and economic vulnerability imposed by its relatively flat terrain and its proximity to the Russian heartland. His assessment is clear: “the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely to the West.” Kaplan reiterates this point in the caption of his map of “Ukraine/Crimea”: “Ukraine is too enveloped by Russia to ever be completely tied to the West. Crimea gives Russia its only access to a warm-water port.”

Many works on the current conflict emphasize the significance of warm-water ports, the pursuit of which have been a historical mainstay of Russian geopolitics. It is essential to note, however, that the naval value of Crimea’s Sevastopol is rather seriously compromised by the fact that its access to the high seas is constrained by Turkey’s—and hence NATO’s—possession of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Yet Sevastopol certainly is of regional strategic value, as became evident in August 2008, when Russian ships based there were used to blockade Georgian ports.

Kaplan’s emphasis on Russia’s envelopment of Ukraine is less often encountered, and for good reason, as it is hardly evident on the map. As can be seen from Kaplan’s own visualization, only about a third of Ukraine’s border fronts on that of Russia. Further analysis, however, along with more detailed mapping, strengthen Kaplan’s envelopment argument. Consider, for example the position of Belarus, which sits across Ukraine’s northwestern border. If Belarus is counted as a Russian satellite, as it often is, then Russian-dominated territory does come much closer to encircling Ukraine. Yet the actual geopolitical position of Belarus is hotly debated. According to the title of Andrew Wilson’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Belarus Wants Out”—out of the Russian embrace, that is. As Wilson perceptively writes, “Above all, [Belarussian leader Alexander] Lukashenko wants to avoid having to make a decision between Russia and the West. He has always been happy to be Russia’s ally, but only as the leader of a strong, independent state capable of steering its own course.” The fact that Belarus, unlike Venezuela and Nicaragua, has not recognized the independence of the Russian-dominate statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia underscores the independence of its foreign policy. Lukashenko’s avoidance of choosing between Russia and the West is also evident from his recent actions. While accepting the results of the Crimean referendum, he has also initiated negotiations with NATO.

Ukraine Encircled MapBut Belarus is not the only territory unmapped by Kaplan that contributes to potential Russian envelopment of Ukraine. Crimea, of course, is now under effective Russian control, and thus should be depicted as such on maps aimed at showing the de facto rather than the de jure geopolitical situation. Equally significant but more often overlooked is the self-declared state of Transnistria, which is situated along Ukraine’s southwestern flank. Transnistria, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is often regarded as a Russian puppet, although its actual situation is complex, as will be seen in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post. The main point, however, remains: if one were to include all of these additional Russian-influenced territories, then it would appear that Ukraine is almost encircled by powers potentially hostile to its current government.

In fleshing out his argument, Kaplan foresees Russian ascendency over eastern Ukraine, owing to its proximity to Russia, its economic importance, and its demographic domination by pro-Russian groups. He does not, however, anticipate annexation of the region:

Putin is not likely to invade eastern Ukraine in a conventional way. In order to exercise dominance, he doesn’t need to. Instead, he will send in secessionists, instigate disturbances, probe the frontier with Russian troops and in other ways use the porous border with Ukraine to undermine both eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty and its links to western Ukraine.

A similar prognosis is made by James Traub of Foreign Policy:

Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion — even one limited to border areas — still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia’s immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn’t “need,” as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.

Ukarain's Fears mapIt remains to be seen, of course, whether such events will occur, although Kaplan’s warnings do seem justified. But Putin does not need to “send in” secessionists, as plenty of them are already present, and it does seem odd that Kaplan would write about eastern Ukraine’s “sovereignty,” a quality that the region does not possess.

Such concerns, moreover, are by no means limited to eastern Ukraine. Although the far east is the most Russian-oriented part of the county, pro-Russian sentiments are also widespread over southern Ukraine, including the southwest. Consider, for example, Odessa (both the city and the oblast). Odessa figures prominently in the Russian historical-geographical imagination, and the local Russian minority is substantial. According to The Voice of Russia, thousands of people have recently taken to the streets of Odessa to demand “that the authorities hold a referendum on de-centralization of power in Ukraine, grant the status of a state language to the Russian language and change the country’s foreign policy course.” In recent elections, moreover, the pro-Russian Party of Regions has trounced all other parties in Odessa Oblast. But such Russia-oriented sentiments are far from uniform here, as even The Voice of Russia admits that the protestors that it highlighted were “opposed by local pro-European supporters who asked a court to forbid the march.” By the same token, the Party of Regions handily won the most recent Ukrainian election in Odessa Oblast only because the opposition was divided; as a result, it easily took first place with only 41.9 percent of the vote. In contrast, the Party of Regions won over half of the votes in Crimea and over 65 percent in the eastern oblast of Donetsk.

Odessa Oblast makes an interesting case, as its population is relatively heterogeneous, and in the recent past it was more cosmopolitan than it is today. As of the 2001 census, Ukrainians constituted 62.8 percent of its population, with Russian making up a fifth. Bulgarians, Moldovans, and Gagauz (the latter a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Christian people) together accounted for more than twelve percent of the oblast’s population. Numerous other groups are also found in the region, some of which (Jews, Greeks, and Belarussians) were formerly much more numerous. The Russian population has also been declining, having dropped from 27.4 percent in 1989 to 20.7 percent in 2001. Russian nationalist in the region are no doubt concerned about this decline.

Even far western Ukraine presents a challenge for Ukrainian nationalists. The region in question here is Zakarpattia Oblast, also known (from the Russian perspective) as Transcarpatia and (from the Hungarian perspective) as sub-Carpathian Ukraine (a more neutral term is Carpathian Ruthenia). In terms of physical geography, this is a crucial region, as it lies on the far side of the formidable Carpathian range from the rest of Ukraine, its core area situated in the lowland Danubian basin. Part of Czechoslovakia between the world wars, Carpathian Ruthenia subsequently passed to Hungarian control and then, in 1945, to the Soviet Union and hence Ukraine. Gaining the region gave the Soviet Union a geo-strategic advantage in the Cold War, although Soviet annexation was justified on the basis of its mostly Ukrainian population. But, like that of Odessa, the population of Zakarpattia Oblast is ethnically mixed, although, again, such diversity has long been declining. According to official figures, its population in 1921 was 62 percent Ukrainian, 17 percent Hungarian, and 13 percent Jewish (with significant numbers of Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Germans, and others), whereas by 1991 the Ukrainians had increased to over 80 percent while the Hungarians had dropped to 12 percent. The Jewish population, on the other hand, was no longer even tabulated. Russians currently constitute only about 2.5 percent of the population of the oblast.

Despite its large Ukrainian and small Russian populations, Zakarpattia’s voting patterns deviate substantially from those of the other regions of western Ukraine. The pro-Russian Party of Regions, for example, took a plurality (31 percent) of the oblast’s votes in the 2012 legislative election, as opposed to taking less than five percent in the Ukrainian-nationalist stronghold of Lviv. One of the main problems for the Ukrainian nationalist movement here is the presence of the so-called Ruthenian or Rusyn ethnic group. According to Ukraine’s government, such a community does not exist, as its members are merely Ukrainians who refuse to admit as much. Ruthenian partisans, not surprisingly, strongly object to such a classification, and some of them have long advocated independence for their region. According to the Ukrainian source Radio Svoboda, “Moscow has recently been fueling separatist sentiments among the Ruthenians in order to weaken Ukraine.”

The Ruthenian issue is complicated enough to deserve its own post, which will be forthcoming. But as we have seen from this post, the geopolitical situation of Ukraine is complicated indeed.  Further posts this week will explore such complexities in greater detail.

(Note on Maps: In this series of maps, color is crudely used to show the degree of potential Russian domination. Russia itself is shown in the darkest shade of red, with Crimea, now under Russian control, in a slightly lighter shade of the same color, and Transnistria in a still lighter shade. Belarus, being a sovereign state, is depicted in red-orange on the final map rather than a shade of red, in order to signal this difference. In the last map, Ukrainian Oblasts with Russian-speaking majorities are shown in a still lighter shade of red, and those with Ukrainian-speaking majorities that nonetheless exhibit major challenges for Ukrainian nationalism are shown in the lightest shade or red.)

 

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.

Growing Tensions over the Paracel Islands

Mounting tension in the South China Sea has been amply documented in the mainstream media. However, reporting often does not adequately cover the situation’s geographical complexity, as the geopolitical tussles work out differently for the Sea’s various archipelagos, isolated islands, and reefs. Whereas all or parts of the Spratly Island are claimed by seven different countries, the Paracels are claimed by only China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The Paracel dispute, like those elsewhere in the South China Sea, has recently intensified. In late June, Vietnam restated its claim to sovereignty over the islands. China soon responded with the establishment of a prefectural level city that is meant to govern the Paracels along with the Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank.

The Paracel Islands have few natural resources, but sovereignty brings a large Exclusive Economic Zone with fisheries and potential oil and natural gas reserves. Vietnam and China both stake their claims on historical grounds. But as the archipelago has always had few or no inhabitants, determining past control is difficult. French Indochina took possession of the islands in 1932, and ownership passed onto South Vietnam after decolonization. As the Saigon regime approached collapse in 1974, China seized the islands, ousting Vietnam’s military garrison and establishing its own.

Competition over potential hydrocarbon deposits heightens diplomatic tensions. The state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation recently announced that it would take bids to explore contested waters near Vietnam. In turn, Vietnam soon extended contracts to India to look for submarine gas in areas claimed by China. Though Indian efforts so far have been unsuccessful, Vietnam probably sees a lengthened contract as a diplomatic tool against China.

The two country’s recent actions in the South China Sea are most likely aimed at gaining domestic support for their respective governments. Beijing seeks to enhance government popularity during the transition process between President Hu Jintao and his successor. The growing ruckus over the Paracel Islands also reflects recent trends in the South China Sea as a whole. Since April, China and the Philippines have wrangled over Scarborough Shoal, without any sign of resolution.

Disputes over the islands of the South China Sea have historically fluctuated between violent confrontation, as seen in China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands, and glimmers of reconciliation, as seen in the Bali East Asia Summit last year. As suggested by one recent report, such fluctuations owe in part to China’s lack of a regular policy toward the South China Sea across all levels of government. Though China’s civilian authorities are sometimes conciliatory, its military leaders are often more bellicose. The growing presence of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region may help prevent China from militarily asserting its South China Sea claims, but tensions between China, Vietnam, and the other disputing countries may increase in the short term.

Greater Turkey Vs. Greater Iran

Maps of Greater Turkey fro YouTube Videos Visions of a Greater Iran, discussed yesterday, come into conflict with other imaginings of geopolitical enlargement, particularly that of “Greater Turkey.” Harsh debates are posted under maps of hoped-for state expansion. The following exchange, accompanying a YouTube clip proselytizing for Greater Iran, typifies the more civil end of the argument spectrum:

 Azerigull: Long live Greater Iran, Empire of Iran. To all the turks with illusion that turkey is a nation, you should know that original turks in turkey today are about 5 million that came from China, the remaining population are children of Greece, beloved Iran, and Armania. Long live Empire of Iran, you will Rise again to bring Peace and Harmony to the World.

Agartali Vaiz: Greater Turkey will rise again to form the Small Turan from Bosnia to the Turkish areas of Iran also including Caspian coast; from Aleppo to Turkmenistan, from Crete to Batum, from Tesalonika to Shiraz. After that the project of greater Turan will be the second mission.

            YouTube and blogsite dreams of national aggrandizement form an intriguing genre. The discussion forums, when not disabled, make captivating if disturbing reading. Rival camps of extreme nationalists seem to take delight in grossly insulting each other. Although perhaps dismissible as the fantasies of marginal groups, these clips can reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. Viewer numbers vary tremendously, of course, as does video quality. Some productions are minimal: a single map of a “great state” accompanied by patriotic music. Others use fairly sophisticated cartographic animation to show projected change over time.

Maps of Extreme Interpretations of the Greater Turkish WorldDepictions of “Greater Turkey,” or “Future Turkey,” also vary significantly.  As can be seen in the maps posted above, mega-Turkey is envisaged by some as absorbing such neighboring areas as northern Syria, northern Iraq, northern and eastern Greece, and parts of the Caucasus. A few extremists hope to reclaim all of the lands ever held by the Ottoman Empire—and then some. One map turns northwestward to take in not just the former Yugoslavia, but also Austria, northern Germany, and northeastern France. Some maps of greater “Turkistan” and the “Turkish World” are comically extreme. Most depictions foresee the incorporation of all Kurdish-speaking areas into an enlarged Turkey.

A few proponents of Greater Turkey have gone well beyond drawing imaginary maps. The Turkish ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves” have long struggled for a more powerful state that could eventually encompass all Turkic-speaking peoples. Turkish authorities have accused the group of carrying out 694 murders between 1974 and 1980. Although declining sharply after being outlawed in 1980, the Grey Wolves were able to prevent the Turkish screening of a film on the Armenian genocide as recently as 2004. Some evidence indicates that the group is resurfacing in western Europe. On October 31, 2011, the International Business Times reported allegations of Grey Wolf attacks against a Kurdish community center in Amsterdam and a Kurdish-owned shop in Saint-Étienne, France.

Map of Greater Turkey and Greater Azerbaijan The Turkic-speaking peoples of Iran and Central Asia, especially the Azeris, are caught between the claims of Turkish and Persian “super-nationalism.” Both sides assert rights to the Azeri-speaking region, although one depiction of Greater Turkey does map out a separate expanded Azerbaijan, presumably envisaged as an ally state. Not surprisingly, Greater Azerbaijan is envisaged separately by a group of hard-core Azeri nationalists. In general, however, Iranian Azeris strongly incline towards Iran. Many of the leaders of the Greater Iran movement are themselves Azeri.

The Iranian political allegiance of Turkic-speaking Azeris in northwestern Iran is not surprising. For centuries, the highest levels of the Persian state were dominated by people of Turkish heritage. The rulers of the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736) were partially if not mostly of Azeri descent, and those of the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925) stemmed from another group of Turkic people. Azeri Iranians are in general well integrated; virtually all are bilingual in Farsi, and many occupy high social, economic, religious, and political positions. Of course, not all Iranian Azeris embrace Iranian nationalism, and allegations of discrimination do persist. But Iran can to some extent be regarded as a Persian-Azeri partnership, underwritten by the religious bond of Twelver Shi’ism.

The Dream—or Nightmare—of “Greater Iran”

Map of Greater Iran from the Arab AtlasWhen the term “greater” is attached to a country name, it usually indicates that certain extreme nationalists want the boundaries of the state to expand. The Wikipedia article on “Greater Iran” is one exception, framing the issue on cultural and historical grounds without reference to geopolitical ambition. Still, links in the article lead to sites promoting “Pan-Iranism,” defined as “an ideology that advocates solidarity and reunification of Iranian peoples living in the Iranian plateau and other regions that have significant Iranian cultural influence.” Pan-Iranists, it turns out, ardently hope to create a politically unified “Greater Iran.”

Map of Greater Iran from Pan-Iranist VideoThese aspirations are spelled out in the webpages of the Pan Iranist Party of Iran. Pan-Iranists see modern Iran as a rump state, accounting for less than half of the nation’s rightful people and territory. (The slash on the group’s flag is said to represent “mourning for the lost lands of Iran.”) As depicted in a video associated with the movement, Greater Iran includes almost 200 million people: all those living in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as parts of Turkey, Russia (North Ossetia), Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and China. Most members of the non-Persian groups slated for inclusion in such an expanded state would likely see the scheme as a mad dream of Iranian imperialism.

Flag of the Pan-Iranist Party of IranThe Greater Iran propounded by the Pan-Iranist Party is essentially secular. As the Party’s website specifies, “requests for membership … are welcomed” by all people of conceivably Iranian heritage, regardless of faith; the largely Christian Georgians and Ossetians receive specific mention. The inclusion of the Georgians shows that Greater Iran is not conceived here in linguistic terms, although the Iranian language family is often mentioned. The key is historical and cultural influence, even if occasional phrases like “all other Iranic ethnics” imply a degree of ethnic unity.

But if “Greater Iran” usually has secular-nationalist roots, the concept has also been taken up by some members of Iran’s clerical leadership. LiveLeak reported in 2010 that Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, Secretary-General of Hezbollah-Iran, forwarded a plan for “reestablishing” a “Greater Iran,” encompassing all territories of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Kharrazi’s scheme is grounded both in a conviction of Persian cultural supremacy, especially over the Arabs, and in Shia eschatology. According to the memo, his plan was designed to anticipate the “establishment of global government led by the Mahdi,” the messiah-like “hidden Imam” of Shiite end-of-days doctrine.  According to an article from the Jerusalem Post, Kharrazi expressly called for the destruction not only of Israel, but also of “Shi’ite Iran’s other regional adversaries, … [singling] out secular Arab nationalists—as well as followers of the austere version of Sunni Islam practiced primarily in Saudi Arabia that is known as Wahabism.”

Maps of Greater Iran from Iran Defence.Net “Greater Iran” is not imagined consistently, as can be seen in the images to the left. IranDefence.Net has posted detailed discussions of the issue, with a welter of maps. The maximal versions encompass all areas ever ruled by the ancient Persian Empire—and then some. As a political or religious scheme, such expansive pan-Iranism does not rest on a firm foundation. But when limited to cultural and historical analysis, Greater Iran—or Greater Persia—can be a useful concept. Deep Iranian cultural influence does indeed extend well beyond Iran into both Central Asia and the Caucasus. Historically, the Persian linguistic sphere has extended even farther to the east than is indicated on the most extravagant maps of Greater Iran. The Moghul Empire of India, for example, maintained Persian as its official language throughout its history.

The map of Greater Persia found in the Arab Atlas is one of the better depictions of this cultural realm. The map’s portrayal of the current Persian-speaking area within the larger Persian cultural sphere is especially helpful. Whereas most cartographers obscure the contemporary extent of Persian (Farsi), this map accurately shows it extending from interior Iran across northern Afghanistan, through most of Tajikistan, and well into Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, few maps capture this state of affairs accurately. The Soviet insistence on calling the language of Central Asian Persians “Tajik,” along with the government of Afghanistan’s 1964 decree that the same language be called “Dari,” has contributed to a widespread cartographic minimization of what is in fact a vast Persian linguistic sphere. Political considerations, in other words, have tended to trump cultural realities.

Pasa Map of Iranian PeopleInterestingly, a few Greater Iranian sites themselves diminish the extent of the Persian linguistic sphere. The map of “Iranian Peoples” posted on the Parsa website, for example, essentially outlines the area in which people speak Iranian languages today, plus a few Turkic groups heavily influenced by Persian culture and Iranian political structures. Yet the map leaves out central Afghanistan—an area inhabited by the Persian-speaking Hazaras, a Shiite people linked to Iran on religious as well as linguistic grounds. The Harazas were excluded, it turns out, on racial grounds. Parsa seeks to define Iranians as a genetic stock, largely based on physical appearance. As the Hazaras are generally of East Asian physical appearance, they are read out of Greater Persian by certain ultra-nationalists.

The Complex and Contentious Issue of Afghan Identity

Nigel Allan's Map of Babur's Use of the Term "Afghanistan"“Afghanistan” is an oddly constructed place name. It is usually said to be a Persian word meaning “land of the Pashtuns.” The widely used suffix “stan” is Persian for “place of” or “land of,” cognate with the English “stead” (as in “homestead”) and ultimately with “stand.” “Afghan” is usually considered synonymous with “Pashtun.” From the Pashtun perspective, “Afghanistan” is an exonym, a geographical term of foreign origin. For Pashto-speakers to call their country “Afghanistan” would be a bit like Germans calling their country not Deutschland but Germany, or the Japanese calling theirs Japan instead of Nihon or Nippon. But Pashtun-speakers in Afghanistan, unlike German speakers in Germany, do not form the majority linguistic community. In Persian (or Dari), the country’s most widely used language, “Afghanistan” is native term, but one that refers to a different people and to some extant a different place. (In Pashto, the official name of the state is Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat, translated into English as “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”; in Persian it is Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānistān.)

The identification of “Afghan” with “Pashtun,” however, turns out to be a knotty issue. Geographer Nigel J. R. Allan of the University of Nevada at Reno has examined this subject in detail. The earliest use of “Afghanistan” that he has found is in the Baburnama of the early 1500s, the autobiographical story of Babur’s creation of the Mughul Dynasty of northern India. In this account, “Afghanistan” denotes a limited area south of Peshawar in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Subsequently, “Afghan” came to denote a handful of Pakhtun/Pashtun tribes living in and around the Vale of Peshawar. The designation was gradually generalized to cover all Pashtun people, but the idea lingers that the “real Afghans” are still those of Peshawar, arguably the most important Pashtun city (although the multi-ethnic metropolis of Karachi now has the largest Pashtun population). With the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, “Afghan” was extended to cover all residents of the country, regardless of their language or ethnicity. Allan associates this usage with 19th century British imperial agents. As a place name, “Afghanistan” is thus both exonymic and geographically displaced, having originally denoted an area outside of the borders of the modern country of that name.

To be sure, Allan’s narrative would be challenged by a few Afghan nationalists, who see earlier versions of “Afghan” in historical place names such as “Abgan.” A few have gone so far as claim a geo-historical essence for the Afghans and their country. In 1969, Abdul Hai Habibi argued that, “The word Afghan … represents an indivisible unit under all historical, economic and social conditions in the heart of Asia … with a historical background of one thousand and seven hundred years.” Yet, as usually the case, such an insistently nationalistic interpretation twists the past in accordance with modern-day dreams of national unity. The result leans more toward wishful thinking than scholarly analysis.

Allan’s finds similar complexities with other ethnic designations used in Afghanistan. Most texts and maps divide the country into roughly a dozen ethnicities. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The ethnic groups of the country are as follow: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri and some others.” The term “some others” indicates uncertainty, which is indeed warranted. Following the Ethnologue and Erwin Orywal, Allan discerns forty-five languages and fifty-five ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Several conventional groups turn out to be composite units composed of distinct peoples speaking separate languages; “Nuristani,” for example, encompasses five languages. “Tajik” is an especially a fraught category. It too is foreign, derived from the Turco-Mongol term for “non-Turk.” Although it has long been used by Persian speakers for self-designation, “Tajik” retained pejorative connotations until recent decades. The institutionalization of the term has been linked to the Soviet manipulation of ethnic categories in Central Asia. As Allan shows, most of the current ethnic designations of Afghanistan were imposed by outsiders on the basis of limited knowledge. The resulting scheme ignored the indigenous concept of manteqa, used to divide most of Afghanistan into ethno-geographical units. As the Wikipedia puts it, “In Afghanistan, the Tajiks … refer to themselves by the region, province, city, town, or village they are from; such as Badakhshi, Baghlani, Mazari, Panjsheri, Kabuli, Herati, Kohistani.”

            As a term of self-designation, “Pashtun” stands on stronger grounds than “Tajik. “Pashtun identity tends to be pronounced, and is often a source of considerable pride. But the mere fact that this ethnic group spans the border challenges the national formations of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan also signals a claim to Pashtun territory by way of the word “Afghan.” The “A” in “Pakistan”—an acronymic country-name—refers to “Afghania,” just as the “P” refers to Punjab, the “K” to Kashmir, and the “S” to Sindh.

Map showing different definitions of the term "Pashtunistan"The Pashtun people themselves have on occasions hoped to break out of this geopolitical bind, proclaiming their own separate nationality and agitating for the creation of a new state. The proposed boundaries of an independent Pashtunistan, however, vary significantly, as can be seen in the maps posted to the left. In one version, Pashtunistan would be limited to the Pashto-speaking areas of both countries; in another it would add Pakistani Balochistan and a few other areas; in another it would encompass all of Afghanistan as well as the western half of Pakistan; and in yet another it would include only the western half of Pakistan. Although the idea of Pashtunistan is often considered dead, some maintain that the fear of its revival pushes policy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As stated recently in the anti-militarist World War Four Report, “Kabul and Islamabad both feel the need to appease Pashtun tribal leaders, fearing the specter of an independent ‘Pashtunistan’—which would take a critical chunk of both states’ territory, and widen the war yet further…”

As a final note, it has long seemed odd to me that Afghanistan is usually portrayed in the U.S. media as a Pashtun-dominated country, even though most of its residents belong to other ethnic groups, and even though Persian is more widespread and more prestigious than Pashto. Nigel Allan links this habit to U.S. diplomatic and military maneuvering in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost all American developmental projects in Afghanistan focused on Pashtun areas. In the 1980s, the U.S. military embraced a “southern strategy” based on alliances with Pashtun militias aimed at expelling Soviet forces from the country. This Pashtun focus, Allan argues, stemmed in part from the British imperial designation of the Pashtun people as one of South Asia’s “martial races.” Whether the U.S. reliance on such Pashtun leaders as Hamid Karzai has been an effective strategy is a different matter altogether.

For more information, see Nigel J. R. Allan, “Defining Place and People in Afghanistan.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, 2001, 42(8), 545-560. (Note: the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economics.)

The Congo Pedicle and Its Challenges to Zambian Development

Map of Congo Pedicle Location Namibia’s Caprivi Strip is not the only African panhandle to result from European imperial attempts to reach water-bodies. Cameroon, for example, has a northern protuberance that connects to the much-diminished Lake Chad. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s southern panhandle—officially the “Congo Pedicle”—falls in the same category. The agents of Belgium’s King Leopold II were determined to gain access to Lake Bangweulu and adjacent wetlands in what is now Zambia, an area of abundant fish and game. Competition with the British South Africa Company led to international arbitration, which failed to satisfy Belgian desires. The “little foot,” or pedicle, that King Leopold II obtained in the process, however, contained valuable resources of its own. It also proved an obstacle to Zambian development in the post-colonial era.

Before annexation in the early 1890s, the Congo Pedicle and environs were largely under the control of Msiri, an African merchant and empire-builder based in Bunkeya in today’s DR Congo. Msiri was reportedly the first individual to establish a set of direct trade-links from Africa’s Atlantic shores to its Indian Ocean coast. His realm was also rich in copper and ivory, attracting European adventurers. Aware of the waiting dangers, Msiri invited British missionaries, whom he seems to have valued as both interpreters and potential hostages. One of the proselytizers urged him to have potential treaties translated to avoid inadvertently signing away his sovereignty. Msiri complied, and as a result, an 1890 British South Africa Company expedition to his capital gained nothing. Soon afterward, however, a less diplomatically inclined Belgian military convoy arrived. Misiri was killed in the resulting fracas and his realm annexed to the grotesquely misnamed Congo Free State, essentially the personal territory of the brutal king of Belgium.

Map of Congo Pedicle, Natural Environment and BoundariesDespite this coup, Leopold’s designs were still limited by the British drive to the north. A general agreement between the contending powers set their territorial division along two natural features: Britain would prevail to the south of the Zambezi-Congo river divide, as well as to the east of the Luapula River, while their Belgian rival would have a free hand in the lands to the north and west. Yet as can be seen on the map to the left, a gap exists between the Luapula River and the Congo-Zambezi watershed: the area comprising the Congo Pedicle. Operating with incomplete geographical knowledge, Leopold’s agents hoped to take advantage of this gap by pushing their claims all the way to the Bangweulu Basin. Britain resisted, and the King of Italy was asked to arbitrate. His straight north/south boundary line gave Leopold a long salient but awarded the lake and its basin to Britain. In 1895, a British South African Company expedition led by the accomplished American scout Frederick Russell Burnham found the fantastically rich ore-bodies of the Copperbelt, straddling what is now the Zambia/DR Congo border. As the mining map shows, the Pedicle gave Belgium, and eventually the DR Congo, substantial mineral resources, although the most productive ore belt lies just outside of it.

Map of Mines in the Zambia/Congo CopperbeltThe Congo Pedicle has been a major hindrance to Zambia. Its intrusive presence cleaves the country into two lobes of roughly equal size. Transportation is the major problem. Traveling from northeastern to central Zambia is not too difficult if one crosses the Pedicle, but going around it is terribly arduous, as the Bangweulu wetlands stand in the way. After World War II, Belgium allowed Britain to build an unpaved through-way across the salient. The resulting Pedicle Road proved a major boon for British Northern Rhodesia, and later for independent Zambia.

Wikipedia Map of Congo Pedicle RoadWhen the government of Zaire (DR Congo’s name from 1971 to 1997) began its slow-motion collapse in the 1970s, problems in the Pedicle mounted. As Congolese border guards were no longer paid, they look to extorting money from, and looting, Zambian traffic on the Pedicle Road. As early as 1975, conditions along the corridor had become one of Lusaka’s most pressing concerns. Yet throughout the time of anarchy in its giant northern neighbor, Zambia continued to respect Congolese sovereignty. Even when various militias, armed gangs, and proxy armies* were carving up the carcass of Zaire, Zambia remained on the sidelines, the inviolability of colonial borders being a cornerstone of its geopolitics. Zambia’s response to Congolese chaos was the costly 300-kilometer Samfya-Serenje Road, requiring nearly 20 kilometers of elevated causeways to allow passage through the Bangweulu wetlands. Completed in 1983, this road is a circuitous replacement for the Pedicle route, as can be seen on the map to the left.

Recent improvements in the governance of DR Congo have allowed easier transit across the salient. But by now, the long-neglected Pedicle Road has deteriorated. Constructed of laterite (an iron- and aluminum-rich form of soil that makes a hard crust when exposed to the air), it formed only a passable roadway in the best of times. Efforts are now underway to refurbish the highway. In mid-2011, Zambian newspapers proudly announced that the Pedicle Road would be paved, resulting in a “breakthrough which will facilitate enhanced communication and transportation of goods and services.”

 

*Unlike Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad all took sides Congo civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s.

International Boundaries, Peace Parks, and Elephants in Southern Africa

Map of Southern African Peace ParksOver the past century, a number of “international peace parks” have been established, designed both to demonstrate amity between neighboring countries and to facilitate the preservation of wildlife, habitat, and natural beauty. The first such “transboundary protected area,” as peace parks are more prosaically labeled, was inaugurated by Sweden and Norway in 1914, an inauspicious year that nonetheless marked 100 years of concord between the two countries. In 1932, the United States and Canada created two such trans-border parks: the International Peace Garden in Manitoba and North Dakota, and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in Alberta and Montana. Over the years, several other border-spanning protected areas have been carved out, but the idea has been slow to catch on. Only a handful of such parks existed at the turn of the millennium.

In southern Africa, however, the movement to establish transboundary protected areas has recently taken off, thanks largely to the efforts of the Peace Parks Foundation. Established in 1997, the foundation emerged through the patronage of three powerful, elderly men: Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa; Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld, prince-consort of the Netherlands (and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Bilderberg Group); and Anton Rupert, an Afrikaner billionaire businessman and conservationist. Based in Stellenbosch, South Africa, the foundation has overseen the designation of several transboundary protected areas, as can be seen on the map. The best-known is probably the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which, when completed, will link three national parks: South Africa’s Kruger, Mozambique’s Limpopo, and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou. The foundation’s most recent creation, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), is its most ambitious, located where, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. As the Peace Park Foundation’s website explains:

 Map of Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area[KAZA] is set to become the world’s biggest conservation area and will eventually span an area of approximately 444,000 km2 (similar in size to Sweden). It will include 36 national parks, game reserves, community conservancies and game management areas. Most notably, the area will include the Caprivi Strip, Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta … and the Victoria Falls (a World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World). Kavango Zambezi promises to be southern Africa’s premier tourist destination…

            Southern Africa is an appropriate place for the establishment of international peace parks. A generation ago, it was one of the most war-torn parts of the world, beset with seemingly intractable and often bloody conflicts almost everywhere but Botswana. Today it is a relatively peaceful place, noted for the cooperation of its countries through the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Although tensions persist both within and among southern African countries, the region as a whole has made tremendous strides in reducing conflict. Such amicable international relations make possible the development of large trans-frontier conservation areas.

Environmental factors in southern Africa further encourage the formation of border-spanning conservation zones. As it happens, most of the region’s premier wildlife havens are located near or along international borders. This correlation is most evident in the geography of elephant survival, a good indicator of intact ecosystems. As can be seen in the map to the left, the large tracts of wild land that support viable elephant populations in southern Africa are largely found across or near boundaries between countries. In this context, successful wildlife management requires international cooperation. Rebuilding wildlife numbers decimated in earlier periods of warfare also demands transboundary planning and implementation. Prolonged struggles in Mozambique and especially Angola devastated the fauna of both countries; Angola’s elephants were all but exterminated during its civil war. At the same time, successful conservation efforts in South Africa and Botswana have allowed excess elephant populations there, threatening national parks with partial deforestation. The international peace parks initiative facilitates the transfer of elephants from over-populated to under-populated areas, promising the restoration of balanced ecosystems over a broad area.

Map of Elephant Distribution and International Boundaries in Southern AfricaOne of the largest areas of prime elephant habitat in the world is found along the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—precisely the zone designated for protection in the KAZA initiative. In fact, the Peace Parks Foundation estimates that it contains “the largest contiguous population of the African elephant (approximately 250 000) on the continent.” Yet as the map of elephant distribution indicates, herds within the boundaries of the KAZA conservation area are not fully contiguous; a substantial gap exists between the main area and a smaller zone to the north in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. One of the primary goals of the Peace Parks Foundation is to establish linkages between different sites of wildlife concentration within the KAZA zone, allowing elephants and other animals to reestablish their migratory pathways.

Elephant preservation can be a tricky issue. Although the Southern African countries want viable wild elephant populations, they are mindful of the animals’ potentially destructive powers. Rampaging pachyderms can wreak havoc on farms, threatening the food security of a poor region. In early September 2011, for example, “a herd of stray elephants suspected to be from Botswana descended on the 50-hectare Shashe irrigation scheme [in Zimbabwe], destroy[ing] crops and fencing,” and leading to pronounced local anger. Given such risks, successful elephant management usually entails the construction of solid, electrified fences. Officials in charge of Zimbabwe’s Shashe project are now “looking for help to connect electricity to the 11km fence that was donated by the Peace Parks Foundation to protect the irrigation scheme.” Less expensive methods of elephant control are also being investigated by local researchers, including “using chili in various ways, such as embedding it in grease that was rubbed into ropes.”

Zambia in particular has much to gain from the KAZA project. Although it has numerous attractions, the country has not lived up to its tourism potential. The Zambian government plans to address the situation, hoping to increase its annual number of tourist arrivals from 900,000 at present to 1.5 million by 2015. Successful implementation of the transfrontier conservation scheme would go a long way toward making that goal achievable. But much work remains to be done. Zambia’s existing national parks have only been afforded partial protection, and neither wildlife management nor tourist facilities have received much attention. The country’s transportation system is notoriously challenged as well. Yet the Zambian government is currently being lauded for its economic reforms, which have supported solid growth in recent years. Optimism about the future of the copper-rich country is increasing.

If Zambia is to take full advantage of its eco-tourism potential, it will need to pay careful attention to its elephants. Leaders of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) fully recognize that many tourists want to see these large beasts. As the Zambia Post reported in June 2011, quoting a local wildlife official, “Last week, two elephants were killed in Lower Zambezi; this is unacceptable. That’s why ZAWA needs strong support from the government because our tourism is wildlife based.” Yet in some parts of the country, tourists do not have to go out of their way to see elephants.  As the managers of a tourist lodge in South Luangwa National Park discovered, building a hotel along an elephant migration route can bring interesting results. As captured in this YouTube video, elephants stroll right through the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge between October and December of every year, on their way to a grove of wild mangos.

Geopolitics, Wildlife, and Tourism: Botswana’s Tuli Block

Map of Tuli Block in Botswana Geopolitical conflicts often prove as harmful to wildlife as they do to humankind. Occasionally, however, discord between states can turn a border zone into a “no-man’s land” where wildlife can thrive. The prime example of such an unintentional reserve is the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North from South Korea, a 2.5-mile (4 km) wide strip of land noted for its diverse and plentiful fauna. Many other examples are found in the historical record, particularly in aboriginal North America, were buffer zones between the territories of competing tribes were often noted for their abundance of wild animals. In some parts of the world, faunal legacies of long-vanished geopolitical buffers still exist. One example is Botswana’s Tuli Block, a wildlife-rich strip of land along the country’s southeastern border with South Africa.

The Tuli Block originated in a three-way struggle during the late 1800s among British colonialists, White Afrikaner herders (Boers), and the indigenous polities of southern Africa. At that time, the Tswana people were forging a kingdom in the region; Afrikaners were pushing north in search of new grazing lands; and British imperial agents were scheming for expansion. In 1885, Britain established a protectorate over Tswana-speaking Bechuanaland, the territory that would eventually form the core of modern Botswana. Tswana kings (or chiefs) continued to rule under British advisement, although their power would soon be whittled back. In 1895, concerned about the incursion of Afrikaner immigrants into his domain, King Khama III ceded a section of his borderlands to the British South Africa Company, the ambitious firm founded by the empire-builder Cecil Rhodes. Khama III figured that Rhodes could keep out the Boers, while Rhodes reckoned that the land would make a good route for his envisaged “Cape to Cairo” railroad.

Tuli Block on Google EarthThe Tuli Block proved too rough and rocky for railroad construction. Before long, the company sold the land to White commercial ranchers in vast tracts—large enough to leave room for both cattle and wildlife. But livestock production proved only marginally profitable even in good years, and suffered deeply during recurrent droughts. Eventually, land owners turned to a new source of livelihood: game ranching. As originally envisaged, game ranchers would supplement their cattle operations by charging tourists to see—or shoot—wildlife on their property. In a short time, the “game” side of most ventures became more profitable that the livestock side; currently, as one travel-oriented website puts it, “Cattle ranches are fast becoming an endangered species with wild animals becoming the norm.” Most proprietors now manage their properties to enhance habitat rather than stock. As the Botswana Game Ranching Handbook puts it, “In terms of enterprise diversification, game ranching offers a better alternative than livestock farming. Ranchers can sell game for hunting, use their ranches for photographic safaris, game viewing, education and tourism.”

Tourist Map of BotswanaThe Tuli Block has not featured prominently in Botswana’s tourist promotion literature, which tends to focus on large national parks and wildlife reserves farther north. But tourist authorities are now reassessing the region’s potential. Owing to its proximity to South Africa, the Tuli Block can attract relatively large numbers of short-term visitors. Local game ranchers hope that infrastructural investments will enhance their tourism operations. Poor cell-phone reception and treacherous roads are considered major impediments. Many Tuli visitors, however, appreciate the adventure afforded by the rough environment.

As most of the Tuli Block remains in private hands, ranches occasionally change hands.  Several parcels appear to be currently on the market. One is a 17,287 hectare (42,000 acres) plot that features “two large old-fashioned ranch homesteads with pools…, 25 fully developed boreholes and 8 large earthen dams to supply water for the game.” Its resident wildlife are reported as follows: “Impala 3,000, Blue Wildebeest 150, Red Hartebeest 40, Eland 60, Zebra 100, Gemsbuck 30, Waterbuck 300, Kudu 1,000, Giraffe 15, Leopard 20, Bush pig 30, Blesbuck 30, Warthog 300, Ostrich 7, Bushbuck 50, Klipspringer 20, Spotted Hyena 25, Cheetah (nomadic), and Hippo 15.” The asking price is a mere $6,325,000. (In Palo Alto, California, that sum might get you one acre, four small houses, two robins, three sparrows, and a rat.)

Tuli Block game ranchers face several challenges in managing such large territories. Invasive cactus species have degraded large areas of land; removing such plants is laborious and unpleasant. Owing to the abundance of elephants, tree trunks must be wrapped in wire if substantial groves are to survive. Wildlife numbers must also be monitored if management plans are to be accurately followed. Yet labor in the sparsely settled Tuli Block is in short supply, and ranches often operate on thin margins. One strategy is to turn to well-off young people from wealthy countries who are eager for adventure, keen to do their part to conserve habitat, and willing to work for free. International service-learning organizations arrange such trips; one group, Projects Abroad, is currently running a conservation project in the Tuli Block, just over the Limpopo River from South Africa. As it happens, my seventeen-year-old son participated in the project this summer. He had a tremendous experience and was thrilled by the abundance and diversity of the local wildlife, although he did complain about the cactus cutting.

 

India’s Second Most Dangerous Border?

Map of the India-Bangladesh Border

Map of the India-Bangladesh BorderThe May 21-27 issue of The Economist describes the line separating India from Pakistan as “the world’s most dangerous border,” an assessment difficult to deny. But India’s 4023-kilometer (2,500-mile) border with Bangladesh is perilous as well.

The Indo-Bangladeshi boundary is in some respects more barricaded than that between India and Pakistan. Half of the border is already fenced; most sections consist of parallel barbed-wire fences, some of which are electrified. In theory, India is fencing off its entire extent. But the $1.2 billion project, originally scheduled for completion two years ago, has become bogged down. According to Vikas Kumar, progress has been slowed by “the riverine landscape and incomplete demarcation of the international boundary.” Fencing off the shifting river channels that abound in Bangladesh is no easy task.

India’s barricading of the border was propelled by geopolitical and demographic considerations. Illegal immigration is a major concern; estimates of the number of Bangladeshis in India range from two million to twenty million. Religious differences generate social stress; since most immigrants are Muslim, the sectarian balance in northwestern India is shifting, worrying Hindu nationalists in particular. Such anxieties sometimes morph into geopolitical fears. A 2009 report in Bengal Spotlight highlights these concerns, as can be seen in the maps below. The author argues:

Maps and tables of immigration from Bangladesh to India “West Bengal [in India] has 1528 km border lines to Bangladesh, out of which the fencing is completed up to 1200 km only. But it is evident that more than 500 km of this Indo-(WB)-Bangladesh Border Line is un-wired or critical through which the Anti Indian Elements are coming Day and Night. Government knows it very well. These areas are being used as “Muslim Bangla Corridor” or “Extended Bangladesh” as you like to emphasize.”

The Indian government’s main geopolitical worry focuses on the Bangladeshi sanctuaries supposedly used by insurgent groups from northeastern India. India once accused Bangladesh of harboring 190 militant bases, mostly linked to the Tripura insurgency. The rebels’ reliance on Bangladeshi havens is hardly surprising, as the Indian state of Tripura is almost engulfed by Bangladesh. By 2010, this particular rebellion had largely dissipated. But other northeastern Indian uprisings continue to simmer, and Tripura could easily flare up again.

Map of the Indian State of TripuraSmuggling, especially of weapons, is another concern. Most illicit trade, however, runs in the opposite direction, from India to Bangladesh. A variety of goods are bootlegged across the border, with many shipments carrying such mundane loads as rice and saris. More troublesome is phensedyl, a codeine-laced cough syrup made in India that is illegal in Bangladesh. Moving phensedyl is big business; between January 2009 and September 2010, Bangladeshi agents seized nearly two million bottles. Bangladesh is now pressuring India to take more stringent efforts against drug smuggling, offering to collaborate more extensively on security issues.

By most reports, the fence has done little to stop smuggling. Partly this is due to the fact that it is not finished, but it also reflects the inadequacy of the barrier itself. In many areas, villagers simply cross over on ladders. Elsewhere, smugglers have finagled more formal crossing points. Bribes are required to keep them open, and payments not uncommonly come in the form of sex. As a result, a linkage has developed between prostitution and smuggling across the Indo-Bangladeshi border. A recent article on the resulting sex trade in The Hindu, evocatively titled “No Woman’s Land,” describes the crossing system:

As against half a dozen legal entry points between the two countries on this stretch of the border, there are 17 illegal ones, called ghats [literally “steps”]. Like liquor vends, these ghats are auctioned and the ghat maliks [“crossing lords”] set their own rates of commission for permitting the illegal activity. There is also a loose network of line-men, agents and carriers who facilitate the smuggling of cattle, rice, shimmering nylon saris and phensedyl … across the barrier.

Owing to the porosity of the border, whether fenced or not, India relies heavily on military patrols to reduce transgressions. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is a gargantuan paramilitary organization, with some 240,000 employees. The BSF is much criticized for its violent enforcement measures. Human rights organizations claim that it has killed nearly 1,000 Bangladeshi border-crossers in the past ten years. According to some sources in Bangladesh, other violations are commonplace. The Daily Star claims that between 2008 and 2010, “64 Bangladeshis were tortured to death by BSF, … while 116 were abducted along the border,” allegations that India denies. International outrage was generated in January 2011, when a BSF guard shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl; her lifeless body hung from the fence for five hours before Indian troops hauled it away on a bamboo pole.

Although India apologized for the killing, its response was widely viewed as feeble, fomenting yet more furor in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government, however, played down the row, as it has been pursing rapprochement with India. Dhaka is currently pushing New Delhi to liberalize trade, focusing on the quotas that it imposes on Bangladeshi textiles. As Bangladesh runs a significant and growing trade deficit with India, such concerns weigh heavily on its leaders.

Meanwhile, construction of the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier continues. Determining exactly where the barrier will run is no simple matter, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

The Iran-Pakistan Border Barrier

Google Earth Image of Iran-Pakistan Barrier

Google Earth Image of Iran-Pakistan BarrierOne of the world’s most heavily fortified borders stretches between Iran and Pakistan. The Iran-Pakistan Barrier, currently under construction by the Iranian government, features a three-foot thick (.91 meters), ten-foot high (3.05 meter) concrete wall extending across 700 kilometers of forbidding desert terrain. The actual wall, however, is merely one part of an elaborate system of barriers. Exploration via Google Earth reveals several parallel structures running along much of the border, which evidently consist of linked embankments and ditches. Fortress-like structures are also visible in several areas, as are extensive road and track networks. As the walls, berms, dry moats, and other fortifications are all built on the Iranian side of the border, Pakistan has voiced no objections to the project. Tracing the barrier on Google Earth, however, shows several places in which it seemingly crosses the divide between the two countries. Either Iran has encroached on Pakistani territory or—as is vastly more likely—Google Earth does not accurately depict the actual boundary between the two states.

The official purpose of the Iran-Pakistan Barrier is two-fold: to stop illegal border crossings and to reduce the flow of illegal drugs into Iran. The latter issue is certainly serious. According to a 2005 United Nations report, Iran has the world’s highest rate of opiate addiction by a substantial margin, with an estimated four million regular users in a population of roughly seventy-three million. Afghanistan is the ultimate source of narcotics entering Iran, but Afghan opium is often processed in, and exported from, Pakistan. As there is only one legal crossing between the two countries, at the small oasis town of Taftan, the Iranian government hopes to gain control over the flow of goods by hardening the frontier. But despite both the barricades and the elaborate Taftan portal, a large amount of contraband evidently gets through; the two-sentence Wikipedia article on Taftan claims that it is “famed by locals as the ‘road to London’ because it is a famous smuggling route.”*

Taftan Border Crossing between Iran and PakistanThe issue of illegal border-crossing by Pakistanis is more complicated. Iran is a much more prosperous and less densely populated country than Pakistan, circumstances that often result in a large flow of surreptitious immigrants. And indeed, the westward movement of undocumented migrants is substantial. It is also apparently increasing, despite the barrier. But most of the people illegally crossing the border evidently aim to pass through Iran on their way to Europe, a region with substantially higher wages and benefits. As recently reported in Pakistan’s Express Tribune:

Iranian border security forces have handed over 2,666 illegal immigrants to Pakistani officials during the past four months. More than a thousand of these however are Afghan nationals. These fresh figures point out the worsening situation with regards to human trafficking. Last year, Iranian forces handed over 8,732 illegal immigrants to Pakistani officials at the Taftan border, a township on the Pakistan-Iran border. “High-profile people are involved in this lucrative business. Agents backed by powerful elements make false claims about economic opportunities in Europe in order to attract the youth,” Balochistan Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durrani said.

Map of Baloch People and the Iran-Pakistan Border
Map of Baloch People and the Iran-Pakistan Border

The illegal movement of drugs and people, however, does not seem to be the main reason for the construction of the extraordinarily expensive barrier by the cash-strapped Iranian state. More important is the desire to quell the Baloch rebellion. As can be seen on the map, the boundary between Iran and Pakistan also divides the land of the Baloch people, a distinct ethno-linguistic group some nine million strong. The bulk of the Baloch, a Sunni Muslim people, live in Pakistan, but as many as a million and a half reside in southeastern Iran, with another half million or so in southwestern Afghanistan. The Baloch in Pakistan have been engaged in a low-intensity insurgency for decades, while those of Iran have become increasingly restive in recent years. In 2003, Iranian Baloch militants formed a violent organization called Jundullah (“Soldiers of God”), dedicated to fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims against the Shi’ite regime of Iran. Iran has long classified Jundullah as a terrorist group; in October 2010 the United States agreed, adding the organization to its official list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Considering the fact that the governments of both Iran and Pakistan are threatened by Baloch insurgents, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan has voiced no objections to the barrier. Prohibiting the free movement of militants may benefit both countries, but it also harms local civilians. In 2007, a prominent Baloch leader denounced the wall “as a blatant endeavor to divide the Baloch nation on either side of Pak-Iran border.” Local economic consequences could also be severe, as many Baloch are nomadic pastoralists, roving over large distances with flocks of sheep, goats, and other animals. The barricade prevents such movement along its extent, placing additional pressures on the hard-pressed people of the region.

The Baluchistan dispute is a complex, multi-sided issue that deserves more extensive consideration. Before delving further, however, it would be worthwhile to examine the most recent change in international borders. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Denmark has just announced that it will reestablish border controls, thus threatening the Schengen area of free travel among most European countries. As a result, the GeoCurrents map published just two days ago is already becoming obsolete.

* Pakistan, by the way, is concerned about drug-smuggling from Iran, but of a different kind: alcohol. On April 26, 2011, Pakistani agents seized 2,586 bottles of liquor and beer in “the Kumb area of Balochistan near the Pak-Iran Border.”

International Land Borders, Hard and Soft

Map of the variety of international land borders

Map of the variety of international land bordersOn the standard world political map, all boundaries between sovereign states are the same, simple lines separating one country from another. In actuality, borders vary tremendously. The four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone”— sandwiched between two hyper-militarized zones—that splits North from South Koreas does not even remotely resemble the stroll-over border between Germany and France. Such border disparities have increased in recent decades. Europe has seen a massive softening of borders; first the Iron Curtain dissolved, then the Schengen Agreement allowed control-free movement across most state lines. In the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere, borders have hardened in the same period, marked by the massive construction of “separation barriers.” Some of these barricades are designed to prevent the infiltration of militants; others to staunch the movement of immigrants.

GeoCurrents will examine recently fortified borders over the next week or so. Today’s post focuses on the global distribution of exceptional borders, hard and soft. The map depicts the extremes of free movement and fortification. In blue are the international boundaries within the Schengen area, with lighter blue showing Schengenland’s planned expansion to encompass Romania and Bulgaria. Red shows barricaded borders, existing and under construction. Serious proposals for new barriers are depicted in orange.

The map is not comprehensive. Maritime borders are ignored, as are land boundaries too small to be seen on a map of this scale. Heavily fortified borders thus excluded include those separating Israel from Lebanon, Gaza from Egypt, Northern Cyprus from the rest of the island,* and the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. Hard barriers within sovereign states, such as that between Hong Kong and China proper, are also excluded, as are those that do not correspond with internationally recognized boundaries, such as the “Moroccan Wall” in Western Sahara. I have also excluded the barrier between South Africa and Mozambique, as it is slated for demolition.

It quite possible that other hard borders, existing and proposed, have not been given their due. The map’s source material is limited to the Wikipedia article entitled “Separation Barrier”; the article is informative, but is marred by discrepancies between its text and its table. The only Russian entry in the impressive table listing “current barriers” is the proposed divide between Russia and Chechnya, excluded from the GeoCurrents map because it is internal to the Russian state. Yet the article notes the existence of “a security barrier … on the border of Russia with Norway, Finland, China, Mongolia and North Korea.” No other information is provided; the linked Wikipedia article is in Russian, hence inaccessible to me. Combining the two sources, I have mapped these Russian borders as “hard.”

The mapping of “soft borders” is also tentative. The GeoCurrents map merely follows the internal boundaries within the Schengen area, noting as well planned expansions f the zone. Yet other international boundaries also have certain soft features. Until recently, one was very open; the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland long formed a “common travel area” with “minimal or non-existent border controls.” Such openness, however, is evidently vanishing. As reported in a 2007 Sunday Times article:

The free movement of people between Ireland and Britain has survived centuries of tension and even terrorism, but that tradition is about to end with the severing of a special relationship between the two countries because of tighter security procedures. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that the Common Travel Area – which was created between the Republic of Ireland and the UK after independence – is to be dismantled with the construction of an electronic border control system by Britain by 2009. Mr Ahern said that it was now only sensible for the Republic to follow Britain’s example and introduce similar security.

As always, I welcome comments on the accuracy of the map. Subsequent posts will examine in detail specific barricaded borders, beginning with that separating Iran from Pakistan. This barrier divides not only two different countries, but also a single major ethnic group, the Baloch.

*Northern Cyprus, moreover, is not an internationally recognized state, as it receives recognition only from Turkey

Map of Landlocked Countries

Many students are surprised at how few of the world’s sovereign states are landlocked, without access to the sea. The map above depicts the landlocked realm, leaving out the micro-states that cannot be seen at this scale of resolution. Luxemburg is visible on the map – although just barely – but Andorra, San Marino, and Lichtenstein are not. Lichtenstein is one of the world’s two double-landlocked counties, which are bordered only by sovereign states that are themselves landlocked. The other country in this category is Uzbekistan, and is thus depicted as such on the map.