I’ve assiduously tried to avoid commenting on one of the three Robert Kaplan atrocities published this month: his (barely sourced) essay on basic geopolitics in FOREIGN POLICY that doesn’t even rise to a generic and high level literature review. I will leave aside the grander issues with it (like pretending to invent “shatter zones” while ignoring six decades of research into them, starting with Hartshorne and Fairgrieve, or talking about geography only in terms of sea power, or thinking it novel that a century-old political theory needs revision, or “the wisdom of geographical determinism,” or… oh hell, I need to stop). Here, only some things he says about Afghanistan need to be addressed.
Now, this is not a new topic, and many other people who have devoted themselves to covering other regions have similarly been aghast at the things Kaplan has written—to much inexplicable acclaim—about them (think of the Balkans). But Afghanistan in particular is important: not only is it of truly vital, global importance (unlike a small ethnic skirmish in the Balkans in the early 1990s), but Kaplan got his start there, and wrote his most eloquent, well-formed book about his time with the mujahideen. Since then, however, for some reason, all that knowledge and passion of the area he had in 1988 has vanished. To wit:
The wide belt of territory between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River is really Pashtunistan, an entity that threatens to emerge were Pakistan to fall apart. That would, in turn, lead to the dissolution of Afghanistan.
The Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism. Indeed, much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. The north of Afghanistan, beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan. Here is the ultimate world of Mackinder, of mountains and men, where the facts of geography are asserted daily, to the chagrin of U.S.-led forces—and of India, whose own destiny and borders are hostage to what plays out in the vicinity of the 20,000-foot wall of the Hindu Kush.
Oh Lordy. Let’s just go with the doozies:
- There is no such thing as a trans-border Pashtunistan, at least outside of the fairy-tale ideas of a few opportunists in Kabul.
- The Taliban are not an expression of Pashtun nationalism. As but one example, Abdulkader Sinno argues in excruciating depth that the Taliban were successful only because of their organization (and the disorganization of the mujahideen), and not necessarily because of their ideology or sense of nationalism. In fact, neither Afghan nor Pakistan Taliban are nationalist—they are explicitly pan-Islamist. They want an Islamic State, not a Pashtun one (their ethnicity is merely how they are organized, not motivated).
- There is almost no evidence that the Turkmen, Tajiks, and Uzbeks of Northern Afghanistan are “forging closer links” aside from using their respective states as the most convenient commercial corridor. Christian explored this—and even a bit of Pashtun nationalism—quite excellently, and his comments will suffice for why this is a batty thing to argue or even imply.
- It’s novel to pretend the dispute over Kashmir is being driven by the Taliban in Afghanistan. I would rather say he has that backwards in almost every single way.
Argh. This was frustrating. I’ve been trying to avoid even mentioning it, but so many are linking to his essay and pretending it’s useful, honest, or insightful, that I felt I had to correct the record somewhat. And where the hell did Foreign Policy‘s fact checkers go? I mean, they used to run rigorous, well-researched essays. They have seriously dumbed themselves down the last few years. I’m sorry for ranting. Regular blogging will resume shortly.