I Didn’t Want To

by Joshua Foust on 4/30/2009 · 6 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Sublime Oblivion April 30, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Why is Afghanistan important? Now I know that geopolitical theorists from Mackinder to Brzezinski regarded it and Central Asia like a crucial pivot of control or something, but to me controlling the region looks pretty useless as a means of increasing national power.

T. Greer April 30, 2009 at 9:43 pm

So many? Outside of the folk who reside at Coming Anarchy (who really cannot expect to do otherwise, given the title of their site), who has been heaping praise upon Kaplan’s essay?

Joshua Foust April 30, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Well, is the only goal of foreign policy expanding national power? I would dispute that. The instability in that region—right now, I’m not talking about the grandiose “current of history” people like Mackinder went on about—poses a critical threat to our national interests:

1) an unchallenged illicit opium trade threatens to destabilize all the neighboring countries which serve as transit routes: Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan

2) the current instability in Pakistan would not be happening if Afghanistan were stable; an unstable Pakistan is dangerous in too many ways to count

3) these are still largely the same men (at the top) who perpetrated September 11 and helped those who did, and they have maintained their global aspirations for chaos

4) we already have a solid record of what abandonment looks like: the 1990s. I would venture we don’t want to repeat that

There are others, too, but that’s a start.

Greer, I’ve seen it in some other blogs, and of course it’s been blared all over Foreign Policy—and they carry a lot of sway—so I’m trying to nip this in the bud, at least kind of.

Alex May 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm


I don’t want to sound too much like a defender of Kaplan or geographic determinism (because I am not), but I want to offer the following observations and would enjoy your response.

First, I don’t think that anyone would claim that the Atlantic or FP are “scholarly” periodicals. Sure they have folks like Walt and Drezner blogging for them, but lets face it they are intended for a “popular” audience right (people who follow politics and policy, who read the newspaper, but who probably aren’t ‘in the business’ and certainly aren’t area specialists with MA’s and PhD’s)? Second, I don’t think that Kaplan ever claims to be an area specialist. In fact he seems to be a self-declared generalist who sometimes cites obscure experts (I certainly wasn’t familiar with the work of James Holmes or Toshi Yoshihara of the Naval War College until Kaplan referenced them in his latest Foreign Affairs article and went and read some of their respectable work). So while I agree, that it would be a shame if the folks making policy read his stuff for insight, I think his coverage of the issues is fairly good for the “popular” audience (I lot of fairly educated aware folks who follow politics and foreign policy may not know the first thing about Gwadar or Burma). Obviously as your repeated critiques make clear, you and other experts (Christian for example) have far superior regional knowledge.

Nevertheless, precisely because your expertise is so focused and his journalism so general I think your critiques inevitably may miss the larger issue. While I cannot claim to have read all your critiques, I note that the points above do not pertain to or engage with what I see as Kaplan’s central thesis: Much of the geostrategic thinking of the late 19th and early 20th century continues to be relevant in international politics to this day. Contrary to the ‘liberal internationalism’ of the 1990′s (think ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’) international politics today (and in the years ahead) are more likely to be characterized by geopolitical competition than international cooperation.

Do you disagree with this theoretical perspective and/or Kaplan’s attempt to apply it to your region of expertise? Do geopolitics matter? What insights if any do geopolitical thinkers such as Mahan or Mackinder (or for that matter Brzezinski) have to offer in the analysis of contemporary international politics or the conduct of foreign policy? What are the limitations of this approach? How does regional specialization (in particular your knowledge of “the heartland”) support, contradict, supplant or compliment the geopolitical approach?

Again, I ask these questions not because I agree with everything Kaplan says. In fact I ask them precisely because I disagree–albeit on the margin–with much of what he says and I find it necessary to grapple with the deeper implications of his seductive (reductionist) logic precisely because I don’t have the regional expertise to refute him on the details.

Your insights are much appreciated.

Joshua Foust May 2, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Alex, no worries — I understand where you’re coming from. If you don’t mind, I’ll address them in order:

1. I don’t care about the Atlantic. Kaplan is one of many columnists who have convinced me to cancel my subscription. Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg are two others. I like Megan McArdle and James Fallows, but that’s not enough to keep me around when they seem to have aggressively hired charlatans.

Foreign Policy used to be academic until a new round of editorship took over and made it more pop. I liked that version, too—it was more fun, less stodgy than Foreign Affairs, and delighted in taking a counterintuitive spin on current events. It’s really in the last six months or so, ever since the Washington Post Company bought it from the Carnegie Endowment, that it’s gone way downhill. Now, I didn’t complain about either of these magazines being academic, I complained about them lacking rigor. When Foreign Policy tries to turn itself into the USA Today of foreign policy publications, that’s their perogative—but it also means I have no interest in being talked down to by people who often have no command of the topic they’re discussing.

2. Kaplan doesn’t claim to be an area specialist, but a “world affairs expert,” whatever the hell that means. What he is is a travel writer masquerading as a serious analytical thinker. He is not. He flits about from region to region, and from topic to topic, and instead of lending insight or relevance instead gets big things wrong and doesn’t realize it. Generalists—Kaplan, like Tom Friedman is a guy whose reputation seems based on his willingness to posit grandiose, and demonstrably false, ideas about the world that conform to American stereotypes—are not interesting or useful anymore. What I try to demonstrate by focusing solely on the ways he gets the areas we cover here so wrong is that by not putting in the time to understand these places—and Central Asia is not unique in this sense—you made critically bad decisions. If Kaplan didn’t brief Presidents, I’d ignore him, just as I ignore Tom Friedman.

The point about popularizing esoteric topics is a keen one, but you don’t do that through a Foreign Affairs article. Kaplan is very obviously crashing those magazines because he has decided on his next book, which is geopolitics. And I don’t think Christian or I criticize him because we want to thumb our noses at him and say we’re smarter, but rather because people in charge listen to him, his bad writing and poorly formed ideas will get people killed. I’m serious — I just got back from a warzone in which really bad decisions based on stereotype and laziness are actively killing hundreds of people a year. It’s appalling, and I’d rather be on record saying “hey, this is wrong.”

Now, I do think geography matters. I think geopolitics matter — it was my favorite class in college. But Kaplan isn’t doing geopolitics. He is doing another travel essay and trying to imbue his travels with a few books he read. Okay, fine, I get it, it helps him and his readers feel smart. But he doesn’t add anything. That FP essay was written a dozen years ago, though, by actual scholars trying to advance the field. I like how Nathan put it in a comment elsewhere:

Kaplan starts with a hypothesis — Thunderdome is on the horizon, for example — and then go out looking for and, lo and behold!, finding plenty of evidence. Along the way, facts and situations are bent and shaped to fit into the big picture he’s trying to paint and not a shred of counterevidence rears its inconvenient head. To me, this smacks of intelligent design methodology translated to the social sciences.

I want to see a sequence or reasonable approximation of theory, design, evidence, and analysis in writing that aspires to explain a social phenomenon. I understand that’s a lot to ask, but I think it’s a standard to which Kaplan in particular should be held. People in government and the military do at times treat him like someone with deep knowledge of the subjects about which he writes and a serious thinker. He most certainly is not, and he deserves to have his work critiqued by actual experts lest policy-makers listen to him too much.

I mean, the two of us are not the only ones who think that. But it is a major problem—hence, why I pick at what he writes. And as I said, since your point is that he’s right to try to popularize geopolitical thinking, is that he got that wrong too. Registan.net is not the right place to write those critiques, though. But he got basic sourcing wrong, and failed to attribute big ideas with substantial literature behind them — like the problems and issues of shatter zones — which lends the impression that HE came up with them (“what I like to call ‘shatter zones’”). That’s just offensive from an honesty standpoint.

Barakzai May 19, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Kaplan may have made a hash of saying it, but there is some truth to what he says. Originally the Taliban claimed that they wished to restore the monrachy of Zahir Shah, they did not say so explicitly as in the issuance of a manifesto, but that was the feeling on the ground. To completely de-link them from Pashtun nationalism is therefore not correct, keeping in mind that there are many strands of the movement. Trans-border Pashtun nationalism does exist, that is Pakistan has propped up Islamism in its western half to counter it. I will try and go in to more depth, but once finals are over.

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