The Perilous Triangle #1

Afghanistan/Pakistan political map

I’m taking a lecture class, along with about 750 other people, called ‘The Perilous Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.” The first lecture was held last week and though T. was undergoing a procedure in a Boston hospital, he strongly encouraged me to attend the lecture rather than be with him there. So I did. It was one of the most interesting lectures I’ve experienced, and I’ve experienced a lot of them.

The speaker for this lecture was Harm de Blij (pronounced “du Blay”), a Dutch-born American geographer. You can read more about his peripatetic ways at his website. He was engaging, full of energy, information and analysis– and his lecture was sobering.

These are my notes, somewhat sketchy but you’ll get the idea.

For the first 30-40 minutes, he talked about being a geographer and what it means.  He lamented Americans’ lack of geographic knowledge (said every house should have a globe, preferably one you can write on and wipe off; and he strongly suggested we all order the Afghanistan/Pakistan map from NGS), with a phrase I had to write down: we in the U.S. have “discontinuous  exposure” to geographic information, i.e., not enough of it.

He read a bit from Kissinger’s memoirs about a little mix-up during Nixon’s administration between Mauritius and Mauritania. Mauritius is a sub-tropical island nation in the Indian Ocean that was on very good terms with the U.S.; Mauritania is an arid West African nation that had broken relations with the U.S. in 1967. Nixon, meeting with Mauritius’s prime minister, mistook one for the other based on inaccurate briefing notes he’d been given and hilarity ensued (as you can read).

Among other things, de Blij said that no geographers are unemployed; that women have better local-area mapping skills and men better ‘big picture’ mapping skills; and that we unfortunately learn geography in the aftermath of a crisis and not before: “war teaches geography.”

Getting into the subject matter of the lecture, “Afghanistan, Key to the Future of South Asia,” he covered a lot of ground. His primary points were:

1. it’s the ethnic groups and regions that matter in Afghanistan particularly, because no population there has ethnic dominance, as they do in Iraq, for instance (almost all Arab, except the Kurds).

2. climate and climate change strongly impacts history / the poppy market drives the war

3. the world is not flat (contrary to Thom Friedman’s book) but consists of a core of nations made up of 15% of the population of the earth but earning 75% of the annual income,and a periphery, which has a much higher birthrate than the core.

4. Extremist Islam is moving inexorably further and further south into Africa, which is the only continent not dominated by one nation or one ideological tradition.

5. China is likely to rule the world, soon.

Taking these in order:

1. Afghanistan: its ethnic divisions, its neighbours and other countries of interest

Population, about 34 million.Two languages: Pushtun (Pashtun) and Farsi (the language spoken in Iran, too).

No population has dominance. The ethnicities are: Pushtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluchi, Hazara, and Chahar.

The Pushtuns (or Pashtuns) make up about 40% of Afghanistan, with 50 million Pushtuns (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — their region spans the border between the countries, the Durand Line, which was arbitrarily drawn by outsiders in the 1890s). They’re mostly in the south of the country, near Pakistan, with some outposts in the north near Turkmenistan. Both Kabol (pop: 3 million) and Kandahar are in the large Pushtun region. (Kabol’s population actually includes about 1 million Hazara.)

Afghanistant’s president, Hamid Karzai, is a Pushtun. He was educated in India, so some Pushtuns think he’s overly friendly with the Tajiks, who are close to the Indians.

There are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The Tajiks are mainly in the northeast corner, near Tajikistan, with an outpost in the west, near Iran (major city: Herat).

The Hazara (pop: 4 million) are in the center of Afghanistan, and have not much in common with their neighbours as they are Shi’ite progressives, with women’s rights, high literacy rates, etc.  They are descended from the Mongols, as are the Chahar (pop: 2 million), who live in a region to the west of Hazara.

The Baluchi (pop: 7 million) are in the south of the country, and in Pakistan and Iran as well.The capital is Quetta, where the Taliban is headquartered.

The Uzbeks border Uzbekistan. The city of Kunduz is in the north of the country, in a Pushtun region in the midst of the Uzbek region.

All of the major areas have warlords, some better than others.

There is a strong commitment to a multicultural Afghanistan from almost everyone; the various ethnic groups don’t want to be part of other countries. They identify with Afghanistan as their home.


Afghanistan has a 2.6% population growth rate, twice that of the global rate.

Child mortality is 254/1000 children, 5 times the global rate.

The population is 51% men and 48% women, which is unique in the world, where everywhere else women are the majority. Additionally, life expectancy for both women and men in Afghanistan is the same, 43 years. This is also unique. (US: age 76, men; age 82, women. Russia: age 59, men; age 73, women.) Female literacy is about 20%, and in tribal areas, it’s 4%. Women are especially endangered in Afghanistan.

Pakistan (pop: 180 million, of which 55% are concentrated in the Punjab area near Lahore) is not as divided as Afghanistan. It has 4 major areas: Punjab, Sing, Northwest Frontier, and Baluchistan.

Iran‘s ethnic regions are Persian (the largest by land mass), Azeri (with ties to Azerbaijan, north of it), the Kurdish area (Sunni, with ties to Turkey), Arab (bordering the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman), and Baluchi (adjoining Pakistan).

Turkey is not Arab but it is Muslim. Istanbul becoming much more cosmopolitan. Bartender joked about the racket that the call to prayer makes.  Not interested in joining the EU (support at 13%), much more interested in looking East towards China and also in learning English.

De Blij identified an area called Turkestan that includes Uzbekistan (the most populous, with 27 million people), Tajikistan (8 million), Turkmenistan (5 million), Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan.

2. Climate’s impact on history. Climate determined Afghanistan’s history in 1970 when the rains failed. The farming population in this mostly rural country went under, the government and international community couldn’t help, and as soon as the rains came back, the farmers planted poppies in order to have a quick crop they could sell for a high profit. Today the poppy market is a $4.5 billion industry and it’s what drives the war.  De Blij’s suggestion, which seems genius, is that the U.S. buy up the whole poppy crop every year, which would be a pittance compared with our military budget (not to mention the human cost of war).

Afghanistan and most of the that part of the world is arid, in danger of severe water problems. Already people are clustering more and more in the fertile areas and leaving the arid land much less populated.

India, which looks like one country on the map, is really two climactically: the monsoons water the eastern part of India (the Bay of Bengal side), where Bengal and Chennai are, and they grow rice; the western part of Indian (the Arabian Sea side, with Delhi and Mumbai) doesn’t get much rain and it grows wheat. The two halves look as Islam differently, too. There’s a Communist uprising going on in the eastern part of the nation now.

Afghanistan and much of the area is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes, because of the positioning of the Indian tectonic plate and the Himalayas.

De Blij also talked about how climate changed the world in the 14th century (you can see this on YouTube). The Chinese Ming dynasty was ready to take over the world, moving west through India into Europe, when the ‘Little Ice Age’ hit China and in response the emperor  stopped foreign exploration, burned those ships, and started sending rice to the parts of China that were suffering from inability to grow crops, to avoid revolution. Otherwise, we might all be speaking Chinese now, de Blij conjectured.

3. The world is not flat but consists of a core and a periphery. Calling Thom Friedman’s book (The World is Flat) ‘irritating,’ de Blij made the case for the world becoming essentially a gated community, with walls and fences, flotillas, air patrols, DMZs and armed borders, and other boundary markers protecting the 15% of the population who live in the core nations from the 85% who don’t.

The advantaged core nations: U.S. and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Western Europe, and Israel.  These countries have 15% of he world’s population and earn 75% of the world’s yearly income.

There are 7 billion people on Earth; roughly 2.9% of them will die in a jurisdiction other than that in which they were born. Most people stay put.

Of the 50 Most Livable Cities in the World (Mercer), 48 are in the Core. The 2 that aren’t are Dubai and Singapore. [Actually the 2010 rankings have Singapore at #28 and Dubai at #75, so 49 of the 50 Most Livable Cities are in the core. Further down the list for Africa and the Middle East are Port Louis in Mauritius at 82, Abu Dhabi in the UAE at 83, Cape Town in SA at 86, and Tunis in Tunisia at 94. The U.S. doesn’t make an appearance until #31, with Honolulu.]

De Blij says Friedman ‘ blames the victim’ without seeing the lack of opportunity that exists.

[He says in his book The Power of Place that globalization may indeed level the global playing field for the “fortunate minority in control of, in the path of, or with access to the mainstreams of modernization,” but most people face obstacles that are steeper than ever.]

[He says in a Feb. 2010 interview: “By the roulette of birth we’re all parachuted onto this world in places fortunate and less so; and on average you’re a hell of a lot better off as a man than as a woman. If you’re born into the global core with its high-living-standard cities and high-income economies, and you start believing the world is flat (and geography is history), take a cold shower (it’s the norm in the periphery, with a bucket) and take a good geography course to follow. We’ve made the global core a gated community, try to keep immigrants out through bureaucracy, fences, walls, moats, patrol boats — and then call the world flat?”]

4. Extremist Islam and the Taliban are moving inexorably south in Africa. The Taliban insurgency actually began in India with a fight against the Hindu-ization of Indian politics; this fight was supported by U.S. money via Saudi Arabia. The Taliban (the word means “seekers” and not “students” as it is sometimes translated) then pushed into Pakistan, starting madrassas (schools) to help radicalize people.  With the Pushtun connection spanning Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban then crossed the Durand line into neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Taliban is now expanding to Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Niger, Mauritania, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The frontier line now runs through Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, the Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.

Nigeria, with a population of 130-170 million, is the most populous nation in Africa. Twelve of its northern states have adopted Sharia law. It could be the dominant nation on the continent but it’s dysfunctional politically. South Africa could also be the dominant nation but it’s turned inward on itself and its own problems.

5. When China Rules the World is the title of a book by Martin Jacques that De Blij strongly suggests reading (chapter 1, then skip to chapter 8 and onward). “The restructuring of the planet is in favour of China.”  China is everywhere, loaning and giving huge amounts of money all around the world, without requiring recipients to adhere to human rights codes. China has the human resources to impose a new kind of colonial reality globally.


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