Wakhan, Somaliland, and the Modern State


Think for a minute about the Wakhan Corridor.  You say you’ve never heard of the Wakhan Corridor?  Don’t feel bad, not many people have since it is one of the most remote places on Earth.  Look at a map of Afghanistan; see that long, skinny piece jutting out from the northeast corner reaching over to China, the thing that sort of resembles a giant splinter sticking in the flank of the country?  That is the Wakhan Corridor, a mere ten miles wide in some areas, it is a place that owes its existence to the geopolitical machinations of the 19th century; created by the British and Russian Empires while they were busy carving up Central Asia as a buffer to ensure their respective realms didn’t actually touch each other.

The Wakhan Corridor is a reminder of just how much of the map of the globe we see today was actually the creation of a handful of European rulers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a reminder of how often international borders were drawn up for reasons that had little to do with the actual realities on the ground.  More than a century later we are still dealing with the consequences of these decisions.  Take for example another portion of Afghanistan – the border region with Pakistan in the southeast; again this border was another artificial creation of the British, which happens to cut straight across the ancestral lands of the Pashtun people.  Not willing to abide by an artificial political barrier that sliced their homeland in two, the Pashtuns have historically ignored the Afghan-Pakistan border, aided by the hundreds of remote tracts that wind through the rugged Hindu Kush Mountains.  In recent years though, Pashtun disregard of the official border has become conflated with terrorism as the Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates made skipping from the Afghan to Pakistan sides a way to elude the United States-led military coalition in the ongoing War on Terror.  There has been some suggestion that this part of the world might be easier to govern (and the War on Terror easier to win) if there was a “Pashtunistan” that united the Pashtun lands on both sides of the 19th century border into a single political entity.

But the purpose of this essay isn’t to argue for reordering the world into ethnic enclaves – aside from being practically impossible; arguably it would also make for a very boring planet.  Nor is the purpose here to bash long-dead European leaders for redrawing the world as they saw fit.  The Europeans were not the first expansionist culture in human history that tried to impose its will upon the world – the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, and perhaps the most successful conquerors of all, the Mongols, all tried to do so as well, just to name a few.  It is however perhaps worthwhile here to consider the idea of self-determination: namely, under what circumstances do a people have the right to breakout of an existing political structure, especially when that political structure is not functioning?

Last week voters in Somaliland went to the polls and did something rarely done in Africa, they voted a sitting president out of office.  While this story should be touted as evidence of the growing strength of democracy in Africa, it’s not because “Somaliland” doesn’t officially exist.  As the name implies, Somaliland is a portion of the nation of Somalia, the northwestern-most quarter to be precise.  In 1991 when Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre was deposed, Somaliland declared its independence (Barre’s government and the people of Somaliland had spent the previous few years engaged in a civil war).  Since then the fortunes of the two places have diverged greatly: Somaliland has been stable and fairly prosperous, while Somalia has been plagued by fighting among Islamic militants, pirates, and foreign troops and has basically no economy to speak of.  Perhaps an odd measure of Somaliland’s success was that the Somalia-based militant Islamic movement al-Shabab tried to disrupt last week’s elections with attacks on several polling stations.  Yet despite their success, no country in the world will recognize Somaliland’s independence, citing the need to respect Somalia’s “territorial integrity,” an odd claim to make about a place that in a practical sense doesn’t exist as a nation today.

The “territorial integrity” argument is also used by the international community regarding another aspiring nation: Abkhazia, which along with its fellow separatist region South Ossetia, broke into the world’s consciousness in August 2008 as the focal point of a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia.  Abkhazia’s independence so far has only been recognized by Russia, Nicaragua and Nauru (which at least puts them three up on Somaliland); again the international community cites the need to respect Georgia’s “territorial integrity” as the reason behind ignoring Abkhazia’s claim.  But in a real sense, Georgia hasn’t governed Abkhazia since the early 1990s when the two sides fought a brief civil war.  Georgia accuses Abkhazia of ethnically cleansing their territory of Georgians after the conflict.  The Abkhaz counter by saying the Georgians systematically tried to eradicate the Abkhaz language and culture during the preceding decades of Soviet rule after their territory was grafted onto the Georgian SSR in by Josef Stalin (himself a Georgian) in 1931.  The two sides each claim historical atrocities inflicted by the other for centuries before that.

One place though where the “territorial integrity” argument was conveniently set aside was Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, this time with the blessing of the United States, Great Britain and France, short-circuiting a UN-led series of negotiations on the status of Kosovo and Serbia in the process.  Ostensibly, the decision was to forestall another wave of ethnic-fueled violence like the one that wracked Kosovo in the second-half of the 1990s.  But in reality, this was fairly unlikely, since many of the conditions that led to the ethnic violence of the 90s had changed: the Serbian ultra-nationalists were out of power; their main cheerleader, former President Slobodan Milosevic, was on trial for war crimes dating to the Kosovo conflict; and Serbia was looking for closer integration with Europe, including eventual membership in the European Union.  By their efforts, the US/UK/French troika created a country without a real economy – two of the biggest sources of Kosovo’s GDP are foreign aid and remittances from Kosovars living abroad.  Not surprisingly, Kosovo is home to a thriving “black” economy that includes serving as a main transshipment point for cheap heroin flowing from Afghanistan into Europe (perhaps as much as 90% of Afghan heroin enters Europe via Kosovo).  In Russia, which has been plagued by a wave of Afghani heroin hitting its streets, a joke circulated after Afghanistan became one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence; that a heroin producer had just recognized its distributor’s independence. 

Recently a Serbian friend asked if the international community would be as quick to recognize the independence of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian half of Bosnia-Herzegovina; she wasn’t asking seriously, knowing that they would not.  But perhaps the bigger question is why not? Why is respecting territorial integrity important in one place but not in another? How far should the right of self-determination go, and how much should borders drawn a century ago in London, or Brussels or Moscow be respected?  All interesting points to ponder around the Independence Day holiday.

Russia, Human Rights, Afghanistan, US Foreign Policy