Countries, Borders and Regime Changes

Control over limited natural resources and trade routes along with the associated ego boosts have ensured that map-making is a near permanent occupation. The current nationalism debate in India reminded me of reading Return of a King by William Dalrymple (a thoughtful birthday gift from my dear friends!). This is a history of the first Anglo-Afghan war which raises interesting points on the accidents that create a country; whether it can sustain itself as one and what compromises are needed. So let us use the Afghan example to understand these points.

Living in India, the best way to think about Afghanistan is like a buffer zone which prevented continuous migration but every now and then “pumped” people through down the high mountain passes. Many stayed back in the Indian Subcontinent and helped create the amalgamation of humanity we see today and some plundered and managed to return home. The plunderers were normally based in today’s Afghanistan or a few in Uzbekistan. Why is this a “pump”? Now and then people were pushed into Afghanistan due to various reasons (war or famine in their homeland or a sense of adventure or a disinherited prince with an army etc.). Afghanistan by design cannot support a large population (especially a surge) due to its aridity and difficult terrain. So whenever an unsustainable number of people accumulated in Afghanistan they had 2 choices – go back home or ride through the passes to the comparatively awesome Indian subcontinent.

We first take a quick look at the map (source):


It does look Victorian like the side profile of a lady wearing a fancy hat with a feather to boot! The feather marked in blue, otherwise known as the Wakhan Corridor is a “geographic cul-de-sac” (quoting Wikipedia) created by the forces that made modern-day Afghanistan. We will come back to this later.

Another look at wider view with more topographic and political details (source).


When you look at the map the country doesn’t make any geographic sense:

  • The Hindu Kush mountains cover a good part of the middle of the country cutting the country into several pieces that don’t connect logically.
  • The many rivers that start in the mountains of Afghanistan, flow in half a dozen different directions with most not reaching the sea: The Swat river empties east into the Indus but some like the Helmand, Harut and Harirud end in the Sistan basin Iran/Afghanistan and others like Murghab and Amu in Turkmenistan.
  • The region south of Kandahar is a logical continuum of Balochistan which is now part of Pakistan and is a sandy desert called guess what – Registan
  • The region east of the road from Kandahar to Ghazni is a sort of dry desert between the Hindu Kush and the FATA highlands in the Af-Pak border beyond which lies Quetta
  • There is a small valley (Jalalabad) between the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh ranges. The Khyber pass is on the Safed Koh range on the road from Jalalabad to Peshawar (in the plains beyond the Safed Koh in Pakistan)
  • Surrounding the Hindu Kush are a short expanse of plains or plateau before you hit the Uzbek, Turkmen or Iranian border. Given the superiority you have when occupying the highlands you can radiate a bit of control over the surrounding plains/plateaus but you cannot occupy an Iran or Uzbekistan! Conversely an Iran or Uzbekistan cannot radiate control into the Hindu Kush mountains. In other words, a geographic stalemate.
  • When they tell you that you could reach the Indian Subcontinent in historic times by climbing either the Khyber or the Bolan pass it is only a half truth.
  • To go from Kabul to Jalalabad (the modern highway is still dangerous) you have to first cross the Khord Kabul pass, the Tezin pass and the Jagdalak pass. Then and only then you may cross the Khyber to reach the Subcontinent proper (Peshawar).
  • The Bolan route is no easier. From Kandahar you cross the Khojak pass through to Quetta after which you may attempt the Bolan pass. If you decide to avoid all the mountain passes then you just trek through the registan!
  • Winter is extremely cold and summer fairly hot along with frequent earthquakes on the Hindu Kush. The elements truly hate you here!
  • To control a mountain pass you need to have strong supply lines. If party A controls Peshawar and party B controls Jalalabad then the Khyber is truly no man’s land in between. This is today’s situation. In historic times Peshawar has been controlled by the Afghans but it was difficult to maintain supply lines from across the Khyber and this was not sustainable always. There are some smaller mountains between Islamabad and Peshawar but this is not an insurmountable difficulty in modern times.
  • Quetta lies between 2 passes and has changed hands historically several times between rulers of Kandahar and of the subcontinent.
  • It is extremely challenging for an attacker from beyond Afghanistan to reach the Subcontinent because reaching Kabul itself from Bukhara or Samarkand means crossing another two or three mountain passes!
  • The Hindu Kush and the Registan are key in truly defining an “Indian Subcontinent” because without these it would be a free pass for all!
  • Therefore, a short trip from one city in Afghanistan to another means crossing a couple of high mountain passes or passing through deserts etc. etc. In historic times this mean every valley and mountain pass had its own tribe whose easiest economic activity was to terrorize any caravans that made the mistake of passing through. To make a trip across these roads you had to pay a “treacherous geography tax“. If you didn’t pay up a horde would ride up on horses and slaughter an already tired caravan. These tribes have made money this way since very ancient times (think pre-silk road) and they still do
  • However, no one tribe could take over the country because of all the above geographic challenges. An uneasy equilibrium was maintained. Tribes had reputations to maintain with huge egos. If one tribe defeated another and took control of a pass or valley, no one forgot. There was always a fight-back even if it came two generations later. They just fought each other until an external force (like the British) appeared and they united momentarily against them. Even the Taliban had to fight the Northern Alliance (ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and others) during its rule.
  • Ranjit Singh of Punjab (undivided) is kind of responsible for the disturbance in the equilibrium when he conquered Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunwa) and the FATA. The British (and later Pakistan) inherited this. It is hard to say where the equilibrium is but these areas are definitely within the influence of the Pakhtun/Afghani tribes and therefore a big problem for present-day Pakistan. The Durand Line cutting through Pakhtun areas was defined after this disturbance in the equilibrium by a momentarily more powerful British. Afghanistan never really recognized this line, signatures be damned! The Durand Line intrudes a bit too much into the mountains that are not very amenable to control by subcontinental powers.

In light of the above, creating a country here with a strong central power just doesn’t make common sense. So when you read reports of Warlord A (probably Uzbek) controlling Mazar-i-Sharif or Warlord B (probably a tribal from near Quetta) controlling Kandahar, don’t be surprised anymore. Central powers have always had to give local tribes and group broad autonomy to survive even for brief periods and therein lies a possible solution to this problem. Anglo-Afghan wars (there have been four of them since the 1830s), typically start because someone behind a British (or American) desk did not understand these ground realities. The script then follows: dislodge the regime in a matter of days, install a puppet ruler, put soldiers on the ground, struggle to keep supply lines going, take casualties from insurgents, retreat. And repeat! Dalrymple just replaces a handful of names in the first Anglo-Afghan War history and voila you have the current Afghan situation already documented. 

The British tried controlling Afghanistan (grossly overestimating that the Russians could overcome the above geographic challenges and reach India!) and had to retreat with heavy losses. Time and again the central power (Taliban is the latest) in Afghanistan was easily removed but were able to prevent any stability by savaging supply lines passing through difficult deserts and mountain passes and continue an insurgency.

As promised we will also tackle the question of the Wakhan Corridor raised earlier. This is an extreme rugged and high altitude landscape even for Afghanistan but it was on the main trade route from Badakhshan (northern Afghanistan) to Yarkand in the Pamirs and China beyond. This was one of the routes of the Silk Road and ancient celebrities like Marco Polo are said to have crossed this. The northern border was defined as the edge of the Russian empire (as it is along the Pamir river) in an Anglo-Russian Treaty and the southern border was defined by the Durand line. China lies beyond this corridor and now refuses to open it for trade. So the Wakhan Corridor was just to ensure that no part of Russian territory touched British India.

Is there a solution?

  • Unite the historic tribes either by drawing a new line or by making the line irrelevant. This means Peshawar comes under some question and so do the northern regions in Pakistan like Swat. Pakistan will obviously disagree but it might help their security. Even Balochistan will need some rethink on similar lines to improve the current situation.
  • Define smaller geographic units using geography and ethnicity and not lines drawn on maps by bureaucrats sitting in their offices. Provide heavy regional autonomy with only foreign affairs and military (not police) centrally controlled. Try to include the Pakhtun territories currently part of Pakistan in this framework and make nationality irrelevant?
  • Have a Presidency that rotates between tribes but with elected executives to run the Government?
  • Tax trade routes (old formula) and devolve most of it to the tribes (officially regions). Even current tribal borders sometimes are not at equilibrium! This needs to be addressed.

Is this a general problem?

  • Yes, Iraq is an example where borders were drawn by artists in Europe and small ethnic groups were split 2 or 3 ways. Equilibrium will be restored and until then we will see fake equilibriums (Saddam) or real chaos (now).
  • Sudan already split
  • The Balkans after the break of the Austro-Hungarian empire
  • In all of these places regime changes don’t help because of the underlying weird borders.
  • A geographically well-defined country can sustain itself for long periods. Island countries truly demonstrate this! But rivers and mountains that naturally separate ethnic groups should be given primacy over temporary disturbances when defining borders in a civilized world. In this sense, the Indian Subcontinent is a fairly well-defined geographic unit. If only …
  • Then again does a truly civilized world need borders? The answer is no. But not all countries, ethnic and religious groups are ready for such a world for it would demand compromise and compassion from all. Something we sorely lack in these times.


I might have got stuff wrong here because I don’t do this for a living. I read Dalrymple’s book about an year ago and have also read up extensively on articles and write-ups on the Afghan situation. I don’t have any direct experience though so don’t quote as original research please!




4 thoughts on “Countries, Borders and Regime Changes”

  1. Fantastic, insightful post, Gautam.

    I haven’t read Dalrymple’s book, but this piece ( left me with a vivid image of Afghanistan’s history. The author compares it to the Afghan game Buzkashi (and then runs through all the invasions/wars), but your detailed geographic insights explain why this sequence of events transpired.

    Before the relevant Buzkashi quote, just wanted to say that I’ll go through your older posts and look forward to more 🙂

    (The piece was written in 1988)

    This is not the first time two world powers have clashed in combat over Afghanistan.
    From 1837 to 1907, the British and the Russians fought along the northwest frontier of
    British India – now part of Pakistan. British officers called these mountain struggles the
    Great Game, and the phrase was popularised by Rudyard Kipling in “Kim.” Today,
    Afghanistan is still the playing field for great powers, but there are more players now,
    and the games are bloodier.

    Afghanistan is the calf in this buzkashi between Moscow and Washington,” remarked
    Professor Sayd Bahaouddin Majrooh, a former dean at Kabul University and director of
    the Afghan Information Centre in Peshawar, just inside Pakistan. “Go see the game. We
    have brought it here to Pakistan. You will understand much about Afghanistan and about
    this war.” With a group of Afghan friends, we joined a crowd of two thousand spectators
    scattered in the dusty outskirts of Peshawar below the Khyber Hills. To visualise the
    game, imagine American football, on horseback, with no protective gear, few rules, no
    limit on the number of players, and for the ball a headless calf weighing fifty to a
    hundred pounds. The objective is to get hold of the calf and carry it to a goal, which is
    usually a mile distant. It is a game that depends not on teamwork but on the skill of
    individual riders and their horses.

    There were about a hundred horses – an unusually small number – being walked or
    exercised, but only a dozen or so looked well-bred and well-trained. As these horses and
    their riders passed the crowd, they drew soft exclamations of “Maasha Allah!” These
    were the chapandazan – master players. The rest were camp followers or novices, who
    would provide the necessary obstacles for the real players. As the horsemen were lining
    up at the starting point – the chapandazan at the front and the rest behind them – four
    turbaned men carried the carcass of a calf to the centre of the field, placed it there, and,
    withdrew. A rapid volley of rifle fire signalled the start. With a powerful cry of “Allah-uAkbar”
    (“God is great”), the horsemen galloped off, a fast-moving mass of colour. Within
    seconds, some of them had moved to the sides, while others reached the centre quickly,
    and struggled to gain access to the dead animal; the mass of lurching, rearing horses
    and jostling, yelling, hissing riders was hidden by clouds of dust. The melee broke
    suddenly, allowing us a view of the action. In the contest among the master players, we
    could see that each one had the support of clusters of horsemen – multiple teams
    organised around individual players. When a rider approaches the calf, he lowers his
    head and shoulders toward the ground and then, the reins in one hand, the whip
    between his teeth, he reaches out with his free hand to grab the calf. (Hence the name
    of the game – buzkashi, or “goat grabbing”; sometime in the nineteenth century, calves
    replaced goats.) He gets pushed, shoved, hit; his horse may collapse under the weight of
    other advancing or rearing horses; and hooves can mangle his hands. Only the nimblest
    of riders on the best-trained horses, working in perfect coördination, can capture the
    calf. In badly played contests, the calf gets torn to pieces, and judges have a hard time
    deciding the winner. In the game we saw, one player – galloping with the carcass cradled
    in one arm, his whip still between his teeth, and blood trickling down his face – finally
    eluded his rivals and rode out of sight, to the finish line. Minutes later, he returned, and
    as the crowd cheered he deposited the calf in another circle, close to the first one. Then
    all returned to the starting point and resumed the game. That evening, we discussed the
    analogy that had led us to the match. The game reflects a culture that places enormous
    value on physical courage and individual enterprise, allows untrammelled competition,
    and assumes that order will emerge from anarchy. “But there is more to it,” one of our
    Afghan friends said. “It is not possible to play this game without sponsors. It involves
    great expense, prizes, payments to the chapandazan, horses – above all, good horses,
    which very few people have. It is a game that only the rich can afford to sponsor: no
    sponsor, no game. It is a game of dependency. That is how this war is. We are being
    torn to pieces by teams sponsored by outsiders.”

    Another man added, “The Communists and the fundamentalists are contesting
    Afghanistan as if it were a dead object. There are two sides, they say. That’s wrong.
    There are twelve, maybe twenty, fifty political chapandazan on all sides. Each for
    himself. Our suffering is great.” On February 11th of this year, Professor Majrooh was
    himself killed in Peshawar. He was associated with the moderate wing of the resistance,
    and had advocated a negotiated end to the conflict

    1. Thanks for your comments. The article you shared explains the difficulty of being Afghanistan more clearly. I think you will like Dalrymple’s book. It is quite large but 1) it really gives you an idea about life and times at a detailed level and 2) reads like a detective story where all sources including Afghan were investigated.

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