the taliban



A hypothesis to understand the resilient strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan

For geopolitical analysts, Tim Marshall's book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, is extremely original, and necessary. Its objective is to expose and demonstrate, because it is its thesis, as the design world politics, from antiquity to the present day, depended on the geographical configuration of the continents, their rivers, mountains, plains and seas.

Tim Marshall is a British journalist, now 62 years old, who has worked for at least 25 of them for a number of top media in the four corners of the world – except, as far as I could see in his biography, in Latin America. Or at least, in this quadrant of the world, its frequency was lower than in others, which is reflected, as I will explain, in the text.

This book in focus - that there is an excellent children's version[1] – seeks to bring together a comprehensive reflection on his experience as an analyst and witness of international politics during the last decades of the last century and the first of this one, diving deeply into the historical past.

Instead of the usual practice of starting with the positive ones, I'll start with the negative ones, which are relatively few, then move on to those, which are many.

the geographic mermaid

The first negative makes me gloss the title, prisoners of geography. It turns out that the author also shows himself to be a “prisoner of geography”. In other words, he seems somewhat enchanted by his thesis, that the geography of the land, rivers and seas has determined and still predominantly determines the political options of leaders of ethnic groups, peoples, nations, modern states and, therefore, , the design of geopolitics, as stated in the first paragraph of this review. The thesis is presented with a lot of information and originality, but suffers from a dose of exaggeration. There is a slight but insistent tendency to make natural that which is the fruit of scheming and political machinations, although some of these are also exposed in an objective and ruthless way.

Latin America

Second and last negative of this review: Latin America. It can be seen right from the start that the author demonstrates much less familiarity with it than with the other continents analyzed: Europe, Asia, Africa, parts of Oceania and even the Arctic, although this is not exactly a continent, but an increasingly endangered ice cap with less and less occasional open passages during the year.

I give an example. When analyzing the historical constitution of Brazil, the author points out the economic difficulties imposed by the relative isolation between the different regions, and the problematic situation of the Amazon forest, a threatened sanctuary and also unsuitable land for agriculture. From there, he points to the fertility of the lands further south, after the cerrado that surrounds the forest, indicating that Portuguese colonization and subsequent Brazil settled there for 300 years before starting to expand through the rest of the territory. In other words, he simply sends the sugar occupation of the current Northeast and the gold cycle in Minas Gerais to limbo.

Likewise, his point of view instigatingly counterbalances that traditional view of Brazil “blessed by its exuberant Nature”, pointing out the historical and geographical difficulties of its plateaus, steep cliffs and rugged coastline, which made the future country, initially , a cluster of archipelagos with greater connection with the metropolis than between its “islands”.

Another example: the deleterious role of US imperialism in the region is mentioned, but very lightly, given its historical and crushing weight of attempts to free itself from its iron circle.

Let's move on to the positives. It will be impossible to talk about all of them. I will cite some examples.

the taliban

I begin with an extremely topical subject: how to explain the resilient strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they are about to regain power? Tim Marshall's book offers a very credible hypothesis. In more recent terms (although the origin of this story begins in antiquity) everything begins with the formation of present-day Pakistan, invented by the British to resolve the imbroglio they created in India and in part of its current surroundings. In an attempt to accommodate tensions within ethnicities, peoples and religions, the British instituted a division: roughly, India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims, which, at the time (just after the Second World War), provoked a huge and tense migration from one side of the drawn border to the other.

In this way, Pakistan (later declared an Islamic Republic) gathered six main ethnic groups, the largest being the Punjabis (44,7% of the population), followed by the Pashtuns (15,4%) and the Sindhis (14,1%). %). Historically, the coexistence between these ethnic groups was far from friendly, often nothing more than a cordiality under which old rivalries continued to thrive. Also to the fact that “Pakistan” means little to these groups, more accustomed to their old loyalties than to the novelty of a “modern nation”, on the European model.

It so happens that the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group present in neighboring Afghanistan (44% of the population), occupying almost half of its territory, starting from the border with Pakistan. The very name "Afghan", which derives, scholars say, from the Sanskrit word "Asvakan" ("Knights"), historically designated the Pashtuns. “Afghanistan”, also an Islamic Republic, brings together the root “Afghan” with the suffix “stan”, from the Pashto languages ​​(from the Pashtuns) and Persian (from the Iranians), which means “place of”. "Afghanistan" = "Place of the Afghans", that is, historically, the "Pashtuns". It is surprise? – the Pashtuns are the ethnic and cultural base of the Taliban, a political/religious movement that emerged in 1994 from the roots of “Deobandi”, a Sunni Muslim current with a traditionalist tendency in the midst of the civil war that opposed the Pashtun majority to the successor regime of the supported communists a few years earlier by the sinking Soviet Union. This religious movement, with ancient roots, was expanded and intensified by academic activities that created a vast base of young and faithful militants of its cause.

During the conflict with the Soviets, the future Taliban had the support of the United States and its allies (including Pakistan), so much so that it can now be safely said that Washington, in its “withdrawal”, that many in the country abandoned prefer to call “betrayal”, is being humiliated by what it helped to sow. Not to mention that in the labyrinth of the Pashtuns, the Al-Qaïda group, led by Osama Bin Laden, also supported, initially, by the USA, in addition to Saudi Arabia. He gave what he gave.

Decisive factors

Three factors are still decisive in these “many-edged” conflicts, as my colleague José Jorge Peralta used to say when he was at USP.

The first: historically, the Pashtuns are much more familiar with the country's hostile terrain than any invading forces, whether the defunct Soviets or those of the United States and its allies. The Afghan territory, with predominantly mountainous and/or desert regions, offering winter and summer extremes, favors the traditional inhabitants against any invaders.

The second: the border with Pakistan, with the immediately neighboring territory also occupied by Pashtuns, facilitates the back-and-forth movement of the Taliban, who can take refuge and re-municate on the Pakistani side.

The third factor is Pakistan itself. Although it belongs to the exclusive club of nations with nuclear weapons, Pakistan is an impoverished country, embroiled in bitter conflicts: with neighboring India, with the dissident separatists of Cashmere, in addition to the internal ones and the difficult relations with its western allies. Pressured by the latter, the Pakistani government broke off relations with the Taliban and began to consider them a “terrorist” group. However, this government is less interested in nothing than aggravating the internal tensions between ethnic groups and Muslim currents whose coexistence is problematic, to say the least. In practice, this means that the government, headquartered in Islamabad, a city located just over 150 km from the border with Afghanistan, has little interest in harassing the Pashtuns.

The resilient strength of the Taliban thus proves to be impregnable. The UN, the United States and its allies, Pakistan itself may consider them a “terrorist” group. The fact is that they have a considerable social base in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, Pashtuns have a significant presence in India, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, even the United States, and a smaller presence in seven other countries scattered around the world.

British and French action

The example explored above – the Taliban – exposes the role of British colonialism/imperialism worldwide, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in the sowing of the current armed conflicts in the regions that were under its dominion. Its nefarious role and legacy also spread to other regions, such as Latin America and Oceania. It also had help from outside: the United States (with a different style), other European countries such as France, Belgium, Germany, Holland and, to a lesser extent, Italy. They had distinguished predecessors in Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

However, the British, with the help mainly of the French, specialized in shredding, with their lines traced on maps spread over a European table, peoples and geographies around the world that they dominated, separating what should remain united and uniting what should remain separate. These lines were not “arbitrary”, as they served their geopolitical interests, but they were so in relation to what they cut.

The Sykes-Picot line

One of the most dramatic cases of these cuts, which Marshall's book examines, is that of the so-called Sykes-Picot line in the Middle East. Between the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916, in the midst of trench warfare in Europe, two diplomats, the British Colonel Sir Mark Sykes and the French François George-Picot, negotiated the agreement that resulted – after some further negotiations – in the agreement that divided the Middle East into two slices, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

An almost straight line, says the tradition initially drawn by Sykes, divided the region from Haifa, today a Mediterranean port of Israel, to Kirkuk, today in northeastern Iraq, close to the border with neighboring Iran. North of this line, the command would be French; to the south, British. From this line, later accepted by Russia (already involved in the rebellion that led to the Great Revolution) and Italy, led to the existence of country-states with somewhat artificially created borders, such as Syria and Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait, Lebanon and the future cherry of the cake for what remains of the ancient West, Israel. This also resulted in the status of refugees in their own land, under different conditions, for Palestinians and Kurds.

Vladimir Putin's pizza

There are other cases under study, where physical geography imposes its presence on the lines drawn at negotiation tables. One of these examples opens the book. Marshall says that Vladimir Putin must think about a slice of pizza every day. This one has a triangular shape; and triangular is the shape of a map that starts at the broad base of the Urals, one of the borders between Asia and Europe, crosses the Russian plain, in whose center is the capital, Moscow, then continues to the north with the Baltic countries, Estonia , Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus in the middle, and Ukraine to the south, reaching the thin edge of the pizza, Poland. Thereafter extends another largely flat region, through northern Germany, France, including Belgium and Holland, to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to Marshall, among other factors, it is this pizza that explains, for example, Putin's uncontested support for a problematic figure who is most useful to him, such as Lukaschenko, in Belarus, and the decision to re-annex Crimea, when the former The belligerent West managed to overthrow a pro-Russian government in Kiev, Ukraine. The western side of Russia is, so to speak, surrounded by geography which, from the Atlantic, offers no major obstacle to invading forces. Plus the fact that most Russian ports, with the exception of those on the Black Sea, now re-including Sevastopol in Crimea, belong ice-locked for much of the year.

The hard lesson for Napoleon and Hitler

I think that these examples are enough, among many others, to support an implicit thesis in Marshall's book, namely, that, even in an age of drones and star wars, the decisive factor in the case of an armed confrontation or simply force count, also in addition to aviation and the navy, among the decisive factors are land forces, ports, airports, communication and supply lines, and knowledge and mastery of the physical and human terrain where everything is decided.

A hard lesson that brought down the efforts, so different from each other, of Napoleon and Hitler in Russia. Invading Russia from the West is one thing. Occupying it is another. As the occupation progresses, the lines of communication and supply are stretched. The difficulties of its revitalization ended up causing the collapse of those invasions, which faced, especially in the case of the second, tenacious resistance on the ground. In the case of the Second World War, a factor that favored the Soviets was the “delay” of their war material, especially in the field of armored vehicles, in the face of the “first line technology” of the Germans.

The Soviets, using few and simple models, found it easier to mass-produce them and their replacement parts than the sophisticated innovative devices of the Germans, in addition to the fact that the latter had enormous difficulty in getting tanks and other vital armaments to arrive. and their spare parts through an increasingly hostile terrain.

Mutatis mutandis, a similar lesson struck both the Soviets in the past and the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan today.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).


Tim Marshall. Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. London: Elliot & Thompson, 2019.


[1] Marshall, Tim. Prisoners of Geography. Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps. With illustrations by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith. London: Elliot & Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 2019.


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