The Pessoptimist in Istanbul: Will Bin Laden Win?
Barnett R. Rubin, 12 July 2007
Today I am in Istanbul in a hotel overlooking the Sea of Marmora. I am here for — of all things — a conference on the Durand Line. Of course it is about much more than the Line itself, demarcated by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893 as the limit of the dominion of the Amir of Afghanistan.
Today this line through a mountainous, arid, sparsely populated area is regarded by Pakistan, and most of the world, as the international border with Afghanistan, but Afghanistan has never formally recognized it as such. Above all, the people living around the line have never recognized it as a border. They were there before these states. They wonder who gave Durand or anyone in London, Kabul, Delhi, or Islamabad the right to divide them?
There is nowhere more different from the Durand Line than the Sea of Marmora. This morning I walked along the seafront, by a stone wall that once constituted the fortifications of the entry to the Golden Horn and the Strait of Bosporus. Yesterday from the terrace of my hotel, my colleagues and I saw an enormous container ship traveling from the Black Sea through the Strait and outward to the Mediterranean. Would it then cross the Suez canal and enter the Indian Ocean?
The ship was registered with the Maersk shipping line; I remembered seeing the same containers while driving from Kabul to Jalalabad in the spring of 2005 with Omar Zakhilwal, head of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. The main road from Kabul to Sarobi was closed for construction, so we had to take the old road, over the Lataband Pass, the same route taken by the Army of the Indus when it retreated under fire from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1841. The Army of the Indus, however, had long since mutated into the Armed Forces of Pakistan, and today most of the traffic was in the other direction. Truck after truck lumbered with full loads of Maersk containers headed for Kabul from the port of Karachi via Peshawar and Jalalabad, carrying, what? — Ukrainian airplane parts shipped from Odessa (where my great-grandfather was born) through the Strait of Bosporus and on through the Sea of Marmora?
So much for the unchanging Afghan frontier. Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, during whose reign (1880-1901) the Durand Line was demarcated, decided against building roads through the country’s passes, as the same roads that facilitated trade facilitated conquest as well. Afghanistan’s isolation protected both his rule — and the British Empire in India. Britain, which subsidized the Amir’s government and army to assure that it could control the territory on the frontier, forbade Kabul to welcome any foreign legation but one from Delhi. The Amir depicted his realm as a just Islamic order under his command: But to the British this isolated Afghanistan state with a subsidized army fulfilled the function of a buffer state: keeping Russia far from their Empire. The British and Russian governments demarcated the rest of the country’s borders and formalized their agreement in the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention on Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.
This Treaty was an part of the same process that Usama Bin Laden evoked in his warning to the United States on October 7, 2001. Seated not far from the Durand Line before an outcropping of the mountains of Afghanistan, whose name and history he did not mention, the Amir of al-Qa’ida informed his global audience:
What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years.
What was he talking about? He was talking about the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), in which “THE BRITISH EMPIRE, FRANCE, ITALY, JAPAN, GREECE, ROUMANIA and the SERB-CROAT-SLOVENE STATE, of the one part,and TURKEY,of the other part” agreed to the demarcation of today’s Republic of Turkey.
Lausanne followed on the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which separated most of the Ottoman Empire from Anatolia. Together these treaties abolished the Islamic caliphate, which had been claimed for centuries by the Ottoman Sultan and recognized by most Sunni Muslims. The Treaty of Lausanne stipulated:
No power or jurisdiction in political, legislative or administrative matters shall be exercised outside Turkish territory by the Turkish Government or authorities, for any reason whatsoever, over the nationals of a territory placed under the sovereignty or protectorate of the other Powers signatory of the present Treaty, or over the nationals of a territory detached from Turkey.
It is understood that the spiritual attributions of the Moslem religious authorities are in no way infringed.
The division of the Islamic umma, the Muslim community, into nation states by the European colonial powers the better to dominate them and nullify the temporal power of the Islamic caliphate is at the heart of Bin Laden’s grievances against the contemporary world order. Destruction of the caliphate based in Istanbul prepared the ground, in his view, for the catastrophe of the Palestinians, sanctions and war against Iraq, and the “occupation of the Land of Muhammad” by “infidel troops.”
Though Bin Laden mentioned neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, al-Qaida respects the border dividing these two states no more than it does the State of Israel or the secular Republic of Turkey. All are equally products of aggression against the Muslims.
It is no coincidence that al-Qaida, though led and conceived by Arabs, was founded in these borderlands. To Westerners it may appear that Bin Laden is now trapped in an isolated region. But this region, never fully integrated into the modern system of states, provides an appropriate seat for this transnational insurgency against that very system.
Read all of it here.