Sunday, September 10, 2006

Maps: beautiful lies?

From today's Washington Post, a map of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which as the Post notes, are only nominally under the control of the Pakistani government. It may be that Osama bin Ladin is hiding here. It's certainly a region where local politics reigns supreme, with the men with the guns indifferent to who sits in palaces in Kabul, Islamabad, Washington, or Moscow.

Not long ago, much of the world was like the FATA region. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states and empires became strong enough that politicians and map-makers could draw lines everywhere and pretend they represented hard-and-fast boundaries between unambiguous political units. Pretend is the word, because the reality on the ground in FATA and elsewhere was quite different. The reason their are "failed states" in the world today is that some states were little more than pious hopes.

I love this map, and just about all other maps, unless they are sloppy and ugly. Useful as this is in directing attention to an unstable and strategic area, it lies to us too. It tries to define a place where the lines drawn on maps are almost entirely fictious, by drawing lines on maps. The best joke here is that FATA ends neatly at the supposed Afghan border. What are the odds that conditions change radically when you cross that marker (if you can find it in the mountains)?

Update: For a taste of Pakistan's wild frontier, see an article in the September 11 Guardian.

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