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Here Be Dragons: Patrolling Nowhere in the 21st Century

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Six centuries ago, cartographers would scrawl in the blank space on their maps, "Here Be Dragons." Primitive navigation charts often featured sea monsters wriggling at the margins and ships plummeting into oblivion as known oceans met unknown ends of the Earth.


Post-Sept. 11, the Pentagon snapped up Thomas Barnett's Information Age rendition of Known and Unknown Worlds. Barnett, in a seminal article in Esquire magazine's March 2003 issue, astutely labeled his Known World the "core" (connected and relatively stable places) and his Unknowns "gaps" (disconnected, isolated places potentially filled with 21st century dragons like terrorists and rogue states with nuclear weapons).

"Disconnectedness defines danger," Barnett wrote. "Outlaw regimes" -- and Barnett specified Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an example -- are "dangerously disconnected from the globalizing world, from its rule sets, its norms and all the ties that bind countries together in mutually assured dependence."

In Barnett's configuration, London, Paris, Washington, even Moscow and Beijing form connected or connectable "cores." The Taliban's pre-9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan's Tribal Areas in mid-2009 are gaps writ large. Barnett presented his theory as a post-Cold War alternative to framing the world as Soviet East Bloc versus the West. Osama bin Laden offered an alternative map: a global Muslim caliphate. I imagine bin Laden could steal a lick from Barnett and have his own "gaps" -- geographic space disconnected from Islamist control marked "Lands of the Infidel."

Conflicting visions of how to organize human life on earth -- whether philosophic, economic, ethnic or spiritual -- are a very ancient cause of war.


As theories go, Barnett's geo-strategic model has utility. Toppling Saddam began a process of nation-building and global integration in Iraq that is closing a "gap" created by tyranny. How much Iraq's democratic experiment influences anti-regime activists in Iran is not a comfortable question for the Obama administration, but for 6,000 years or so Persians and Mesopotamians have been influencing one another for better and worse. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's democratic government certainly offers a Shia Muslim-led alternative to Iran's corrupt and stagnant Shia-led Islamic Revolution. Iranians are aware of that.

Pakistan is engaged in its own gap-closing process -- it has turned its military full-force on the Taliban. Pakistan's vigorous assertion of state sovereignty in the tribal areas along its Afghanistan border is a major political event. Instead of ceding sovereignty to the mountain tribes -- it's tough country to patrol and pacify -- Pakistan is now extending sovereignty, meter by meter, as its military pursues the Taliban.

The Pakistani government isn't driven by theory, however, but a will to survive. The 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, by Islamist terrorists was supposed to draw the Pakistani Army away from operations along the Afghan border and ignite a new Indo-Pakistani war. Instead, India presented Pakistan with an implicit ultimatum: Stop the Islamic terrorists, or we will do it.


The Taliban's depredations in the Swat Valley provided unconvinced Pakistanis with a stark choice between rule by violent tribal theocrats wedded to fossil sectarian isolation and rule by a corrupt, stumbling, autocratic, but globally connected, future-oriented and trying-to-modernize central government in Islamabad.

Don't expect Pakistan to close its tribal gap once and for all. That is a century-long project. Squeezing this gap, however, could produce a new psychological and political landscape in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Relentless pressure will force al-Qaida terrorists operating in the tribal areas to either surrender, die or flee. Bet on flight.

Which is why "patrolling nowhere" (a soldier's tactical version of "watching a strategic gap") will continue. This month Islamists calling themselves al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb fought with security forces in Mali. The middle of the Western Sahara is a big gap. Do events in Mali matter? Before Sept. 11, few Americans thought local politics in Afghanistan mattered.

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