Hard Partition, Soft Partition, and Barriers

An article in today’s Globe and Mail raises the possibility of partitioning Afghanistan:

A weak, partitioned Afghanistan may not be the best or even a desirable outcome. Yet, it will be far better than an Afghanistan that dissolves into chaos. And infinitely better than one in which the medieval Taliban return to power.

Perhaps, but a lot of the trouble there is not inter-ethnic strife but inter-clan strife within the Pathans/Pushtuns. In any case there is already a “soft partition” of Afghanistan due to the role of the Northern Alliance in ousting the Taliban.

Still, I am broadly positive towards separation in general as a way of dealing with conflict (see here). It is not perfect, but it is often the most realistic option.

There are quite a few separation barriers of various kinds. Let’s take a brief tour.

First stop is Korea and the infamous DMZ. In this case, it would have been much better if Korea had not been divided into Soviet and US military zones. That was an almost accidental or inadvertent division, certainly not a necessary separation.

One of the newest barriers is the fence built by Israel along its border with Egypt in the Sinai desert. Its hard to see why anyone would object to this: it was built to stop illegal immigrants getting into Israel through the desert.

If Israel’s border fence is acceptable, then so are a range of other fences designed to prevent influxes of illicit migrants: the US partial fence along its Mexico border; also India’s fence being built along the Bangladesh border.

It is a different story with the the Israeli wall in the West Bank. The good part: it keeps out suicide bombers. The bad part: Israel erected it within Palestinian territory. Had it been along the border, it would have been justified.

Some other barriers were created to separate warring groups, such as the Green Line between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus and the many barriers between Protestant and Catholic areas in Belfast. I regard these as useful and necessary. It should not be a surprise that in both cases barriers helped bring an end to the fighting.

Overall, then, two cheers for separating barriers. They are not optimal. It would be good if they were not needed. But what realistic alternative is there?

A fascinating book on this subject is Walls by Marcello di Cintio (I mentioned it here). He travelled to the barriers in Western Sahara (a berm and minefield to keep out insurgents fighting for its independence); Ceuta and Mellila the Spanish enclaves in Morocco (fences to keep out illegal migrants); the Indo-Bangladesh fence, the West Bank wall, the green line in Nicosia, Cyprus; the US-Mexico fences; the barriers in Belfast; and a fence in Montreal.



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2 responses to “Hard Partition, Soft Partition, and Barriers

  1. Hi Martin.

    Thanks again for recommending my book on this blog (and for inviting me to the University of Regina to address students, and giving me a tour of the city, and for buying me lunch). I am grateful for all of this.

    However, as you know, I respectfully disagree with almost everything you’ve written here. As my book reveals, the walls along the US-Mexico border and the Indo-Bangladesh border do far more harm than good – and neither keeps out those who they mean to keep out. The West Bank wall does not stop suicide bombers; the facts simply do not bear this out. And the barriers in Belfast and Cyprus certainly did not help bring an end to the fighting.

    All of these walls provide a ‘sense’ of a security, which is not the same as ‘actual’ security. All of these walls act as barriers to peace in one way or another. All of these walls preserve or incite conflict rather than alleviate it.

    So, two cheers for separating barriers? Not from where I am standing, I’m afraid.

    Warm regards,

  2. (I should say, too, that I am sincerely honoured that you found my book fascinating, if not convincing.)

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