A World Turned Upside Down: WSJ

Wall Street Journal
A World Turned Upside Down
October 12, 2005; Page A16

When Kipling was a cub reporter in Lahore, the area struck by Saturday's earthquake was a blank on the map separating British India from the "Independent Khanates of Chinese Turkistan." Washington scarcely cared if the Victorian Empire needed a weapon of mass destruction called the Maxim gun to deter hotheads along the Northwest Frontier, for it was a long way from anywhere. Now America's concerns are more ecumenical and acute: Pakistan's 1998 bomb test conjoined the world's three great monotheistic religions in a nuclear trinity (to say nothing of the polytheistic Hindus nearby, with their own nuclear saga).

There's no predicting the outcome when a natural disaster strikes an inexperienced nuclear state bordering two others. The aftershocks may loosen Pakistan's postcolonial grip on its wild and woolly Northern Areas, or shake its fragile truce with India in long-partitioned Kashmir. The quake rattled Pakistan's armories, nuclear and conventional, shattered its military academy, and left some of its general staff sleeping in the streets alongside a million other traumatized citizens.

It also severed the Karakoram highway, the amazing but fragile artery linking Pakistan to its conflicted frontiers and providing western China's only direct connection to world trade. The new North-South strategic highway runs through a landscape as unstable as the region's politics, for the Indian subcontinent has been thrusting into the heart of Asia since the days of the dinosaurs, raising some of the highest mountains like the bow wave of a dreadnaught and garlanding them with metamorphic treasures like the sapphires of Kashmir and the rubies and lapis lazuli of Hunza and Badakhshan.

This tectonic beauty comes at a high human cost. Last December, the far edge of the Indian Plate popped open a 1,000-kilometer split in the Andaman seabed, raising the tsunami in which 300,000 perished. Now the same great plate's 60-mile-deep keel has surged forward, nudging peaks like K-2 and Nanga Parbat a little higher, and knocking the ground out from under everyone from Kabul to Kashmir.

North of Srinagar, in India's Vale of Kashmir, villagers blocked highways demanding aid for stricken mountain hamlets. Scientists and climbers are missing, too, for the stunning exposure of living rock on 25,000-foot peaks and the flanks of the Indus gorge make the region a geological and mountaineering Mecca.

The exaggerated verticality of northern Pakistan makes it scientifically transparent but politically opaque, with borders hard to define and harder to guard. The chaos in the quake's aftermath has put the field in motion for fugitives of all stripes. Al Qaeda cadres and Islamist Kashmiri separatists can readily lose themselves among the flux of refugees in a region famed for discreet hospitality. It cannot have escaped Osama Bin Laden's attention that in the 19th century the Aga Khan spent tranquil years in Hunza while internecine war made him a hunted man elsewhere in the Islamic world. Today, the Raj has evaporated in India, but in Pakistan's Northern Areas some local notables' business cards still read "Head of State." Political parties -- some religious, some ethnic -- have proliferated in the Punjab and the parts of southern Pakistan that share an Urdu culturre with India; but in the North, men owe their first allegiance to where they were born, not to where politicians in
Islamabad want borders to be.

The region's isolation in the months to come could erode Pakistan's often-resented efforts to integrate the linguistically and ethnically distinct populations of areas like Baltistan, a "Little Tibet" where mountains five miles high enforce local autonomy -- and where the central government's authority fades out of sight of the now-obliterated roads built to enforce it. The tembllor's timing is itself disastrous, for the north helps feed Pakistan, and harvests have been isolated from the urban markets by the wholesale destruction of infrastructure. Far away, in Karachi and Quetta, the political impact is being felt, as food prices soar despite the imposition of price controls. A month ago, polo was being played at 11,000 feet in the summer pastures of the north. Now the monsoon has combined with the quake to set slow-motion boulder-falls down the Indus Valley, with a hard freeze to follow. Only come spring will Pakistan know the true toll in areas too high for helicopters.

The Indo-European frontier was already an ethnic and religious crossroads when Alexander the Great passed through. It has seen the rise and fall of whatever gods were worshipped in the era of the proto-Hindu Mohenjo-Daro civilization, and then of Gandharan Greco-Buddhism; but only in the last few decades has the upper Indus begun to see much of the outside world. Even in four-mile-deep valleys isolated as Kipling's not-quite-fictional "Kaffiristan," Internet cafés are up and running; and this winter, un-wired teahouse firesides may be enlivened by well-armed Afghans driven across the borders of Kunar and Badakhshan by U.S. or U.S.-backed forces. Still, equating Islam on the Upper Indus with the Taliban is as inane and dangerous as representing the Ku Klux Klan as typical of American Christianity; for while hidebound Salafist mullahs may prevail in one mosque, a valley away female education may be compulsory and Ismaili merchants may come and go from around the world.

Mountains like the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush will go on rising whether borders or empires stand or fall, and the erosive force of the Indus River will sweep away whatever the angry earth throws down as the tectonic plates continue their collision. Saturday's quake was as powerful as the one that leveled San Francisco, but one of these centuries the rafting together of the Asian and Indus plates will rock the subcontinent with quakes a hundred times stronger, as it has before. It may take a harder shock than Saturday's to persuade the subcontinent's capitals to recognize that, partition notwithstanding, they are in the same tectonic boat. The region's conflicts may seem intractable, but the Earth is ever patient in its diplomacy. The civilizations of South Asia have a half-billion years' grace in which to resolve their age-old differences before the slow tectonic violence that has put fossil seashells atop Everest crumples Ceylon -- unserendipitously -- into the mountainous seashore of Tibet.

Mr. Seitz is a physicist in Cambridge, Mass.


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