New York- “Mosul, Mosul, Mosul!” is what enterprising taxi drivers in Erbil would yell as I walked past a dusty lot referred to as the Mosul garage years ago now. I would contemplate hopping in one of those shared orange-and-white battered taxis and heading an hour west in what was then Iraqi government territory with an estimate pre-war population of about 2 million. I didn’t take the trip for two reasons at the time: I didn’t have a visa for ‘Arab’ Iraq and figured I could be turned away at a checkpoint along the so-called Green Line that as delineated Kurdish majority areas from regime controlled ones since 1991; and my focus at the time was to interview a reclusive guerrilla commander in precisely the opposite direction.
Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister Haider al-Abadi has been promising this Mosul offensive for what today’s counts as time immemorial yet it still keeps not materialising. It is essentially common knowledge for Iraq watchers that the central government and the KRG haven’t been able to agree on a battle plan acceptable to both sides.
Meanwhile Washington officialdom make anonymous statements that Iraqi security forces simply are not capable whether in terms of logistical capability, battle readiness, and so forth. Yet Iraqi officials repeat that the country’s second city will be recaptured before 2016 is out but have been less than convincing about just how this would take place. ISF and their allies have slowly been retaking mostly minor villages in Ninewa Governorate to shrink the IS’s hinterland while it maintains its grip on the city.
Somewhat big news out of Baghdad today was Ashton Carter’s announcement that an additional 560 American servicemen will be headed to Iraq to help in anti-IS operations in support (officially anyway) of ISF. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq since the start of Inherent Resolve has steadily increased nearly two years into the operation. There are now some 4600 in all, a huge jump from the 275 authorised by the Obama administration in June 2014. And what can the ISF and the militias with which it works do without American air power?
As with the retaking of Fallujah but likely even more so, there will be a vast human cost to such highly anticipated military action. Dohuk Governorate will reportedly be prefabricating 5 new IDP camps to accommodate the coming IDP influx from IS-controlled territory. In sum, things will get much worse before they get better as the old saying goes…
New York- With the highly distracting ‘Brexit’ debate-arguably the most distasteful neologism since ‘Grexit,’ and the buffoonery of the coming US presidential election, the war(s) in Iraq and Syria painfully grind on in the ramadan heat. The recapture of Fallujah-which has not been fully consolidated-is hoped to be a prelude for regaining Mosul to the northeast. Various anti-IS forces have inched toward Mosul in 2016 by capturing villages in its rural hinterlands but there does not appear to be any coordinated effort to retake Iraq’s 2nd most significant urban centre amongst fighting groups with allegiances of widely varying stripes. PM al-Abadi has vowed to retake Mosul at an unspecified time later in 2016 although Mosul has a far more complex ethnic and religious matrix than Sunni Arab Fallujah. But there are other important smaller cities and towns that must be confronted before Mosul such as Hawija and al-Qaim which are still in the clutches of the IS evildoers to employ throwback neocon-ism.
Then there’s the perhaps more difficult idea of taking ar-Raqqa, from IS control, which, if occurred, would turn the offensive salafi-jihadi movement back toward its asymmetrical insurgent roots from which is spawned in mid-2000s Iraq. But the FSA and YPG are not getting along perfectly to say the least around the fight for Aleppo. Kurdish-Arab cooperation has worked to some degree in the SDF context in al-Hasakah governorate to the east. On another side of the equation, the SAA and their Russian backers are not fairing terribly either. IS claims to have killed three Russian servicemen with an IED on the Ithiriya-Raqqa road. Meanwhile Russian air strikes in the city centre killed between 18-32 civilians depending on reports.
Though the Fallujah offensive has been successful to a degree, one must ask at what cost? And can PM al-Abadi survive the Sadrist turmoil that has breached the Green Zone? The only ground forces capable of taking ar-Raqqa are the YPG but they don’t appear to have a post-conflict plan for ruling the primarily Arab city nor have they expressed a palpable desire beyond rhetoric. Many questions remain beyond the cinders fluttering above al-Anbar governorate’s commercial capital.
New York- I have an article out for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor entitled “A dangerous thaw – Nagorno-Karabakh heats up” after the recent clashes in the most hotly disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabagh, a Russian-Turkic-Iranian word mash meaning (Nagorno or Nagorny) Mountainous (Kara) Black (Bakh or Bagh) Garden, is part of land internationally recognized as a constituent territory of Azerbaijan yet de facto ruled by ethnic Armenian separatists who term their unrecognized republic “Artsakh.” Karabakh had, for years, been lumped together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a so-called ‘frozen conflict’ impeding development and economic integration in the post-Soviet, South Caucasus.
When the term was in vogue, frozen was far more apt for pre-2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia than Karabakh which has always been simmering with regular small arms exchanges as well as occasional mortars, known as “ceasefire violations” in diplomatic speak.
Karabakh is an oft overlooked conflict that rarely makes international headlines as the disputes origins are it little understood, its geography relegated to the obscure. It took the use of heavy artillery, drones, tanks, and so forth to elevate Karabakh to the center of attention if only for one brief weekend in early April. The fight over this heavily mined, gorgeous Mountainous Black Garden is perpetually framed by ultra competitive, irreconcilable narratives held tightly by Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
No party involved has either the mechanism nor the mindset to foster a lasting peace. Russia sells weaponry to both sides, the Americans are divided between a desire for Caspian hydrocarbon products that circumvent the Russian Federation and a vociferous, diaspora-powered Armenian lobby in Washington that tirelessly lobbies congress albeit with somewhat declining influence. Iran, though co-relgionists with the Shia majority in Azerbaijan, supports Armenia in part due to the paranoia of Azeri irredentism among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran. Turkey’s support for Baku’s position has been, for the most part, largely rhetorical in nature.
After three days of fighting in which Azerbaijani forces touted regaining two hilltops and one village and dozens of soldiers and Karabakhi militiamen were killed, Karabakh has faded back into the shadows as quickly as it temporarily emerged. Yet it is only more explosive as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have acquired more advanced armaments primarily from Russian vendors. The threat of violence can only temporarily subside in this tragically intransigent morass.
New York- I’ve authored a recent article in the March edition of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review in the United Kingdom on the sprawling French-orchestrated counter terror operation called Barkane in Africa’s greater Sahara-Sahel region. The French effort has been met with mixed results at best in that during its as yet unfinished timeline, salafist terrorism has spread all the way to the Atlantic with the March 13 attack by sub-Saharan AQIM operatives on the Hotel Etoille du Sud resort in the Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam commune situated east of Abidjan in the Comoé District not far from the Ghanian border.
The Grand Bassam assault is part of what we can sadly call a distinct pattern of AQIM’s attacks well beyond its traditional theater of terror in Algeria from where it was b0rne out of the ashes of that country’s civil war. Firstly there was the attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako’s ACI 2000 district in November followed by the siege of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou in January. The arc of this does not appear to have any end in sight in the near term. Attacks in West Africa get nowhere near the coverage as those carried out by IS in Western capitals such as Paris and Brussels but they demonstrate that the al-Qaeda brand has a much bigger footprint in a part of the world that until very recently once essentially devoid of salafi-jiahdi cruelty.
And then there is the spreading threat posed by IS-allied Boko Haram which has deployed suicide bombers–some of them young girls–outward from northeastern Nigeria and into Cameroon’s Région de l’Extrême-Nord, Niger’s southeastern Diffa region and southwestern Chad’s lac region, all around the the Lake Chad basin.
My article analyses the recent history of salafist violence in this part of the world with the reasonings behind continuing, geographically escalating attacks on soft, civilian targets aimed at garnering attention with mass casualty events. As I began writing it in November in the aftermath of the Bamako attack, I didn’t game out things going as far afield as southern Côte d’Ivoire so quickly (though I did see things potentially reaching the Atlantic via Senegal which thus far thankfully hasn’t played out). Curiously, Ivorian forces are not part of the five-nation alliance of sorts that participate in Barkhane. It was simply a soft target in a weak state still recovering from a vicious set of civil wars which was ill prepared for an AQIM operation.
In the core years of the terror wars after 9/11, Africa was always a seldom reported upon, low priority in comparison to the war Afghanistan and later Iraq. Sure, there was the State Department’s Pan-Sahel Initiative and then the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership but who–excluding think tank types–today even remembers these programs which effectively amounted to nil?
New York- In compiling a short manuscript of poetry that was written from approximately 1997-2002, its interesting for me to look back and see which poem topics are in a time capsule of that era and which are even more relevant in 2016. The piece below about Afghan refugees before 9/11 but it might as well be regarding the fate of Syrian and Iraqi refugees today. It is juxtaposed with the image above which I shot shortly after 9/11.
Beneath the poem are Syrian Kurdish refugees in southern Turkey, existing in humanitarian limbo. We must ask ourselves what have the terror wars and the Arab and Kurdish uprisings actually accomplished?
Unwanted and unafraid
On the move from where squalor has stayed
Each at his own indescribable peril
Dying everyday undeserved of each discrete, excruciating hell
Transforming desert to village overnight
Pulling water from the bedrock in the name of the almighty
And when that smile confronted me
I knelt to grace for all to see
An expression so beautiful
A moment in time beyond dutiful
Inhabiting at the edge of existence
People without sustenance are the truest resistance
New York- Twenty years ago I used to write poetry, mostly about the world well beyond my day-to-day action space. Tonight I was inspired to scribble something new, something quickly. The Euphrates in Arabic is called al-Furat.
New York- For close to two years now I’ve been putting up ink jet analog prints up around three of New York City’s five boroughs and in my favorite locales in EU Mediterranean states as part of my #fabledcity project about the glory of an antediluvian realm that in our time is the stuff of legend.
I plan to install more along the eastern seaboard in in the American Southwest as soon as I am able. The prints hail from before I purchased my first digital camera in January of 2005. I was way behind the curve in hyper competitive journalism terms. I simply couldn’t compete monetarily. While some journos acquired the first generation of DSLRs en route to northern Afghanistan in 2001, by February or March 2003, the big names/outlets had gone digital. I hadn’t.
When I departed San Diego from Iraq at the time, I faced a stark choice. I could either shoot the aftermath of the invasion or sit on the couch with a low quality DSLR at home. I chose the former. The #fabledcity project is about the arc of my analog photography before and thence after 9/11. Throughout the early years of the so-called ‘war on terror’ I remained enthralled by the allure of ancient sites. The politics of our time were a vehicle for me to experience the majesty of the ancients.
After decompressing in Amman, I quickly made my way down to Aqaba and on to the Sinai and the Nile Valley. Well I sunburned my back so badly snorkeling at the precarious Blue Hole outside Dahab I jumped on an overnight bus to Luxor. It was the essence of Mubarak-era Egypt. Checkpoints, mukharbarat, simmering palpable resentment among the native inhabitants of the Sinai. Upon reaching Luxor I had to run from shadow to shadow in the Great Hypostyle Hall because the sun hitting my t-shirt was unbearable. Finally I reached to Temple of Amun-Re where austere the god-kings stood surveying the stone. The nightmare in Iraq that was just getting underway was well behind me.
Nothing would stop me from seeing this world.
It’s the middle of winter here in NYC and I’m staying busy cleaning out my laptop and here I happened upon another unpublished story from my archives that I later used as the background for an article “Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)” for The Jamestown Foundation down in DC.
Gauhati- I’d come to Assam a few days ahead of India’s Republic day celebrations. Tightly sandwiched between the Kingdom of Bhutan and Bangladesh, Assam is the bottle necked gateway to the “Seven Sisters,” the seven states that used to make up the Northeast Frontier Province during the British colonial era. Deep in the shadows of the Iraq dominated headlines, an under rported insurgency raged there. Delhi is rapidly beefing up its troop presence in the region in a quest to smash “the terrorists” as they are referred to in the Indian media. The terrorists in this case are ULFA , a Maoist inspired group fighting a people’s war against the Indian state and the Hindi speaking migrant labourers and economic migrants from Bangladesh.
During 2007, ULFA was being blamed for the killings of dozens of migrants in a bid to send them packing back from whence they came. Along with some of the other ethno-linguistic based communist outfits here, they have also been employing Iraq-esque IEDs to discourage Indian units from patrolling villages considered ULFA strongholds in Upper Assam. The crisis has taken a steep escalation since the start of the New Year with a combination of executions and randomly placed explosives in busy marketplaces. The central government in Delhi, which locally is simply referred to as “The Centre” has responded by ramping up a counterinsurgency campaign in the rural areas backed up by truckloads of paramilitary forces brought into the Northeast from all over India.
All of this certainly does not bode well for the over hyped “Rise of India” too often touted by Anglo-American intelligentsia in the 2000s. For the Centre, ULFA is just one of the issues to tackle. There are literally dozens of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist insurgencies not only in the troubled Northeast, but also in West Bengal, Jharkand, Orissa, Bihar and so on. In a recent attack in the newly created Jharkand state, an obscure revolutionary group managed to kill 14 Indian policeman with an IED buried in the road reminiscent more of Ramadi or Nuristan than the buzzing call centers of Bangalore that were so in vogue at the time.
2007 was the 60th year of India’s independence from the British Crown, Indian elites seems to have two primary goals: to promote foreign and domestic investment, particularly in the economic services sector, and to demonstrate it’s robustness as a state. The latter would be the reasoning behind India’s refusal of direct government-to-government aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that smashed the coastline of Tamil Nadu.
In Assam, Indian authorities put on a show of strength far from the eyes of any media observers, international or local. The national press here puts far more emphasis on the latest cricket crisis or the Bollywood scandal de jour than it does for the casualties taken by its own troops fighting homegrown leftist militants in the bush. The total lack of media there was almost bizarre as if there was a veritable information blackout. But then India is a vast country with a multitude of issues occurring with vexing simultaneity. The Assamese conflict garnered a short fit of attention when the country’s then bespectacled Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh trekked out to Assam for a photo op with families of the dead migrants.
Walking around Gauhati at night was desolate. All the shops were shuttered and only the odd food stall remains open. Many of the migrants had fled back to their villages and cities in the state of Bihar. I went searching, foolishly I suppose, for an internet café that would still be open to post this story at the time. I met a local man named Amitsabh who told me there would be nothing open except for a darkened pub where he and his friends where taking some Fosters and cheap whiskey. He invited me to join them when I told him I was looking for a decent place for dinner.
Inside the pub was black as the night sky with a constellation of dimly lit Beatles posters for minimal décor. I plunked down in a booth with a group of Amitabhs friends for food, drink, and to get their take on the conflict here. The troubles here, they said, stemmed from land rights and linguistic chauvinism, but were primarily based on the fundamental economic inequalities of the state and the curse of oil. Many of the Assamese, they told me, resented the Centre’s exploitation of their resources while the local population saw virtually nothing in return. To then invite outsiders to work and benefit from this exploitation is to add insult to injury. After over three post-independence decades of this cycle, some in the Assamese community were angry enough to take up an armed struggle against the Centre beginning in 1979.
I wanted to get more into their impressions of ULFAs motivations and more of the actual specifics of the fighting. “These are sensitive topics” one them warned me. “As they say, in a place like Assam, the walls have ears.”
“Let us go out of here”. We paid our tab and got into a Suzuki the size of a suitcase, whizzing around the empty streets with the stereo blasting Punjabi Bhangra Beat music. “We need to be careful of police checkpoints” one said to the driver. “What do I care, I am not militant. I have nothing to hide!” And we sped off into the night.