New York- I spent a fascinating week down in central South Carolina at Shaw AFB lecturing on the socio-political and religio-cultural dynamics of the Levant. Within the sessions discussing the current state of affairs in the Arab and Kurdish world, it was impossible not to look back on Afghanistan in order to understand where we are today. I don’t have time to do a full on blog post but the talk at USARCENT had me wanting to quickly look at my archives.
I will never forget this time. It was my first experience in a full scale war. That stays with you forever.
New York- With Turkey’s renewed war against the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK) in the Qandil range in Iraq’s Suleimaniyah Governorate, the war against IS was given another not so new dimension. Ankara’s battle with Kurdish rebels has gone on for decades, formally since 1984, and has been met with mixed levels of success in the best of terms. The mere fact that the PKK is a ground reality still in 2015 is indicative of two dynamics: Kurdish ethno-nationalism with its syncretic idolatry of Abdullah Ocalan is not going anywhere and the Turkish government cannot help but revert to Turkish nationalism in times of political insecurity.
The restoration of armed struggle is a massive wrong turn when a peace process needs to be kept stable. In many respects, the PKK with its organization discipline, comparative gender parity so often touted in the Western press, and avowed secularism makes it and its regional branches/affiliates seem to be an incredibly rational actor on the battlefield. Though the suicide bombing of a leftist organization in Suruç last month is officially the tipping point for what is currently going on with Turkish war planes concomitantly flying sorties against PKK targets in Iraq and IS targets in Syria, when I talked to Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) supporters outside Kobane last fall, the writing was on the wall.
When I met with a PKK interlocutor in Qandil in 2009 when I went to interview a Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK) commander, he repeatedly emphasized his belief in a nefarious Turkish “Deep State” that undermined Kurdish aspirations for autonomy at every possible term under the rubric of Turkish ultra-nationalism. Syrian and Turkish Kurds I spoke with outside the battlefield reiterated this concept of the Deep State in its support of IS as they served Turkish interests in Syria as a bulwark against the expansion of the Rojava cantons in Aleppo and Hasakah Governorates. They believed Turkey not only turned a blind eye to IS but actually assisted it to wreck the Rojava project by proxy. Then Suruç happened. The killing of Turkish policeman led to a military response as well as a police one. Raids across Turkey swept up a sizable number of PKK supporters as well as some leftist radicals and IS types. The emphasis on the raids was clearly aimed at the PKK.
The fact that a salafi-jihadi suicide bomber conducted an operation inside Turkey was only a matter of time. You can’t have that many recruits passing through you territory without there being an inevitable spillover and blowback. Erdogan and Davutoglu are still prioritizing Kurdish containment over the clear and present danger IS poses to the Turkish republic. Certainly the PKK are a valid threat, but they are a manageable one. The AKP may have considered Baghdadi’s guys people they could deal with on their borders but that always seemed an entirely untenable stance. The notion of a two-front war for Turkey has put increased pressure on the American-led Operation Inherent Resolve.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner was in an awkward position in a recent press briefing where he had to attempt to differentiate between the PKK and the YPG in relation to DC’s policy conundrum. Countless news stories have either conflated the two groups or made a faint distinction. And the YPG certainly are Apoists as supporters of Ocalan are referred to. While Kurdish militias are excellent war-fighting allies, their ideology is antithetical to many Western democratic concepts. Drawing on Marxism, Maoism and of course Apoism, they are certainly not outlying members of the GOP who happen to reside in the Middle East. However, strictly militarily, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq have become an indispensable component of the White House’s not fully articulated “degrade and destroy” policy toward IS.
US policy toward the PKK and PJAK is far less understood. Though the PKK is designated as an ‘FTO’ there have been reports during the Sinjar siege the US military personnel interacted with PKK fighters who were trying to defend the trapped populace. With the PJAK, there was talk that it was being assisted by American intelligence to harass the IRGC some years ago.
The hardline members of the PKK see themselves at war with the so-called Deep State in perpetuity. Hardliners in both Qandil and Ankara seek to continue the conflict in order to justify their long held positions. But there must be a third way solution The Iraqi Kurds of the KDP, PUK and Gorran are out to defend the territory they already control and consolidate new gains. In essence, they also had something to gain from the June 2014 fall of Mosul. The tradeoff is that now the KRG’s capital of Erbil is intermittently under threat. When I was last in the KRG area in 2013, locals were worried about ISIL as one of e host of terrorist outfits along with the Ba’athist JRTN and other groups who launched attacks around the Green Line that separated Kurdish-administered territory after 1991 from Ba’athist control until 2003. Though Nouri al-Maliki finally ceded power, Iraq is in a far worse situation now that during my last visit two years ago.
In sum, the security calculus has taken a major shift pushing reticent allies together with widely varying agendas and ideological positions in order to focus on a common enemy that has eclipsed al-Qaeda in terms of media coverage and battlefield prowess. As Kurdish fighters apply constant pressure to IS in concert with American/coalition air strikes, the Kurds must not be merely a temporary ally of convenience as if it were Afghanistan circa 1985. But US policy toward an array of Kurdish groups needs to be clarified and crystalized. There has been a clamor to delist the PKK as an FTO though that would infuriate NATO ally Turkey. The war against IS carries on in fits and starts while its complexity continues increase.
New York- I’m appearing in a new series which premiered last week for Discovery Networks entitled Evolution of Evil about the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth century. In the first episode I discuss the rise of Muammar Qaddafi (alt. Gaddafi) over the course of forty years between the ouster of King Idriss in the September Revolution and his unceremonious demise during the earth shaking Arab uprisings of 2011. I appear alongside Bruce St. John, author of Libya: From Colony to Independence, and others in this new series profiling the men who became synonymous with megalomania.
The next episode I will appearing on will be Saddam: Butcher of Baghdad on August 20.
New York- I have a new article out in the June issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal on the decline, or perhaps dismemberment is a more apt term, of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) as an insurgent outfit in the Russian-controlled North Caucasus region. When I began researching the piece in the first days of this month, my original intent was distinguish Imarat Kavkaz as it is known endonymically and IS in the ideological battle for minds among salafists in the Russian Federation’s troubled southwestern republics.
By the time I put the finishing touches on it at 4 a.m. this morning, it seemed the CE was practically no more as an effective war-fighting group. First leaders at the jamaat level began to defect beginning in late 2014 then in rapid succession it happened at the vilayat level then the geographic core pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as I was racing against the deadline to finish. At the same time, the man rumored to be the late CE emir Kebekov’s successor, Magomed Suleymanov, was never confirmed publicly by any CE or CE-sympathetic outlets. One would think a new emir would have been proclaimed by now, especially in the face of such peer competition from IS on their home territory.
What sets the North Caucasus apart from other established IS wilayahs (governorates or provinces) outside the boundaries of the wannabe caliphate in Syria and Iraq is that the jihadis in the Russian Federation’s ragged periphery can claim to control no territory unless it were to be tracts of forest non-contiguous with population centers.
In Libya and perhaps some swaths of Sinai, local IS adherents may claim to administer small pieces of land. But the salafi-jihadi project in the North Caucasus was always more of an idea backed up with differing online maps. But there were no places in its vilayats that Russian or local security forces could not penetrate and engage the militants. Somewhat ironically, the only time this may have ever been the case was during the short-lived de facto independence of mostly secular nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that existed briefly in the interwar period between the first and second Russo-Chechen wars. The CE, or now I suppose its local IS branch, can make no such claims.
Though Moscow has secured Chechnya to a large degree (in relative terms) at great human and financial cost, the Kremlin and the Lubyanka may now have to contend with IS attacks in Russia proper. Russia has never had an effective counter terror strategy, it has only excelled at increasing homegrown radicalization which has brought attacks from Volgograd to the heart of the capital. The other situations to watch are in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. Thus far Tbilisi and Baku seem to operating in a sort of quiet detente with the jihadis who are exiting their borders for Syria and Iraq. These South Caucasus jihadis don’t seem to be making an effort to overtly threaten their respective home governments.
Without collective international will and coherent decision making among relevant state actors, as we have seen on both sides of the Caucasus, IS will sadly continue to metastasize on both sides of the Caucasus range for the time being with its hollow proclamations of reaching jannah through grotesque martyrdom operations in lands far from home.
New York- I don’t have much time to do full fledged blog posts as of late but today I was prepping an image for my ongoing #fabledcity street art project, (prints available for sale via paypal) rooting around my archives. While flipping through my catalog looking for chromes of the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq, the above image struck me. With the pointed desecration of ancient, pre-Islamic or non-Sunni holy places going on in Syria and Iraq, Shia empowerment is directly related to the preservation of the ziggurat pictured below.
In simplest terms, the ruins situated at Ur are safe from IS sledge hammers and explosives because they are so deeply within a demographic region in southern Iraq that is firmly under Shia-majority control. Which historic sites survive this tumultuous period may simply depend on which sect administers that particular area. At the same time, the manner in which the Shia government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kept Sunni Arabs constantly disenfranchised ensured that some kind of Sunni insurgency would be rekindled in a post-America Iraq. We just didn’t know it would get this bad. Similarly, the oppression of the Sunni Arab majority in neighboring Syria by the late Hafez al-Assad undergirds the 2011 uprising that devolving into the dreadful civil war we are stuck with today.
These images may appear unrelated but the survival of the latter does have something to do with the rise of the former.
New York- Milling around the the 9/11 memorial the other day, I looked at one random, small cluster of names engraved above on of the two massive cascading fountains where the roots of the twin towers once intertwined with the earth. Though 9/11 is described as an attack on the United States or an attack on the West as a whole. reading over this small list made it feel as if the mass casualty event in New York was an attack on globalization itself for lack of a better term.
In this sample of victims it jumped out at me that one of them–Ehtesham Raja–was Pakistani. Then scanning across, I read Karamo Baba Trerra which appeared to be a West African Muslim name. Indeed he was Gambian. Then there is Jie Yao Justin Zhao from Guangzhou, China. Then Joyce Rose Cummings. a Trinidadian. The sole American in the frame of my photo is Donald Joseph Tuzio who’d lost his job and was only in the WTC that day to take part in a job-hunting workshop that was a mandatory component of his buyout package.
The diversity in just these five names–two of whom were Muslim–demonstrates that 9/11 was a global event whose magnitude devastated families from the Caribbean to China, from West Africa to South Asia. When I would photograph the anniversaries over the years at what was then referred to as Ground Zero, I was always struck by the diversity of families who arrived to collectively grieve and remember. Al-Qaeda killed Muslims from the beginning. Many of the victims in the East Africa embassy attacks were adherents. Most of the victims of salafist terrorism today are in fact Muslim.
While for me seeing the footprints of the towers evokes a somber feeling, the memorial is a place buzzing with life. Every visitor has a smartphone. People are smiling taking photos as tourists tend to do when on holiday. Then a policeman walks by and wipes the dewy spring moisture off of one particular name as if to honor it. I notice a rose on Mother’s Day wedged into the name of a victim who was carrying an unborn child. A place that once stood as global business incarnate with people from around the world is now host to every imaginable emotion in the spectrum.
New York- I don’t ordinarily post the work of others here on TWD (unless they happen to be close friends) but I am thoroughly impressed by this interview by Jon Stewart of the disgraced former NYT reporter Judith Miller. It is as if in his final leg of The Daily Show, he treading into an area where professional American television journalists fear to and have feared to for years now.
His interview with Miller is both sharp and devastating. She refuses to admit that she bears any direct responsibility for anything having to do with disseminating White House or Pentagon propaganda that led to the war in Iraq. If one looks at the long view, this then led to the emergence of the angry man of Camp Bucca, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. You can draw a line from events in 2002 all the way to the present. The forcible dismantlement of the Ba’athist security state in Iraq in March and April 2003 led to one of the most ominous security vacuums on our planet.
I remember on the early morning of September 11, 2011 as journalists gathered in lower Manhattan for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I had Miller in my group as we were escorted to the stands from where we would watch the Bushes and Obamas awkwardly stand side by side. I wished Miller, her former colleague Thomas Friedman who said the invasion of Iraq was “unquestionably worth doing,” and other like-minded travelers would atone for what they had written and bear responsibility. I also felt and still feel that they should be stripped of their influential perches in our media landscape beset by ethical frailty and beset by intellectual dishonesty. The Iraq war was unquestionably a failure.
Stewart’s questioning of Miller is righteous in the best sense of that term. Watch below.
New York- Skateboarders Kenny Reed and Louisa Menke have published a handsome edition of their photographs of skateboarding in Afghanistan in 2009 with Vanderbooks of Rotterdam. They will be hosting a book release party this Saturday May 2nd at the Marlborough Gallery’s Broom Street location in downtown Manhattan. Come one, come all!