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It’s the middle of winter here in NYC and I’m staying busy cleaning out my laptop and here I happened upon another unpublished story from my archives that I later used as the background for an article “Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)” for The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.
New York- A hail of bullets can be hear in the video during an anti-terror police operation in the northern commune of Saint-Denis approximately 12 kilometers from central Paris. Here is a map of the precise location according to Youtube user trystero19.
Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.
For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.
There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.
What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.
Barcelona- I realized the other day that going to wars for years and years affects perhaps not only the psyche over the long term but also the synaptic algorithms that are part of an unending string of decision making processes driving daily routines. I can be in the most secure Western city environment but am still often making the smallest decisions in a wartime mindset without even realizing it. Hard to explain but basically always bracing for the worst. Here the most petty detail like the food stores being closed on Sundays somehow evokes the most careful conflict behavioral patterns. I remember in Afghanistan in 2001 when ABC and CBS had teamed up to set up a joint broadcast compound and they had gone to a bottled water warehouse in Tajikistan beforehand and bought half the potable water in Dushanbe to take with them down to Takhar.
Those early experiences had a molding effect on me that is often difficult to gauge. Now even if I am just coming to the EU, I find myself prepping and packing as if I was going off to war. You can leave a war but war never quite leaves you.
The last significant acts of terrorism here were a parking garage bombing in June 1987 that killed 21 attributed to ETA and a bar bombing that December which killed an American sailor during a Christmas port call and was claimed by Catalan radicals. But the wealthy from societies in conflict today seem to all be here as tourists and so to me war is never far away. Just before I shot the above photo, a nouveau riche family with a brand new Porsche bearing unmistakeable Ukrainian plates had their car towed where friends and I were sitting and asked for our help as they did not speak Spanish much less Catalan. As I was shopping for clothes in the discount department store yesterday, I find myself reflexively trying to discern where the niqab-clad North African in line ahead of me might precisely be from. This stuff is just always on my mind. An innate curiosity coupled with too much experience often makes it difficult to zone out.
The past few years the only way I could justify being here was by go to and fro to conflicts; Libya in 2011, Mali in 2012, Iraq in 2013. This summer I decided to simply return to Catalunya without forcing myself to justify it. Did I miss out on the big Sinjar drama? Of course I did. One thing I have learned in all this time is that if you do miss out on a story, if you’re patient enough another one will pop up in no time. Despite tracts written about how this is the most peaceful time mankind has yet lived in comparative to the scale of the World Wars that consumed the first half of the last century, there are seemingly always more wars to come. They may not have vast trench networks and poignant ballads written about them but today’s wars are many if not ‘Great’ or “Patriotic’ in the grandiose appellations of an era gone by.
For what I suppose is part of the make up of my personality every single trip I have ever done has been alone. I meet other journos in war zones but almost always by sheer happenstance. No one has ever bought me a plane ticket to go anywhere ever. No big name outlet has ever called me up out of the blue and thrown an assignment at me. Everything I’ve ever done has essentially been as an autodidactic hustler.
I’ve worked in conflicts since 9/11 yet have never been written up as a ‘veteran’ while loads of people from the class of Libya 2011 have quickly surpassed me at least in terms twitter/instagram fame and so forth. Hell, one random guy with an iphone who spoke zero Arabic wound up with a spot in the world’s most prestigious photo agency and with a documentary then being made about his exploits by a big name Hollywood director. Suddenly people were getting famous for not dying after others did. Coming to NYC and winning big awards in the aftermath. The ‘Arab Spring’ morphed into a major turning point for journalism itself. It became a veritable free-for-all environment for those just getting started. Safety norms were either not heeded in many instances or simply went out the window of the technical fighting truck.
To my knowledge another photojournalist has never shot my photo while I’m working along a front line. If I went missing in one of these places there wouldn’t be a flurry of action shots of me to raise awareness. I’ve also never worn or had access to a bullet proof vest. Perhaps I simply don’t do enough socializing when I’m in these places. To add to that I also occasionally like to cover events before they’ve been totally blown out in the mainstream. In Iraq last August I didn’t encounter a single other war correspondent. Iraq was considered a dormant conflict to many and was definitely not ‘hot’ story-wise what with Syria going on next door.
I’m currently debating whether its worth doing any more wars from here on out. Perhaps a couple more. There is only so much that can been gleaned from hiking up a mined hillside or facing off a guy with a Dragnov rifle when you only have a long camera lens to shoot back with. Of course to truly understand the human dynamics you have to actually go to these places. There is a middle ground between an adrenalin rush and an armchair twitter warrior also where you can go to Kiev or Erbil and be mostly safe without venturing toward Donbas or Mosul for example. This is the modus of the more reserved journos or more actionable wonks.
There’s a whole crew of millennial wunderkinds making their names in prominent think tanks or King’s College War Studies Department or Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department by analyzing trends in salafi social media and venturing into the ummah’s safer nodes like Casablanca, Tunis or even Sana’a on a good week without ever really putting their lives at risk. But I don’t fit into that category either. A senior analyst in DC once told me on the sidelines of a conference that as far as he was concerned a true subject matter expert concentrates on one, possibly two, but no more than three countries (his were Morocco and Algeria and sometimes Tunisia). That gave me insight into just how competitive the think tank set is.
Rather than befriend gatekeepers who prove difficult, I just move in another direction until a more friendly door opens. Things have a way of falling into place if you let them it seems.
A few weeks ago I went partying with some friends atop a dilapidated bunker from the civil war here where people now congregate for sunset gahterings with a spectacular view of the city below. That bitter war between Franco’s Nationalists and the floundering Republicans is firmly in the ash bin of history, its legacy is relegated to anti-fascist graffiti slogans and sparse ruins from the era. Every war, no matter how long or brutal, eventually ends. Even in dark, peace can and will be found in light of war.
Barcelona- I installed two triptychs here in Barcelona the other day from when I was conducting my senior thesis in Peshawar, Pakistan back in the autumn of 2000. The one above was on an abandoned storefront in El Clot while the one below was on the side of the Mercat de Poblenou while it was quietly closed on a Sunday. This was a component of my original concept before 9/11 to put up imagery on both sides of the Atlantic in order to educate a viewing public by employing the style of street art phenomenology that was so prevalent in southern California at the time.
Little did I know that while I was in Peshawar trying to persuade the Taliban to grant me entry to photograph the countryside and monuments of the land the controlled most of, Mohammed Atta, Ziad jarrah and others had already recorded martyrdom videos outside Kandahar 10 months previously.
So now 13 years on, I’m still doing my idea. The world has ostensibly changed in the interim but that can’t always negate a vision.
New York- I attended a Georgian diplomatic party marking the restoration of Georgian independence this week hosted by Ambassador Kaha Imnadze. Georgia was briefly independent from 1918-1921 following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The Menshevik-led Democratic Republic of Georgia was ultimately subsumed into the Soviet Union as neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ottoman Empire crumbled giving rise to pragmatic Kemalism.
With badrijani and lobiani wafting through the air (unfortunately there was Pellegrino rather then Borjomi) and interesting discussions being had on the geopolitical primacy of the greater Black Sea region made for an interesting evening.
New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.
Anbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.
In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.
From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.
The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.
I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.
By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.
But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.
Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.
Erbil- Here are a handful of snapshots from my iPod from my day running around the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to get situated.