Diyarbakir- Though I try not to get overly personal with TWD’s posts as it’s more of a news/analysis site, I’ve just arrived in southeastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan to some) and this marks twenty years of my travels in the Middle East. In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Israel/Palestine to be a volunteer worker on a grueling archaeological dig not too far south of the Lebanese border. Lo and behold A short, hot war broke out that summer two decades ago called either the Seven Day War or Operation Accountability depending on whom one asks (as is everything in this zone).
Here I am twenty long years later with both Syria and Iraq just to the south at war and the PKK resurgent in Turkey while in peace talks with the Erdogan government drag onat the same time. The eponymous province of which Diyarbakir is the administrative center is not without occasional political violence either. In this area there is so much going on seemingly at all times whether in terms in broad brush geopolitics or furious insurgencies being clumsily batted back by traditional military institutions employing awful scorched earth tactics that it just keeps calling me back.
Importantly, at least to me, is that I feel privileged to be here at all after all this time. I’ve met journalists over the years who are no longer still alive to tell these stories. I still think about them.
New York- The Jamestown Foundation is selling a jam-packed DVD of its third annual terrorism conference entitled “The Changing Strategic Gravity of al-Qaeda” that was held on December 9th at the National Press Club. This extensive series of presentations covers everything from more mainstream topics like counterinsurgency, de-radicalization and AfPak to far lesser understood topics ranging from Mindanao to the Houthi war in northern Yemen. Jamestown is providing some of the most extensive coverage on all subjects terror related and this DVD is a must for anyone looking to get (way) beyond today’s headlines.
Jamestown brings together indigenous experts and former government officials from the troubled states in question along with top Western area experts in an attempt to present the widest picture of the global threat spectrum as possible. From ideology to insurgent logistics, this DVD has it all. No one who seeks to truly understand the dangers posed to the global community by non-state actors can settle for thinking they have a handle on all the necessary knowledge by focusing on one area such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater when the next attack is conceived in, and launched out of, Yemen or Somalia. The insight provided therein constantly seeks to enhance the intellectual agility of those trying to grapple with a globalized insurgency.
Abu Dhabi, UAE- I have a new piece in today’s Asia Times about the overall decline of the security environment in Kabul and the collective West’s political will to do something about it. Five more years of Karzai rule is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who considers themselves to give a damn about Afghanistan. My friends Raymond Pagnucco and Spencer Mandell made an excellent film about the first imposed democratic experiment in 2004 and all the fraud that accompanied that mess entitled God’s Open Hand. Swap Yunus Qanooni for Dr. Abdullah (and figure in that Qanooni was one of Abdullah’s strongest backers in this year’s destined to be flawed contest) and the electoral mess of 2004 begins to resemble this year’s fiasco. One might even go so far as to make a comparison between the 2000 and the 2004 Bush “victories” in the United States. Democracy is imperfect everywhere but in Afghanistan these imperfections yield deadly consequences.
Kabul awoke to a good size suicide attack this morning at 8:30 a.m. Kabul-time killing several civilians and injuring five NATO ISAF troops. Twelve Afghan security forces were injured as well as six Afghan civilians. ISAF Commander General Stanley A. McChrystal blazed through to assess the situation escorted by Italian Carabinieri. McChrystal only said “I am concerned about anyone who is trying to kill innocent Afghans” before he and his guards barged through to the crime scene leaving the media in their wake. Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Trembley briefed the press about 50 metres from the site of the attack. A lone bomber worked his way through various checkpoints and detonated a VBIED in front of the main gate. A coup for insurgent intelligence gathering and an embarrassment for NATO just five days before the presidential election. “It tells a lot about the Taleban code of conduct” Trembley told those assembled, referring to the tete-a-tete NATO and Mullah Muhammed Omar have been having this summer over the limiting of civilian casualties. I asked Trembley whether the bomber was working along or with another operative guiding him to the target. He stated that it was too early to get into anything that specific until the ANA finished conducting its forensic investigation. Italian, French, American, British and Canadian soldiers milled about while the local fire department dealt with the smoking debris. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack very close to the fortified blast walls of the American embassy in Kabul’s Orwellian diplomatic quarter.
I disconnected with my driver and was waiting around for a taxi when two educated local boys approached me in perfect English saying the such suicide attacks, the de rigueur method of the post-modern jihadist, are forbidden within the ideological confines of Islam. One of them presciently asked “Why do you think we muslims are doing this to each other?” Not wanting to get into a debate, I replied that there was a sickness that had permeated very deeply in the political core of the ummah, the global Muslim community, and things like literacy and opportunity were the only weapons against such narrow barbarism. “What is your religion?” the other asked. “I’m a (Catholic) Christian” I replied.
“Ahh you Christians have big hearts. You are here trying to help us. Who is your bishop?”
I tried to explain that I’m an avid secularist which is unfathomable in such a pious, poor country where belief in God is the only thing millions have to cling to.
We weren’t told we’d be refueling at an 82nd Airborne Forward Operating Base. Even seeing a base like this without an ISAF accreditation or being “embedded” (a concept I loathe) is highly unusual. The American soldiers who refueled us didn’t even look inside to see a chopper full of journo’s from coalition member states. They only interacted with the ANA. Ghazni is the place to be if one desires to be in or around “Obama’s Viet Nam” as the press unoriginally and condescendingly labels the fight for Afghanistan.
General John Abizaid, the former Commander of U.S. Central Command spoke at NYU’s Center for Law and Security on the primary challenges the United States Armed Forces face today and in the near term along with a host of experts on counterinsurgency (COIN), critics, and A-list journalists.
Abizaid described Islam across the spectrum of the twenty-seven nation CentCom theater as being in a “fight with itself.” The four challenges for the U.S. in the region are Sunni extremism, the rise of King Abdullah’s feared “Shia Crescent”, the ongoing Arab-Israeli war and the securing of oil and other natural resources. General Abizaid stated that the political and economic center of gravity in the world has shifted to the East and that military power would eventually follow if history can be seen as a blueprint for the future. In order to maintain order, the United States must get out of an “occupational strategy” and enter a more coordinated “cooperative strategy.” Abizaid told of his strong dislike for “political-military friction” and that in the traditions of which he aspired, commanding officers are meant to remain neutral and stay clear of Republicans and Democrats alike avoiding involvements in Beltway entanglements that can further polarize the public-military discourse.
John Nagl is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and distinguished COIN expert, President of CNAS , and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife who spoke of the massive paradigm shift that took place in calm after Desert Storm. The shift Nagl described was in the eyes of America’s enemies, allies and rivals. The warfare that would follow could be either high end (nuclear) or low end (guerrilla) with virtually no set piece battles in between. The Gulf War demonstrated that the United States could not be opposed military-to-military on the battlefield. “Tank-Tank”warfare as he put it was unlikely to occur on future battlefields (with the Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia war an exception). The military held that if “You can skin a cat, you can skin a kitten” and that fighting a small war was just a slimmed down version of fighting a large one rather than a mission that employed an entirely different skill set. Nagl told audience members that the U.S. must have a balance of preparedness through a whole spectrum of combat and risked negating itself if it swung too far in either the small or large war direction. The U.S. military was structured for offensive and defensive combat but now was operating along a crucial third tier, that of stabilizing operations. A key part of these type of operations was not Marshall Plan post-war style reconstruction but reconstruction as a core component within a theater of active combat.
Retired Lieutenant General David Barno who commanded American forces in Afghanistan from late 2003-2005, talked of the country as an “In-Conflict Reconstruction” and described his troops as doing “Armed Nation Building” (which I thought was a brilliant term) “because you get killed by doing unarmed nation building.” Barno described today’s war-fighting environment as one that no longer allowed for humanitarian space (think Sri Lanka). Lt. General Barno said this in response to a question I put to the panel about the conflation of nation-building and humanitarian work with armed state and non-state actors alike (The former being say, U.S. forces in the Balkans, an example of the latter being LeT in Azad Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake). I mentioned the sight of an American officer in post-invasion 2003 Karbala sitting behind a hospital administrator’s desk paying out freshly minted $20 bills to nurses and doctors who hadn’t been paid for months. On the surface it may have appeared to be a nice gesture by the officer in question but appeared to be a grave violation of the Geneva Convention. Suzanne Nossel of HRW said the line had been blurred between traditional civil and military lines in a conflict zone which confused the issue as soldiers, even while carrying our nation-building efforts, can still be considered legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. Although there was an emerging common ground between human rights groups and armed forces (I’m assuming she meant Western armed forces), that we as a public should remain cautious about ceding the idea of humanitarian space in war.