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The Fabled City

On 11 August, 1999, I photographed a total solar eclipse from the Arg-e-Bam (Citiadel of Bam) in southeastern Iran's Kerman Province. On 26 December, 2003 the citadel was largely destroyed in a calamitous earthquake which killed almost 27,000 people, nearly a third of the city's inhabitants. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

New York- In sorting through some old belongings today I found a couple of now ancient-seeming portfolios which I went to a lot of trouble to make at the tail end of the portfolio era. In what turned out to be fruitless, expensive exercises in futility I spent countless hours (not to mention loads of money on ink and specialty papers) printing attempts at gorgeous images. I scanned some of the images and decided to show them here on this blog. Though these images may appear, and perhaps are, somewhat random, they were part of my earliest project concept which I titled “The Fabled City.” I envisioned it as grassroots, multimedia education project to enlighten denizens of American cities about the complex civilizational crossroads where South Asia, Central Asia, and the Iranian Plateau intersect.

The ultimate goal of the project was to then inform the public about the people and socio-cultural history of Afghanistan working past the entrenched framework of Afghanistan clichés as a “buffer state,” “failed state,” or worst of all, “the graveyard of empires.” Could you imagine if a coterie of overeducated policy wonks and far removed armchair historians constantly referred to the country you call home as some sort of “graveyard?” Or in the case of Pakistan, “the world’s most dangerous place?” Or Iran being “evil” in some way?  Though all of these terms are or were meant to have a purely geopolitical resonance (in theory), it is a short jump to the demonization of a culture particularly when punditry is then mixed with geographic distance.

Following the solar eclipse pictured above, a group of Afghan men depart the adobe Bam complex, the world's largest mud brick structure. Today this spectacular site lay in ruins. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

I had an idea-somewhat indicative of the era-to do a guerrilla-style wheatpaste poster campaign in the manner of a 1990s New York City street artists like Cost and Revs (who have long since faded into relative obscurity). I thought I could bring awareness to this region-much of which had been cutoff the the outside world since 1979-by starting a one man grassroots poster campaign. I was gearing up to embark upon this idea just as 9/11 shook this city. My plan to photograph Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (ie the Islamic Emirate) after the winter snows thawed in the spring of 2002 morphed into doing war photography in the Islamic State of Afghanistan among the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (ie the Northern Alliance) some six-months ahead of schedule. I still clung to this idea well into the 9/11 wars.

At the height of the war in Takhar Province in early November 2001 I managed to visit the broken columns of the heavily looted Graeco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanoum overlooking the Panj River dividing Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In Iraq in May 2003 I climbed the humongous, spiraled minaret of Malwiya in Samarra before things turned ugly in that country’s nihilistic fitna and anti-occupation war. The minaret was later attacked by insurgents in 2005 after American soldiers carelessly used the ancient monument as a lookout post. From the top of the Abbasid calpihate-era Malwiya, I gazed at the magnificent al-Askari shrine housing the bodies of the 10th and 11th Twelver Shi’ite imams, its gilded cupola shining brilliantly under the Iraqi sun. The sacred al-Askari dome was later demolished by Sunni sectarian fighters in February 2006 and its minarets were destroyed by them in June 2007.

I was digging around in a musty closet and unearthed these decade-old prints which I then hastily scanned in a consumer Epson flatbed scanner. I don’t have much use for these rather benign, old prints now. Maybe I will finally paste them up around the Brooklyn or Queens waterfront as I intended to do exactly a decade ago. The Fabled City was crushed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Unending war and terror would come to rule the day rather than the elements of architectural elegance and sophisticated history I had hoped to use as tools to foment a better day.

The Arg-e-Karim Khan at night in Shiraz, Iran. Note the incredible tile work on the tower. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The Abassi mosque complex in southern Punjab Province's Cholistan Desert outside Bahalwalpur, Pakistan. Under the blistering desert sun, the local men had me stand on a marble slab in the geometric center of this courtyard that was inexplicably cool even at high noon. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

The reflecting pool in front of the tomb of Jalaluddin Surkh-Posh Bukhari at the Uch Sharif complex outside Bahalwalpur, Pakistan. Bukhari was a prominent Sufi evangelist and is revered as a saint by regional practitioners today. As his name denotes, he originated from Bukhara in what is now present day Uzbekistan. This place to me represented the idea of Central Asia and South Asia being part of one cultural and religious continuum. Here the facade of the Fabled City rises into the sky. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

Violence in Libya and Pakistan

October 21st, 2011 No comments

Women in Benghazi demonstrate on March 9, 2011 for information on their male relatives who never made it out of Tripoli's Abu Salim prison alive following a massacre in June 1996. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Thira- I have no two new articles out today. I felt compelled to write something on the ignominious death of Qaddafi in Sirte yesterday. Funnily I was actually going to do a piece on the unrest here in Greece if solely for the reason I have been stuck here longer than I planned. There was even a demonstration here on the island yesterday and rubbish is spilling out into the streets as part of the uprising. But Qaddafi was as dramatic in death as he was in life and his killing carried the day in the news cycle. I balanced it out with a very underreported story out of Pakistani Balochistan. The Shia Hazara minority have been being slaughtered by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants for years now but there has been a huge spike in violence in recent months and I felt the topic was worthy of more attention. The common thread between the two stories is the terrible violence that takes place in a supposedly pacifying world. Qaddafi suffered a very public, humiliating death while the Hazaras of Pakistan are lucky to have their suffering mentioned in the Pakistani media itself.

My Ten Year Photography Retrospective of Ground Zero New York

September 13th, 2011 No comments

New York- What began as one horrific day turned into a decade long quest. 9/11 did not change the course of my life, it merely accelerated it at hyper speed. In the weeks before the suicide attacks on New York, I had been studiously laying the groundwork for a photographic journey inside Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. I had hoped to undertake the trip in the spring of 2002 when the first winter snows would begin to melt. The Taliban regime maintained a little known office in a working-class section of New York’s Queens borough. Taped to the front of the ad hoc mission’s cheap wooden door was a sign printed up on computer paper that read: “Mission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in English, Pashto, and Dari.

From this non-descript medical building filled with Indian doctor’s offices, two Taliban diplomats shuttled back and forth to the United Nations headquarters in Turtle Bay. Shunned by the majority of the international community when word of their track record on women’s rights or lack thereof and anti-Hazara pogroms became publicized, they tried and failed to win over other nation-state’s representatives to grant them the international recognition they craved. My cold calls to these men were met with great suspicion. They wanted records of what university I attended and a detailed study of my employment history to even consider granting me a tourist visa to their then forgotten backwater that occupied my dreams.

In the interim, I studied up on all the available literature on the group that existed in August of 2001, which was next to nothing. I then happened upon a rather obscure text in the warrens of The Strand, New York’s most famous used bookshop. The book, Taliban: A Shadow Over Afghanistan by a German academic called Burchard Brentjes and his wife Helga, was translated into English and published in Varanasi, India. I scooped up the book, confident it would not be missed by anyone else that August and shuttled it back to Brooklyn. On a balmy evening two days before 9/11, I sat upon the tar papered rooftop of a brownstone row house and excitedly flipped through the text, occasionally glancing up to watch the setting sun radiate off the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the other side of the East River. I sat in wonderment, thinking about this devastated, landlocked country a half a world away that captivated my imagination since a pair of backpacking visits to its borderlands in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province (since renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkwha Province) in 1999 and 2000.

Afghanistan under the Taliban was a weak, chaotic place that drew in Salafi-jihadi terrorists from around the globe to its realm ruled by accommodating Deobandi Islamists with a myopic worldview.  The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda was a highly transactional, murky one and, at the time, the two entities were considerably less interdependent than many might assume looking back on the era today. That important nuance would matter little when 19 men from four Arab countries would hijack four passenger jets and use two of them to pulverize the densely populated New York icon killing nearly 3000 people. The destruction of the World Trade Center would set the stage for the first decade of the twenty-first century, much of it disastrous. It would transform me from a curious California geography student into a war correspondent. Year after year, I returned to the site of the attack to document the bouts of collective grief and fits of progress. This is my record of a decade of 9/11.

Said Bahaji Ten Years After 9/11

September 2nd, 2011 No comments

Barcelona- I have written an extensive profile of Said Bahaji, one of the last members of the Hamburg cell still on the run (the other being Zakariya Essabar) in the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor. Bahaji was a core member of the 9/11 plot and one of it’s least known figures. With the death of Osama bin Laden back in May, Bahaji is one of the few men alive to have operational knowledge of 9/11. Bahaji is still being sheltered by certain Pakistanis, out of reach of everything but a Hellfire missile it seems.

It would be a damn shame if we were to find out he had simply been obliterated in a drone strike rather than somehow captured alive. In fact, his logistical knowledge of the 9/11 operation makes him much more valuable to the historical record than bin Laden (if in a fantasy bin Laden had been captured alive and tried in a court of law rather than assassinated). If it were possible to abduct him from North or South Waziristan and bundle him to the West, I reckon his debriefing could finally shut up the tiresome 9/11 conspiracy theory crowd. But that is another fantasy. The ‘truther’ movement is apparently impervious to reality and updated historical record keeping. You cannot have a serious debate with people who have made up their minds before they have heard the first question.

It is highly unlikely Bahaji will live out a quiet retirement in the bazaars of Mir Ali or Miranshah. It is more probable that he will be collaterally assassinated in a CIA drone strike on some TTP big in a convoy along the border with Khost. In several ways, he is the ideal AQ operative being half Western and half Maghrebi. Adam Gadahn has nothing on Bahaji. The United States has made great strides in nailing AQ men in Pakistan’s cities-Ramzi bin al-Shibh in Karachi in 2002, KSM in Rawalpindi in 2003, and ObL in Abbottabad in 2011. It has had much, much less success in FATA where Pakistan’s writ is barely existent in many swaths of the tribal belt. Instead the US has been going after TTP figures like Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud, essentially getting caught up in the sticky web of Pakistan’s varied and sundry internal conflicts rather than sticking to what should be very narrow goal. It seems the White House is “smokin’ ‘em out” more than ever before as the drone programme shows no sign of letting up. But are we smoking out the right men? Should Langley be smoking out Islamabad’s internal enemies in a remote control dirty war? The security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (from its own people) has become a raison d’être for supporting a hideously corrupt, loathsome  Zardari government that has no friends other than the American tax payer and its PPP patrons. It is the perpetuation of a deadly inertia as policy writ large.

Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Last Interview

June 7th, 2011 No comments

New York- The brief spotlight that the assassination of Asia Times Online’s Saleem Shahzad brought to the danger journalists face on a daily basis has faded here in the United States for now until the next tragedy. Here in New York, the philandering of absurdly egotistical, warring pro-Israel politicos is a lot sexier (though in no way actually sexy) in terms of ratings and other nonsense. I wanted to post this interview Shahzad did shortly before his death with the Canadian Real News Network. Shahzad speaks truth to power in this Skype interview which is exactly why I am putting it up as ‘the story has moved on’ which they love to say here in NYC. No stranger to controversy, Shahzad talks about the long trumped up notion of cleaving the Quetta shura from the FATA-based (or KP or Punjab?) AQ  which much of Petraeus exit strategy for American forces in Afghanistan relies on. In this respect Shahzad is accidentally in line with Gates who said in 60 Minutes interview that it was too soon to tell if the killing of ObL was a ‘game changer.’ The killing of Shahzad will not be forgotten. Not in the journalism community and not by readers of Asia Times. Pakistanis now effectively have their own Anna Politikovskaya. Telling the truth in backward quasi-democracies like Pakistan and the Russian Federation can be a death sentence in an environment where human life often feels to have little value. Journalists like these are key torch bearers in damaged societies where it is a constant struggle to keep them relatively open. The next tier down in my un-calculated freedom index would be Burma and Turkmenistan and nobody wants that except for Than Shwe and Berdy.

“The Ink of the Scholar Is More Sacred Than the Blood of the Martyr”

June 1st, 2011 No comments

New York- Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s flagship journalist, was brutalized and murdered. Though it may be some time until the details seep up from the seamy underworld that did him in, many both inside and outside Pakistan are quickly pointing fingers at the ISI for the tragedy. Here’s what I’ll say: if it were a terrorist group that assassinated him, of which Pakistan seems to have more than one can count, it is unlikely they would have used the old ‘kidnap in place x and dump body in place y’ method. That tired, vulgar routine is more in line with the country’s security services over which the supposedly reformed kleptocrat Asif Ali Zardari has virtually no influence–the Hayatullah Khan case immediately comes to mind.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistans and Lashkar-e-Jhangvis of that dark realm tend to either employ highly targeted suicide bombings using boys often as young as 12-13 or the kidnap-and-make-youtube-hostage-video routine. Saleem Shahzad was an incomparable journalist whose bylines are irreplaceable. Other journalists often seemed envious of his scoops and placed suspicion on his sources. Some thought he was too close to the story, whether it be the ISI, the Quetta shura, the TTP, or AQ. In some people’s eyes, they believed he didn’t play by the rules because his sources were too good, dangerous, or a mix of the two. They were jealous, I supposed when I heard such talk.

What Saleem Shahzad was was someone extraordinarily interested  in shining light on a dark world. Asia Times will carry on and journalism will carry on but we have lost a key interlocutor into one country’s desperately important downward spiral. A country to which 170 million souls call home and the United States cannot extricate itself from her ally’s affairs. Just before Saleem Shahzad was brutally killed by those far less civilized, he finally released a book called Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11 which will leave behind a written legacy of an era much of the world would like to forget.

From #2 to #1: Ayman al-Zawahiri and the question of al-Qaeda’s Leadership Succession

The new WTC tower reflected in window of the Brooks Brothers store against backdrop of an American flag during President Barack Obama's visit to Ground Zero following the killing of Osama bin Laden. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, the partially built new World Trade Center tower is lit up in the colors of the American flag in preparation for President Barack Obama's visit to Ground Zero. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- So bin Laden is dead, sunk to the bottom of the Arabian Sea in a weighted body bag. What comes next for al-Qaeda? A lot of assumptions come into play, the foremost of which is that the angry Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri will assume the top position. Analysts seem to think that al-Zawahiri is combative ideologically and lacks any of the charisma of bin Laden. Many would probably like to believe al-Qaeda is a spent force..highly unlikely. Some wonder if it can survive without its leader. Therein lies the debate about whether AQ is a leaderless ideology or a leader-driven cult-esque movement akin to the LTTE. When Prabhakaran was killed on the edge of that lagoon in May of 2009, that was the effective end of the LTTE as a leader-led, mass movement. But it was certainly not the end of Tamil nationalism/separatism (assuredly not in the Tamil diaspora or doubtfully in South India). Al-Qaeda will obviously not fade away overnight but I find it hard to imagine crowds of henna-bearded Islamist protestors in the sweltering streets of Karachi marching around with al-Zawahiri posters. He’s just simply not iconic or photogenic like OBL nor are there loads of great images of him. I remember when I first traveled across Pakistan way back in 1999, people (well men since I don’t recall socializing with women there then) informed me that almost no Pakistanis had ever heard of OBL prior to Bill Clinton’s cruise missile strikes in Khost the summer before. The American attempt against him, in the wake of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings, is what really propelled him to fame in Pakistan, not any kind of indigenous love for him as I would venture to guess most Americans/Westerners would believe.

President Barack Obama visited Ground Zero/the new World Trade Center site today to quietly lay a wreath on the grounds of the new memorial. I never caught site of the guy but got a few nice snaps. The NYPD officers assigned to the event were fairly relaxed and it ended up being a low key affair compared to the 9/11 anniversaries I’ve covered.

Crowds gather around the new WTC tower during President Barack Obama's visit to Ground Zero following the killing of Osama bin Laden. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

A young woman donning a 2008 Shepard Fairey Obama t-shirt captures me on her iPhone in the crowds. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistani TV Coverage of Abbottabad

Pakistan's Geo TV shows what appears to be the wreckage of an American helicopter from the Abbottbad raid. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- There is some interesting coverage on a few of the global Pakistani satellite channels (if you comprehend Urdu to a degree) of the Abbottabad raid. Highlights include what appears to be the tail of the downed Navy SEAL chopper and former President Pervez ‘Mush’ Musharraf talking about how the raid was a clear violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Pakistan's Geo TV shows bin Laden's Abbottabad compound going down in flames. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

One of the more interesting things about it was the mood of the Pakistani public across a spectrum of their news sites. I did not see a single comment of anyone appearing overjoyed about this. Most seemed to find the notion of a foreign military power making a deadly raid deep inside their territory utterly humiliating. Many comments I came across, not untypical for that part of the world, seemed to say the raid was wrong not only for violating Pakistan, but because they believed the jury on bin Laden to still be out. Many in Pakistan seriously believe that the United States did not have a clear-cut enough case to kill bin Laden. Having personally been on all sides of the War on Terror short of spending the night in the dark prison at Bagram, I can kind of understand where this view comes from but I am sure no one else in America will.

The insecurity I see playing on in the comments on some of these news site forums stems directly from Pakistan’s defeats over the decades at the hands of its Indian nemesis and/or brothers. It is almost as if the United States stood in for the hated Indian military in this scenario.  Some in Pakistan may not want to condemn bin Laden simply as a residual emotional kneejerk held over from eight years of awful neoconservative unilateralist policy in South and Central Asia. On the other side of the Radcliffe Line/Line of Control, many in the Indian media and defense establishment are already no doubt gloating that Pakistan is the nexus of terror that they have been insisting it was all along. On the other side of the Durand Line, Afghans will no doubt be interpreting what all of this means for them as many fear the Karzai regime would simply crumble without Western support. There will be those in the West, particularly anti-militarists in the oh-so-subtly anti-American European left, who will now suggest even more forcefully that their self serving politicians can no longer in any way justify their respective participation in the American-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan, following the Dutch model. Let’s see what, if any, palpable immediate changes take place.