Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
Barcelona- Proud to announce that I have to lead story in this month’s issue of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (Subscribers only). I travelled along a section of the so-called “Green Line” that divides Iraqi Kurdistan from Arab-majority Iraq. Iraq’s Green Line was established after the 1990-1991 Gulf War when the northern no-fly zone was implemented. Run out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, the no-fly zone enforced above the 36th parallel was known as Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Provide Comfort II (which then became Operation Northern Watch). It allowed for the setting up of a de facto Kurdish administration divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Western air power in the Clinton years let that harden into what would eventually become the Kurdistan Regional Government run by both of the major Iraqi Kurdish dynastic parties. When the United States military burst through the hulking sand berms separating Iraq from Kuwait on March 19-20 2003, U.S. Special Forces teamed up with Peshmerga fighters to not only tackle Ansar al-Islam’s base along the Iranian border but also to gain a foothold in cities like Mosul and Kirkuk when Turkey’s parliament refused the Pentagon the right to transit Turkish territory to topple the government in Baghdad.
What I found on my exploration along the former Green Line is that the KRG is creating ground realities while the federal government helmed by Nuri al-Maliki can’t quite get its act together regarding the status of disputed territories along this fluid internal border. Part of why the demarcation of the Green Line matters so much is that when there are oil or gas blocks in these lands and hence potentially great wealth to be attained by whomever controls them, a relict of 1990s political geography is now of utmost importance.
A group of Peshmerga fighters proudly boasted to me that their makeshift little bunker was south of the old Green Line. And with a weak federal security force combined with Kurdish nationalism, this seemed to really mean something. Neither side appears ready to forge a genuine settlement on the disputed territories meanwhile energy multinationals are eager to get their hands on as yet undeveloped resources.
Thus far both Erbil and Baghdad have been fairly intransigent on their respective oil development policies. Both have made stark statements that oil companies shouldn’t work in both Kurdistan and southern Iraq. They should be forced to pick sides. However the exploration by ExxonMobil may alter this tense arrangement.
Along this northwest to southeast line, the Kurds and the Iraqi Army did not seem to be allies but eyeing each other as well as looking for infiltrators from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As the United States and France contemplate launching bombing raids to help topple to Ba’athist regime in Damascus, it would behoove leaders in Washington and Paris to look at the legacy of their involvement in Iraq (pre-2003 France was involved in Operation Provide Comfort). Toppling a dictatorship is the relatively easy part of the equation.
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.
New York- I have a new article out on how the ongoing war in Syria is helping stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq that are manifesting themselves in the form of daily suicide bombings, shootings, and dual massive AQ jailbreaks. My article examines how the unrelenting carnage in Syria has not only taken the place of Iraq in the global media spotlight, but is also directly fueling renewed conflict in Iraq itself. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has now added “ash-Sham” (“the Levant”-i.e. Syria and perhaps they’re including Lebanon as well). So the ISI is now the ISIS. Sunni Salafism has only expanded in Syria as the fractious umbrella of the Free Syrian Army is simply a much less efficient fighting force than their jihadi counterparts.
At the same time, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shia groups from Iraq are officially sending in fighters to both the front line in places like al-Qusayr and to protect Shia holy places like the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus and When the Sayyida Zainab site is perceived as threatened, it makes for a an easily rallying call for Shia on either side of Syria to mobilize to protect and defend not only the religious pilgrimage site, but also the Assad regime that controls the territory such a site rests on.
Both Salafi-jihadis and more Qom-oriented activist Shia have been working to unite Syria and Iraq as a single battleground. Though there are important schisms within the Shia perspective such as Najaf vs. Qom and creating a Sunni Islamic state within borders of a finite post-colonial nation-state vs. an idealized borderless caliphate, it cannot be denied or played down that the wars in Syria and Iraq are now inextricably linked. And Lebanon has been drawn in in full view in terms of sub-state or non-state groups protecting what the believe are their interests in Syria.
This is not at all to suggest there aren’t very local contexts underlying the individual decisions of specific militant movements on when to act and how to pursue their goals. Within the two respective wars there has been for some time been speculation about whether the more dominant phenomena is competition between groups or cooperation between them based on clearly drawn ideological lines. But when one goes to the trouble (or risk) of taking an on the ground look, the old adage tends to ring true that the situations are neither black nor white.
Many Western analysts believe in taking stands based on what stands for empirical data in what are quite confusing battle fronts in reality and then sticking by said positions, perhaps engaging in a passive-agressive tête-à-tête via social media rather than admit they made need to adjust their stance in the face of a new ground reality. Iraq and Syria are deeply complex places plagued by schism upon schism whether in the realms of theology or politics. These dynamics are fluid and will remain so with even the most nimble global shuttle diplomat having neither the knowledge nor the resources to quell them. The United States may have pulled nearly all of its troops out of Iraq in December 2011 but the war is far from over.
New York- It’s been twenty long years since Eyad Ismail, Ramzi Yousef and co drove that Ford Econoline Ryder rental van through the Holland Tunnel from Jersey City and parked a massive urea urea nitrate bomb in the parking garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Today was a quiet anniversary of an event largely forlorn in America’s national collective conscience in the shadow of the much more dramatic 9/11 attacks.
That wintry day two decades ago, the United States faced the beginning of a poorly outlined struggle against the decentralized doctrinal ideology of al-Salafiyya-al-Jihadiyya [Salafi-jihad]-a form of Islamism that articulates violent means to achieve political gains.
One of the points about the Sunni jihadi attack on New York in the winter of 1993 is that it marked an unexpected pivot from the perceived threat of highly centralized millenarian Shia revolutionaries and resistance terrorism epitomized by the rise of the clerical regime in Iran in 1979 and the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.
This suited America’s so-called ‘moderate’ Sunni or Sunni-dominated allied nation-states just fine. These regimes could be free to espouse anything from the export of the Wahhabiyya strain of Salafism that serves at the state theology in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Marxist-tinged radical Arab socialism emblematic of the Hizb-al-Ba’ath (Ba’ath Party) or the post-Nasserist-turned-personality cult regimes of Egypt and the Maghreb. That was of course until these ideas either collided with American foreign policy as in the case of Iraq or collapsed under their own weight as in the case of Tunisia.
A friend who was stationed for the U.S. State Department in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province-where the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing took place-and later Bahrain, privately hinted to me this view of the Shia threat had changed little at least in some official channels even while the U.S. was propping up a succession of Shia prime ministers in its Iraq project and its Special Forces had fought alongside Shia irregulars to oust the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
But while the United States has done a great deal to degrade Ba’athism by invading Iraq in both 1991 and 2003 and aiding Syrian rebels bent on demolishing the Ba’ath in Syria at present, for instance, American foreign policy still remains fixated on Iran and Hezbollah and would still not dare challenge the vitriolic Wahhabism prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula. Though it is a fool’s errand to pit absolutist wings of Islam’s great schism against one another for purely hypothetical purposes, it has been transnational Salafism that has attacked the American homeland in 1993 and 2001 and in East Africa in 1998 and Yemen in 2000. If the two fronts of radical Islamism were simplistically made analogous to the space race, Khomeini may have successfully launched Sputnik first, but it was bin Laden who put a man on the moon.
We should be reminded that the 1993 attack was connected to 9/11 through the common thread of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (KSM as he came to be referred to in intelligence jargon-inflected reporting) who is currently in the pre-trial hearing phase of the never ending, apparently never closing saga at the sweltering detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Though Yousef and the other 1993 plotters were not known to be formally pledged members of a then fairly embryonic al-Qaeda, they certainly were connected to the Peshawar-based jihadi nexus borne out of the CIA and Saudi funded anti-Soviet jihad that took place west of the Durand Line. The radicalization of the Masjid al-Farooq in Brooklyn and its refugee center-cum-Office of Services set-up visited by Abdullah Azzam was a definite factor in the 1993 plot. While the trial of the five accused al-Qaeda men in Cuba (KSM, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi) is referred to by the United States government as a “9/11 trial” In sense, it dates back the events of 1992-1993 in Brooklyn and Jersey CIty involving the men linked to KSM and the original plot against New York City.
Though there are conflicts about some of the precise specifics, one of Omar Abdel Rahman’s sons, Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman was nabbed (by the CIA, the Pakistanis or a mix of the two) in Quetta, Pakistan around the time of KSM’s apprehension when Pakistani authorities were hunting KSM. Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman is now a free man back at home in Egypt after having been listed as one of the CIA’s “ghost prisoners” (as was KSM) in 2005. He was released by the Mubarak regime in 2010.
KSM was apprehended in Rawalpindi, Pakistan ten years ago (though alternate sources may say he was actually captured in Quetta a month prior and the news of his arrest delayed by Pakistani authorities). His and four other co-conspirators’ painfully deliberating preliminary hearings has been described as being in “discord.” From what information does come out of the proceedings, it has partly the air of a circus what with Walid bin Attash (a.k.a. Khallad) making multiple outbursts about violations of attorney-client privilege and his defense lawyer wrapped in “a black abaya out of respect to the religious sensibilities of her client” according to a Guardian report.
The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg describes the awkward goings on at Guantánamo as primarily focused on the ways in which the five suspects were captured and the conditions under which they were detained before being exfiltrated from “black sites” to the American naval base on Cuba’s southeastern coast. In other words, these proceedings are not about 9/11 .
New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.
This spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.
The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’
Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….
The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.
Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.
Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.
Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.
New York- In the summer of 1999 I embarked on an ambitious backpacking trip attempting to travel from London to Lahore entirely overland/water. The second to last leg of this rambling adventure was securing a visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the preferred exonym of the country’s post-1979 clerical revolutionary rulers. I anxiously applied for a transit visa (a tourist visa would’ve been much harder to come by at the time) at the Iranian embassy in Ankara and was gruffly informed the process could take as long as several weeks-which seemed like an eternity at that age.
In the interim I travelled extensively around southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan, skirting along the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Azeri, and Armenian borderlands. I was just scratching the surface of both Eurasia’s utterly complex, divisive histories and my interest in photography. For I wanted not to be a photojournalist showing the world bursting at the seems, but a photographer using gorgeous imagery composed of diverse human and physical geography that emphasized man’s commonalities.
If I had envisioned myself as a war correspondent then I would have gotten myself into Kosovo that summer, rather than giving the Balkan conflict a very wide berth in circumambulating through the Italian peninsula when traveling from Budapest to Athens. To me at the time, wars were transitory events and historical epochs seemed eternal.
After 15 days of traveling through vast swaths of Turkey completely devoid of the hordes of ANZAC backpackers frolicking in Istanbul and its party-all-the-time West on the notorious Fez Bus circuit, I was finally granted an Iranian visa. But with my fall university semester quickly on the horizon back out in San Diego and having already traveled to Doğubeyazıt on the Turkey-Iran border, I had to fly to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport in order to save time and have enough days to travel through nearly all of Pakistan afterward and return to California in time to sign up for that fall’s classes.
Arriving in Tehran, I then embarked on a massive road tour via the country’s bus network that would eventually have me riding in a Balochi smuggler’s Toyota Hi-lux truck to the Mirjaveh/Taftan border and crossing a mind-blowing civilizational boundary separating the Iranian plateau from South Asia on foot. There are richer elements to this story but I am leaving them in my long form, as yet unpublished book project. I stumbled on these photos while working on another project and felt like throwing up a few images to remind myself of this hopeful time period if nothing else.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.