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Out the Window

July 23rd, 2014 No comments
Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with mind adrift on other places. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with my mind adrift in other places. Barcelona is obviously home to the age-old vociferous Catalan separatist movement but all in life is relative. In terms of veracity, when one looks at other realms of separatism in the east that invoke large-scale political violence and weave in acts of state-sponsoered terrorism, such movements in the heart of the West in Scotland, Flanders or here in Catalunya are quite tame. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.

I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.

As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.

Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. I put these up near the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. When a Triborough Bridge policeman asked me what the hell exactly was I doing, I reflexively responded that I was beautifying a blighted area. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Afghanistan: The Succession Crisis

July 14th, 2014 No comments
Ghani the technocrat. Posters of incumbent Hamid Karzai and opposition candidate Ashraf Ghani hang from a lamp post during the August 2009 election campaign. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Ghani the World Banker technocrat. Posters of then incumbent Hamid Karzai (whose fraudulent reelection was all but assured) and opposition candidate Ashraf Ghani hung from a lamp post during the August 2009 election campaign. In 2009 Ghani garnered about 3% of the vote and Abdullah was Karzai’s only real threat. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Persistent crises in Ukraine and Iraq, and now of course the reoccurring terror in Gaza, have overshadowed the succession impasse in Kabul to a good degree in terms of media focus. Afghanistan is at yet another perilous crossroads that has threatened to fissure the country in a manner that hasn’t been seen since 2001 when Mullah Omar’s Islamic Emirate abutted Burhanuddin Rabbbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Islamic State of Afghanistan.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 7.09.53 PMIn the mindset of the two warring parties, they theoretically both occupied the same administrative space. Going to the Afghan consulate in Peshawar in 2000 and going then to the Afghan embassy in Ankara in 2001, both sets of representatives would tell the visitor that their faction were Afghanistan’s rightful rulers. Although functionally on the ground the two political entities respectively operated failing large and small rump states. Fears have been running high in Afghanistan in 2014 as it tries to make the very awkward transition beyond the years of rule by Hamid Karzai who has effectively been in power continuously since the Bonn Agreement in December 2001.

I have a new article out in IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (subscription required) entitled “Electoral turmoil-Afghanistan’s Troubled Democracy Faces uncertain future.” Just after its publication John Kerry brokered a deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah’s campaigns that was hailed as a potential lifesaver for Afghanistan’s still nascent democracy.

Importantly Kerry’s hoped for diplomatic initiative may nail down the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that Karzai has obstinately refused to sign. The unsigned BSA has left Washington and its remaining allies’ Afghan policy in limbo for some time now.

What is being referred to as a “national unity government” may perhaps end up as a power sharing agreement in which presidential power is lessened and the post of prime minister is created to satisfy the ambitions of both striving candidates. And where does all this leave Mr. Karzai himself?

For now he is still Afghanistan’s head of state where he is all too comfortable after so many years of relative isolation. The newly elected president was meant to be inaugurated  on August 2, a now wholly unrealistic time frame. With the staggering vote recount prescribed to heal the rift between Ghani and Abdullah–who both view themselves is the election’s true winner– again, Karzai remains politically relevant in the interim.

The Salang Pass situated  Hindu Kush range in Baghlan Province. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

The Salang Pass situated Hindu Kush range in Baghlan Province is a critical land route juncture heading toward Pul-e-Khumri situated between northern and southern Afghanistan. This mountain pass represents a human, geographic and political fault line that has not properly healed since the internecine mujahideen battles of the 1990s . ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

One question that has yet to be answered is what will become of the current president once this situation is ultimately resolved? Will Karzai immediately flee to Dubai or Doha upon leaving the Arg (Presidential Palace)? Karzai has said he will stay home but in doing so he will risk retribution by the Taliban or being trotted about in court on corruption charges by an emboldened new government seeking credibility following yet another grossly flawed balloting process.

Lastly what will the new government look like and how should it act? After an uninterrupted period of post-Taliban Karzai rule, Afghanistan clearly has a long way to go to become a genuinely working democratic state. With that said, Afghans have made more progress with democratic mechanisms than many of their neighbors to the north in despotic Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan excepted).

Personally I hope the crisis created but the April 5 and June 14 votes can be amicably mended. But I am not as hopeful as Mr. Kerry for the time being.

Getting Up on the 4th of July

July 8th, 2014 No comments
Two images from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Two images from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, November 2001. Top is of a pair of T-62 tanks that were supplied the Jamiat-e-Islami/Shura-e-Nazar by the Russians via their proxies in Dushanbe. Below is a cluster of martyr’s graves between Taloqan and Kunduz that were killed in clashes with the Taliban, Sipah-e-Sahaba and the 055 Brigades that autumn. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- This past Friday evening while crowds were frantically swarming toward the rapidly developing Queens waterfront for the annual fireworks display celebrating American independence, I quietly maneuvered around the outer borough’s Long Island City neighborhood doing another photo installation. I pulled from my collection of old prints all of which are over a decade old.

My print of the Malwiyya tower of the Grand Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My print of the Malwiyya tower of the Grand Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

I wanted to do a small gesture to note the events and geographies that are behind where the United States stands in the world today. These places and the images that denote them are also a part of who I am in regard to my own personal history.

From left to right: Darra Adam Khel, November 2000, Peshawar, November, 2000, Salalah, Oman, November, 2000. ©2014 Derek henry Flood

From left to right: Craig ‘Bones’ Martin, a wilding Australian adventurer firing a Kalashnikov for a few hundred rupee thrill, Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan, November 2000; sunset and moonrise, Peshawar, Pakistan, November 2000; men playing the ancient game of Hawalis (known as Bao in East Africa), Salalah, Oman, November 2000. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My friend Charlie Rhyu jumping the waterfall-style fountain at the Jonas Salk Institute, La Jolla, California on July 4th, 2000. We had to do this shoot on the 4th as it was the only time we would not have been stopped by security.  ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My friend Charlie Rhyu jumping the waterfall-style fountain at the [Jonas] Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California on July 4th, 2000. We had to do this shoot on the 4th as it was the only time we would not have been stopped by security. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Gateway

June 10th, 2014 No comments
A close up of my art installation in Queen's, New York's Long Island City neighborhood. From left to right: 9/11 as seen from Brooklyn, the Arg-e-Bam (before its destruction in a 2003 earthquake), the USS Nimitz in Coronado, California shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Abassi masjid next to the Derawar Fort in the Cholistan Desert, Punjab Province, Pakistan.

A close up of my art installation in Queens, New York’s Long Island City neighborhood. From left to right: 9/11 as seen from Brooklyn, the Arg-e-Bam (before its destruction in a 2003 earthquake) in Kerman province, Iran, the USS Nimitz in Coronado, California shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Abassi masjid next to the Derawar Fort in the Cholistan Desert, Punjab Province, Pakistan.

New York-The other wekend I finally got around to a rather simple task that I’d wanted to do over a decade back. Before 9/11 I had a vision of doing guerrilla art installations around New York and other major Western cities to explain to the rest of the world (or at least urbanized Western city dwellers) about what was going on in Afghanistan well beyond the bellicosity of the Taliban movement and its international critics. Afghanistan at that time was incredibly isolated in terms of the global economy and its discordant political representation abroad. I wanted people to understand Afghanistan in a pre-1979 sense.

I was inspired by the splendid per-war imagery of a Vermont-based photographer named Luke Powell who’d shot vivid landscape images of Afghanistan’s valleys and monuments that conveyed a powerful message about the country’s history and culture in a way that no day-to-day news image of war and pestilence ever could. What was remarkable to me about Powell’s photographs was that I found pirated versions of his prints hanging in the bazaars of Peshawar, Chitral, Quetta and so forth. His images had credibility amongst Afghans themselves as well as Pakistani bazaaris.

I had wanted to emulate an updated version of this concept and combine it with the illicit poster art craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s to create and artistic meme with a message.  Beauty with a subtle educational agenda. I was in sporadic communication with the Taliban before 9/11 in hopes of them granting me access to the territory they controlled literally or nominally.

Imagery in the urban ether.

Imagery in the urban ether.

Then I woke up one morning in September and was suddenly inhaling ash pedaling as fast as I could muster to the World trade Center. In an instant I went from being a pragmatic idealist to a witness to the brutality of our living history. A series of rather absurd starkly bifurcated polemics would quickly follow: the 9/11-everything-changed-sts and the 9/11-nothing-changed-ists and the with-us or with-the-terrorists.

I still have not entirely given up on those original ideas, just procrastinated to the point of near abandonment. I was looking for something in a dusty drawer and came across these old prints from 2000-2003 which were beginning to yellow ever so slightly at the edges. I finally went to slap them up in a nondescript locale. Better late than never as is said.

I still hope to do a coffee table book of the best of these prints someday but rather than with an über cool northern Italian, London or Brooklyn-based publishing house I will most likely self-publish The Fabled City (as my project was known before 9/11). As I’m not even remotely close to being a famous photojournalist in that industry’s coveted inner circles, self-publishing via Blurb or something similar is probably the only way forward for me at this point. I see this initial installation as a step toward–a gateway if you will–that goal.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, America Tags:

A (Hoped for) Peaceful Leadership Transition for Afghanistan

April 25th, 2014 No comments
Abdullah Abdullah holding a press conference in the garrison town of Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar Province abutting Tajikistan in early November 2001. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah Abdullah holding a press conference in the garrison town of Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar Province abutting Tajikistan in early November 2001. Note the Massoud poster hovering in the background. I recall Abdullah as stoic while the overthrow of Mohammed Omar’s Islamic Emirate seemed far from an absolute certainty in those chaotic early days of the Western intervention in Afghanistan’s ongoing civil war. That stoicism has remained with him over the ensuing years. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the partial election results from the April 5 vote trickling out from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) along Jalalabad Road on the edge of Kabul favoring Abdullah Abdullah, the world may witness the first peaceful transition of state level power in Afghanistan in post-royalist  modern day history. Though Abdullah does not appear to have the absolute majority required under the Afghan constitution (50.01%), he maintains a healthy lead with an estimated 44.9% vs. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai trailing with 35.8% and Zalmay Rassoul far behind at around 11%. This will likely lead to a runoff election in late May as Abdullah and Ghani have no interest in forming a coalition as yet.

Hamid Karzai has effectively been in power since the conclusion of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 when he was perceived as the West’s man in Afghanistan. How times have changed.

As Karzai grew increasingly erratic, paranoid, and hostile to donor nations who had troops occupying his country over the years, he seemed to become a rather reclusive creature of the presidential palace in Kabul’s fortified green zone. If Abdullah were to take power that would upend the ethnic calculus of foreign diplomats and intelligence agencies following 9/11 that the head of state must hail from a Pashtun tribe, preferably from the south. Abdullah, while being half Pashtun, is generally thought of simply as a Tajik with his partnership with Massoud that painfully ended on September 9, 2001.

The Americans and their allies felt that ethnicity should trump other traits in Afghanistan in order to placate the agrarian populace from whom the Taliban emanated in the mid-1990s. Similarly, these same people strongly felt that the leader of a post-Saddam Iraq must be a Shia in order to properly represent that country’s oppressed majority. In that regard, the two principle democracy export projects were not genuinely democratic at all. If these disastrous neoconservative legacy projects had been truly democratic in nature, than an Uzbek or Tajik should have been able to theoretically be the leader of Afghanistan and a Kurd or Assyrian the leader of Iraq. Instead, American and various participating EU member states’ policies did nothing but reinforce preexisting notions about what should be the mother tongue of the imposed national leader or what sect he must belong to in order  to satisfy the electorate.

Hazara village girls come to greet Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in Ghazni province with the Afghan airforce to campaign in remote ethnic Hazara villages. Abdullah is the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the 20th August elections.

School girls come to greet Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in Ghazni Province as the rickety the Afghan air force ferried his campaign into remote ethnic Hazara villages in Soviet behemoths. Abdullah was the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 election. Today with Mr. Karzai about to make his formal exit from Afghan politics, Abdullah may become Afghanistan’s new president. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah on the campaign trail in Daikundi Province, August 11, 2009. Though the Afghan conflict is primarily painted along ethno-linguistic lines in terms of warlords and their patronage ethnic systems, there is also the Islamic schism whereby politicos from Kabul try and curry favor to get out he Shia vote. Not nearly as stark a sectarian conflict as that in Iraq, for those familiar with the history of 1990s Afghanistan, the sectarian factor played an important role in the conflict. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah on the campaign trail in Ghazni Province, in the Hazarajat region August 11, 2009. Though the Afghan conflict is primarily painted along ethno-linguistic lines in terms of warlords and their corresponding patronage systems, there is also the Islamic schism whereby politicos from Kabul try and curry favor to get out the Shia vote. Not nearly as stark a sectarian conflict as that in Iraq, for those familiar with the history of 1990s Afghanistan, the sectarian factor played an important role in the conflict. In Ghazni, ethnic and sectarian interests overlap. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

For Washington, moving past Karzai is critical in light of its failure to reach a Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO n=unable to hammer out a Status of Forces Agreement regarding the presence of foreign troops beyond the slated withdrawal date come the end of the current year. Both Abdullah (above) and Ghani (below) have indicated they will sign such agreements if in power. For all of the effort that has been put forth and lives lost, the Taliban have never been effectively quelled. The U.S. may be tamping down its planned-for forces numbers from 10,000 troops to possibly closer to 5,000 or less according to Reuters.

One should hope that a new leader will bring a modicum of progression to Afghanistan’s internecine affairs. But Abdullah was Massoud’s deputy-the Taliban’s archenemy on the battlefield-and Mohammed Omar is still at large unlike bin Laden and it is unlikely his most strident foes will have forgotten that. Look what they did to Burhanuddin Rabbani after all?  Almost exactly a decade on from the killing of Massoud by Maghrebi jihadis in Khoja Bahauddin, a Taliban turban bomber struck the former president. Grievances are seldom forgotten, particularly when truth and reconciliation have never been achieved in a land as pained as this one.

Second place presidential candidate and former World Banker Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaking at a televised debate in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel on August 10, 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Second place presidential candidate and former World Banker Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaking at a televised debate in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel on August 10, 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

For there was never unanimity among relevant players (Pakistan, and even Iran in certain circumstances) about how Afghanistan should move forward beyond the formal collapse of their Kandahar-based movement in November-December 2001. This goes into massive geopolitical tangents about not having a proper mechanism to resolve once and for all the simmering Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India to say nothing of the Kashmiris themselves and China and the enmity between Iran and Pakistan. With bizarrely-ruled Turkmenistan officially ‘neutral’ and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in varying degrees of stultified dictatorship, Afghanistan is and will remain a geopolitical laboratory for some time to come.

But if it can move beyond its leader in power since January 2002, that will be a step beyond the predicament in Iraq where Maliki is seeking the 3rd term in a vote a few days from the time of this writing that may likely further ensconce the bloodletting there while hindering political progress verging on the dictatorial.

Tajikistan's Emonali Rahmon urges/implores his subject-citizens to invest in his Rogun Dam mega hydroelectric project. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

Tajikistan’s Emonali Rahmon urges/implores his subject-citizens to invest in his Rogun Dam mega hydroelectric project, infuriating Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov in the process. With Tajikistan still being such a weak nation-state since my first visit in 2001, it cannot orchestrate any effective foreign policy towards its southern neighbor. This in my view is to Dushanbe’s great detriment. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

The measures of progress in Afghanistan can be interpreted through a wide array of prisms. Below I am using the images below to make a simplistic,  unscientific contrast based on my own frustrations derived from visual observations rather than data points.

Does progress establish order or is preexisting order necessary to foment progress?

What is the connection between the disparate images below? The plot to destroy the World Trade Center and the massacre of the Shia Hazara people of central and northern Afghanistan stemmed from parallel jihadi milieus operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan simultaneously-Deobandi Taliban and Salafi Arab. So a shiny new tower rising from the ashes in lower Manhattan and the Hazara living in relative peace are in fact very much related imagery.

Call it an unfair or crude comparison perhaps but the contrast between the reconfiguring of New York's World Trade Center, as painfully and unnecessarily long as it has been taking. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Call it an unfair or crude comparison perhaps, but the contrast between the reconfiguring of New York’s World Trade Center site, as painfully and unnecessarily long as it has been taking (think how fast a similar feat would have been accomplished in Dubai or Shanghai without unions or human rights for laborers factoring in), with how much money has been poured into Afghanistan and how little has been done there with relation to infrastructure and it is quite simply a pathetic affair. So many dusty roads in Kabul are still not even paved. Yes a degree of progress has been made in Afghanistan but it does not amount to much in relation to what has been donated/grafted/spent. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Take Daykundi Province in central Afghanistan. So many years after America and the West felt compelled to enter Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, we had to go there by helicopter because roads were either nonexistent or entirely insecure. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Take Daykundi Province in central Afghanistan for example. So many years after America and the West felt compelled to enter Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, we had to go there by helicopter because roads were either nonexistent or entirely insecure. That leaves the country reliant on the old, insurgent ridden ring road that isolates the Hazarajat and undermines economic integration with neighboring states. Granted its physical geography certainly plays a role, but the Soviets engineered the Salang tunnel after all. Progress is possible if order were to be enabled. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, America, Central Asia Tags:

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar 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.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

In Darkness

January 24th, 2014 No comments
Murad Mazaev, right, in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad Mazaev, right, in on a dim , rainy evening in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. Murad died near Aleppo, Syria in late May of last year. I was shocked to learn someone I once knew perished apparently as a salafi shaheed in war not concerning his own people. Murad had been living in Sweden as a refugee but decided to leave his young family and seek martyrdom in the war against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- While concluding a nearly month-long research trip to the Republic of Georgia in October, on my final night in Tbilisi I met with an analyst from Georgia’s MFA to discuss current trends in Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus and how those trends are currently tied to the civil war in Syria. As we concluded our dinner at a traditional restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, my contact informed me that a Chechen filmmaker called Murad Mazaev I once knew back in 2002 had died months earlier in northern Syria. I was taken aback and disturbed by this bit of information and sought to dig deeper once I returned to the United States.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 9.31.22 PMMy Georgian contact pondered that Murad may have died trying to work as a documentarian but it began to seem more and more like he died as a jihadi perhaps fighting for Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, a constituent movement of ISIL or ISIL proper. Who knows? When I tried to contact his former filmmaking partner in Canada about the circumstances under which Murad died, he replied “why are you asking me about this?” (I think they had had a falling out years previously) When I tried to contact a Chechen friend of Murad’s in Stockholm looking for answers about what motivated him to leave the cold comforts of Sweden, no reply.

As I began working on an article on the topic for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I decided to weave Murad’s tragic tale of refuge, asylum and ultimately doomed salafi jihad, into my work. Murad never struck me as the type to pick up arms. Sure he was a die hard Chechen nationalist and devout Muslim, but a jihadi abandoning his young family to seek martyrdom in Syria? That was hard for me to digest.

Murad and I had last been in touch in the autumn of 2010 via email. In his very broken English he informed me that he was living in Sweden but was not then currently still pursuing his dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. He struck me as being enamored of the mujahideen when we first met, but still an erudite kid from Grozny who wouldn’t be very effective marching through a battlefield with a Kalashnikov rather than a camera,

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. He was nervous if the wrong people found out he had smuggled a Western journalist into the territory that was out of the hands of then President Eduard Shevardnadze. I’ll never forget Murad putting a traditional Chechen cap on my head as we boarded a bus from Akhmeta to Duisi. I did my best to blend in when a Georgian soldier boarded the bus asking “dokumenta!” ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Over eleven years on I revisited the school in Duisi which had become the Roddy Scott Foundation.

Over eleven years on I revisited this school in Duisi which was now the home of the the Roddy Scott Foundation. Roddy was an English journalist who had known Murad and later traversed the Greater Caucasus range with a unit of Ruslan Gelayev’s mujahideen with Murad’s knowledge. He was then killed by a Russian sniper in the town of Galashki in the Republic of Ingushetia.

Murad’s proudest achievement was making the world’s first Chechen-language film…and with genuine mujahideen from Ruslan ‘Hamzat’ Gelayev’s Pankisi-based unit as extras no less. It was partly through meeting Murad in Tbilisi nearly a dozen years ago that I became fascinated by the struggle for Chechnya and the oppressed people of the Caucasus who suffered wildly under the Czars, Stalin all the way to Yeltsin and Putin. Murad acted as my fixer in meeting the Chechen refugees inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge when it was making headlines around the world but few journalists were actually venturing there.

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechen national liberation movement. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechnya’s national liberation movement. Maskhadov was killed by Russian federal forces in March 2005.  At the time, the Guardian labeled Maskhadov “Chechnya’s Arafat.”As nationalism waned, salafism became the dominant ideology ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

But in Chechnya as the war there has mercilessly ground on since it first began in the mid-1990s, the ideology powering the fight has transitioned from Sufi-inflected Chechen nationalism to destructive transnational salafism. No longer was merely an independent Chechen republic the goal, but the proclamation of an Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) spanning from the shores of the Caspian to the rocky beaches of the Black Sea.

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought safety there. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking flat bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought shelter there from relentless Russian aggression and the ensuing guerrilla warfare that attempted to counter it. He wanted the world to know of the suffering of his people. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Rustam Gelayev's aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria in August 2012. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I revisited Pankisi again in 2013, it was not to learn about foreign militants traveling north to wage jihad in Chechnya, but to learn about who the next generation of Chechens were going in the opposite direction to fight and die in Syria. Rustam Gelayev’s aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria at the age of 24 in August 2012. Above is a very different image of a slightly younger Rustam than the one that circulated on twitter of him holding a rifle presumably in Aleppo Governorate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I was back in Pankisi in October to meet with members of the Gelayev family to find out their version of events surrounding the death of Ruslan’s son, Rustam in Syria in mid-August 2012, no one admitted to remembering Murad but when I mentioned Roddy their eyes lit up. Roddy’s parents, Robin and Stina Scott set up the Roddy Scott Foundation to teach English to the youth of Pankisi in their effusive son’s memory. Sadly, Murad sought to put Chechnya on the map in terms of global conscience but he was killed in Syria in what remain murky circumstances. From my canvassing of residents in Duisi, Jokolo and Birkiani, no one seemed to remember his contribution to collective Chechen culture.

What the deaths of Murad and Rustam do indicate is the significant fact that Chechens are now participants in a war outside the North Caucasus. For those of us who covered the wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and war theaters elsewhere after 9/11 where Chechens were never proven to have fought, this feels like a sea change.

On another very grim note, I belatedly found out that someone whose work I really admired died in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul.

 Alexandros Petersen who was a colleague of my colleague Rafaello Pantucci was murdered in the recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan. Petersen was an analyst of big-think Eurasian geopolitics in the style of Sir Halford Mackinder and authored The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West which I’ve had in my Amazon queue for some time now and been meaning to read. Now I must. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, we wrote for the same D.C. think-tank where I once served as an editor and analyst a few years ago. We are now less one brilliant person who went to great lengths to understand and explain the geopolitical trends shaping today’s world. For shame.

When I first heard about the Taliban operation in the Afghan capital, I recalled spending a fun evening at the Levantine hangout with journalist Jason Motlagh and another guy based in Bangkok who talked about his mission of interviewing Viktor Bout multiple time in a Thai cell before Bout was extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. The latter guy-whose name I don’t remember five years later-and another journo and I walked from WAK all the way back to Shar-e-Nau at about 2 a.m. and I, in a sort of gallows humor, half joked, “we couldn’t do this in Baghdad” (i.e. walk home in the middle of the night). That was back in 2009. Things got worse as that year went on with the attack on the UN compound that September and suicide bomb walls going up around the Indian embassy and so forth.

Are things arguably worse now in 2014? It’s tough to say from sitting here in the West. But I can say this much-I may go back to the old school routine of donning a shalwar kameez and beard when I go back to Afghanistan. Kabul has often been considered a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan in terms of its comparative cosmopolitanism in relation to life in the provinces but it is still Afghanistan. The Taliban want to let the world know that they retain the ability to strike at will anytime, anywhere in the country.

In other news, I have a photo contribution in the new issue of The Washingtonian in the article titled This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story by Asra Q. Nomani. My image is that of Nomani and Pearl’s home in Karachi’s tony Defence Housing Authority (DHA).