Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category
New York- An image I shot back in 2008 in Karachi was employed to tell the tragic story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s disappearance and murder in the early days of the War on Terror. The programme, titled Witness: Remembering Daniel Pearl’s murder aired on BBC on 17 February.
Pearl’s gruesome beheading was a watershed moment in the post-9/11 period. More than two years on, the beheadings of Nick Berg in Iraq and Paul Johnson in Riyadh signaled a spate of horrific online violence where the internet became a conduit devoid of the most fundamental human dignity. With the recent beheading videos coming out of Syria, the Pearl case now in hindsight appears to have been a template, albeit a comparatively more elaborate plot, for the terror that was to come. Orchestrating such brazen executions in the cause of supposed ‘defensive’ jihad in salafi Islam seems to have become a norm.
I remember being gripped by the Pearl case after returning home from covering the war in Afghanistan and hoping against hope for a positive outcome. I’d done my university thesis in Pakistan in late 2000 which provided me with the last glimpse of the ummah before Afghanistan. I’d mixed with petty traders, warm tailors, drug dealing scoundrels with wild stories to tell from the frontier, gem stone smugglers, and gun runners. My memory of the country was fond. The hostage drama that unfolded had me reexamining my own experiences in the country.
Then in 2008 I walked in his and the plotters footsteps in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi to create the visual narrative for a report being done in Washington by a student group at Georgetown University. When it was finally published in January 2011, I barely had a moment to reflect upon it as the Arab uprisings were in full force, leading me to cover the war in Libya.
More of my images and the completed projected can be viewed in a free e-book called The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl.
Barcelona- Today is just another 9/11 anniversary it seems. On twitter, everyone is consumed by Obama’s speech last night vowing to “destroy” the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The brutality of al-Qaeda has been rhetorically lessened with foolish tracts saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s movement because AQ 1.0 was put off by IS’s even harsher methods as if there has been a collective forgetting of what al-Qaeda and its allies have done over the years. This is an absurd assertion.
The split is based more on divisive interpretations of salafi ideology, a supreme contest of egos within a very violent subculture, and plain envy. Bin Laden was not primarily a takfiri (one who maintains the authority to declare lesser Muslims or minorities within its reach ‘apostates’) but in his alliance with the Deobandi Taliban he was simultaneously focused on both the near and far enemies. Baghdadi has thus far been more narrowly focused in constructing his personality cult whereby the desired targets of IS’s aggression are the Shia and other related sects and those affiliated with regional regimes they deem worthy of death. To say one group is more ‘brutal’ than the other is a futile comparison. It is far more about the ebb and flow on the centers of power within trends in global militancy than a zero sum game.
Here in Barcelona, it’s Onze de Setembre (National Day of Catalonia), a celebration of Catalan martyrdom that is experienced as hyper localized nationalism. Drums beat, scooters beep and a rivalry in the heart of the first world rages on.
To me, it is simply 9/11.
For a solid decade I would return from wherever I was in the world to New York to document the goings on at the World Trade Center which for many years was referred to simply as ‘Ground Zero.’ For all of the anniversaries I attended in order to document, I did so without accreditation except for the final one–the 10th–when I applied for permission from the Bloomberg administration to photograph the two visiting presidents. That last few years since the 2011 shoot, I haven’t returned to the World Trade Center.
Yesterday here in Catalunya it was in fact the furthest thing from my mind as I hung out with friends at the beach in Barceloneta. Nor did I think about the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud either. Things that I have felt and witnessed and people I once knew who have died have since been enveloped into history as once so viscerally palpable anniversaries have often morphed into more ordinary days as the healing current of time passes by.
We often think of history in a linear form comprised of a 365 day year based on the Gregorian calendar with momentous anniversaries in one-year increments up until the 5th year and in five year increments thereafter (and later potentially being noted in 10 year increments) i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th anniversaries being momentous and then culminating (for now) at the 10th which forms a time capsule known as a ‘decade.’
But for the people directly affected, is today’s 13th anniversary any less significant than the 1st back in 2002, the 5th in 2006 or the 10th in 2011? History as we live it is a living, breathing organism. Time never does stand still. I may be in the fever of minority linguistic politics here along the western Mediterranean as if Franco died yesterday but I cannot escape the track in which the events that day 13 years ago defined the course of my adult life. Though I no longer rush back to New York to document the day, it will forever remain in my aching heart.
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…
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Personally, 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.
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.”
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.