Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category
This is a rambling story I began nearly seven years ago on one of the most singularly interesting days of travel I’ve ever experienced. I just now stumbled upon it and felt like putting it up.
Kabul/Dubai/Sharjah-At exactly 9am I arrive at Lt. General Hadi Khalid’s gated, sunlit home on one of central Kabul’s ubiquitous dust and rock backstreets. I’d been put in touch with Lt. Gen. Abdul Khalid by an Afghan friend I’d met during the initial post-9/11 war in the fall of 2001. That friend, Idrees, who now lives in Santa Monica where he works quietly on his PhD, was back in his homeland to visit family and gather material for his thesis. Idrees was a kind of stateless, post-modern intellectual who easily navigated between the corridors of American power and the strictures of his central Asian Islamic culture by which he was bound. He had arranged for me to interview the General for a Washington think tank that I was freelancing for as one of a string of clients I was trying to please under duress during a recent month-long stay in the Afghan capital.
Hadi Khalid had a falling out with President Hamid Karzai the previous summer and was now at loose ends, eager to talk and concerned about his personal security. A sinewy, refined Pashtun from Farah Province, Khalid welcomed me into his home with the best efforts of Afghanistan’s generous social code. We got on like two old friends as we tore into the minutiae of Afghanistan’s political and security relationships concerning the six nation-states that the country borders. Wanting to tackle the most difficult issue first in terms of obscurity, I launched into a line of questioning about the particulars of the Afghan-China border in the extreme northeast and we wound our way counter clockwise around the heart of Asia until we reached nearby Pakistan a short three hours later.
Near the end our time together, we were talking about a pilot programme of anti-insurgent local militias that was being tested in Maidan Wardak Province just west of Kabul. I’d heard from a visiting Indian reporter at my hotel that Obama’s top man in Kabul, the no nonsense General Stanley McChrystal had visited the area to have a look at this attempt at the Afghanization of “Obama’s Viet Nam.” I politely asked my very warm host if he could recall the name of the militia for my notes.
The name in English slipped his mind and he picked up a small, worn Nokia phone and quickly rung a friend of his that was still in government. I watching his face sink as the pace of his Dari accelerated and I picked out a few words here and there. The colleague he phoned to ask about something that was now utterly unimportant was telling him that two mutual friends of theirs had just been killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Laghman Province. It was not news yet, it was breaking reality. Khalid’s eyes winced and he shifted in his plush chair as a white hot sunbeam moved across the floor.
“At first we used to cry when our friends died. After thirty years of war, I cannot cry anymore. I have lost hundreds…thousands of friends.”
“I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” I did not know what else to say. This genteel, intelligent man invited me into his home to talk politics. Politics in the abstract. Politics in Afghanistan were often, most often, conducted at the point of a gun.
“These men were very good friends of mine.”
I felt at once awkward and sad. Afghanistan was tragic culture of neglect and stalled progress that I had developed an emotional attachment to over the years. Abused at whim by its neighbors and used as a hardware parking lot for the power projection of military technology innovators since the Great Game, Afghanistan seemed hopeless in the long term and dangerous in the short. But I grew to love the place nonetheless. It was time to leave.
As a foreign reporter in a war zone, there are psychological Berlin Walls that one builds between self and subject to remain above the fray and justify his presence in a place where in actuality he has no verifiable business and whose justifications are slim on the best of days. Khalid insisted his driver drop me back at the hotel for me to make it in time for checkout at noon. I had a flight to Dubai in six hours and still had errands to run. I told myself that what had just happened to the General’s friends out in Laghman must somehow be normal in context of a decades long, unrelenting jihad with constantly morphing internal and external stressors and that I should not question such things in order to make it out of the country by day’s end.
I had a ticket for the last flight of the day on a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways (defunct since 2011). The Pakistani travel agent who sold me the document said, when asked, that the airline was essentially a glorified money laundering operation owned by Kabul Bank.
“Sure. Kabul Bank has one of the only working ATMs in the city, I use it all the time.”
I then asked specifically who owned Kabul Bank. The affable travel agent chirped that a man named Sherkhan [Farnood] whom he described as “Only the biggest drugs dealer in Central Asia.” (Farnood would be jailed in 2014.)
“Oh OK” I replied. Again, normal and justifiable in the context of Afghanistan. Who was I to object to flying on a drugs trafficker’s for-profit airline? I mean, hey, we all need it to get to Dubai. Everyone in Afghanistan is complicit in everything in one way or another. Just by being in the country, you are often supporting businesses run by criminal networks.
After a normal hour’s delay on the tarmac and a short 2 ½ hour flight across the Persian Gulf, I landed back in what passed for civilization. Walking into the immigration queue in the infamous Terminal 2, I spotted several families from Somalia. I had looked at the wikipedia entry for Terminal 2 and remembered that an airline operated flights to the horn of Africa’s perennial basket case. I approach an unusually friendly Emirati immigration officer in his ironed, white dishdasha.
I handed him my passport.
“How long will you be in the UAE?”
“Oh just one day, inshallah. Wow, so you do have flights to Somalia from here. I’d read that you did. I see a lot of Somalis in line.”
He smiles back; “I think those people are from Nigeria. I don’t know anything about flights to Somalia.” Pound, he stamps a page in my passport with little room left.
“Uh no, they are definitely Somali. Don’t you see the women’s distinctive hijab?”
I walk away from the desk and look up at a flat panel monitor. Basra, Baghdad International, Hargeisa, Kish island, Djbouti, Kabul, Berbera, Khartoum, Peshawar and on. Terminal 2, the gate to hell. Jubba Airlines, Jupiter airways, Air Blue.
As I walk over to the baggage carousel, a panoply of people from failing states, outright failed states and nervous economic migrants wait for their twined and taped luggage. Sri Lankan Tamils, Swati Pashtuns, Uzbek elders in embroidered Turkic prayer caps and Terai Nepalis all stand around anxiously. The only other Westerners in the hall look to be mercenaries, often called “Security Contractors” or “PMC’s” (“Private Military Companies”) in the new perverse lexicon of militarized journalism. I see two young men who appear to be Somali with angular cheekbones and gaunt posture. Waiting for my bag, I sit next to them on a bench and interrupt.
“I beg your pardon. Are you guys from either Somalia [proper] or Somaliland?”
“Somaliland” the one with wire rim glasses says with a London accent.
“I see there are flights to your country up on the departures board. May I ask, how does one actually go there? I mean Somaliland is not an internationally recognized state but I see you have an airline. Where do you buy tickets?”
“You can go to any airline office here in Dubai that specializes in tickets to East Africa. A round trip costs maybe $270 US.”
My imagination is set alight. “When I show up at the airport what takes place? Is there a visa for a place doesn’t exist in the eyes of the world?”
“I think you have to pay $20 for a visa when you arrive and then you must change another $50 into shillings.”
“Are they ‘Somaliland’ Shillings as opposed to Somali Shillings they use down in Mogadishu? Do you have a separate currency for a separatist state?”
The two affable young men laugh. “You seem to know a lot about our country” the one in the brand new Asics hi tops says to me.
“Oh well, you know where I’m from, San Diego, is a major refugee resettlement area in America and we have quite a number of your people living there since Black Hawk Down. Plus I like to read a lot.”
Before I could ask their names, they jumped up upon seeing their luggage. “It was nice speaking with you sir but we must be going, you know, with how things are here.” And with that they disappeared into the anxious crowd.
I jumped into the taxi of an angry, exhausted Malayali man in the sweltering blast of stagnant heat that hits you as you exit air condition world. It seemed the majority of the UAE’s taxi men were Malayalis, that is Malayalam-speakers from coastal Kerala state on India’s far southwestern coast. The Malayalis were required to drive in 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week without a break. Many of them told me they could be fined simply for the infraction of stopping to relieve themselves. These men are disconnected from the young families they leave behind in their villages and live in constant fear of their Arab overlords, who were often migrant traffic police with the power to issue steep fines from Egypt and Jordan but as native Arabic speakers, they thus remained at a higher echelon in the UAE’s rigid ethnic migratory hierarchy.
Sitting in the dim dining area of what I thought was a completely empty hostel, a sullen looking man in a white dishdasha shuffles in with a small laptop and seats himself at the next table. I asked him if he wanted me to turn down the Simpsons DVD on my MacBook Pro so that he could watch an Arabic telenovela.
“No, no, I am fine” he said as he cranked up the volume on the TV overpowering my small speakers.
I gave up and shut my DVD application down and began a conversation. His name was Majid Hizam Rabie Alshamari and he was an Iraqi national who escaped Basra in 1997 to look for a better life anywhere but Clinton sanctioned Iraq. Educated as a chemical engineer during Iraq’s drawn out secular Ba’athist nightmare of the late Cold War epoch, Majid got a working in the United Arab Emirates Environmental Agency. He travels the length of the UAE’s desert border with Saudi Arabia checking in bound vehicles for hazardous and prohibited chemicals. It’s a dull position but Majid performs his task dutifully. But Majid was not fulfilled in any way. He begins tell me that in 2006, his family received a night letter from one of the Iranian-backed roving Shia street militias controlling most of majority Shi’ite Basra. The letter, issued at the height of the salafist -induced intra Islamic civil war in Iraq, stated in no uncertain terms, that as Sunnis, they were no longer welcome in Basra and they were gifted with the choice of flight or death.
The Alshamari’s were able to make it to Yemen and gain political asylum in Sana’a. Majid’s wife had divorced him some time ago and they had no children. The only thing keeping Majid in the UAE was his steady income and dynastic political stability. He wanted his family, he needed them but he told me he could not get a visa to be reunited with them in Yemen. He stayed in the few youth hostels that dotted the Emirates when his job required him to travel along the seven emirates’s customs posts.
When I half-heartedly suggested perhaps Basra was stable enough to make a grand return, Majid scoffed at the idea.
“There is nothing there for me or my family to go back to. No house, nothing. I want to go to Yemen and I want to then go to another country. I want to go to Canada.”
“Can I play something for you on my iTunes” I asked.
I swiveled around an opened up my laptop and scrolled down for some recordings I’d made over six years before that I dreamed of having translated. In May of 2003, I was running low on money in instantly exorbitant Baghdad. I saw a sign in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel that if I could make it to Najaf there was free accommodation for foreign journalists who wish to cover the Imad ul-Nabi (celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) undoubtedly underwritten by an Iranian-backed Shia party. I’d made crude recordings that I’d later digitized but had never had interpreted. I played them for Majid thinking, naively, that he would be surprised to hear something from his country on a random Westerner’s computer. He had a pained look about him. The thumps and slaps of a million plus Shia men pulsating through Najaf’s tiny lanes reverberated through the Sharjah Youth Hostel’s common area.
I understand a modicum of Arabic but was curious about one track I’d recorded in particular. I turned up the volume.
“They are saying “Haider, Haider, Haider” Majid piped up.
Haider was another holy nom of Imam Ali around whose shrine the men were marching toward. Imam Ali was the spiritual fountainhead of Shi’ism. Shia derives from Shiat’Ali or partisans of (Imam) Ali, the fourth caliph in orthodox Sunni Islam and the first Caliph in Shia Islam. The veneration of Ali ibn abu Talib and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the birth of Islam’s great schism over the succession of the caliphate in Islam’s volatile formative years.
The next afternoon before I headed out on a frivolous post-war zone party trip to the Greek Islands via a $100 flight from Sharjah to Athens, I waited in the hostel for Majid to come back from work. He gave me a sizable set of documents from his vast family in Sana’a. There were thirteen people in all. There faces gazed from a set of long expired asylum letters from the UNHCR’s head office in Yemen. In the middle was a photocopy of his recently deceased father’s passport. Majid looked on helplessly as he recounted how his father in another part of the world from the Alshamari’s ancestral home and that he could not even be there in Sana’a for his burial. The next document was what I guessed to be his Yemeni death certificate.
Over the course of 24 hours I’d engaged men from the globe’s then three most talked about war zones. This was a post-bipolar world incarnate.
New York- I spent a fascinating week down in central South Carolina at Shaw AFB lecturing on the socio-political and religio-cultural dynamics of the Levant. Within the sessions discussing the current state of affairs in the Arab and Kurdish world, it was impossible not to look back on Afghanistan in order to understand where we are today. I don’t have time to do a full on blog post but the talk at USARCENT had me wanting to quickly look at my archives.
I will never forget this time. It was my first experience in a full scale war. That stays with you forever.
New York- Skateboarders Kenny Reed and Louisa Menke have published a handsome edition of their photographs of skateboarding in Afghanistan in 2009 with Vanderbooks of Rotterdam. They will be hosting a book release party this Saturday May 2nd at the Marlborough Gallery’s Broom Street location in downtown Manhattan. Come one, come all!
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.