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Ten Years On, Militant Salafism and Millenarian Shi’ism Conflating Iraq and Syria Wars

July 23rd, 2013 No comments
Humvee-web

On the road outside Nasiriyah following an American Humvee, May 2003. The gulf in understanding between Iraqis and their newly arrived American interlopers was visibly evident in the differences in driving styles and bizarre hand gestures made toward locals by the U.S. soldiers. From the very beginning, the Office of Special Plans ambitious Iraq project appeared doomed, at least in my personal observations. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have a new article out on how the ongoing war in Syria is helping stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq that are manifesting themselves in the form of daily suicide bombings, shootings, and dual massive AQ jailbreaks. My article examines how the unrelenting carnage in Syria has not only taken the place of Iraq in the global media spotlight, but is also directly fueling renewed conflict in Iraq itself. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has now added “ash-Sham” (“the Levant”-i.e. Syria and perhaps they’re including Lebanon as well). So the ISI is now the ISIS. Sunni Salafism has only expanded in Syria as the fractious umbrella of the Free Syrian Army is simply a much less efficient fighting force than their jihadi counterparts.

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 2.36.27 PM At the same time, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shia groups from Iraq are officially sending in fighters to both the front line in places like al-Qusayr and to protect Shia holy places like the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus and When the Sayyida Zainab site is perceived as threatened, it makes for a an easily rallying call for Shia on either side of Syria to mobilize to protect and defend not only the religious pilgrimage site, but also the Assad regime that controls the territory such a site rests on.

Both Salafi-jihadis and more Qom-oriented activist Shia have been working to unite Syria and Iraq as a single battleground. Though there are important schisms within the Shia perspective such as Najaf vs. Qom and creating a Sunni Islamic state within borders of a finite post-colonial nation-state vs. an idealized borderless caliphate, it cannot be denied or played down that the wars in Syria and Iraq are now inextricably linked. And Lebanon has been drawn in in full view in terms of sub-state or non-state groups protecting what the believe are their interests in Syria.

Najaf Iraq 2003 from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

This is not at all to suggest there aren’t very local contexts underlying the individual decisions of specific militant movements on when to act and how to pursue their goals. Within the two respective wars there has been for some time been speculation about whether the more dominant phenomena is competition between groups or cooperation between them based on clearly drawn ideological lines. But when one goes to the trouble (or risk) of taking an on the ground look, the old adage tends to ring true that the situations are neither black nor white.

A pre-World War II atlas map of Iraq from my personnel collection. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A pre-World War II atlas map of Iraq from my personnal collection. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Many Western analysts believe in taking stands based on what stands for empirical data in what are quite confusing battle fronts in reality and then sticking by said positions, perhaps engaging in a passive-agressive tête-à-tête via social media rather than admit they made need to adjust their stance in the face of a new ground reality. Iraq and Syria are deeply complex places plagued by schism upon schism whether in the realms of theology or politics. These dynamics are fluid and will remain so with even the most nimble global shuttle diplomat having neither the knowledge nor the resources to quell them. The United States may have pulled nearly all of its troops out of Iraq in December 2011 but the war is far from over.

Najaf poster-web

Outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, a young Shia hoists a poster of Imam Hussein cradling his infant son on a white horse during the battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Mic man-web

Groups from all over Iraq (and Iran) came to celebrate Mawlid un-Nabi (the Prophet’s birthday). Each one seemed to have a megaphone rocking chant leader urging his followers to pious elation. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

iraqi boys play atop a destroyed Soviet BTR armored personnel carrier on the road between Nasiriyah and Najaf. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

iraqi boys play atop a destroyed Soviet BTR armored personnel carrier on the road between Nasiriyah and Najaf. I sometimes reflect back and wonder what became of the people I photographed a decade ago. I fear to think what may have happened to some of them. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

A Decade of War and Peace

August 20th, 2012 No comments


Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.

Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah preparing to depart for Ghazni province with the Afghan airforce to campaign in remote ethnic Hazara villages. Abdullah was the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 elections. On the right stands a Shi’ite Seyyid accompanying him to Shia population centers for campaign credibility. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.

No grand conspiracy here, just plain, old awful war. On August 15, 2006, a Lebanese ambulance lay destroyed by what appeared to be an Israeli missile strike (quite possibly a drone strike or SPIKE anti-tank missile) outside of Sidon in southern Lebanon, an irrefutable violation of the Geneva Conventions on war crimes. Pro-Likud right-wing bloggers would dare say scenes like these were part of elaborate false flag operations by Hezbollah or photoshop masterpieces by left-wing or pro-Hezbollah journalists meant to demonize the Israel Defense Forces. This ambulance was not part of the so-called “ambulance controversy” nor am I aware that this particular wreckage appeared anywhere in the international media at the time.  ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

TWD Inside Free Syria

January 31st, 2012 No comments

Man vs War. I was so ill prepared for this trek. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.

At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.

In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.

The Changing Strategic Gravity of Al-Qaeda DVD

January 6th, 2010 No comments

Afghanistan's Lt. General Abdul Hadi Khalid informs the audience in Washington of his decades long experience serving in various incarnations of his country's security forces.

Lt. General Abdul Hadi Khalid informs the audience in Washington of his decades long experience serving in various incarnations of Afghanistan's security forces and recommends on-the-ground solutions for the AfPak battlespace. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The Jamestown Foundation is selling a jam-packed DVD of its third annual terrorism conference entitled “The Changing Strategic Gravity of al-Qaeda” that was held on December 9th at the National Press Club. This extensive series of presentations covers everything from more mainstream topics like counterinsurgency, de-radicalization and AfPak to far lesser understood topics ranging from Mindanao to the Houthi war in northern Yemen. Jamestown is providing some of the most extensive coverage on all subjects terror related and this DVD is a must for anyone looking to get (way) beyond today’s headlines.

Dr. Andrew McGregor paints a highly detailed picture of violent Islamist movements in the Somalia region. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Dr. Andrew McGregor paints a highly detailed picture of violent Islamist movements in the fractured Somalia region. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Jamestown brings together indigenous experts and former government officials from the troubled states in question along with top Western area experts in an attempt to present the widest picture of the global threat spectrum as possible. From ideology to insurgent logistics, this DVD has it all. No one who seeks to truly understand the dangers posed to the global community by non-state actors can settle for thinking they have a handle on all the necessary knowledge by focusing on one area such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater when the next attack is conceived in, and launched out of, Yemen or Somalia. The insight provided therein constantly seeks to enhance the intellectual agility of those trying to grapple with a globalized insurgency.

Order your copy here for $29.95

New Jamestown Article!

October 24th, 2009 No comments

JT grab for TWDI have a new piece in this week’s edition of Terrorism Monitor on the Jamestown Foundation site that can be read here. It is the first long form interview with PJAK leadership that I’m aware of.

Will They Ever Learn? (Washington…that is)

April 4th, 2009 2 comments

Thursday’s edition of the New York Times had a cliched beltway piece by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker espousing a Pentagon plea that it’s seeking three “new” billion dollars in military aid to Pakistan and must bypass the State Department in doing so. “Military supporters of the program said it offered a speedier alternative to the traditional military assistance process overseen by the State Department” says the Times. “Speedier”? Nothing that takes place in Pakistan is terribly speedy. At least nothing beneficial that is. Pakistan needs well thought out, nuanced solutions that will benefit the country in the very long term in order for it to maintain itself with a modicum of integrity  into the twenty-first century. As an avid Pakistan watcher, I can tell readers that the very last thing Pakistan needs is the promise of further military aid from the United States and the unwitting American taxpayer. What Pakistan does need, however, are billions in emergency aid for schools and an aggressive rural literacy program. Northwest Pakistan needs up to date hospitals and proper asphalt roads. It is much sexier to sell Congress on injecting useless billions to bolster a feeble, incapable military that has lost every war it has ever fought than, say, printing millions of Pashtu language school books and training an army of Pashtun teachers. As opposed rearming the peasantry. which is essentially what the Frontier Corps is, the Americans must focus on investing in the human infrastructure of the region if the clash of ideals is ever to be reconciled .

The United States must stop looking at the short term. Insurgencies are not a short term problem. Insurgent movements stem from lack of opportunity among their foot soldiers, vast civil inequality, boredom and outright political and ethnic oppression by the state. The Northwest Frontier and the jihadi hamlets of FATA existed for ages in isolation from the mainstream economy of the rest of “settled” Pakistan. The various FATA guerrilla movements will not be defeated by more accurate drone attacks and handing Pakistani soldiers night vision goggles. They would be defeated by an increase in literacy and finally coming to a regional settlement with Kabul and lastly, addressing the aspirations of broader Pashtun nationalism. These are issues Washington does not seem to know how to deal with and Islamabad and Kabul will keep on the back burner for the foreseeable future until their hand is forced by the international community. FATA is not simply Anbar in the mountains. The issues go (at the very least) as far back as the age of the Afghan kings and the British Raj. The Anbar insurgency was a direct result of American war fighting strategy. Pakistan’s Tribal belt has been the seat of ethnic and religious tension in that region for much of modern history. Inter tribal blood feuds and the deadly Sunni-Shia schism have little to do with the legacy of the Soviet war or the American intervention and troop build up though they have since been exacerbated by it. FATA is, and always has been, a threat to Pakistan’s already weak territorial integrity since Partition. Letting the Tribal Areas fester and fend for themselves has been part of Pakistani government doctrine for decades.

The solution lay not in giving the enfeebled Frontier Corps newer small arms but, short of creating a viable political settlement along the Durand Line, in providing education and healthcare in dangerous and remote areas. A civil society approach is needed which would undoubtedly cost the lives of civil servants, NGO workers and other perceived “collaborators” whom the Taleban and their imitators will certainly harm in the short term as the soft targets they are.

It seems as though little has changed since the Johnson administration. More money for war? You bet! Simply distributing more weapons to a faltering institution like the Pakistani Army is an irrelevant strategy that failed in Indochina and will not work in South and Central Islamic Asia today. The battle against nihilistic Islamism in Pakistan cannot be fought with conventional weapons. A war of ideas, which is what is actually being waged inside Pakistan today, can only be outgunned by partnering with the indigenous civil society in that country who desperately seeks to be heard.

Pakistan’s Confused Militants

December 8th, 2008 No comments

I was sitting with my family in an Indian restaurant in Queens, New York at our annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner as my eye occasionally darted up to the screen overhead with images of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel smoldering on a Hindi-language satellite channel. I thought to myself “This has got to be a Lashkar operation” as the casualty numbers mounted. Then when a local ABC news crew began to interview the Indian family at the next table, I knew the militants had really awoken the somewhat slumbering global media in a way their last foray in India did not. In December of 2001, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and another Pakistani group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), jointly attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. However, the world was largely focused on the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing Bonn conference at the time. Lashkar-e-Taiba is known and feared throughout South Asia as a brutal terrorist network composed primarily of Kashmiri irredentists and unreconstructed pan-Islamists. Their agenda has morphed over the last two decades since the group’s inception in the 1980′s with a focused agenda wresting the Indian administered portion of Kashmir from Indian forces to attacks on India’s political and financial institutions.

To explain how groups such as LeT and JeM operate openly in Pakistan is to try to understand Pakistan’s dysfunctional political discourse. I attended a rally earlier this year set up by several of the country’s “big tent” Islamist parties who opposed Musharraf’s rule for not being sufficiently strident toward India and the United States. After shooting photos at the all day affair, a Pakistani friend and I went over the images on my laptop later that evening. He began to comb over the photos tooth-and-nail to show me what I was not nuanced enough to realize earlier. Amid the crowds of demonstrators and on-lookers mixed members of some of Pakistan’s most feared militant outfits. Members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like LeT, a supposedly banned formation, mingled around in their distinctive headdresses consisting of a very specifically embroidered prayer cap wrapped in a stylized turban. “How could it be” I asked my friend “that these terrorists are walking around central Lahore openly and in front of the press, even standing next to Punjab police officers?” This rally was not being held by a group of nameless malcontents either. Some of the most prominent members of the political establishment were speaking including cricket world champion-turned-pundit Imran Khan and the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s oldest Islamic parties.

Traditional militancy in Pakistan is in fact a viable part of the political culture. Most of the militant groups operate not against the government but rather in the government’s interest of fomenting violence by proxy throughout the region. Militant groups that are genuinely against the government such as the once Marxist-leaning ethnic Balochi nationalists are painted by Islamabad to be pawns of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian CIA. However, among opposition politicians operating nationally in Pakistan, there seem to be certain red lines which, when crossed by the central government, can be used to stir up rage against the leadership. Qazi Hussein Ahmad, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami extolled his followers to never forgive the Musharraf regime for assassinating Nawab Akbar Bugti in the context of a military operation in 2006. Bugti, in life was anything but an Islamist in the fashion of Mr Hussein. Nawab Akbar Bugti was an ardent Baloch ethnic-nationalist. Essentially, Baloch dissidents want to secede and therefore partly dismantle the Pakistani state while Jamaat players seek to further consolidate Pakistan’s Islamization which they believe has not quite gone far enough. In comparison, there is virtually no synergy between the two groups. The province of Balochistan is a population poor, resource rich backwater long neglected for most of Pakistan’s independence. Walking down The Mall, Lahore’s trendy shopping street, there are signs advertising “Pay Your Sui Gas Bill Online”. The Sui natural gas field is in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan and is precisely what the elderly Nawab Akbar Bugti was fighting over. Most of the gas produced in the Sui field is fed to Lahore and Karachi while Balochistan seethes largely devoid of infrastructure.

While the chanting of “Bugti, Bugti” by the mostly Punjabi (and entirely male) crowd was likely solely for propaganda purposes and obliviously ironic seeing as Nawab Akbar Bugti struggled much of his adult life against the Punjabi domination of Pakistan’s military and bureaucracy, the very fact that his name was being roused in Lahore demonstrates the fluidity of non state and terrorist alliances within such a fractured country. Jaish militants yelling “Bugti Zindaband” or “Long live Bugti” are actually voting against their interests since the Nawab’s narrow goals of Balochi liberation were diametrically opposed to their broader narrative of religious violence. Such are what passes for politics in Pakistan.

While Lashkar-e-Taiba’s primary aims are launching attacks across the Line of Control toward the Indian military in Jammu & Kashmir, their stated agenda has become much broader. Like Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT has been partly co-opted into a wider global jihadist milieu. In the evolution of the ideological basis of Kashmiri separatism, these groups have stated their interest in attacking the architecture of the Indian state itself. Beyond that, they have resorted deploring Hinduism in the fashion of anti-Zionist Arab and Iranian groups decrying Judaism as an apostasy that stands in the way of their territorial aspirations. In the most unoriginal way they have equated India, whose destruction has become their raison d’etre, with Israel as part of an archipelago of anti-Muslim neo-colonial powers asserting themselves to destroy the global (although highly fissiparous) Islamic community.

LeT and JeM might sound almost like an exotic, murderous cults to those not familiar with Pakistan, but when I visited the southern city of Bahawalapur as a wandering college student less than a year before 9/11, Jaish-e-Mohammed was running their head office in the city, loud and proud with a corresponding set of charity offices and religious institutions all over Pakistan. Pakistan has border disputes with both Afghanistan and India and its militant groups can be used to irritate both and can easily provoke the Indian military to shift hundreds of thousands of soldiers with an inexpensive, coordinated suicide attack carried out by just a handful of cadres. For Pakistan, these armed formations with clerical justification are relatively easy to foster or deny depending on the current levels of Indo-Pakistani tension. The attack on Mumbai by a group like Lashkar can have one of two effects: India and Pakistan can move their forces along the border in a tired and expensive show of force as in 2002 or Pakistan and India’s respective civilian leadership can forge new ties in the name of counterterrorism and intergovernmental integration and work together, perhaps even with Kabul as a peripheral partner, to deescalate regional conflict. Let the international community encourage the latter.

Creating dramatic headlines on India’s west coast is an immense distraction from the reinvigorated interest in the war in eastern Afghanistan. It also helps to highlight the fact that the American strategy of dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in isolation from Indo-Pakistani relations and their hot and cold war over Kashmir is a strategy that contains built-in obsolescence. Rather than the keep the Kashmir dispute simmering on the foreign policy back burner, it is in fact Palestine writ large.