Archive for October, 2009
The Bastara River valley, a route once used by Chechen resistance fighters and foreign terrorists to travel from the Pankisi Gorge to to the battle zones of the North Caucasus. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Birkiani, Georgia- I returned to Georgia’s once infamous Pankisi Gorge yesterday after visiting the area seven years ago when it was hyped to be one of the most dangerous places in the world (which it sort of was). Revisiting the gorge to do fact checking for a book project was my impetus for this return trip to the Caucasus. A lot has changed since the flailing, quasi-failed state, late Shevarnadze period in 2002 when Pankisi was under the effective control of Chechen rebel commander/warlord Ruslan Gelayev (who was killed at a random checkpoint in Dagestan in early 2004).
Pankisi was once overrun by Chechen mujahideen and their Arab and Turkish epigones and was rumoured to have had the occasional spetznaz infiltration from north of the border. Pankisi was used a political football by both Moscow and Washington to advance their interests in a peripheral and weak Georgia. The BTC pipeline was more of an idea than reality at the time and the second Chechen war was still going very badly much to the consternation of Mr. Putin. Today the gorge exists as the quiet alluvial fan it once was before 1999 when Moscow came to Grozny in an attempt to demonstrate its will and refugees from Itum Kale and Shatoi poured over the mountainous border.
The refugee population has gone from somewhere in the range of 7-8000 at its height to just shy of 1000 today. The one prominent reminder of that era is the small, brick, supposedly Saudi-funded mosque in the center of Duisi. I found the house where I once stayed in the village of Birkiani which was a sort of mujahideen hostel at the time and found only a very senile, old Kist (ethnic Chechen, Georgian national) man who had no idea what I was talking about. I was taken to the region courtesy of Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in part to demonstrate once of Mikhail Saakashvilli’s early tactical successes in reintegrating this very fractured nation.
Out of place “Wahabbi” mosque in Duisi. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Mother and child in Birkiani village. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Profile portrait of Stalin as a young Bolshevik after his arrest in the Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia.
Gori, Georgia- This photo hangs in a museum that has not been updated since it opened thirty years ago at the twilight of the Brezhnev era. It is the B-side to the photo on the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin. There has been a rather sizable reported uptick in revisionist pro-Stalin sentiment in Russia as of late and the BBC is reporting that this may create a small crack in Moscow’s otherwise unrepentant leadership.
Does it get much more twisted kitsch than this? Stalin having a smoke and chilling with Mao.
I 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.
Tbilisi, Georgia- I had a meeting here with the Deputy Counter Terrorism Chief from the Ministry of Internal Affairs relevant to some book research I’m doing here. My contact there showed me the cornered end of the hallway where the MIA maintains and odd but fascinating display of their accomplishments related to combatting terrorism. They even had the dud grenade that was thrown toward George Walker Bush on his visit to Tbilisi.
The passport of a long dead young Saudi shaheed who I'll assume died in vain in Chechnya as Russian cannon fodder. His Georgian visa was dated 1999 and perhaps he served in Khattab's Arab unit? ©2009 DHF
A nail laden suicide bomb belt on display for few to see. ©2009 DHF
An assortment of goodies including jihadi literature in Cyrillic script, anti-personnel mines and an IED. ©2009 DHF
"Oranges anyone?" A homemade bomb sans detonator. Do not attempt to eat contents! ©2009 DHF
And last but not least, the Black Widow suicide bomber mannequin! ©2009 DHF
Actors (who may be actual Georgian soldiers playing Russian soldiers) rumble through Gori's town square atop very loud BRTs and tanks on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Russian-made Mi-24 "Hind" gunships rattle downtown Gori on the set of the new Renny Harlin film. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Gori, Georgia- I hopped in a marshrutka (giant, ubiquitous post-Soviet sphere minibus) today in Tbilisi to make the pilgrimage to the birthplace of the original “Man of Steel” Ioseb (Georgian (which is actually Kartuli in its endonym) Dzugashvili aka Joseph Stalin (“Stalin” means Steel in Russian). I’ve become a bit of a Stalin junkie over the past few years in studying the all too relevant partitions of Central Asia, particularly the Ferghana valley, and the Caucasus which took place in the early Soviet period under little known circumstances in Moscow. I thought I would simply go have have a look at Stalin’s little glorified shack in the center of the city and get on another marshrutka back to Tbilisi. But when I got dropped off, there was a scene of burning Russian-made Georgian armor in the town square. Finnish film director Renny Harlin (who like Stalin uses a stage name-Lauri Mauritz Harjola-not that I am comparing a Hollywood director to the biggest mass murderer in history this side of Mao in any other way) has come to Georgia in what appears to be a sort of artistic mea culpa/comeback effort. Harlin is filming on location here about an American journalist and his travails in the five-day guns of August war of 2008. Usually in Hollywood, when there is a war involving Americans, there is an understood time embargo where you cannot make a movie about a war unless it is either long over or Americans are mostly over it as was the case with many of the Viet Nam films I watched as a boy in the early 1980s. But this film involves neither American soldiers nor needs to wait. The location he employed in Gori today was an actual location from last summer’s conflict which you may recall from some photos that were published last August. Once the surreal excitement was over, I walked two blocks and stumbled onto what I read had been Stalin’s extremely modest birthplace. A brick and wood shack protected by flimsy padlocks stands as Gori’s centerpiece attraction. The shack is ensconced in a Soviet-tribute temple to preserve it for all to see. It’s a bit odd for the Western visitor to behold this enormous befuddling contradiction in terms. Here was a man who killed a hell of a lot of people, many his fellow Caucasians, who is still adored by many Russians, even though he was in no way Russian (but perhaps it can be said he was Russified) and sent many Russians to their deaths. Yet Gori, this small, otherwise insignificant city in the south Caucasus, doesn’t have much going for it other than one of the twentieth century’s greatest monsters was born there and now it is sort of a politically macabre tourist attraction. Then the Kremlin, who is promoting a renewed interest in Stalin’s legacy of late, invaded and temporarily occupied it last summer for about nine days. There are almost too many contrasts to digest here.
The "Temple" of Joseph Stalin in Gori. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
I’m curious to see how the Harlin film will turn out after accidentally watching an afternoon of filming. The last film of his I can remember seeing was the comical Deep Blue Sea with a weeping LL Cool J softening up his image.
In other developments, I had a new piece on Kurdistan and the PJAK come out in today’s edition of Asia Times which can be read here.
Pipeline Routes Bisecting Eurasia
Tbilisi, Georgia- I’ve just completed a mostly sleepless journey from Ezrurum, a dull, cold city in eastern Turkey, to the lush, rolling hills of temperate Tbilisi. At the border at 1am, I joined an already rolling bus from Trabzon and was seated next to a beautiful Armenian girl who was traveling from Istanbul to Yerevan with a few friends. I have been coming to this region since 1998 and for as long as I can remember, the border between Turkey and Armenia (whose endonym is acutally Hayastan) has been a frozen zone of Soviet-esque guard towers (on the Armenian side) since Turkey shunned its neighbor during the Karabagh war in 1993. This stunted diplomacy greatly benefitted Georgia (whose endonym is actually Sakartvelo) because Georgia acted as a trade go-between for Turks and Armenians for the last sixteen years. For products and people to reach Armenia from Turkey, they have had to transit Georgia. While Georgia itself was barely holding together much of this time with three separatist republics of its own to contend with, it acted as a sort of neutral transit corridor which helped keep the landlocked Armenian economy afloat. Armenia’s only other non-hostile border is that with a heavily sanctioned Iran. The Los Angeles-based Armenian diaspora help to keep their ethnic kin up and running while they maintained bullets battles with the Azeris and semantic and historical battles with the Turks over the events of the Great War and the dying days of the Ottoman (whose endonym is actually Osman-Ottoman is a corruption of the name Osman-the first Pasha) Empire. The ultimate geopolitical expression of this scenario was the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline connecting the Caspian off shore oil fields to the shores of the Mediterranean via Transcaucasia.
Both Armenia (and Iran for fairly obvious reasons) were out of the loop on the new post-Soviet energy economy. Much of Georgia’s importance for people like Senator John McCain was that Georgia was now crucial to US interests by accident of its geography. Georgia has nothing to offer in terms of resources itself particularly, but would grow to become a valued strategic client within Washington and the EU’s cooperate power structure. Mikhail Saakashvilli’s Rose Revolution with its promise of reforms and progress in a troubled democratic space was music to the West’s ears. But now as Ankara and Yerevan make a serious attempt to normalize relations, which would be a remarkable advent for peace in the region by itself, Georgia and Azerbaijan may be left out in the cold. Both nations stood by Turkey and the US, not to mention the BP-led oil consortium, and now the mood in the region may be shifting. Russia’s invasion of both sovereign Georgia and the movement of many more troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August of 2008 has again altered the strategic calculus in this quintessential “Shatter Belt.” Turkey is caught somewhere in between the feigned solidarity of pan-Turkism and its ethnic-Caucasian domestic constituents.
Coming in from the Turkish border, I sat amongst Armenians who were having to take this preposterously long, politicized bus route. I said to the girl seated next to meet as we creaked toward the Georgian capital in the wee hours of the morning that perhaps very soon this bus ride would not be such a long one not realizing that the two bitter neighbors were hours away from signing a deal in Zurich to normalize ties. If both parliaments in Turkey and Armenia ratify the new diplomatic protocols, Georgia may wake up to find itself suddenly strategically devalued by its Western sponsors making it all the more vulnerable to its northern neighbor.
Erzurum, Turkey- En route to the next geopolitical basket case. Oil pipeline politics, Russian recognized republics and NATO issues; sounds like a real party! Georgia is a favorite proxy backwater of plenty of people on the Hill.
A joint PKK/PJAK martyrs graveyard in the Qandil region along the Iraq-Iran border. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
Mardin, Turkey- After a long two weeks in Iraq, I’ve returned to northern Kurdistan a.k.a. southeast Turkey. I wasn’t able to update the site much while in Iraq as the poorly named Hawler Palace Hotel did not have an internet connection. I finally after much networking and sweating it out in said depressing hotel room was able to meet members of the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK), Iran’s counterpart to the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK)in Turkey. While the PKK may describe itself as a Kurdish national liberation movement, the PJAK considers itself an armed democratization movement. Many skeptical media accounts describe the PJAK as nothing more than an “offshoot” of the PKK but from the standpoint of the PJAK, this is simply the work of state propaganda meant to divert attention away from the Islamic Republic of Iran’s own internal “Kurdish Question.” Roj, a Kurd originally from Turkey, was a representative of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK-a Kurdish rebel umbrella congress that includes the PKK and PJAK) who had lived in the West at some stage, mentioned the concept of the “Deep State” in reference to Kurdish oppression while interpreting for me with a PJAK commander. The idea of the Deep State, which may be the Middle East’s penultimate conspiracy theory, stems from an idea that no matter how far democracy advances within Turkish society, there will always be a hidden, radical Kemalist agenda that will steer the country away from ultimate freedom to dissent. The Deep State is a highly cynical concept in and of itself an is seen often as anti-Kurdish by those affected by Ankara’s pogroms in the 1980’s and 1990’s during violent uprisings in Turkish-controlled Kurdistan. The Treaty of Sèvres was meant to implement a Kurdish state in the northern Middle East (though not to include all of “greater” Kurdistan) two years after hostilities concluded in the Great War (WWI). “Ataturk” Mustafa Kemal, a brilliant German-allied Ottoman military commander turned Turkish nationalist politician, founded the Republic of Turkey three years after Sèvres in 1923. With the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate, Ataturk was under no obligation whatsoever to grant the Kurds an independent state. As the crumbling empire was partitioned, the Kurds were left in the cold and Sèvres was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne. The rest, rather than being history, is in fact the very volatile present. The de facto state held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq confounds Ankara. On one hand, Turkey profits greatly from the massive influx of goods and services in northern Iraq. As much as the Turkish parliament rejected Colin Powell’s advances during the first wildly disastrous Bush term, Turkey stood to profit greatly from such an American misadventure in the Middle East. One only has to see the queue of hulking Turkish trucks headed into Iraq at a border open 24-hours a day to get a glimpse of how much the political limbo in which the KRG exists greatly benefits Turkey.
A dated photo of a female shaheed, or martyr, at the PKK cemetary. Roj informed me that this woman was actually an ethnic Turk fighting against her own ethno-nationalist government. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood
On the other, if the KRG were to eventually form the basis for a sovereign Kurdish state, many in Turkey fear that the Turkish “Deep State” (if such a nebulous concept in fact exists) would be forced to act in a way that can’t yet be foretold. Some observers believe that Iraq’s January 2010 General Elections may pave the way for Joseph Biden’s poorly thought out “Soft Partition” of Iraq and the eventual formal secession of the three KRG-held governorates. However, the creation of a landlocked Kurdish state in northern Iraq poses a problem for groups like the PKK and PJAK that may believe the KRG would have to sell them out in order to survive amongst neighbors hostile to the idea of a State of Kurdistan as a geopolitical reality.
The latest empire to roll through the region is none other than the United States. The problem for the Americans is that they are neither from the region, nor are they soldier-scholars (with a few notable exceptions). Upon entering Zakho, the frontier town in the KRG’s Duhok Governorate, next to the taxi stand while waiting for a car to fill up sufficiently to ride to Erbil. I spotted a Rhino Runner armored bus in an adjacent lot like the one I saw in Kabul’s Green Zone in August but dared not photograph. Behind the Rhino where a huge column of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles which I couldn’t tell whether they were headed into or out of Iraq. Two weeks later on the way out, to drive from Erbil to Zakho, the taxis pass through a contested, apocalyptic string of mixed Arab and Kurdish villages in Ninewa Governorate on Iraq’s ethnic fault line. A foreboding sandstorm began to whip up into a blinding fury all around us and suddenly we were in a traffic jam as a convoy of the above mentioned MRAPs bulldozed their way through traffic with the lead vehicle announcing “Get out of the way or I will shoot you. Repeat: I will shoot you.” The three Kurdish men in the taxi, having no clue what the man in the lead car in the convoy was saying, looked at me as if for some kind of commentary on seeing my own countrymen in one of Iraq’s deadliest areas. “Jaish-e-Amriki” (American soldiers) I said dryly in Arabic. Perhaps the MRAPs were being delivered to Mosul, I can’t be sure. I find it fascinating seeing these massive occupations through civilian eyes, which is the only way I see them since I deplore the notion of embedding. I had the same experience in Kabul recently when I saw MRAPs plowing through Shahr-e-Naw, snarling traffic for miles. After we left dry, trash strewn, suicide bombed Ninewa, we enter the rainy, rolling hills of Duhok with it’s freshly paved roads, trash collection and undulating calm. It was as if Mosul was a world away.
A Rhino Runner bus parked quietly on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Note the Turkish license plate. Was this the one that brought Saddam Huseein to the gallows or a khaki-booted Don Rumsfeld on a tour of the Green Zone? ©2009 Derek Henry Flood