New York- Richard Welsh, my first cousin, once removed, died in Philadelphia yesterday. He was 69 years-old. Dick, as he much preferred to be called, was in the first wave of United States Marines who tramped into Da Nang in the earliest stages of American military involvement in Viet Nam and the Indochinese theatre. He’s pictured above in 1965 carrying a comrade who’d collapsed from heat exhaustion in a Life cover shot taken by legendary photojournalist Bill Eppridge (Eppridge photographed Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles). The last time I saw Dick was at my sister’s wedding in July of 2003. I had come back from photographing and hitchhiking around the Republic of Iraq in the spring and Dick said to me somberly on that glorious summer day sipping a gin and tonic: “I don’t know why you would [voluntarily] go to a war Derek. War is hell.” He then quickly changed the subject and pointed to some young female wedding attendees with tacky early millennium tattoos and said: “You’ve got a real arts and crafts crowd here” hilariously referring to the neo-hippies in our midst. Richard Welsh was a one of a kind. He was, at least to me, a rare example of a Viet Nam veteran who not only returned intact but returned to post-war civilian life and flourished doing so contrary to the stereotype of the “‘Nam” Hollywood movies of the early 19080s which portrayed returning veterans as deranged loners bent on some form of revenge. While the American effort to prop up the South Vietnamese government and stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia ended in abject failure, Dick was a striking success in his life and in the world who moved on without looking back. Dick was both a man’s man and a gentleman of the sort that doesn’t seem to exist these days. I’ll miss you friend.
New York- I got a list email last week from Vaughan Smith, the head of London’s Frontline Club (a journalism event space in central London) that he and his club were offering full support to Wikileaks’ Australian guru Julian Assange. Here is the text of the email:
Dear friends of Frontline, many of you will have seen Julian Assange and the Wikileaks people at Frontline. I wanted to copy you the press release that I sent out today. Very best, Vaughan
“I attended court today to offer my support for Julian Assange of Wikileaks on a point of principle.
“In the face of a concerted attempt to shut him down and after a decade since 9/11 that has been characterised by manipulation of the media by the authorities, the information released by Wikileaks is a refreshing glimpse into an increasingly opaque world.”
The Frontline Club was founded seven years ago to stand for independence and transparency.
Recent informal canvassing of many of our more than 1,500 members at the Frontline Club suggests almost all are supportive of our position.
I am suspicious of the personal charges that have been made against Mr Assange and hope that this will be properly resolved by the courts. Certainly no credible charges have been brought regarding the leaking of the information itself.
I can confirm that Mr Assange has spent much of the last several months working from our facilities at the Frontline Club. Earlier today I offered him an address for bail.
7pm. Tuesday 7 December. —
I had no clue that Smith was in cahoots with Mr. Assange and don’t really have a strong opinion on it one way or the other at the moment because I have been too busy with other political and personal machinations to get worked up positively or negatively. I met Smith briefly when Frontline hosted an event several years ago now at Powerhouse Books in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. The whole reason I knew who he was in the first place (which I did not bother to mention when I met him) was the case of Roddy Scott. Scott was a freelance cameraman working for Smith’s now defunct Frontline TV agency in the Caucasus mountains in 2002 when he was killed by a Russian sniper/sharpshooter while filming a firefight in the Ingush Republic. Smith was quoted in some obituaries about Roddy Scott such as this one in The Independent. Roddy was working for Mr. Smith hoping to make a paltry bit of pounds sterling for his footage which was sure to be remarkable (it was confiscated by the Russian security services upon his murder).
Scott had filmed the only footage (at least by a Westerner that I have heard of) of the PKK in battle with the Turkish army, from the PKK’s point of view no less and his Chechen footage was sure to be unique. It was not terribly likely that Scott’s footage of Chechen mujahideen would have ever seen the light of day even if he had made it back to Britain in one piece because of the impending American-Anglo invasion of Iraq that was brewing to a boil in the fall of 2002. The Chechen war had long not been a fashionable conflict to cover when Scott died and that mattered none to someone of the intellect and curiosity of someone like Roddy Scott. After reading Smith’s email, I saw some footage on PBS Newshour from outside a London courthouse of Assange’s lawyer saying that Assange would be staying with a supporter after his release on bail had been secured. I guessed that that supporter would be Vaughan Smith only to read in the NY Times that was exactly the case.
What I did not know was that Vaughan Smith was such a wealthy man as described by the Times. The paper describes him as putting up Assange in a “a 10-bedroom home on a 650-acre estate” in Sussex. Why then, I have to go back to 2002 and wonder, could he not have even bought Roddy the hiking boots he desperately needed to traverse the Greater Caucasus range with Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev and his fighters? I never knew Smith was a man of such means or I would have asked such an awkward question back then in the dark days of 2002. I had no idea that I was a few “degrees of separation” from the whispy-haired, sallow looking Assange. Let’s hope Smith has better luck helping the newly famous Assange than he did a poor freelancer lying dead in a post-Soviet nightmare eight years ago.
New York- With the death of Richard Holbrooke, will the idea of a Dayton-style negotiated settlement die with him? Last Wednesday when I arrived on the Acela in D.C. from New York I was talking with a colleague (the day before the Jamestown Foundation terrorism conference where Amrullah Saleh would be speaking the next day) and he mentioned that somebody from Holbrooke’s office at State had wanted to set up a time to meet with Saleh while he was in town. I tried to suggest that he tell Holbrooke’s underling to tell the man himself to come and crash our conference if he wanted to see Mr. Saleh badly enough. I’m quite sure my message never filtered up the chain and got to Holbrooke. I did keep an eye out for him throughout the day as I paced up and down the hallway of the National Press Club outside the Grand Ballroom half expecting the see the “bulldozer” barge in with a young-ish entourage from the office he set up. Obviously he never showed and I doubt he even knew about the event (though I’m sure he would have liked to have).
Looking back on it all with a bit of perspective, Saleh and Holbrooke’s positions are and were diametrically opposed vis-a-vis the Taleban. Holbrooke was a man of negotiated settlements beginning with the Paris Peace Accords formally ending American involvement in the war in Viet Nam and most notably the 1995 Dayton [Ohio] Accords which brought a tripartite peace to the three Yugoslav successor states that had fought so bitterly since 1992. But Mullah Muhammed Omar is no Slobodan Mliosevic (though Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could be?) and the idea of a negotiated settlement via a “retail” peace agreement with “moderate” Taleban is an anathema to men like Saleh who were fighting against the Taleban as they struggled-and because of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces-and failed to control 100% of Afghanistan’s territory. Perhaps there are some in the Pashtun belt (aka AfPak) that believe a settlement or concessions to the Taleban are a worthwhile idea but for many Pashtuns and to the rest of those peoples who compose Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious mosaic, there will be more war before such a peace, Western troops or no Western troops.
If Holbrooke had come to my event it would have been the last of his professional career unbeknownst to me the day before. The quote in The Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandersekaran’s article about Holbrooke’s death, that he was being operated on by a Pakistani surgeon at George Washington University Hospital and said as (what may have been) his last words while on his literal death bed: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan”, was almost a caricature of poignancy. Except that is was not a caricature, he was someone who was genuinely and immensely interested in ending the “long war” in Central and South Asia’s perennially troubled Pashtun belt. It was not an act, he died doing it. And though he certainly had his critics regarding his approach and ideas for negotiations, with his disappearance from the political landscape, now, there will assuredly be no Dayton for AfPak.
Washington D.C.- This past Thursday was our annual Jamestown Foundation terrorism conference at the National Press Club and amazingly it all worked out considering the incredible amount of logistics involved (wholly unbeknownst to our audience) of getting a wide range of top tier speakers to Washington from around the globe. Key among them was our lunchtime keynote speaker Amrullah Saleh, who, until June of this year, had been the director of the Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security. Mr. Salehflew overnight from Muscat, Oman where he was attending a security conference sponsored by Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s absolute monarch, and gave a rousing speech on little if any sleep. This speaking engagement was two months in the making and was only possible with the help of my friend Ahmad Idrees Rahmani at RAND in Santa Monica who I have known since the war in Mazar-i-Sharif in November of 2001. This is the second year Idrees came to my aid to help Jamestown as last year he helped me secure a speech from Lieutenant General Hadi Khalid, who, like Mr. Saleh, was also a former member of the Karzai government. Though we had secured several notable Pakistani speakers for the conference including Imitaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place and, Arif Jamal, a colleague of mine at the foundation and the author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, I felt it essential that we have a prominent, outspoken Afghan voice in our day-long dialogue. Saleh gave a very powerful speech about many key issues and hurdles in Afghan-American relations and denounced the idea of any kind of negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taleban, highlighting the bizarre and laughable case of the so-called “bogus Mansoor,” the phony Taleb representative who was flown around in a NATO aircraft only to embarrassingly realized a fraud. The phony Mullah Akhtar Mansoor episode showed just how difficult the prospect of actually negotiating with senior Taleban leadership is, especially considering that there has been no indication in the past nine years that Taleban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar is willing to come in from the cold. Saleh asked the audience rhetorically, “what is the plan b for Afghanistan?”, making the point that the United States and its [largely] European NATO coalition partners are on a dangerous and faulty path in Afghanistan with no significant policy alternatives in sight, no “plan b” as it were. Saleh said that the best hope for Taleban fighters is that they be DDR’ed (Disarmed, Demobilized and Reintegrated) in the manner that his own ethnic-Tajik Massoudi faction and [although to a lesser degree] General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s ethnic-Uzbek Junbish-i-Miili militia were integrated into the then nascent Afghan National Army. Saleh was also sure to tell the audience that Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was not only a terribly unreliable and slippery partner for the United States and the international community, but actively and directly undermining American national interests in the region, a point I had heard him forcefully make in Kabul last year.
New York- I haven’t been posting nearly often enough in the hectic preparation for this year’s Jamestown Foundation annual terrorism conference at the National Press Club this Thursday, December 9th. This past week we released our eleventh issue of Militant Leadership Monitor with biographies of South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir by Andrew McGregor (an especially timely report before the January 9th independence referendum), the Shining Path’s Comrade Artemio by me, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Azam Cheema by Animesh Roul, and Saudi AQAP explosives fabricator Ibrahim Asiri by Murad Batal al-Shishani.