Archive for July, 2012
Barcelona- I have a new article out today in the July issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. I am honored to have been awarded the cover story for the second time this year. The story is based on the two weeks I spent in Mali in May and June and a couple of months of armchair research here in Barcelona and New York. As last year when I was avidly and concomitantly following Libya and Bahrain in particular, this year my attention has largely turned to Syria and Mali.
The conflict in Mali is, yes, a result of the NATO-GCC backed war in Libya in part but Libya’s troubles are not the cause of Mali’s current crisis. The causes of Mali’s 2012 rebellion of messy irredentism and radical Islamism are rooted in local economic, ethnic, and ecological disparities. There are long-held grievances among several of northern Mali’s communities that have sat unresolved for many decades. These issues of emphasized racial and ethnic difference are discussed fairly in depth in Bruce S. Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960.
Global warming (now marketed as climate change) is a causal factor. Coupled with climate issues are then food security and the survival of livestock-key for both the sedentary agriculturalist and semi-nomadic pastoralist populations competing for land and scare resources in the wider Sahel. In this light neighboring Niger is especially vulnerable with many of the same environmental and ethnic issues at stake.
So is the legacy of French divide et impera (divide and rule) during the colonial period. Up until Mali’s independence in 1960, French administrators favored certain groups over others in order to maintain their grip on power. The Salafi agenda of AQIM (and now MUJAO) has certainly exacerbated and accelerated things. The kidnapping for Westerners, most notably the brazen hostage taking in Timbuktu’s Centre Ville in late November 2011 in which a German national was shot dead when he tried to resist being hauled off into the unknowns of the Sahara, has utterly destroyed Mali’s relatively lucrative and quite vital (yet fragile) tourism industry.
On top of all this I am still trying to keep up with events in Syria. It appears from the outside looking in that the war has to have been amplified by the audacious assassinations of National Security Chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani. This has brought a sea change in the level of political violence across the country not most notably in the formerly quiet Aleppo Governorate. It seems that the al-Jaish as-Suri al-Hurra (the endonym of the Free Syrian Army) has certainly achieved increased momentum in recent days in what has been essentially an unabated war of attrition.
Before the year is out I may return to one or both of these troubled nation-states. Hard to fathom what the fall of Damascus will mean, particularly for Syria’s Alawite community as well as its numerous Christians. Add to that Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. I remember in Baghdad and environs in the spring of 2003 when there was an immediate backlash against Palestinians hosted by the Hussein regime who were resented at best and deemed collaborators at worst by furious Iraqis.
Damascus will be a tremendous tinderbox once the tipping point against Assad is finally reached. It won’t likely happen overnight (unless there were to be a spectacular and ingeniously successful assassination plot) but history is definitely against such a calcified, minoritarian regime in the Middle East today.
Another issue which managed to grab my attention today is the violence erupting in Khorog, the regional capital of Tajikistan’s difficult to access Kohistan Badakhshan (a.k.a. Gorno-Badakhshan in Russian). At least 42 people have been reported killed so far in clashes after the local intelligence chief was savagely beaten (some reports say stabbed) to death by assailants linked to a local warlord hailing from the 1992-1997 civil war.
This means something to me because I have a friend from Khorog and I’d imagined visiting the place one day. We chatted on skype today and she is terribly fretful because all phone service has been cut to the city and she cannot reach family members still residing there (she lives outside Tajikistan). The needless mayhem may have been the result of the hard sought after cigarette smuggling trade along the Afghan border. Though the region is infamous for its Russia-bound heroin trade, like all borders in the global Balkans, it’s a hub for Marlboros as well. Hopefully more information will come to light soon. Tajikistan is an incredibly brittle place that has never properly reconciled the wounds from its horrific post-Soviet civil war.
Barcelona- Sitting here in Spain, the fourth of July for me passed entirely unceremoniously. As I type this, it’s now technically the fifth over here. When I think of the fourth now, it mostly conjures up images of young people (millenials?) debaucherizing with abandon or one of the few days when families of migrant workers take the afternoon off and picnic in an inner city park. We look at the struggle for American independence in abstraction. Not as an anti-colonial war or national liberation struggle but as some oddly righteous inevitability. America has its ‘good’ wars- the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the Great War (World War I) and World War II, followed by that war no one talks about-the Korean War- and then by what I’ll call the messy entanglement wars beginning with Viet Nam and currently in Afghanistan most prominently. In these conflicts where the goal posts appear to keep moving with a never entirely clear strategic objective we attach faulty plot lines to rewrite what they are in fact about.
Afghanistan went from post-9/11 country and western inspired vengeance with a dash of women’s and minority rights to nation building-lite to half-hearted democratization mixed with door kicking counterinsurgency to stability operations to plotting a ticker tape-less exit strategy. The soldiers and the local population are then expected to constantly adapt with little or no notice. It is as if Afghanistan is some kind of flesh and blood foreign policy laboratory.
Domestic and European critics often deride the United States as an insular nation citing statistics on the current level of per capita passport holders which is abysmal compared to other industrialized nations. But the United States remains the world’s only true power with global reach. France may have a rump colonial island outpost empire that spans many of the globe’s 24 time zones from St. Pierre et Miquelon to French Polynesia to Réunion but it does not have the vast rapid deployment capability of the “hyperpuissance” US Navy. In this respect, America, if not Americans, is the world’s most well traveled nation. And she has paid a heavy price for this power. Americans in uniform and the corresponding civilians and insurgents of belligerent nations who have run afoul of foreboding sounding entities like the “Office of Special Plans” (whose intellectual engineers may die in their sleep at a ripe old age) have either died or continue to suffer mental and physical anguish. There are those we left behind and those we leave suffering in our wake.
Barcelona- We awake today to more news that Ansar Eddine is bashing more Sufi Islamic sites in Timbuktu, this time the mosque of Sidi Yahia. Sanda Ould Bamana, Ansar Eddine’s ‘spokesman,’ has pledged that his Salafi-jihadi militia will smash every last historical site to bits. This will undoubtedly bring comparisons to the March 2001 demolition of the majestic Bamian buddhas in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan as we see in today’s Guardian. There are a couple of inevitable reactions to a crisis such as this some of which I have already seen percolating up on twitter. One is that human lives are of course intrinsically more valuable that ‘old piles of rocks’ and that in such a scenario its callous to cry out regarding the destruction of monuments when hundreds of thousands of Malians (or millions of Afghans in 2001) are living as refugees in neighboring countries.
Another one of the memes is that by UNESCO making bland statements about their historic value, that will only encourage militants to attack them further in order to gain attention/thumb their nose at the international community. This is the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-dont quandary. By trying to bring attention to an otherwise obscure issue, you are not only informing the world but helping to shape the militants’ agenda. To say nothing would be a travesty, but is saying something helping to accelerate militant action? The Islamists themselves may indicate that outside opinion is entirely irrelevant in terms of their priorities. In fact, it is just simply extremely difficult for outsiders to discern the minutiae in these decision making processes.
Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, stated “there is no justification for such a wanton destruction.” A relatively passionate sounding sentiment, sure, but this does not address the Salafi grievance of ridding Islam of impure practices. Groups like Ansar Eddine are steeped in theological justifications for acts like these. The world at large may not understand them but rigid Sunni jurisprudence revolves around justifying ideas and subsequent actions.
The last such theme that quickly comes to mind is the argument that destroying Sufi (or Shia or anything non-orthodox Sunni) monuments is a natural facet of Salafi reformist political culture which should be expected when hardline groups manage to come to power. These movements seek to rid Islamic lands of what they call shirk-the slippery slope to polytheism that Salafis and Wahabis (a Saudi religious reformist movement responsible for destroying plenty of sites from Islam’s early history in the Kingdom) fear the most. Fundamentalists feel it is their god-given duty to uphold tawhid-monotheism in its most undiluted form. Tawhid is the centerpiece of core salafi thought and many Islamist militant movements fighting in the world today believe it is their responsibility to maintain strict religious values to where no prophet, companion, or any other human form may be found alongside god. Unfortunately for many Malians, the salafis have come to their cherished Timbuktu. And they are well-armed.