Archive for October, 2012
New York- I did a mission out to Breezy Point, Queens on the Atlantic coast of the Far Rockaway Peninsula yesterday that was the hardest hit area of New York City by ‘Superstorm’ Hurricane Sandy. A fire raged through the center of this community razing many dozens of homes in the densely developed beach community 26 miles from Manhattan. I haven’t seen destruction like this since I covered the anti-Uzbek pogroms in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The logistics of getting there were a story in itself but for now for the sake of time, I’ll let the photos do the talking.
New York-Went out to my beloved Long Island City in the borough of Queens to shoot some photos and get a feeling for Hurricane Sandy as it made landfall while high tide was approaching. Was getting shouted at by NYPD over loudspeakers trying to shoot. Winds felt like they were about 90mph, nearly fell down just getting out of the taxi. Here are a few photos.
New York-One of the myriad topics was what constitutes or defines intervention in Syria. A high-ranking NATO official explained to me at 2 2012 security conference that the Alliance was emphatically not going to get involved militarily in Syria even if the so-called “red lines” set forth by individual member states were crossed time and again. When NATO became deeply involved in the Libyan war, it was under the auspices of protecting civilians as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which outlined the multi-national mission that culminated in Operation Unified Protector.
I mentioned at that February conference that I had inadvertently run across a pair of intelligence operatives on atop a cliff on the outskirts of Nalut in western Libya’s Jebel Nafusa/Western Mountains region in August 2011. I presumed the men to be either Central Intelligence Agency officers or former ones who were now for-hire intelligence contractors. They were providing real-time battlefield intelligence while decisive air strikes were being carried out in the then (until 6pm that day to be specific) Qaddafist-controlled towns of Ghazayah and Takut on the stiflingly hot plains down below. With a satellite phone and military grade macro binoculars they were apparently relaying coordinates for air strikes and feedback about the accuracy of previous bombardments.
When I confronted the NATO official about this, which to me appeared to be in direct violation of UNSC 1973 as an outside power was clearly taking sides with one of the conflict’s belligerents thereby nullifying the idea of any form of non-partisan negotiated solution with the Qaddafi regime, NATO’s man swiftly countered that member states within the Alliance had undertaken unilateral intelligence missions which were not part of NATO’s mandate nor had its official bureaucratic blessing. Oh, ok, well I guess that wraps my question up neatly, right?
BUT…how were the Libyans on the ground, both NTC rebels and Qaddafists, supposed to interpret these elite distinctions made in Brussels, Washington, Doha, London, Paris and Benghazi? For the Libyans, the CIA and NATO were one in the same, entirely conflated entities. Not to mention perfect fodder for those on the anti-imperialist left and conspiracy theorists in general who cynically assume the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planned long ago at a Bilderberg Group meeting or some such thing.
So as the viewer’s comment pointed out NATO itself is nowhere in the vicinity of launching a large-scale military intervention in Syria but individual member states are indeed carrying out an intelligence war as unilateral, sovereign state actors outside the bounds of the trans-Atlantic security structure. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been adamant that Syria will not become another Libya stating an armed humanitarian intervention was “not the right path.”
The conundrum escalated with the recent cross-border shelling by Syria when ordinance not only landed on Turkish soil but killed Turkish nationals which appears at least on the surface to have caused Rasmussen to change tack. An attack on one member state is theoretically an attack on the broader Alliance which the other members must then be obligated to defend if such action is deemed necessary. Now Secretary General Rasmussen has stated “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
I also want to quickly elaborate on the unraveling of the October 20, 1998 Adana Agreement which was essentially a peace treaty between Turkey and Syria to halt PKK attacks that were being mounted from safe havens on Syrian territory at the time in a vicious proxy dispute over water rights. Hafez al-Assad, near the end of his thirty year reign, sought to improve relations with Turkey and expelled Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the PKK’s cult-like leader. (Ocalan was captured in Kenya on the run in 1999 and extradited to Turkey where he remains holed up in an island prison today in the Sea of Marmara) Turkish-Syrian relations than greatly improved as Turkey tilted away politically from the European Union and began renewing ties, particularly economic ones, in the lands that constituted its former Ottoman realm (as well as warming relation with the clerical regime in Iran as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy).
Turkey nearly mounted an invasion of Syria in the late 1990s under the pretext of attacking the PKK. Turkey has also had a long time military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and parliament in Ankara recently renewed Turkey’s standing hot pursuit mandate whereby Turkish ground forces can enter Iraq when giving chase to PKK fighters. So Turkish troops moving into Syria en masse is not so unthinkable in the present scenario.
The PKK has been stepping up attacks across southern Turkey in recent months and many Turks believe Bashar is playing his father’s old PKK card from the 1990s in an act of calculating strategic desperation. After all, what else does the already isolated Syria regime really have to lose at this point? Even if the Assad government can somehow survive, relations with an AKP government in Turkey will not be put back together again. It is from this calculus that the Assad regime is basing its tragic strategic decisions and going with what is known as “the Hama solution” (code for scorched earth tactics in crushing any serious threat to their Ba’athist Alawi dynasty)
New York- Although interest in Mali has been partly piqued in the American polity from facile, puppet-like foreign policy comments by Mitt Romney in a recent debate with President Obama, for genuine students and scholars of foreign policy Mali has been of grave concern since late March with the fall of Gao if not mid-January when the MNLA launched an attack on Ménaka. For specialists in the Sahel region bridging north and west Africa, Mali has been of note since time immemorial. I’ve long had a general interest in Malian history and politics inasmuch as I devour everything I can on virtually all of the history and conflicts of present day ‘Afro-Euraisa.’
After working in the Libyan war during 2011 in both its east and west theatres of conflict–Cyrenaica and Jebel Nafusa–I had planned to focus some of my efforts in 2012 on the Sahel. I had been contemplating working in Niger this year (before the Mali crisis began in earnest) in part because of hysterical front line Libyan rebels telling me they were fighting against Nigerien, Chadian and other sub-Saharan African ‘mercenaries’ who were allegedly being airlifted in by the Antonov into Sebha in the Libyan Sahara. (See the story of Qaddafi’s Nigerien Tuareg confidant here)
I’d been wanting to go to George W. Bush’s “Africa” i.e. Niger for quite some time to investigate the French-led uranium extraction industry in that country’s Aïr Massif in the sprawling northern Agadez Region and exploring the rebellious political dynamics of the adjacent Ténéré Desert and the Tuareg-dominated Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ).
But Niger was not meant to be, at least in terms of my own 2012 reporting priorities, so off to Bamako I went. I realized after I had already gone to some trouble to acquire my Malian visa that the only viable way to visit the short-lived Azawad state would to have actually queued up for a Nigérien or Mauritanian visa instead to visit either rebel-controlled Timbuktu or Gao respectively.
Plan A of interviewing the MNLA or Ansar Eddine was a pipe dream. I would quickly come to learn to my Plan B of hoping to somehow embed with the Malian army would not be doable either (although the BBC with its clout and/or connections managed to do so months later). The door would be then shut in my face upon attempting Plan C which was to visit the no-man’s land between the last government-held area of Mopti Region yet before the rebel or militia held areas of Douentza. Sometimes life is about Plan D I suppose was the take away from all this–accomplish whatever I could in the face of all these obstacles.
Mali is now undoubtedly going to face some form of military intervention to counter the Salafi-jihadi groups occupying its three northern regions and parts of northeast Mopti region. France currently has six hostages being held there beyond its more obvious political and economic interests in Mali. Three additional Western hostages plus the fear of blowback on the European heartland means that the EU views further consolidation of radical Salafi power in northern Mali as a threat to the EU itself.
France knows all too well that nihilistic terror wars in North Africa can reverberate back to the metropole with deadly effect evidenced by the Christmas Eve 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 and the 1995 Paris Metro bombings carried out by al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha-better known by known by its Francophone name, the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA. The GIA–a precursor to today’s AQIM in Mali–was one of the principal non-state belligerents fighting the Algerian government and security apparatus during the worst of the civil war years in the mid-1990s.
We still don’t have an accurate picture of precisely how this roughly proposed intervention will take place and likely won’t until something is already underway. Whatever the outcome, it will continue to have humanitarian repercussions across the entire region perhaps well beyond the massive refugee and IDP outflow we have already witnessed. It all remains to be seen at this point.
New York- I’ve been rummaging through my archives from the terror wars era for the last week or two while working on an upcoming project on Syria and have opened a veritable Pandora’s Box in the process. The other day I found a couple of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from the very beginning of the American-led intervention in the ongoing Afghan civil war in November 2001. These hideously bright yellow packets were being sold by traders in the smuggler’s bazaar of Khawja Bahauddin, the ramshackle town near the border with Tajikistan where Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated on September 9, 2001. These preservative laden bags of glorified junk food were air dropped over ‘friendly’ (i.e. areas controlled by cash-for-allegiance warlords) parts of northern Afghanistan in what was much more a bungled PR campaign than an effective humanitarian effort.
Rural Afghans were puzzled by the squirt packs of peanut butter and stale pop tarts entirely alien to their diet. To put things in the effete terminology used by food nerds today, Afghanistan is a “farm-to-table” society where all food is de facto “organic” even though the whole country is devoid of a Whole Foods.
These plastic bags were carefully labeled in English, French, and Spanish for illiterate villagers that speak Dari, Uzbek, and Pashto, might as well have been artifacts from the Roswell crash. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that more Western journos and CIA types ended up eating these awful things than the Afghans themselves. They were manufactured by a military contractor eager to reap the early buildup of the immediate post-9/11 spending boomlet called The Wornick Company.
The Wornick Company apparently employed undocumented Mexican immigrants to pack these things. An investigation was launched after it was discovered an AQ operative had his sights set on the company’s HQ in south Texas after Wornick ingeniously labeled these packets with their company name and address. Like an AQ for dummies target.
A better holistic strategy would have been to contract an nearby Iranian company (who could have perhaps given honest work to Iran’s own resented Afghan refugees) to package pulao and freeze dried naan, you know, like, food Afghans actually eat not dissimilar to Iranian fare. Laughable as it sounds, something akin to this might have killed two birds with one stone-actually nourishing starving Afghans and engaging Iran economically.
Such a practical initiative could have opened the door to undermining both the clerical regime in Qom and Tehran during Mohammed Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” era and the still-not-going-away bomb Iran chicken hawks poisoning the present debate in DC. But the anti-Iran agitators active in Washington today are often one in the same as the men and women who wanted to pull away from Afghanistan in 2002 (and therefore an Iran that was cooperating at the time) to focus Pentagon efforts on Iraq thereby keeping the US pitted against Iran for the foreseeable future. The maintenance of this highly negative staus quo was far more important for those with a vested interest in keeping hostilities alive and well.
The air dropping of quintessential American foodstuffs into Afghanistan was an ill conceived plan at best and a poor use of tax payer funds. With no follow up measures to coordinate events on the ground, there was no methodology employed to ensure that the food was received by those that needed it most. Meanwhile, the few who happened upon these poorly planned c-17 borne drops would often hoard them and sell them to bazaaris who would then resell them to the strangers in their midst. There was no way to ensure appropriate and even distribution, the thing bona fide unarmed humanitarian NGOs are supposed to be most adept at.
Oh and another story going around at the time was that these clumsy airborne food drops had actually managed to kill a few unsuspecting villagers along the way. I never got to the bottom of weather that was actually true or not because to be honest I was too busy covering the war. But I was never all that comfortable with the idea of armed humanitarians. “Armed humanitarian” is a stark contradiction in terms.
The pacifist European NGOs were careening around with large decals on the side of their Landcruisers showing Kalashnikovs encircled in red with a line crossing them out while the Americans were landing armed helicopters, disgorging bulky helmeted men in camouflage, guns drawn, in the exact same political space. It all seemed like such a bad juxtaposition.
New York-Going through a storage locker the other day, I dug up a lot of stuff from my personal archives in the early post-9/11 period. I collected lots of odds and ends back then thinking they’d be of historical import down the road. Here we are a decade on and its interesting (at least to me) to reexamine this stuff. Here are scans I made of magazines I collected in 2001-2002.
I believe it is important to collect and document these artifacts in time where we are inundated with so much media and where attention spans seem to be ever shortening. Each new global crisis feels like it obfuscates the previous one. It is almost as if the Arab Spring replaced the global financial crisis (such an inarticulate term) which replaced the terror wars.
This is a visual record of an indelible post-modern tragedy.