Renewed Conflict in Libya

May 21st, 2014 No comments
Fighters outside the Ras Lanuf oil refinery on March 7, 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Fighters outside the Ras Lanuf oil refinery on March 7, 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With Khalifa Haftar suddenly very relevant again after his initially notable reappearance in Libya in March 2011,  Libya’s littoral is once against thrust into turmoil in both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Haftar is leading a fight against Ansar al-Sharia and Derna-based salafis in the east and has forces loyal to him attack the General National Congress complex in the west. Whether he can indeed overthrow the enfeebled elected government in Tripoli remains to be seen but thus far his efforts appear to be destabilizing what is already a highly fissiparous state structure with its revolving door of prime ministers. For Haftar’s staunchly anti-Ikhwan stance, the BBC is even referring to him in a loose analogy as “Libya’s Sisi” I profiled Haftar in 2011 which was picked up by Reuters at the time.

This week I am quoted by McClatchy D.C. in an article on Haftar’s newly relevant role in the Libya militia polity as well as Yahoo! Noticias España. My work was also obliquely referenced on the Middle East Institute Editor’s blog last week.

NATO helping to tip over a tin pot dictatorship during Operation Unified Protector and its U.S. precursor Operation Odyssey Dawn was one thing, but state building in Libya in that aftermath of all that is quite another. Simply put, it has not happened in any meaningful way.

From the Tuareg-cum-salafi revolt in northern Mali that began only months after Libya-based Tuareg fighters exited their evaporating sanctuary and returned home via Niger to the Toubou clashes in the Fezzan in the spring of 2012, the ripple effects of the downfall of North Africa’s most caricatured dictator have been felt across the region ever since.

Perhaps Haftar sees himself as a future Libyan military strongman in the fashion of an Egyptian-style military leader. As an old school CIA asset with Nasserist origins, it remains unclear whether he can oust those administering nascent post-Qaddafi state with whom he violently disagrees or defeat the salafi-jihadi militias flying the black flags in troubled Cyrenaica.

It should be remembered that Haftar was gone from Libya for decades before returning there when opportunity struck in 2011. What he does have doing for him is access to heavy weapons–including aircraft–to smite his opponents coupled with the element of surprise.

Not everyone was thrilled by the downfall of Qaddafi. On May 28, 2012, I noticed this poster in the rear windscreen of a taxi for 2011 demonstration there in support of the late Libya leader. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Not everyone was thrilled by the downfall of Qaddafi. On May 28, 2012, I noticed this poster in the rear windscreen of a taxi for 2011 demonstration in Bamako, Mali in support of the late Libya leader. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Africa, Libya, Mali Tags: ,

Threat Level: Elevated

On the night of August 30, 2004, anti-Republican protestors march outside New York's Madison Square Garden. I photographed hundreds upon hundreds of protestors and these guys had far and away the most imaginative signage. ©2004 Derek Henry Flood

On the night of August 30, 2004, anti-Republican protestors march outside New York’s Madison Square Garden. I photographed hundreds upon hundreds of protestors and these guys had far and away the most imaginative signage. I love this photo. This was a fleeting moment where they held the signs they’d created perfectly and yet were looking in three different directions. This was when I was lagging behind the competition and still shooting analog. ©2004 Derek Henry Flood

New York- As I attempted to chronicle the major events of the first decade of the 21st Century, I scurried all over the world applying for visas through arcane processes at hard to find embassies and consulates, felt the thud of earth shattering ordnance , and did my best to get an intellectual grasp on all that was unfolding around me. Most of what I had shot in New York revolved around events at Ground Zero, but this milieu of civil disobedience was something different yet ultimately related to 9/11 in the larger scope of things.

In late August 2004, a time that was arguably the zenith of neoconservative power with Bush on the cusp of his second term, conservatives were rallying in New York of all places. According to its detractors New York was/is  the cradle of comparatively liberal media save for Murdoch’s media properties. But New York was also where 9/11 principally happened which neoconservative operators used to consolidate their hold on executive power in D.C. In other words, these were strange days in the city.

That year I pragmatically stayed home to financially recover from the chaos I’d created for myself from 2000-2003. Wars don’t wait and when you run off to one after having made a decision from one day to the next, it is to your own detriment upon your return home unless you come from an old money or nouveau riche background.  So that year I looked inward to shoot a story at home and along came the Republican National Convention protests that August.

On August 30, 2004, I followed hordes of people from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to Madison Square Garden where the convention was being held. Next thing I know I was shooting shoulder to shoulder with James Nachtwey, Antonin Kratochvil and many of the other war photographers from the VII and Magnum agencies (all with the latest digital SLR cameras bestowed upon them by corporate sponsors I guessed).

I was in a weird place with relation to money and technology: I could get to events and shoot them but as I was an analog holdout I couldn’t compete with everyone else who’d already long since made the switch to digital well before Iraq in 2003. I could just afford to shoot and develop actual film but not buy a digital body and lens kit. Meaning that I couldn’t file ultra competitive breaking news stories. I therefore had to take a long view of history as it was happening since while I had the access to world events, I didn’t have the technology to get my work out there at the time. So I have this large analog film archive that I treasure to this day.

By August 2004, the Iraq war was in full swing with American troops battling Jaish-e-Mahdi men in Najaf while the Afghan war was a forgotten backwater. Even though New York and DC were attacked by salafi-jihadis on 9/11, GIs were somehow fighting Shia militiamen instead. Sure I’m being rather simplistic in pointing that out, but purposefully so.

While milling through the throngs of people, I tried to find the most creative protestors of which this person was one. An all enveloping get up that was akin to a Halloween costume. After a dozen years of relentless Bloombergism and gentrification, I can scarcely imagine a scene like this happening today. ©2004 Derek Henry Flood

While milling through the throngs of people, I tried to find the most creative protestors of which this person on Manhattan’s 8th Avenue was one. An all-enveloping get-up that was akin to a Halloween costume. After a dozen years of relentless Bloombergism and gentrification, I can scarcely imagine a scene like this happening today. Perhaps it still could a la Occupy Wall Street but these days of rage during the height of the Bush era feel so far away now. ©2004 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: 9/11, America, New York Tags: , ,

A (Hoped for) Peaceful Leadership Transition for Afghanistan

April 25th, 2014 No comments
Abdullah Abdullah holding a press conference in the garrison town of Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar Province abutting Tajikistan in early November 2001. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah Abdullah holding a press conference in the garrison town of Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar Province abutting Tajikistan in early November 2001. Note the Massoud poster hovering in the background. I recall Abdullah as stoic while the overthrow of Mohammed Omar’s Islamic Emirate seemed far from an absolute certainty in those chaotic early days of the Western intervention in Afghanistan’s ongoing civil war. That stoicism has remained with him over the ensuing years. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the partial election results from the April 5 vote trickling out from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) along Jalalabad Road on the edge of Kabul favoring Abdullah Abdullah, the world may witness the first peaceful transition of state level power in Afghanistan in post-royalist  modern day history. Though Abdullah does not appear to have the absolute majority required under the Afghan constitution (50.01%), he maintains a healthy lead with an estimated 44.9% vs. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai trailing with 35.8% and Zalmay Rassoul far behind at around 11%. This will likely lead to a runoff election in late May as Abdullah and Ghani have no interest in forming a coalition as yet.

Hamid Karzai has effectively been in power since the conclusion of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 when he was perceived as the West’s man in Afghanistan. How times have changed.

As Karzai grew increasingly erratic, paranoid, and hostile to donor nations who had troops occupying his country over the years, he seemed to become a rather reclusive creature of the presidential palace in Kabul’s fortified green zone. If Abdullah were to take power that would upend the ethnic calculus of foreign diplomats and intelligence agencies following 9/11 that the head of state must hail from a Pashtun tribe, preferably from the south. Abdullah, while being half Pashtun, is generally thought of simply as a Tajik with his partnership with Massoud that painfully ended on September 9, 2001.

The Americans and their allies felt that ethnicity should trump other traits in Afghanistan in order to placate the agrarian populace from whom the Taliban emanated in the mid-1990s. Similarly, these same people strongly felt that the leader of a post-Saddam Iraq must be a Shia in order to properly represent that country’s oppressed majority. In that regard, the two principle democracy export projects were not genuinely democratic at all. If these disastrous neoconservative legacy projects had been truly democratic in nature, than an Uzbek or Tajik should have been able to theoretically be the leader of Afghanistan and a Kurd or Assyrian the leader of Iraq. Instead, American and various participating EU member states’ policies did nothing but reinforce preexisting notions about what should be the mother tongue of the imposed national leader or what sect he must belong to in order  to satisfy the electorate.

Hazara village girls come to greet Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in Ghazni province with the Afghan airforce to campaign in remote ethnic Hazara villages. Abdullah is the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the 20th August elections.

School girls come to greet Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in Ghazni Province as the rickety the Afghan air force ferried his campaign into remote ethnic Hazara villages in Soviet behemoths. Abdullah was the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 election. Today with Mr. Karzai about to make his formal exit from Afghan politics, Abdullah may become Afghanistan’s new president. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah on the campaign trail in Daikundi Province, August 11, 2009. Though the Afghan conflict is primarily painted along ethno-linguistic lines in terms of warlords and their patronage ethnic systems, there is also the Islamic schism whereby politicos from Kabul try and curry favor to get out he Shia vote. Not nearly as stark a sectarian conflict as that in Iraq, for those familiar with the history of 1990s Afghanistan, the sectarian factor played an important role in the conflict. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Abdullah on the campaign trail in Ghazni Province, in the Hazarajat region August 11, 2009. Though the Afghan conflict is primarily painted along ethno-linguistic lines in terms of warlords and their corresponding patronage systems, there is also the Islamic schism whereby politicos from Kabul try and curry favor to get out the Shia vote. Not nearly as stark a sectarian conflict as that in Iraq, for those familiar with the history of 1990s Afghanistan, the sectarian factor played an important role in the conflict. In Ghazni, ethnic and sectarian interests overlap. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

For Washington, moving past Karzai is critical in light of its failure to reach a Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO n=unable to hammer out a Status of Forces Agreement regarding the presence of foreign troops beyond the slated withdrawal date come the end of the current year. Both Abdullah (above) and Ghani (below) have indicated they will sign such agreements if in power. For all of the effort that has been put forth and lives lost, the Taliban have never been effectively quelled. The U.S. may be tamping down its planned-for forces numbers from 10,000 troops to possibly closer to 5,000 or less according to Reuters.

One should hope that a new leader will bring a modicum of progression to Afghanistan’s internecine affairs. But Abdullah was Massoud’s deputy-the Taliban’s archenemy on the battlefield-and Mohammed Omar is still at large unlike bin Laden and it is unlikely his most strident foes will have forgotten that. Look what they did to Burhanuddin Rabbani after all?  Almost exactly a decade on from the killing of Massoud by Maghrebi jihadis in Khoja Bahauddin, a Taliban turban bomber struck the former president. Grievances are seldom forgotten, particularly when truth and reconciliation have never been achieved in a land as pained as this one.

Second place presidential candidate and former World Banker Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaking at a televised debate in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel on August 10, 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Second place presidential candidate and former World Banker Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaking at a televised debate in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel on August 10, 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

For there was never unanimity among relevant players (Pakistan, and even Iran in certain circumstances) about how Afghanistan should move forward beyond the formal collapse of their Kandahar-based movement in November-December 2001. This goes into massive geopolitical tangents about not having a proper mechanism to resolve once and for all the simmering Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India to say nothing of the Kashmiris themselves and China and the enmity between Iran and Pakistan. With bizarrely-ruled Turkmenistan officially ‘neutral’ and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in varying degrees of stultified dictatorship, Afghanistan is and will remain a geopolitical laboratory for some time to come.

But if it can move beyond its leader in power since January 2002, that will be a step beyond the predicament in Iraq where Maliki is seeking the 3rd term in a vote a few days from the time of this writing that may likely further ensconce the bloodletting there while hindering political progress verging on the dictatorial.

Tajikistan's Emonali Rahmon urges/implores his subject-citizens to invest in his Rogun Dam mega hydroelectric project. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

Tajikistan’s Emonali Rahmon urges/implores his subject-citizens to invest in his Rogun Dam mega hydroelectric project, infuriating Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov in the process. With Tajikistan still being such a weak nation-state since my first visit in 2001, it cannot orchestrate any effective foreign policy towards its southern neighbor. This in my view is to Dushanbe’s great detriment. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

The measures of progress in Afghanistan can be interpreted through a wide array of prisms. Below I am using the images below to make a simplistic,  unscientific contrast based on my own frustrations derived from visual observations rather than data points.

Does progress establish order or is preexisting order necessary to foment progress?

What is the connection between the disparate images below? The plot to destroy the World Trade Center and the massacre of the Shia Hazara people of central and northern Afghanistan stemmed from parallel jihadi milieus operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan simultaneously-Deobandi Taliban and Salafi Arab. So a shiny new tower rising from the ashes in lower Manhattan and the Hazara living in relative peace are in fact very much related imagery.

Call it an unfair or crude comparison perhaps but the contrast between the reconfiguring of New York's World Trade Center, as painfully and unnecessarily long as it has been taking. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Call it an unfair or crude comparison perhaps, but the contrast between the reconfiguring of New York’s World Trade Center site, as painfully and unnecessarily long as it has been taking (think how fast a similar feat would have been accomplished in Dubai or Shanghai without unions or human rights for laborers factoring in), with how much money has been poured into Afghanistan and how little has been done there with relation to infrastructure and it is quite simply a pathetic affair. So many dusty roads in Kabul are still not even paved. Yes a degree of progress has been made in Afghanistan but it does not amount to much in relation to what has been donated/grafted/spent. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Take Daykundi Province in central Afghanistan. So many years after America and the West felt compelled to enter Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, we had to go there by helicopter because roads were either nonexistent or entirely insecure. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Take Daykundi Province in central Afghanistan for example. So many years after America and the West felt compelled to enter Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, we had to go there by helicopter because roads were either nonexistent or entirely insecure. That leaves the country reliant on the old, insurgent ridden ring road that isolates the Hazarajat and undermines economic integration with neighboring states. Granted its physical geography certainly plays a role, but the Soviets engineered the Salang tunnel after all. Progress is possible if order were to be enabled. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, America, Central Asia Tags:

Degrees of Separation

April 16th, 2014 No comments
Spooky Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, Utah. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Spooky Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, Utah. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The Pulitzers were announced yesterday, catching me off guard as usual. I don’t follow the journalistic contest circuit as I once sort of did much earlier in my career. I read through the winners and finalists realizing I was a degree of separation or two from a couple of them. In the social media era, it is of course possible to be connected to greatness without actually being within reach of it. Part of the drawback in working behind tall paywalls or doing work for non-Anglophone outlets is that you might as well be hiding under a rock in terms of the possibilities of fame and collegial recognition.

I began my interest in photography  not with war and pestilence but with quiet landscapes. Otherwise I would have been in Kosovo when these images were taken rather than driving around the Southwest scouting once obscure locales. My goal was to be an independent explorer rather than a prize-winning journo undergirded by insider media gatekeepers operating under an opaque hiring code.

These are some transparencies from that pre-9/11 era.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Saguaro National Park under the night sky in Arizona’s Sonnoran Desert along the Mexican frontier. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

An arch inside Spooky Gulch being light up by reflected sunlight beaming down from the crevice above. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

An arch inside Spooky Gulch being light up by reflected sunlight beaming down from the crevice above. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The sinews of Spooky Gulch with high contrast of light and dark. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The sinews of Spooky Gulch with high contrast of light and dark. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

The Novye War for Crimea

March 2nd, 2014 No comments
In order to not get their home burned in an anti-ethnic Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, a Crimean Tatar family spray painted "Tatar" on their gate as they evacuated their neighborhood while all the Uzbek-owned homes surrounding them were torched. Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from the Crimean peninsula in what is now Ukraine. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

In order to not get their home burned in an anti-ethnic Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, a Crimean Tatar family spray painted “Tatar” on their gate as they evacuated their neighborhood while all the Uzbek-owned homes surrounding them were torched by Kyrgyz supremacists. Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from the Crimean peninsula in what is now Ukraine. Like the Chechens, the Tatars of Crimea were deported en masse to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment by Stalin in 1944. Ten years later, during the post-Stalinist reign of Nikita Khrushchev, Crimea would be formally attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ever since the Soviet Union ceased to be a reality, many of the successor republics have been riven with ethnic and nationalist violence. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight programme last week with presenter Malak Jaafar and Elena Suponina of the Russian International Affairs Council. The debate kicked off with the framing of the tension in Ukraine as one of the pro-EU Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic west of the country versus the more Orthodox east dominated by native Russian-speakers bordering the Russian Federation. But as we know, it is far more complex than that. Take in Ukraine’s own localized geopolitical and historic place:

Within its own region, Ukraine is a veritable geographic hub surrounded by once Soviet or Eastern Bloc spokes. Western Ukraine borders more recent EU accession states like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. But to the north western Ukraine abuts authoritarian Belarus, oft dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 20 years. On western Ukraine’s far southwestern frontier is the bizarrely anachronistic Soviet-esque ‘Republic of Trans-Dniester‘ a (also known as Transnistria) a sliver of land east of the Dniester River which broke away from Moldova after a brief 1991-1992 conflict shortly after the USSR’s dissolution. Northern Moldova proper borders Ukraine. And I suppose most notably, Ukraine borders the Russian Federation to its east which considers itself the hub and Ukraine one of its spokes.

Part of the spark for the EuroMaidan protest movement was now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s backing out of entering the beginning of an EU Association Agreement before the November 2013 Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit under Kremlin pressure.

Georgia and Moldova, which both have Russian-protected secessionist regions, did initial the early stage of this framework which is meant to ease visa restrictions on citizens of the signatory states and encourage a broader free trade zone on the EU’s outskirts. But as the EuroMaidan crisis dragged on through December and January, the mood became increasing bitter.

After some 78 people were killed in Kiev’s now infamous square, a friend there messaged me to clarify: “now we don’t fight for Europe, we fight for our rights and democracy! We forgot about that association [agreement] with Europe.”

Alas, to say that the debate over Ukraine’s place in the geopolitical sphere can be neatly bisected into a compartimentalized east-and-west dynamic is not entirely useful as a starting point of argumentation. Though live television with its intensity and time constraints often doesn’t leave so much room for nuance.

I tried my best not to fall into the trap of passé geopolitical clichés in the debate with Ms. Suponina.

On the broadcast I stated that I felt the immediate struggle for the future of the country was not a binary east-west one but that the immediate trouble would be between Kiev and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital in addition to the obvious conundrum of the port of Sevastopol being the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The following morning, my concerns became an apparent reality.

The situation in Crimea has so far been a rather muted stalemate but the danger lies in Russian forces creating facts on the ground. while the international diplomatic community shuttles around. Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov made an analogy with the Russian occupation of Abkhazia in a televised speech. A contact of mine in the Georgian diplomatic corps informed me that his colleagues in Tbilisi were watching events in Ukraine very closely and that such [predictable] Russian provocations were all the more reason for Georgian accession to NATO.

And while the comparisons between Crimea and Abkhazia are not perfectly precise in terms of local ethnic politics–no analogy is perfect–the overall Russian strategy may be read from the same playbook. Under the pretext of protecting a client population, Moscow may yet create another statelet while Kiev remains in disarray. Putin fears and loathes former Soviet states joining Western security and economic architectures, namely NATO and the EU in Brussels. He seeks to re-create a realm under his own control be it the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union. He had hoped to twist Kiev’s arm into joining the Customs Union but EuroMaidan did away with all that.

One clever thing Mr. Putin has done is that by keeping states once ruled by Moscow divided and with Russian troops on their territories, it has made Western decision makers tepid about full integration with these states. Ever fearful of an actual direct hot war confrontation with the standard bearers of the Kalashnikov–something that was avoided during the most arduous years of the Cold War, no Western military is at all eager to challenge Russian forces on land or at sea. Integrating Moldova into the EU or Georgia into NATO is tricky when leaders in Brussels must think through the ‘Russian troops factor’ the the breakaway territories of those two states.

Now Ukraine–which already had the Russian Navy more or less peacefully being hosted on its territory–may indeed be grappling with an incipient yet irreversible future frozen conflict if the crisis in Crimea is not immediately resolved. What happens in Ukraine today may well affect Georgia, Moldova and other vulnerable post-Soviet states with unresolved issues from the 1990s that the Kremlin can turn to its advantage opportunistically if need be.

I remember speaking to a Moldovan diplomat last year who described growing up outside Tiraspol and how she lamented the essentially lost idea of a truly united Moldova. Putin may not at all be an eloquent uniter, but he is an agile divider in the post-Soviet periphery.

An unfinished fence built by the FSB dividing agricultural land outside the village of Ditsi in Georgia's Shida-Kartli region. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An unfinished fence built by the FSB dividing agricultural land outside the village of Ditsi in Georgia’s Shida-Kartli region. Georgian security men told me the lights off in the distance were those of a Russian military base in clear violation of the 2008 six-point peace plan brokered by the EU. Some fear that that Moscow may use the model employed in Georgia in August 2008–a pretext of averting ‘genocide’–to cleave the Crimean peninsula off from mainland Ukraine. Though South Ossetia is nominally an independent nation-state as recognized by Russia, it is in essence an occupied adjunct of the Russian Federation. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Russia Tags: , , , , ,

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.

In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.

From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.

The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.

I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.

By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

Libya- Looking Back on Revolution 2011

February 17th, 2014 No comments
As soon as I reached Benghazi on March 1, 2011, I walked around at dusk scrambling for photos to capture the mood of the revolution. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

As soon as I reached Benghazi on March 1, 2011, I walked around at dusk scrambling for photos to capture the mood of the revolution. I sat at the ouster of Mubarak in Cairo because there were already to many expat journos (and apparently a number of AUC grads lingering around) and I tend to prefer to cover to more logistically difficult stories where there are fewer Westerners. But the situation in Cairo fed into that in Benghazi. By the time I arrived in Tobruk on February 28, Cyrenaica was crawling with veteran correspondents I’d seen since Afghanistan and ambitious, yet totally inexperienced “millennials” alike. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Three years ago today a bloody revolution kicked off in earnest in Benghazi, Libya which ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, longest dictatorial regime in post-colonial Africa surpassing even that of Omar Bongo in Gabon who ruled that country for 41.5 years. The locals referred to the happening as the “February 17th revolution.” I’ll never forget the fortitude of the Libyan people in the face of immense, violent repression.

Here are a few selected images from that time.

One of the near daily demonstrations outside the courthouse on the corniche in Benghazi. What interested was that much of the anger had not so much to do with the then ongoing civil war but was rooted in the 1996 Abu Slim prison massacre where families allege Qaddafi's goons killed some 1200 inmates. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

One of the near daily demonstrations outside the courthouse on the corniche in Benghazi. What interested was that much of the anger had not so much to do with the then ongoing civil war but was rooted in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre where families allege Qaddafi’s goons killed some 1200 inmates. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The Libyan revolution's key symbol was the tricolor flag of King Idris as-Senussi, himself from a Cyrenaican order. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The Libyan revolution’s key symbol was the tricolor flag of King Idris as-Senussi, himself from a Cyrenaican order.  It was much more visually interesting than Qaddafi’s monochromatic green banner. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Faisal, my driver for two weeks of coverage. us outsiders couldn't do what we do without guys like him. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Faisal, my driver for two weeks of coverage. Us outsiders couldn’t do what we do without guys like him. He took me to the souq to get one of these awesome Tunisian hood jackets. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The other hallmark of the Libyan conflict was the "technical," often a Toyota pickup truck mounted with a Soviet or other Eastern Bloc-origin heavy machine gun mounted in the flatbed. Here a fighter prays in the sand before veering off toward the front. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The other hallmark of the Libyan conflict was the “technical,” often a Toyota pickup truck mounted with a Soviet or other Eastern Bloc-origin heavy machine gun mounted in the flatbed. Here a fighter prays in the sand before veering off toward the front. Use of the Toyota HiLux as a tactical fighting vehicle was pioneered in the Libyan-Chadian war during the 1980s, much to Chad’s advantage. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Conspiracies abounded over this 81mm mortar shell that it was a piece of Israeli ordinance being supplied to Qaddafi's forces. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Conspiracies abounded over this 81mm mortar shell that it was a piece of (incongruous?) Israeli ordinance being supplied to Qaddafi’s forces. War zones are often rife with unfounded conspiracy theories, particularly when a closed society has just broken open. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

An NTC fighter rushed into the hospital in Ajdabiya as Qaddafi's armor moved closer to Benghazi while internationalists were still hammering out the details of a military intervention from above. Tim Hetherington was next to me when I took this photo. He would be killed in Misrata five weeks later. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

An NTC fighter rushed into the hospital in Ajdabiya as Qaddafi’s armor moved closer to Benghazi while internationalists were still hammering out the details of a military intervention from above. Tim Hetherington was next to me when I took this photo. He would be killed in Misrata five weeks later. When I tried to get to the front that day, a rebel warned me in English that they didn’t want journos there anymore at all and access was denied. Behind him, a cleric was yelling on a megaphone in Arabic that some journos were spies aiding the regime and not to trust them any longer. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

After the eerie vibe in Ajdabiya the day before, I decided to bail on Libya for a while and headed back to Alexandria. When I got to Salloum, there were Chadian men making the maghrib salat. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

After the eerie vibe in Ajdabiya the day before, I decided to bail on Libya for a while and headed back to Alexandria. When I got to Salloum, there were Chadian men making the salat al-maghrib. Egypt, in the view of its own tumult didn’t want to let the fleeing sub-Saharan migrant workers in. They were living outdoors at the border in total limbo. When I crossed into Libya two weeks before, the border was swarmed with Bangladeshi migrants who terrible, irresponsible government said it was too broke to bring them home to South Asia ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Egypt, Libya Tags: , , ,