Enter the Fabled City

January 5th, 2014 No comments
The magnificent ruins of a cathedral in the ancient Armenian city of Ani. Ani was devastated by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. This image is from one of my earliest journeys in the historically contested lands of the east. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The magnificent ruins of a cathedral in the ancient Armenian city of Ani. Ani was devastated by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. This image is from one of my earliest journeys in the historically contested lands of the east. I had a young Turkish conscript as my official escort through the site along Turkey’s tense border with Armenia. He acted as a minder who told what photos I could and could not take in this sensitive military zone. At the time there was an urban myth bubbling on the Turkish youth hostel circuit about a clueless Japanese tourist being shot from an Armenian guard tower for pointing his camera toward its position. The story may have been bollocks but it did the trick of making me extra cautious where I pointed my lens.  ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The other day I picked up The History of Armenia by Simon Payaslian somewhat at random off the bookshelf mainly to get some regional context for Georgian history during the Menshevik period and subsequent Bolshevik takeover shortly thereafter. Reading about Transcaucasia as a buffer zone between the Ottoman empire and the Russian imperial empire and the folding in of Western Armenia to the Turks, I recalled my visit to the medieval Armenian ruins of Ani today located in Turkey’s Kars Province abutting the border of the modern Armenian republic along the Akhurian River. I went to Ani and a number of other fascinating ancient sites around eastern Turkey while I killed time waiting for my Iranian visa to be processed back in Ankara.

It was at this time that I conceived the idea of the “Fabled City,” a photography project explore the lesser known interconnectivity of the ancient world in order to promote a healthy form of post-Cold War globalism in the present day. This idea died in an instant as I stood stunned in the ashes of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But I still have many of the images lying around as a kind of pre-9/11 detritus of memory. I thought I’d scan a couple of the prints and share them.

The frescoed dome of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani, Turkey. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The frescoed dome of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani, Turkey. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Sunset ioverlooking the Ishak Pasha Palace n Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province, Turkey along the iranian border. A splendid view. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Sunset ioverlooking the Ottoman-era Ishak Pasha Palace n Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province, Turkey along the iranian border. A splendid view. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistani army soldiers parked in front of the hulking bastions of the Derawar Fort in the searingly hot Cholistan Desert in Punjab. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistani army soldiers parked in front of the hulking bastions of the Derawar Fort in the searingly hot Cholistan Desert in Punjab. The fort was built by the nawab of Bahawalpur in the 1700s. In the post-9/11 era, Bahawalpur may have gained notoriety for being the base of the Sunni Deobandi sectarian group Jaish-e-Muhammed but when I visited there I was far more enthralled by the city’s proximity to southern Punjab’s historic sites. How times change perspective. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

A movie theatre in Peshawar, Pakistan with South Asian-style hand painted film posters. The poster on the far left depicts Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott's Gladiator which was still a fairly recent release at that time. In the centre appears to be a Planet of the Apes poster. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

A movie theatre in Peshawar, Pakistan with South Asian-style hand painted film posters. The poster on the far left depicts Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator which was still a fairly recent release at that time. In the centre appears to be a Planet of the Apes poster. While the 9/11 plot was partially brewing next door in Afghanistan, Peshawar at this time was free of suicide bombs and was well open to the intrepid tourist or wandering student. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

In the town of Darra Adam Khel in what was then known as the Northwest Frontier Province, Craig "Bones" Martin, an hilarious Australian adventurer fires off a Kalashnikov into a nearby hillside in what was a kind of bizarre tourist attraction. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

In the town of Darra Adam Khel in what was then known as the Northwest Frontier Province, Craig “Bones” Martin, an hilarious Australian adventurer fires off a Kalashnikov into a nearby hillside in what was a kind of bizarre tourist attraction. Darra is famous for its indigenous smalls arms manufacturing but when foreigners show up, the local men of the Adam Khel clan of the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns insisted on us firing a time tested authentic Soviet model. The boy in the foreground was running to scoop up the empty bullet casings  the sell them back to the gun shops to be refashioned. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood 

On Perspective

January 3rd, 2014 No comments
These digital flight path monitors on planes can act as an indicators of regional perspective on the relativity of place names. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

These digital flight path monitors on planes can act as an indicators of regional perspectives on the relativity of place names. Flying to Tbilisi on a Turkish budget airline, Grozny or “Groznyj” appears onscreen as you approach the Georgian capital. For many abroad, Grozny is still a place name that still evokes a modern day Stalingrad writ small after its infrastructure was relentlessly pummeled by artillery in the 1st and 2nd modern Russo-Chechen wars. For a Turkish tycoon it may simply be a future destination for his passenger planes or potential sphere of Turkish influence. This graphic however does not recognize the hard, bitter border between the independent republics of the South Caucasus and those under control of Moscow to their north. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Sitting in a cafe on a bitterly cold winter day, I’m doing some writing regarding a character in my as yet unpublished manuscript who I found out perished fighting jihad in Syria’s tragically beleaguered Aleppo Governorate in late May 2013. I was taken aback by the very idea that someone I once knew went to Syria to fight ideological warfare and quickly became cannon fodder for the very same Soviet weaponry that caused him to fleee his homeland of Chechnya for safety in neighboring Georgia at the outset of the 2nd Russo-Chechen war that began in the autumn of 1999. This story became part of a recent article I authored for IHS Jane’s in London. When I set out from Tbilisi in October for the Chechen/Kist villages of the Pankisi Gorge, I never expected learning something like this would be the end result.

How Chechen militancy has transmogrified from the struggle for national liberation to more generalized jihadism is a reflection of how the world has failed the people of the Caucasus as a whole and how radical Sunni doctrines encouraging relgio-polical violence have metastasized, subsuming a largely Sufi people to the point where a handful of them are drawn to Aleppo like moths to a flame. As a Chechen colleague said to me in a recent exchange, “it’s sad what has happened to my people.”

So now I’m in the midst of dusting off an old writing project and breathing new life into it by adding in a dark epilogue. If those nitwits at the National Security Agency parsed this particular blog in their endless big data mining project I might become even more a “person of interest” or some other bureaucratic catchphrase to further justify their vast invasion of privacy and the violation of journalistic confidentiality.

The people I encountered on my earliest forays into the “war on terror” are still somehow relevant. From a guy I met in 2002 becoming “martyred” in Syria in 2013 to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah–who I first photographed in November 2001 and later in August 2009–being the chief candidate for the Afghan presidency in the April election there in 2014, these stories and the people populating them don’t just simply fade away.

One of my favorite quotes from all the years doing this stuff was when I was at the Corbis photo agency here in New York in January 2002 and an editor there told me “Afghanistan is over” and that I needed to move on and look for the next story (did she mean Iraq?). Afghanistan was never, and is still not, “over.” In 2014 Afghanistan is still a major story. As is the legacy of 9/11, the Chechen conflict, and even Iraq in my stubborn view.

The check-in counters at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul's 2nd airline hub. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The check-in counters at the seriously revamped Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul’s 2nd airline hub. This airport handles more obscure destinations east of Turkey, with an emphasis on former Soviet republics and Iran akin to Dubai’s Terminal 2 where you go if you need to fly to Najaf, Iraq or Hargeisa, Somaliland. I first came here in October 2001 to fly to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in order to cover the war in northern Afghanistan. Then I met an exasperated, award-winning Canadian/Texan photojournalist named Christopher Anderson who I helped navigate the Byzantine ticketing and boarding procedure. I remember him saying he paid $50 USD for taxi there, far from central Istanbul, while I had taken a ferry, 3 buses and then hitchhiked the final leg. He took an iconic photo that continues to be resold for book jackets to this day while most of my images have never seen the light of day.  He now resides comfortably in Brooklyn, photographing celebrities and politicians as a staff photographer for New York magazine while I am still going to war zones with no money and photographing mustachioed guys with Kalashnikovs. Perhaps I was too helpful… ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Caucasus, Georgia Tags: , ,

So Long 2013

December 29th, 2013 No comments
An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. Soldiers here have to be wary of both the Dawlat al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Jaish Rijal al-Tairiq al-Naqshbandi led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. These insurgent groups constantly target Iraq’s federal security forces whom they see as representing Maliki’s ‘apostate’ or pro-Iran Shia government. Aside from that constantly morphing nightmare, they are also along a sort of front line with Kurdish peshmerga militiamen. Seeing a post-Western troops Iraq gives one pause for what may happen in Afghanistan once the NATO ISAF coalition is eventually disassembled. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- As the worst year of my life comes to a quiet close, I can look back and be thoroughly grateful for the two reporting trips I was able to make to Iraq and Georgia and for the friends I was able to reconnect with in Catalunya and Greece. I thank heaven for all those who graciously supported me in 2013.

This world is filled with all kinds of people from pathetic nihilists to selfish materialists all the way to gentle altruists. The former are reported on and/or lionized far too often while the latter often fail to receive the credit they so rightfully deserve.

One of the biggest events on the near term horizon slated for 2014 is of course the wobbly future of a post-Karzai, post-America/NATO Afghanistan. With a presidential election scheduled–replete with some candidates of questionable repute–for early April in which Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run for another term and the planned pullout-be it partial or total–of American troops a year from now, it is possible the Afghan Taliban’s writ in the parts of Afghan Pashtunistan that make up its power base may be reenergized.

The pull-out of the Americans would likely lead to an immediate abandonment by its NATO partner nations and others non-NATO contributors such as Georgia. Like the Kurds, the Pashtuns are one of the world’s largest ethno-liguistic groups devoid of a nation-state to call there own.

The Taliban are not akin to al-Qaeda but are rather an Islamist ethno-nationalist movement that seeks to rule Pashtunistan as it is sometimes referred and other adjacent parts of Afghanistan–and now Pakistan as the movement’s once limited ideology has continued to metastasize– inhabited by Tajiks and Punjabis. Uzbeks and Sindhis. Although of course Taliban leadership would never admit such, even though the emirate they once proclaimed back in the 1990s was within Westphalian border principals in the land they inherited and conquered.

It should be remembered that while for the West the raison d’être for its presence in Afghanistan was Mohammed Atta sitting in Tarnak Farms when he wasn’t in Hamburg-Harburg, the conflict is really one of and for the people of that region to decide. The West would be and likely have been best keeping the Afghan war a low impact intelligence effort rather than a swelling-in-troop-numbers vast boots-on-the-ground mission that ended up being more of an obstacle to genuine institution building in the ensuing years.

An effusive Sunni Punjabi taxi driver said to me the other night with great passion: “the [Pakistani] Taliban are bastards. They want to kill Shia, Ismailis, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus (all of whom are minorities in Pakistan).” And while Deobandism has planted its flag here in New York City, thus far it has not materialized as a threat (despite some close calls emanating from or tied to FATA in recent years where Deobandi ideology has traditionally held sway) the way that transnational Salafism has in terms of highly localized security issues here.

A Georgian police officer stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Karli region--better known as the Republic of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Georgian police officer with an AK-74 rifle stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Kartli region–the northern part of which is better known as the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. The officer looks off into Russian-occupied Tskhinvali, the “capital” of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Besides the somewhat predictable events hoped for or dreaded in Afghanistan depending on one’s perspective, there will be the other likely events in the news cycle: natural disasters in the Pacific or Indian Ocean regions, mass shootings in the United States, suicide bombings or other insurgent/terrorist actions in the Russian Federation before and after the Sochi Olympics, large scale protest movements driven by economic grievances in capital cities around the world, deaths of old guard leaders, inter-religous violence mislabeled as “sectarian” forever reminding us of the impact Iraq has had on our journalistic lexicon, unabated unrest in the Sykes-Picot legacy states of the Middle East and so forth. Shaping up to be an interesting year already!

A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Closure. A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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

The Long Shadow of Vladimir Lenin

December 16th, 2013 No comments
I bought this 3 Chervontsa note (30 rubles) at a Soviet flea market in Tbilisi.

I bought this 3 Chervonetsev note (30 rubles) at a flea market in Tbilisi the hawks Soviet stuff back in October. In any part of the world conquered by Lenin’s unflinching ideology, you can’t seem to get away from him. This reddened visage was staring up at me from a blanket on the sidewalk and I scooped it up from the vendor for 5 lari (about €2). This was issued in 1937 following the 1936 constitution ushered in by Stalin and at the height of regime infighting known as the Great Purge or Great Terror. This banknote is likely commemorating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917.

New York- When news broke on December 8 of organized protestors toppling a Lenin statue in Kiev, after pro-Moscow (generally speaking) President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement in what is believed to have been under Kremlin pressure at the recent EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, some people were surprised that some 22 years after the Soviet collapse a Lenin would still be standing in Kiev in 2013.

Disenfranchised Ukrainians subsequently took to the streets in protest to demand more integration with the EU, cooling of ties with Russia, and that President Yanukovych step down. Many in western Ukraine do not want their country to forever be an economic vassal state to suzerain Moscow. Even if that Lenin had stood still after 1991, one might think that after the 2004 Orange Revolution (Помаранчева революція) that any works of Soviet socialist realist art would have been eradicated in Ukraine but not so. Nor in many other places in formerly Soviet lands.

So pervasive is Lenin’s stoic gaze that he may show up just when you think he’s gone. In June 2010 when I was reporting on the anti-Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan there stood a massive Lenin statue untouched in a square outside the city’s main ministry building (where I was meant to get a journo accreditation but never did when I felt it was too convoluted a process). As this blog somewhat humorously shows, Lenin statues, many of them quite sizable, are still found throughout the post-Soviet space.

Lenin and his much more horrifying successor Stalin–like Mao in today’s China–are at nowhere near the level of vilification as Hitler, though it is commonly believed that many more were killed in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s PRC than the parts of Europe in the relatively brief throes of Hitlerism. Stalin’s and Mao’s respective rules each lasted for several decades.

Though of course the adulation of Lenin, Stalin and Mao has been greatly toned down over the years, their bitter legacies are still felt in much of Eurasia today. Case in point: I was reading a recent article in Outside Magazine (“The Sochi Olympics Are a Five-Ring Mess”) about the upcoming Winter Games and it featured an image of Stalin’s dacha in Krasnodar krai with a wax figure of “The man of steel” sitting at the desk of one of his favorite retreats. So the Winter Olympics will be held in place where Stalin is insufficiently demonized I suppose.

Can one imagine going to Berlin or Obersalzberg today and seeing a dull wax figure of the author of Mein Kampf being passively celebrated? And in the lead up to a major international sporting event no less?

When I visited Gori in central Georgia in 2009 (see the post “Hollywood Comes to Gori“) as the Finnish director Renny Harlin was recreating the August 2008 war that occurred barely a year earlier, there stood a giant statue of Stalin in Gori’s main square as a backdrop of Harlin’s abysmal flop Five Days of War.

Stalin standing atop his plinth in Gori in October 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Stalin standing atop his plinth in Gori in October 2009. This relic was torn down in 2010 but some in Georgia are threatening to resurrect this painful memory in the name of him having put Georgia on the map–for all the wrong reasons. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Mikheil Saakashvili tore down the above statue of the hideous Soviet dictator in Gori in 2010 but others in Georgia are defiantly planning on re-errecting it,  partly to humiliate the former president and partly to perhaps bring in tourist dollars via a depressing attraction. It’s just hard to shake some of these guys. They are so 20th century.

The back face of the 3 Chervonetsa bill which names the note in Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian,

The back face of the 3 Chervonetsev bill which names the note in Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, and various other languages still in Latin script at the time of minting.

In the wake of the fall of the Lenin statue in Kiev, I randomly met a young guy from Tiraspol, the capitol of the unrecognized Republic of Trans-Dniester (which broke away from Moldova during and after the Soviet collapse) the other week. Of course for those who know just a shred about Tiraspol and its retrograde Lenin-idolatry regime, then you know that there is a heck of a big Lenin statue there today in front of the parliament building in the city’s main square. I asked him not only how he got to the United States, but how he left Trans-Dniester with a passport not even accepted by the Russians as Trans-Dniester is only recognized by the mostly un-reocgnized Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh in the South Caucasus.

He told me that as an ethnic Ukrainian he was able to obtain citizenship  in that country as well as a passport valid for international travel and that the Black Sea port of Odessa with its international airport is the lifeline for young Trans-Dinistrians trying to leave their ideologically anachronistic mini state. “Everyone needs either a Russian or Ukrainian passport to get out. And our airport is only for military flights so we have to travel by land to Ukraine to leave” he told me.

Not much is really understood about this very obscure, very non-EU corner of Europe but for years Trans-Dniester has been said to be a source point for both arms and human trafficking in the Black Sea region.

After I mentioned that he was the first Trans-Dnistrian I’d ever met in the U.S., he smilingly replied “and you’re the first person here who has ever heard of my country and our capital.” In Ukraine the Euromaindan protests go on, but in neighboring Tiraspol all is quiet on the pseudo-Soviet front. Russia may have military footholds in Moldova and Georgia’s breakaway regions, but at least Chișinău and Tbilisi will be able to sign EU Asssociation Agreements of their own free will.

Categories: Georgia, Russia Tags: ,

Observations from the Book Shop

December 6th, 2013 No comments
Now isn't this juxtaposition just rich? Erik Prince's book on the left and Scahill-who rose to fame by vilifying Prince-on the left. Wonder if the store employees thought this was funny.

Now isn’t this juxtaposition just rich? Erik Prince’s self-serving book on the left and Scahill’s–who rose to fame by vilifying Prince, which assuredly set the stage for him getting  2nd book deal resulting in Dirty Wars–on the right. Wonder if the store employees thought this was a funny contrast. I certainly did.

New York- After being gone from the U.S. for a long time one of the weird readjustments I often make is coming back to book shops (the ‘brick and mortar’ ones still standing anyway) is the avalanche of new books from the people whose careers seem to be quickly surpassing mine at least in terms of fame, chat show appearances and cold hard cash. While others were skillfully negotiating book deals I’m either running around some place forsaken by god chasing down some obscure story in South Ossetia or Kirkuk that few in the outside world give a damn about.

More power to the guys and gals getting said book deals. I hope to join them in the near term. But something that has spoilt my usually pleasurable experience is having spent two years rigorously editing a behind-a-paywall publication for a D.C. think thank. Now I can’t seem to look at any new history or current affairs tale I happen upon and find some kind of error. And I’m not looking for errors per se, I’m leafing through the new release non-fiction shelves for enjoyment and opening them in the middle and reading chapters at random totally out of order. But what to do? Last year I found numerous, glaring factual errors in the very beginning of Kurt Eichenwald’s 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars. When I contacted who seemed like the relevant person at Touchstone Books, my email was of course ignored. I was literally simply trying to help for the sake of the historical record, not make a famous author look foolish.

The other day I picked up The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide about a serious dreadful ‘realist’ Nixonian policy decisions during Bangladesh/East Pakistan’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.  I open it to a random page and it is discussing the Maoist response to the deadly crisis in eastern South Asia during that awful period. It describes PLA troop movements near “Sikkim, a small Indian state nestled in the Himalayas.” Now I am certainly no savant on Indian history but I do enjoy 20th century South Asian history as a bit of a hobby a red flag rose. Sikkim was a legally independent state that did not accede to the Indian union until 1975.

To be fair to the author, Sikkim as it existed as a post-Raj monarchy was a tribute state to Nehru’s India which depended on India for its external defense (i.e. from Maoist China) as it sat wedged between the independent kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. But during Bangladesh’s national liberation, Sikkim was most definitely not a constituent state of the Indian republic, not for four more years.  I kind of wonder if arriviste so-called ‘millenials’ are editing today’s volumes because they seem to be rife with these kinds of discrepancies, however minor seeming. Some years ago I stumbled upon a coffee table book about independent Sikkim that pre-dated 1975 which depicted the life of Hope Cooke, a Manhattan socialite who married the monarch of Sikkim and whose life was once followed by the American press with some fascination.

None of this is to say that The Blood Telegram is no less of an important work of history. The war in Bangladesh has constant reverberations to this date, most recently owing to the war crimes tribunals in Dhaka.

The struggle for Bangladesh, which came to the attention of a good many in the West with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh perhaps, has had global consequences. Dhaka just now is going through a bout of painful war crimes trials that is felt all the way in Queens where the migrant diaspora is torn between secularist ‘freedom fighters’ and pro-Pakistan Islamists. Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated nation-state hemorrhaging economic migrants as if it were a bleeding organ atop the bay of Bengal. Bangladeshis have followed the Pakistani migrant model all around the world but in what seem like greater numbers. From Los Angeles to New York to Barcelona small businesses that were once ubiquitously Pakistani are increasingly Bangladeshi.

New York magazine cited a statistic that the migration rate of Bangladeshis to New York City increased 178% under the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, the highest of any single ethno-linguistic group in the world to New York. The events described in The Blood Telegram roils the migrants whose Bangla-laguage media obsesses over the “battle of the begums” between the alternating, warring, tiresome female prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikha Hasina.

Next I picked up  The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Pulitzer winner Mark Mazzetti, of the NYT’s Washington bureau. I’d seen about this book when it came out but hadn’t been able to leaf through it as it’s not being heavily promoted in Tbilisi or Santorini.

One morning in March 2010 I awoke to find that Mazzetti and his then colleague Dexter Filkins had written a front page story titled “Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants“ on a couple of characters called Michael Furlong ( whom I’d never heard of until that moment) and the rather notorious Duane “Dewey” Clarridge or Iran-Contra fame. The second echelon of players in that story were an “iconoclastic Canadian writer” named Robert Young Pelton and a “suave former CNN executive” named Eason Jordan. This article forms the central arc of The Way of the Knife although of course my, I suppose, minor role in the view of Mazzetti is never mentioned.

IMG_0559

Furlong pictured in Mazzetti’s book. Pelton and Jordan had never mentioned this clown to me when Afpax Insider was being conceived. Perhaps it was all on a need to know basis. Seeing as they never cleared the air to my satisfaction, I’ll be left to my assumptions.

I haven’t heard from a word Pelton since this weird scenario 3 1/2 years ago. He and Jordan gave me no warning that the story was coming out–which they surely must have known was coming. Then Jordan asked to me retract my statements on the affair made to Mother Jones in an article called “The Pentagon’s Stringers“ after an enterprising MJ reporter in D.C. had somehow (?) gotten my landline which I don’t have listed. When I saw that a photo I had taken in Kabul for Pelton and Jordan’s site appeared in the NYT in a screen grab used to illustrate the article, I felt I’d essentially been thrown under the proverbial bus. I contacted Filkins after the article hit and he seemed to not have the faintest clue who I was nor did he appear particularly interested in communicating with me.

Sort of weird considering my name is big letters on this side of the image in his article. I’d sat next to Filkins at Dr. Abdullah’s house the previous year during the 2009 Afghan elections but I wouldn’t expect someone of his caliber to put two and two together as I’m someone deep in the journo underground in relative terms. Obviously it wouldn’t have occurred to Mazzetti to contact me in doing the research for his book as he likely a) would never have heard of me or b) I’m not iconoclastic. I think Pelton and Jordan set their sights on Somalia after this whole ordeal and Pelton is still a friend of a couple of friends of mine to this very day but he hasn’t contacted me since the scandal. And that’s fine with me I suppose. I never bothered to hold a grudge, I just moved on. Then the Arab Spring happened and I haven’t made it back to “AfPak” since.

WayoftheknifeNow here is where I take an issue. There is an earlier chapter in the book where Mazzetti profiles the life of Nek Mohammed. At a cursory glance, he states that Nek Mohammed [Wazir] “found his calling in 1993, and was recruited to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against Ahmad Shah Massood’s Northern Alliance in the ciivl war then raging in Afghanistan.” It is common knowledge that the Taliban was formed in in Kandahar in 1994, not 1993. Nek Mohammed–who was killed in an American drone strike in June 2004– had fought alongside them in 2001 as had other Wazir tribesmen. A recent work put out by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedeman also says Nek joined the Taliban in 1993. While it could perhaps be argued the Taliban began to coalesce in 1993 the movement was not a known entity of any note until 1994.

When I was reading Ahmed Rashid’s seminal Taliban: Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia at Saeed Book Bank in Peshawar (a great book shop by the way) in 2000, he described the Taliban has having “emerged in 1994” replete with a chapter titled “Kandahar 1994: The Origins of the Taliban.”

Further down the same page, he talks of “Chechen al-Qaeda fighters” who fled to Pakistan at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom. While impossible to entirely disprove this meme, this is a completely unsubstantiated self-replicating notion propagated for years by Russian authorities in their brutal war against Chechen separatist in the North Caucasus for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence.

In Chechnya in 2001, the rebels were still largely  an ethnic national liberation movement who used mostly Sufi Islam of the Qadiriyya order (as well as the  Naqshabanidiyya order) as a spiritual motivational factor in the fight and in order to emphasize religious difference with their Orthodox Christian Slavic Russian enemies (on the federal forces level) on the battlefield. Those in the Lubyanka in Moscow worked very hard to convince the world they were fighting a bunch of maniacal “vahabbis” in a Eurasian war on terror rather than continuing a genocidal Czarist and Stalinist policy of crushing the rebellious peoples of the Caucasus. Washington and hence its proxies in Pakistan then bought into a bunch of this nonsense hook, line, and sinker. (The Syria situation will be discussed at length in my forthcoming report).

When Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Taliban regime was completely isolated after failing to gain international recognition, out of spite or desperation it belatedly decided in the name of transnational Islamist solidarity to recognize the independence of the self-styled Chechen Republic of Ichkeria-itself a moot action seeing as the Taliban were not recognized as the rightful rulers of Kabul except by Islamabad, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.In mid-January 2000, the Taliban came to an agreement with envoys of Aslan Maskhadov, the late Chechen independence leader, to open a Chechen diplomatic outpost in war ravaged Kabul. A couple of Chechen rebel diplomats does not a giant wave of Chechens fleeing into Pakistan after 9/11 and ensuing Daisy Cutters make.

This does not equate to a grand strategic partnership between Chechen fighters and al-Qaeda 1.0. Furthermore, Pakistani security forces at that time would not likely have been able to tell the difference between salafi Russophone lingua franca jihadis. Neither would members of the CIA in working partnership with the ISI in all probability. Furthermore when I interviewed foreign fighters after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, they were almost all Deobandi Pashtun and Punjabi men from Pakistan, not a Caucasian Sufi among them.

All that being said, or rather, written, The Way of the Knife is a thoroughly entertaining read for those interested in high stakes intelligence genre that will have real world repercussions well into the next generation that will inherit these awful policies borne of the Bush administration and amplified by the Obama administration.

I love books and I love book shops…but come on publishers, let’s get some more older, more experienced editors out there! Maybe these mistakes or whatever you want to call them are in no way the fault of the relevant authors but the fact checking must be more rigorous. Just my opinion though.

Categories: Afghanistan Tags:

The Beauty of a Misunderstood Place

November 20th, 2013 No comments
An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani where I stayed in 2002. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I haven’t done a blog post in nearly a month and felt like posting a few images if for no other reason than to do an update for the sake of doing an update. In October I visited the Pankisi Gorge for the third time in my career/life whatever I should call it. The first two visits were filled with tension and suspicion that had the feel on journalistic espionage. On this recent trip, I was able to take a few moments to remember the splendor of this far off place. Pankisi is beautiful because much of the Caucasus is gorgeous in general. Low slung cloud formations above the peaks, horses trotting along, and stunning young Chechen and Kist  women.

The Chechens are perhaps the most globally vilified people in recent history thanks to tireless propaganda efforts up north at the Lubyanka. Seemingly nearly everyone around the world bought into rather unsophisticated FSB pay-ops since the late 1990s from Hollywood screenwriters to Pakistani generals. But beyond all of this hype, most of which is completely unsupported in an empirical sense, are a very real people with a pained history. Yes, Chechens are  renown for anti-state warfare. However they also make a good cup of chai and are good conversationalists.

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi's main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi’s main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. These visages definitely wouldn’t fit into the Salafi ideology that has been seeping into the valley in recent years. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy was hilarious. How many times have you heard "Chechen" and "hilarious" in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy from southern Chechnya was hilarious. How many times have you heard “Chechen” and “hilarious” in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. The results can sometimes be amusing. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Election Eve in Georgia, Festering Instabiliy in Kirkuk

October 24th, 2013 No comments
Posters for Giorgi Margvelashvili running on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream ticket and considered the front runner (or at least he has the most posters up in town) in Sunday's Georgian presidential election. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Posters in downtown Tbilisi for Giorgi Margvelashvili running on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream ticket. Margvelashvili is considered the front runner (or at least he has the most posters up in town) in Sunday’s Georgian presidential election. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

TScreen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.34.41 PMbilisi- The Republic of Georgia is on the cusp of a presidential election that is shaping up to be the country’s first non-ultra dramatic transition of power (think the coup against President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the Rose Revolution ousting Eduard Shevardnadze). Buzz here around town is that it may well go into a second round. If Margvelashvili does not receive 49.9% of the vote according to Thomas de Waal, the transition of power may be a touch chaotic as the era of the Rose Revolution comes to a close with little fanfare .

Some have said, rather cynically in my view, that the biggest accomplishment of the outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili will not be the reforms he’s made but stepping down from power in a peaceful and orderly manner.

In the backdrop of the election and the constitutional transformation about to be implemented turning the republic from a presidential to a parliamentary system is the Russian’s beefing up of the Soviet-era border of occupied South Ossetia (from when South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic) and whether or not Georgia should formally boycott the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. The fact to a Russian pilot from the 2008 war here called Ivan Nechaev was seen being an Olympic torchbearer has not gone over at all well here.

In other news I have an article out this week in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk in August, communications with my fixer afterward and months of following developments along the Green Line that is the de facto internal border between Iraq Kurdistan and Arab Iraq (for lack of a more precise term).

Posters for David Bakradze, presidential candidate from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movment. Bakradze is considered to be the second place candidate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Posters for Davit Bakradze, presidential candidate from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movment. Bakradze is considered to be the second place candidate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A poster in the Rostaveli metro station for Nino Burjanadze, one-time leader of the Rose Revolution, now out to get Saakashvili and have Georgia's own "reset" with the Kremlin. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A poster in the Rustaveli metro station for Nino Burjanadze, one-time leader of the Rose Revolution, now out to get Saakashvili and have Georgia’s own “reset” with the Kremlin. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Georgia, Iraq Tags: , ,

Chasing Old Ghosts in Georgia

October 22nd, 2013 No comments
The Marjanshvilli metro station. If there is a long escalator anywhere in this world I haven't seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The Marjansihvilli metro station. If there is a longer escalator anywhere in this world I haven’t seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tbilisi- After inhabiting this post-9/11 realm for so long now,  I occasionally find myself in locales of yore retracing old steps in the name of an unfinished book. I sometimes photograph places and people (if I can still find them). I first came to Georgia in 2002 to inspect for myself the hype about the Pankisi Gorge/Valley with the West’s sudden fascination with Zarqawi, ricin and the think-tank obsession with foreign mujahideen (the meme that still won’t die) going to fight in Chechnya next door.

I arrived in Eduard Shevardnadze’s pot-hole ridden, shattered Caucasian republic after my efforts to meet with Iraqi Kurds in Syria were thwarted by the pervasive paranoid of Assad’s rather recently inherited police state. I lived with a widowed grandmother who gave shelter to Japanese backpackers (once ubiquitous in Eurasian budget travel scenes) and ended up in a mujahideen hostel in Pankisi with a Russian Federation Sukhoi (or a Georgian one in a version thinly sourced and convoluted) flying menacingly overhead.  The following are pictures that will appear random but are part of the narrative I am visually reconstructing to aid in my writing efforts.

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002 on Chitaya Street. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer's apartment block in Tbilisi's Saburtalo District. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you're inclined to believe that version of events. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer’s depressing Soviet apartment block in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo District on Kavteradze Street. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you’re inclined to believe that version of events. Saburtalo was where many of Tbilisi’s Chechen exiles once lived and now is home to part of the city’s migrant community including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis judging by my observations the other day. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: "Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don't see why you can't go." Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: “Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don’t see why you can’t go.” Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I've been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. Sometimes snooping around has its perks. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I’ve been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood