The Gateway

June 10th, 2014 No comments
A close up of my art installation in Queen's, New York's Long Island City neighborhood. From left to right: 9/11 as seen from Brooklyn, the Arg-e-Bam (before its destruction in a 2003 earthquake), the USS Nimitz in Coronado, California shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Abassi masjid next to the Derawar Fort in the Cholistan Desert, Punjab Province, Pakistan.

A close up of my art installation in Queens, New York’s Long Island City neighborhood. From left to right: 9/11 as seen from Brooklyn, the Arg-e-Bam (before its destruction in a 2003 earthquake) in Kerman province, Iran, the USS Nimitz in Coronado, California shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Abassi masjid next to the Derawar Fort in the Cholistan Desert, Punjab Province, Pakistan.

New York-The other wekend I finally got around to a rather simple task that I’d wanted to do over a decade back. Before 9/11 I had a vision of doing guerrilla art installations around New York and other major Western cities to explain to the rest of the world (or at least urbanized Western city dwellers) about what was going on in Afghanistan well beyond the bellicosity of the Taliban movement and its international critics. Afghanistan at that time was incredibly isolated in terms of the global economy and its discordant political representation abroad. I wanted people to understand Afghanistan in a pre-1979 sense.

I was inspired by the splendid per-war imagery of a Vermont-based photographer named Luke Powell who’d shot vivid landscape images of Afghanistan’s valleys and monuments that conveyed a powerful message about the country’s history and culture in a way that no day-to-day news image of war and pestilence ever could. What was remarkable to me about Powell’s photographs was that I found pirated versions of his prints hanging in the bazaars of Peshawar, Chitral, Quetta and so forth. His images had credibility amongst Afghans themselves as well as Pakistani bazaaris.

I had wanted to emulate an updated version of this concept and combine it with the illicit poster art craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s to create and artistic meme with a message.  Beauty with a subtle educational agenda. I was in sporadic communication with the Taliban before 9/11 in hopes of them granting me access to the territory they controlled literally or nominally.

Imagery in the urban ether.

Imagery in the urban ether.

Then I woke up one morning in September and was suddenly inhaling ash pedaling as fast as I could muster to the World trade Center. In an instant I went from being a pragmatic idealist to a witness to the brutality of our living history. A series of rather absurd starkly bifurcated polemics would quickly follow: the 9/11-everything-changed-sts and the 9/11-nothing-changed-ists and the with-us or with-the-terrorists.

I still have not entirely given up on those original ideas, just procrastinated to the point of near abandonment. I was looking for something in a dusty drawer and came across these old prints from 2000-2003 which were beginning to yellow ever so slightly at the edges. I finally went to slap them up in a nondescript locale. Better late than never as is said.

I still hope to do a coffee table book of the best of these prints someday but rather than with an über cool northern Italian, London or Brooklyn-based publishing house I will most likely self-publish The Fabled City (as my project was known before 9/11). As I’m not even remotely close to being a famous photojournalist in that industry’s coveted inner circles, self-publishing via Blurb or something similar is probably the only way forward for me at this point. I see this initial installation as a step toward–a gateway if you will–that goal.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, America Tags:

Beyond Polemics

June 9th, 2014 No comments

New York-The reverberations of the misguided American policies following 9/11 paired with the continued spread of anti-authoritarian Arab salafism, South Asian Deobandism, evolving Levantine takfirism and the like amongst the global Sunni community*–both in terms of rhetoric and ground reality–are being felt today.

*Although it must be noted that actual adherents to kinetic radicalization are very few in absolute numbers relative to the global population of Islam’s principle denomination.

I recently appeared on BBC Arabic in my colleague Murad Shishani’s report on the first documented American suicide bomber in Syria, a young guy originally from West Palm Beach, Florida named Moner Mohammad Abusalha.

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Clearly the only thing the Bush-era/neoconservative speak did was further polarize vulnerable communities and individuals. Suicide bombing has long since metastisized from somewhat of a curiosity among those studying war-fighting in the historical/tactical realm to such a common practice it is barely worth a mention in the news cycle unless its victim is someone of great importance.

The NYPD’s terribly clumsy spying program here on New York City’s masjids has only made immigrant communities here turn inward, wary of interlopers. Instead of developing methods of genuine inter-communal dialogue (while keeping in mind the now radioactive concept of ‘assimilation’ on which there is no longer a broadly accepted societal compact on just what that precisely  means today), there seems to have only been an unfortunate increase in radicalization.

Judging by outward appearance in the outer boroughs, some hijabis are becoming niqabis  and young dishdasha-clad boys in Air Jordans who hail from a lungi-wearing and shalwar kameez cultural milieu are being indoctrinated by agenda-bearing mentors. (I’m very narrowly referring to my personal observations of the minority but growing pro-Bangladesh Jamiat-e-Islami sector of the Bangladeshi Sylheti and Chittagonian community here.)

Last week Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s presidential campaign convoy was attacked by suicide bombers outside the Ariana Hotel in Kabul just before this weekend’s runoff election that will hopefully finally signify an end to the stultified malaise of the Karzai era. And this morning we learned that ISIL had gained control of large swaths of Mosul in Ninewa Governorate in a post-America Iraq that seems to be falling apart save for Basra and parts of the deep south.

The world as a whole cannot seem to move beyond impudent, self-destructive polemical tracts with the vitriolic terminology they entail. As we are presently witnessing in Ukraine, there is apparently a fight between ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’ there. The language being employed by all sides in that conflict spans from Stalingrad to the Chechen wars.

These unhelpful, reductive terms obscure reality and inflame conflict.

Categories: 9/11, America, Bangladesh Tags:

Diplomats and Hors d’Oeuvres on the River

May 28th, 2014 No comments
A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world's colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world’s colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I attended a Georgian diplomatic party marking the restoration of Georgian independence this week hosted by Ambassador Kaha Imnadze. Georgia was briefly independent from 1918-1921 following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The Menshevik-led Democratic Republic of Georgia was ultimately subsumed into the Soviet Union as neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ottoman Empire crumbled giving rise to pragmatic Kemalism.

With badrijani and lobiani wafting through the air (unfortunately there was Pellegrino rather then Borjomi) and interesting discussions being had on the geopolitical primacy of the greater Black Sea region made for an interesting evening.

Georgia's flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Georgia’s flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan's East River. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of former Secretary-General and elder Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan’s East River. Hailing from an aristocratic background in what was then the Gold Coast, the Annan era at the UN encompassed my coming of age in the world of international affairs. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Caucasus, Georgia, Uncategorized Tags:

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.