Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ tag
New York- On February 5th, I participated in a Huffington Post Live discussion entitled “Engaging The Taliban” (featured below) after the trilateral meeting between David Cameron, Asif Ali Zardari, and Hamid Karzai at the British Prime Minister’s country residence outside London. The topic concerned the withdrawal of NATO and ISAF troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and the idea of some kind of vague peace deal with the Taliban midwifed by Pakistan and meant to take place in Qatar. That talk inspired my lengthy article in today’s edition of Asia Times Online (at left).
Afghanistan, once a byword for forgotten backwater, has had its war become internationalized to the absurd point where even a good number of tiny non-NATO, non-Western nations like Georgia (desire to join NATO), the United Arab Emirates (business interests, Islamic hearts-and-minds credibility), and Tonga (pressed by the UK) have inserted troops. And nations like these have done so in the context of their very diverse, often non-overlapping agendas.
For Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnicities who house a sense of collective victimhood, this is the equivalent of having the fox guarding the hen house. Despite US troops and intelligence officers partnering up with warlords who were deemed “legendary” in the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, there are certainly no angels among any of Afghanistan’s warlords of all hues despite a certain amount of rather theatric press reportage at the time. But renewed political power for the Taliban, whose enemies believe it would use to gain military power in the theater of Afghanistan’s gun-barrel politics, would be the surefire catalyst for a retro-themed civil conflict.
Some factional military leaders especially those of the Jamiat-i-Islami/Shura-i-Nazar type whose 1980s and 1990s-era leadership has suffered a string of assassinations attributed to the Taliban such as Burhanuddin Rabbani and Muhammed Daud Daud in 2011, may likely be content to exact retribution in some form. Abdul Rashid Dostum– another sworn enemy of the Taliban who knows that he is on their target list–could easily fully remobilize his Junbesh-i-Milli militia when push comes to shove.
But the risks for the integrity of the Pakistani state have changed entirely since the Taliban swept in Kabul in 1996. The creeping Talibanization of Pakistan creates an entirely different calculus. Additionally anti-Shia/Hazara violence in Balochistan being carried out by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi seems to be at an all-time high, a dire crisis which Pakistan’s political leaders refuse to effectively address. All sorts of Taliban factions are now operating in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, and inflaming tensions with the very territorial, virulently anti-Pashtun Muttahida Qaumi Movement which portrays itself as the guardian of mohajir identity in southern Sindh Province.
Part of the advantage of Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan in the 1990s was that Islamabad could have groups that it was funding or manipulating outside of its territory. Afghanistan was relegated to an obscure, abandoned backwater that was essentially a free-fire zone for regional proxy warfare. States from all over Eurasia were dragged into Afghanistan’s internecine battles.
Following 9/11, the Afghan morass brought into most if not all of the armies of the Western world. At the same time, Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus was ejected after the fall of Konduz in late November 2001. Now as the West and its allies clamor for the exits, Pakistan, Iran and other regional powers will be forced to reassess their role in the future of Afghanistan. And it does not look promising. The Pentagon would like to leave a residual number of troops behind for training and “support” missions pending an as yet unspecified status-of-forces agreement being worked out with Kabul.
Though the United States ending its combat mission in Afghanistan has made a big splash in the news, there has already been an attrition on Western troop numbers. Dutch troops packed up and left Uruzgan Province in August 2010 when the Netherlands enfeebled coalition government collapsed over the issue. The Dutch ditched their Australian partners in the home province of Mullah Muhammed Omar which created a vacuum that had to be filled by American troops. The French, now deployed in Mali in what is perceived as being a more immediate to France’s national interests, entirely abandoned their combat mission in Kapisa Province in November 2012. The final French combat troops then departed Afghanistan altogether in December 2012. New Zealand plans on pulling out the majority of its troops from Bamiyan Province by April of this year.
In the understated words of noted Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai: “2014 and the Western withdrawal will not mean Pakistan’s problems are over.”
New York- While Americans in many quarters erupted with both joy and relief that Barack Hussein Obama was reelected POTUS while right-wing ideologues and extremists (which may simply be cover for racism in some quarters) constantly harping on the just-around-the-corner reemergence of so-called (though debunked) ‘American exceptionalism‘ pronounced the country politically dead, there was a disquieting dearth of serious foreign policy debate among American voters expressed in the mainstream media.
I decided to post these heretofore unpublished images of clandestine soldiers from 11 years ago in a small effort to demonstrate just how long Americans have been at war in Afghanistan. I blacked out their eyes in photoshop to give the images that whole cloak and dagger ‘redacted’ look.
American soldiers continued to be killed in Afghanistan throughout the election cycle with another solider reportedly killed in an insurgent attack in Uruzgan Province less than four days before the election. America’s two principal Anglosphere military allies, the UK and Australia, also continued to withstand troop deaths in the lead up to Obama’s second term as president. While numerically small in light of US fatalities, they are comparatively significant in relation their respective population sizes vis-a-vis the United States.
The US has lost a total of 286 troops in Afghanistan this year alone according to iCasualties.org and there are still nearly two months left of 2012 with a total of 2150 since 2001.
And let us not forget that Afghans in the ANA and ANP keep dying too. In the name and manner attacking Afghan security forces, the insurgency continues to slaughter a number of hapless civilians as well. Somehow though, grave human rights violations are either cast aside in an election cycle or even rendered ‘unpatriotic’ when showing concern for such deaths abroad causes natural friction with Americans who have swaddled themselves in the unevolved retrograde tenets of isolationism in the context of an incredibly difficult economic crisis at home.
The question remains: what will another Obama term do to actually end not the war per se, but end American involvement in Afghanistan? While the President trumpeted the withdrawal of American combat troops Operation New Dawn, the 2010 successor to Operation Iraqi Freedom that most Americans were entirely unaware of, there are still tens of thousands of armed contract soldiers in Iraq who are at best woefully under regulated. In effect, the United States IS still in Iraq though under a different guise.
The struggle for Iraq has in no way ended. Insurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians continue to be successfully mounted. If and when the United States withdraws its vast combat forces from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that the 1990s civil war fault lines will be reignited to some degree but with the influx of newer arms and better vehicles. America may leave Afghanistan at the midway point of Obama’s second chance in office, but there is little indication an American president can actually “end” the war in Afghanistan.
Will Obama’s little publicized Iraq solution be a template for a planned 2014 Afghan pull out? Of course the reality of Iraq’s human geography is far different than that of Afghanistan. Iraq’s highly urbanized population lay mostly along the north-south veins of the Tigris and al-Furat (Euphrates) River whereas Afghanistan continues to remain a primarily decentralized rural demography. In essence Iraq has things to protect-oil infrastructure, diplomatic installations and local governance institutions which require continued defense. This is where the contractors come in. Afghanistan has far fewer such ‘target rich’ features but nonetheless the contractor business model is humming along at the fractured juncture of South and Central Asia, despite its disturbingly low profile.
Guns-for-hire coupled with the increasing presence of armed aerial drones mean that America’s notoriously bloated globe spanning military profile remains undiminished even under successive democratic administrations.
Zabiullah Mujahid, the vociferous Taliban spokesman, threw in the Islamic Emirate’s two-cents following the close of Tuesday’s polls hoping to appeal to Americans pragmatically: “Obama has realised that the Americans are tired of the war and the backbreaking costs of the war…Therefore, he should pullout the occupying forces from our country as soon as possible and prevent the deaths of more Americans.”
New York- I’ve been rummaging through my archives from the terror wars era for the last week or two while working on an upcoming project on Syria and have opened a veritable Pandora’s Box in the process. The other day I found a couple of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from the very beginning of the American-led intervention in the ongoing Afghan civil war in November 2001. These hideously bright yellow packets were being sold by traders in the smuggler’s bazaar of Khawja Bahauddin, the ramshackle town near the border with Tajikistan where Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated on September 9, 2001. These preservative laden bags of glorified junk food were air dropped over ‘friendly’ (i.e. areas controlled by cash-for-allegiance warlords) parts of northern Afghanistan in what was much more a bungled PR campaign than an effective humanitarian effort.
Rural Afghans were puzzled by the squirt packs of peanut butter and stale pop tarts entirely alien to their diet. To put things in the effete terminology used by food nerds today, Afghanistan is a “farm-to-table” society where all food is de facto “organic” even though the whole country is devoid of a Whole Foods.
These plastic bags were carefully labeled in English, French, and Spanish for illiterate villagers that speak Dari, Uzbek, and Pashto, might as well have been artifacts from the Roswell crash. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that more Western journos and CIA types ended up eating these awful things than the Afghans themselves. They were manufactured by a military contractor eager to reap the early buildup of the immediate post-9/11 spending boomlet called The Wornick Company.
The Wornick Company apparently employed undocumented Mexican immigrants to pack these things. An investigation was launched after it was discovered an AQ operative had his sights set on the company’s HQ in south Texas after Wornick ingeniously labeled these packets with their company name and address. Like an AQ for dummies target.
A better holistic strategy would have been to contract an nearby Iranian company (who could have perhaps given honest work to Iran’s own resented Afghan refugees) to package pulao and freeze dried naan, you know, like, food Afghans actually eat not dissimilar to Iranian fare. Laughable as it sounds, something akin to this might have killed two birds with one stone-actually nourishing starving Afghans and engaging Iran economically.
Such a practical initiative could have opened the door to undermining both the clerical regime in Qom and Tehran during Mohammed Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” era and the still-not-going-away bomb Iran chicken hawks poisoning the present debate in DC. But the anti-Iran agitators active in Washington today are often one in the same as the men and women who wanted to pull away from Afghanistan in 2002 (and therefore an Iran that was cooperating at the time) to focus Pentagon efforts on Iraq thereby keeping the US pitted against Iran for the foreseeable future. The maintenance of this highly negative staus quo was far more important for those with a vested interest in keeping hostilities alive and well.
The air dropping of quintessential American foodstuffs into Afghanistan was an ill conceived plan at best and a poor use of tax payer funds. With no follow up measures to coordinate events on the ground, there was no methodology employed to ensure that the food was received by those that needed it most. Meanwhile, the few who happened upon these poorly planned c-17 borne drops would often hoard them and sell them to bazaaris who would then resell them to the strangers in their midst. There was no way to ensure appropriate and even distribution, the thing bona fide unarmed humanitarian NGOs are supposed to be most adept at.
Oh and another story going around at the time was that these clumsy airborne food drops had actually managed to kill a few unsuspecting villagers along the way. I never got to the bottom of weather that was actually true or not because to be honest I was too busy covering the war. But I was never all that comfortable with the idea of armed humanitarians. “Armed humanitarian” is a stark contradiction in terms.
The pacifist European NGOs were careening around with large decals on the side of their Landcruisers showing Kalashnikovs encircled in red with a line crossing them out while the Americans were landing armed helicopters, disgorging bulky helmeted men in camouflage, guns drawn, in the exact same political space. It all seemed like such a bad juxtaposition.
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.
New York- In sorting through some old belongings today I found a couple of now ancient-seeming portfolios which I went to a lot of trouble to make at the tail end of the portfolio era. In what turned out to be fruitless, expensive exercises in futility I spent countless hours (not to mention loads of money on ink and specialty papers) printing attempts at gorgeous images. I scanned some of the images and decided to show them here on this blog. Though these images may appear, and perhaps are, somewhat random, they were part of my earliest project concept which I titled “The Fabled City.” I envisioned it as grassroots, multimedia education project to enlighten denizens of American cities about the complex civilizational crossroads where South Asia, Central Asia, and the Iranian Plateau intersect.
The ultimate goal of the project was to then inform the public about the people and socio-cultural history of Afghanistan working past the entrenched framework of Afghanistan clichés as a “buffer state,” “failed state,” or worst of all, “the graveyard of empires.” Could you imagine if a coterie of overeducated policy wonks and far removed armchair historians constantly referred to the country you call home as some sort of “graveyard?” Or in the case of Pakistan, “the world’s most dangerous place?” Or Iran being “evil” in some way? Though all of these terms are or were meant to have a purely geopolitical resonance (in theory), it is a short jump to the demonization of a culture particularly when punditry is then mixed with geographic distance.
I had an idea-somewhat indicative of the era-to do a guerrilla-style wheatpaste poster campaign in the manner of a 1990s New York City street artists like Cost and Revs (who have long since faded into relative obscurity). I thought I could bring awareness to this region-much of which had been cutoff the the outside world since 1979-by starting a one man grassroots poster campaign. I was gearing up to embark upon this idea just as 9/11 shook this city. My plan to photograph Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (ie the Islamic Emirate) after the winter snows thawed in the spring of 2002 morphed into doing war photography in the Islamic State of Afghanistan among the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (ie the Northern Alliance) some six-months ahead of schedule. I still clung to this idea well into the 9/11 wars.
At the height of the war in Takhar Province in early November 2001 I managed to visit the broken columns of the heavily looted Graeco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanoum overlooking the Panj River dividing Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In Iraq in May 2003 I climbed the humongous, spiraled minaret of Malwiya in Samarra before things turned ugly in that country’s nihilistic fitna and anti-occupation war. The minaret was later attacked by insurgents in 2005 after American soldiers carelessly used the ancient monument as a lookout post. From the top of the Abbasid calpihate-era Malwiya, I gazed at the magnificent al-Askari shrine housing the bodies of the 10th and 11th Twelver Shi’ite imams, its gilded cupola shining brilliantly under the Iraqi sun. The sacred al-Askari dome was later demolished by Sunni sectarian fighters in February 2006 and its minarets were destroyed by them in June 2007.
I was digging around in a musty closet and unearthed these decade-old prints which I then hastily scanned in a consumer Epson flatbed scanner. I don’t have much use for these rather benign, old prints now. Maybe I will finally paste them up around the Brooklyn or Queens waterfront as I intended to do exactly a decade ago. The Fabled City was crushed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Unending war and terror would come to rule the day rather than the elements of architectural elegance and sophisticated history I had hoped to use as tools to foment a better day.
Singapore- After finally moving on from KL, I’m passing though Singapore’s Little India for a night en route to Bali. Little India (Little Tamil Nadu) is probably the most sanitized Indian neighborhood on the globe and not bad for it. Tamil is one of Singapore’s four official languages along with Malay (also the national language), Mandarin, and English, sometimes referred to as Singlish in local jargon. I’d read in the Wikitravel entry on the city state that Malaysian newspapers are banned here and purposefully grabbed one in KL the bring through customs hoping to stir something up but it was allowed in or not noticed, a bit of a disappointment. I ditched my gum in KL but more because it was old than trying to start something here. As I don’t have much going on at the moment, I’m going to plug a really great article trilogy by Brasilero wildman Pepe Escobar on Asia Times about a time that I fondly recall with photos by Jason Florio of pre-9/11 Afghanistan.