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The zig-zagging rise of the Kurds

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Again it has taken a tragedy – this time, the jihadi massacres of Yezidi Kurds on the slopes of northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – to focus international attention on the Kurds and on how precarious their lives can be. Yet beyond such drama, recent trips among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have made me conscious of a new surge of self-assurance and intertwining in this once-marginalised and disparate group of peoples, who number perhaps 25-30 million people between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Caption here

Kurds have been victims of terrible events, like Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Halabja chemical weapons attack, or, as here in Turkey in 1991, forced to flee to neighbouring countries as the Iraqi president’s troops attacked after the first Gulf War.

On a July trip through northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looked more prosperous and autonomous than ever, part of a two-decade-long trend of development that has persuaded the U.S. President to tell the New York Times it is “functional the way we would like to see”. And despite the KRG’s real shortcomings – contested territorial ambitions, poor governance and a tendency for its fabled peshmerga fighters to run away to fight another day – the Iraqi Kurds’ relative success is also part of broader new Kurdish ambitions and recognition.

The renovated main square of Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurds Kurdistan Regional Government

The renovated main square of Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government

In Syria, whose Kurdish minority was almost invisible to outsiders until a year or two ago, the main Kurdish militia has carved out three relatively autonomous cantons. It has so far held its ground against the jihadists of the Islamic State with little outside aid and – despite some early rivalry with the KRG – helped the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga defend the Yazidis and hit back against the jihadis inside Iraq. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters have now also joined the front lines of both Iraqi Kurd peshmerga and Syrian Kurd militia.

More than half of the world’s Kurds live in Turkey, and they are tasting new success there too. After 30 years of fighting the main insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), top Turkish and PKK officials now say they think it unlikely they can defeat each other militarily, and peace talks are making progress. Even non-PKK Kurds in Diyarbakir now speak glowingly of trying to win the kind of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy. And on August 10, an unabashed Turkish Kurd national movement leader won nearly 10 per cent of the overall vote as a presidential candidate in Turkey – sweeping in first in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey.

Much-jailed Turkish Kurd leader Ahmet Türk (second from right) dances at a party two months after his March 2011 election as the municipal mayor of a major Kurdish-majority province in Turkey. On the right is his co-chair, Syriac Orthodox Christian xx xx, an articulate new Mardin municipal council member.

Much-jailed Turkish Kurd leader Ahmet Türk (second from right) dances at a party two months after his March 2014 election as the municipal mayor of a major Kurdish-majority province in Turkey. On the right is his co-maor, Syriac Orthodox Christian Februniye Akyol.

There are deep cracks in the foundations of this Kurdish progress: clashes of interest with neighbouring Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, the Kurds’ disconnected mountain geography, their divided tribal societies, and their four main dialects, which are mutually hard to understand. Iraqi Kurds have yet to prove they can prosper without their share of oil income from Baghdad, have occupied territory well beyond what their Arab and other neighbours consider to be fair and have kept a tight rein on KRG media. A foreign security expert resident in the KRG told me there were increasing fears of a domestic backlash against the alleged corruption and concentration of wealth in the ruling elite – epitomised by the ownership of some of Erbil’s grandest building projects. The wounds of internecine strife in the 1990s are still unhealed: inside the KRG’s own territory, I still passed through checkpoints that divide the region up between at least three armed factions.

In Syria, the main Kurdish organisation faces long term liabilities, with threats from jihadists on one side, and continued links with the Syrian regime on the other (for instance, see Crisis Group’s May 2014 report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria). Turkey’s main Kurdish movement is beholden to armed insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which itself is burdened with a designation as an international terrorist group (more here). And, beyond news of occasional executions, Iran lets slip little information about the situation of its Kurds, two of whose most important leaders were murdered in exile by gunmen linked to Tehran in 1989 and 1992 (a book with rare and compelling reporting on one of these killings can be found here).

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani takes a break in his hometown of Barzan, 1992

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani takes a break in his hometown of Barzan, 1992

Nevertheless, many changes seem almost miraculous. When I first met KRG President Masoud Barzani during the Iran-Iraq war in 1985 – he was then a young guerrilla chief fighting on the Iranian side, and the Iranian army helicoptered us in for a surprise visit to his Loulan camp in a remote mountain corner of northern Iraq – nobody in my group of a dozen journalists had much idea who he or the Kurds really were. When I started visiting Turkey in 1980, few non-Kurds seemed to care that the government was still ordering its officials to deny that the country’s Kurds existed and to call them “Mountain Turks”. In the 1990s, when I tried to pitch a story on the region’s Kurds to the Los Angeles Times, a kindly editor wrote back to advise me “don’t put the word ‘Kurd’ in [your proposal] … To us, it guarantees that we won’t understand the story”.

In 1991, as a reporter I witnessed the stumbling dawn of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Back then, travel between major cities took hours on dizzying, broken-down mountain roads. Vehicles were falling apart and smuggled fuel was (and often still is) sold in barrels and plastic jerry cans. All around us villages had been flattened into non-existence, often with not a stone left standing on another, sad evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal scorched-earth policies.

Village house flattened by Saddam Hussein, 1992 (left) Kurds crossing the Tigris from Syria to Iraq in 2002 (right).

Village houses flattened by Saddam Hussein, 1992 (left) Kurds crossing the Tigris from Syria to Iraq, 2002 (right).

Two decades later, a Kurdistan has emerged, even if its legal status remains something of an elastic envelope. Iraqi Kurds seem to be able to use their growing international recognition and support to keep on pushing out, waiting, and pushing out again. Entering the KRG no longer needs a ride on a tin-tub speedboat across the Tigris River or shadowy permits from Syrian intelligence: there are now direct international flights to Erbil airport and its sleek tubular arches, and KRG border police stamp a welcome into many country’s passports without demanding a visa. To go on to Baghdad, however, a proper Iraqi visa is needed.

Not surprisingly for a people for whom smuggling between neighbouring states has long been a way of life, the American dollar is as good a currency as the Iraqi dinar. The newest computers, top-of-the-line cameras and surveillance equipment are carted off to the rest of Iraq, Iran and Turkey from Erbil’s bustling electronics district, which charges lower prices than New York, partly because nothing seems to be taxed. Things don’t always work out. Because Baghdad insists all Iraqi oil must be marketed through the central government [corrected: see below], two tankers full of the Iraqi Kurds’ first oil shipments that used an Iraqi pipeline through Turkey were kept floating off the U.S. coast for weeks in a legal limbo this summer. But some Kurdish oil is finding buyers.

Breaking the Ramadan fast at a falafel seller in a renovated part of Erbil’s city center. (Photo: Hugh Pope)

Breaking the Ramadan fast at a falafel seller in a renovated part of Erbil’s city centre.

Growing assertiveness is showing in Kurdish languages and cultures. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, outsiders mostly used Iraq’s national language of Arabic for work. When the Kurdish zone expanded anew during the 2003 war, I moved with Kurdish fighters into territory formerly held by the deposed Saddam Hussein regime — once again into Kurdish towns with shop signs only in Arabic. Domestically, a main concern for Masoud Barzani’s region-wide television station has been to coin a new kind of high Kurdish as a language that would be understood through the whole territory. This is still a work in progress: a refugee Syrian Kurdish schoolteacher in Erbil told me in July that after nearly a year here he still couldn’t fully understand the Iraqi Kurds’ main east-central Sorani dialect. Arabic, however, was much less known to those educated after 1991. “Learn Kurdish!” the two young men who drove me across the country ended up yelling in frustration as our conversation reached another dead end. It was true: anybody seeking to operate effectively outside the English-speakers in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elite now needs to do just that.

Erbil Castle from the plain. (Photo: Hugh Pope)

Erbil’s castle.

The city of Erbil, now the KRG capital, is still dominated by its ‘castle’, an oval of fortifications and brick mansions on the site of an ancient settlement or ‘tel’ that through history has risen 50 meters over the plains around. The castle is being restored and the city is in the throes of a rapid transformation. Concentric ring roads are expanding like ripples in what has become a concrete sea. Wide highways are well-paved and busy with new-looking, sometimes expensive cars. One of the biggest buildings in the city used to be the Saddam-era regional parliament building; now it’s hard to spot. At the same time, large parks have been laid out that attract crowds after the heat of the day.

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In old parts of Erbil a few old low-rise brick houses (above left) can still be found. But they are giving way to 20-story luxury mall-and-residence complexes. New-build housing estates now extend far into the surrounding plains (above right) and hills to the north.

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Several new glittering malls (like the Royal Mall, above left) compete for attention from the elites. Construction is under way to rebuild the more popular Kayseri Market in the city center (above right), where straw-coloured brick vaults now frame bazaar shops that sell everything from Kurdish cradles and carpets to dried vegetables, gold and mountain honey. Soon there will be nothing left of the old corrugated iron roofs riddled with holes, a continued legacy of the malevolent neglect of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

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A new sense of Kurdish pride can be felt, too, from the first ‘Welcome to Kurdistan’ sign in the airport bank ads to the vast flag that now flies over the Erbil castle (above left). After years of Iraqi oppression of Kurdishness, one petrol station (above right) seemed to feel the need to plaster the word ‘Kurd’ everywhere. Back in 1991, just after renewed Western protection gave the Iraqi Kurds their road to more autonomy, if people wanted to fly the sunburst flag of Kurdistan, they had to draw it by hand on pieces of paper.

Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 17.59.25

Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats. But the places where the roads now turn into the jarring old bone-shakers mostly seem to be where a dam or bridge is being built nearby. The countryside is busy too: towns given over to the production of concrete breeze-blocks, or valleys in which the newly rich find hills and outcrops on which to build their own private villa-castles as summer weekend retreats.

Photo by Hugh Pope

Old flat-roofed mountain villages stepped up the mountainsides have become rarer but still possible to see.

In a sign that KRG President Barzani also remembers the precariousness of the past, however, he prudently keeps his main residence and workplace on a hard-to-attack ridge in the first line of mountain foothills north of Erbil. For sure, the Kurds have a long way to go, and any independent state, for instance, would prove much harder than it looks. Weeks after my visit to Erbil, judged safe for travellers in recent years, the city came under threat of direct attack by the jihadists from the new Islamic State. But, with help from Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its defenses have not crumbled.

Sunset over the valley of Qandil

The Qandil valley

Such cooperation, until recently unthinkable, are part of the recent intertwining of the fates of the Iraqi Kurds’ KRG, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds. This could be seen not just in the operations to save the Yezidis and others but also somewhere as remote as the PKK headquarters, at times attacked and often only grudgingly tolerated by the KRG in the remote Qandil Valley. The KRG authorities have now extended a new line of electricity poles, cellphone service and a good main road to the small Iraqi Kurdish villages there. Villagers live in apparent harmony with PKK checkpoints and the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish Kurd insurgents camped out in the mountains above. Another powerfully revived link is between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, with perhaps 250,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing to Kurdish areas of Turkey in the past year (described in my Crisis Group blog here) and Turkish Kurds giving military and humanitarian aid to their cousins in Syria.

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The PKK’s cemetery and parade ground in Qandil Valley.

Alongside Qandil’s well-built Iraqi Kurdish village houses, squabbling ducks in the water canals and peach orchards heavy with fruit, a number of buildings lie flattened after attacks on the PKK by the Turkish Air Force in recent years. But even here, there is hope of change and peace after 30 years of a war that has killed at least 30,000 people on both sides. The PKK is becoming more open too, and won some of its first positive press in the West for their role in defending the Yezidi Kurds in Sinjar from jihadi attack (for instance, in Prospect Magazine and the Daily Beast).

Village house in Qandil said by the PKK to have been flattened by Turkish Air Force action.

Village house in Qandil said by the PKK to have been flattened by Turkish Air Force action.

Long journeys from little-known places by determined, well-organized people can sometimes reach their goal: Qandil is not far as the crow flies from Loulan, where I first met Barzani earlier in his Kurdish struggle 30 years ago. Passing the last PKK checkpoint on my way home, I asked one of the Turkish Kurd insurgents about what lay behind his dedication to a cause and an organisation that required him to live indefinitely without pay, without holidays, without families, and without a love life. He laughed wryly and took the long view of a true believer.

“I guess you could say we’re like a dervish lodge”, said the man in his 30s. “And we’ll keep at it until we win the rights we want for the Kurds.”

***

All photographs copyright by Hugh Pope

This version of the article article has removed an incorrect reference to sales of Iraqi Kurdish oil having to be directed through Baghdad according to U.S. and international law.

Afghanistan: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.

Buy book from Amazon.com

Buy book from Amazon.com

The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.

Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.

Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.

"I survived" - Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing nearby. Photo by Graeme Smith

“I survived” – Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing near Kandahar in 2006. Photo by Graeme Smith

Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:

Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.

Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”

Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.

He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”

Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).

When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”

The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.

Riding the authorial roller-coaster

May 12, 2012 1 comment

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“How’s the book doing?” All authors gnaw at this question before answering, no matter if our book sold 100,000 copies (but the last one sold a million), if 2,730 lovingly produced volumes of our self-published work still lie wrapped in brown paper in the garage, or if the book, in everyone but the author’s eyes, is doing perfectly fine.

Not many writers can give the straight answer that the questioner usually expects (“Oh, it sold 10,802 copies in the first 14 months,” for instance), for the simple reason that nobody seems to know this figure. Only by accident, for instance, did I or (apparently) the publisher learn that the 4th updated edition of my co-authored Turkey Unveiled actually sold out in a couple of months after publication in December 2011. A reprint was quickly ordered up. Yet, now that Dining with al-Qaeda is two years old, I would like to know how many copies have been sold. Where to start, though?

Who wants to believe the amazon.com weekly sales tracker at “author central”, informing you occasionally that you sold no copies of any book whatsoever in the past week? (However you do, of course, allow yourself a pat on the back when it says that last week a dozen of copies of one of them suddenly sold in one town – this week’s thank yous to Houston TX, Boston MA and Washington DC!).

The perplexing vagueness continues with publishers’ weird accounting. After Dining with al-Qaeda came out in March 2010, I was astonished by the several thousand copies reported sold in the first half-year statement from Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press. Tearing open the full year’s statement with premature glee, I then discovered that the number had fallen by more than one third. Bookshops had apparently sent back what they couldn’t sell, leaving a good total in readers’ hands, but still, well, less than before. From previous books I know that actual royalties roll in much later, taking years to pay off any advance. Even then the math never seems to add up – and, as an agent once told me, publishers make money long before authors pay off their advances.

So, I admit it, I’m not one of those lucky few authors who actually make a cash profit from writing books. That gives me a weakness for what my old Crisis Group boss Gareth Evans disparaged as time-wasting “psychic income”.

My first installment of this virtual revenue came from launch tour events in New York and Washington DC and elsewhere, that happy period when for a historical moment Dining with al-Qaeda was #1 in amazon.com’s ‘Middle East books’. More gratification came from reviews in the media. And even if they didn’t write about it, many former reporting colleagues seem to have actually read the book and enjoyed it.

Secondly, I’m proud to say that readers on amazon.com give it an average 4-1/2 stars in the US and 5 stars in the UK. Please indulge me by sharing some of their views:

“A superb book” (Arabourne); “the author’s transparency of thought [shows an] ability to get into the Arab mind, in all its complexity” (David Schlosberg); “a valuable journey … first-rate understanding of the interplay of history, politics and culture” (BlueRidgeVa); “As an American woman who has lived for 15+ years in the region, I consider this book to be a must-read for Westerns who have never traveled to the ME” (L. Campbell); “I was caught up in the moment” (S. McGee); “The smells, dust, noise of the Turkish, Arab or Iranian streets burst from the book’s pages” (F. Brauer). Some see flaws, too, and if you insist on reading those, all can be found here.

I’m offered even better psychic income from invitations to discuss Dining with al-Qaeda with readers. The book never had academic pretensions, but one of my hopes while writing it was that new students of the Middle East would find it a fast track to understanding the context of their dry historical studies. So I was delighted to learn that Bucknell University in Pennsylvania made the book required reading for students of the International Relations of the Middle East. I then had great fun talking to the class via Skype under the watchful eye of their guide, award-winning academic Juliette Tolay, answering questions about what it felt like to see, hear and taste the Middle East – and why nothing changes as quickly as Westerners often hope.

I enjoy the steady demand for more traditional talks on the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda.  Book clubs sometimes ask me along (my favorite audience), for instance a heady dinner in Brussels with several of the finest minds of the new European External Action Service. Most recently I spoke to four score grandees at the monthly Writers’ Lunch of the Oxford & Cambridge Club in London.

This occasional blog, of course, is another way for me to keep enjoying the book. At this two-year mark, about 26,000 people have visited.

Intriguingly, amazon.com’s tracker shows that book shipments plummeted for several weeks after January 2011, as stories of the Egyptian revolution predominated and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May made Americans think that the al-Qaeda chapter of their recent history had closed. Nevertheless, this year the book is coming out in French, probably as Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Presses de l’Universite Laval, Quebec), translated by Benoit Léger. I’ve posted a translated excerpt about Syria (in French here, the original English here).

So French readers will soon also, I hope, discover the broader perspective that 30 years of traveling and reporting gives to, for example, the past year of Arab revolts and uprisings. Is it really an Arab spring, or merely the latest twist of familiar pieces in the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope? Allez-y! Découvrez par vous-même!

“I don’t read Hugh Pope” – Robert Fisk

November 20, 2011 10 comments

Sometimes something can worry you for years, and you don’t quite know what to do about it. Robert Fisk’s writing is one of those things for me. His stories are compellingly fluent, fabulously channel Middle Eastern victimhood, and satisfyingly cast grit in the eye of Western governments’ hypocrisy. And yet against this I always have to set my experience that, in one case that is personally important to me, the swirl of rumours about Fisk’s cavalier treatment of facts seems to be true.

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

My particular assertion about Robert Fisk’s journalism comes in a chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to the question of accuracy in Middle Eastern reporting (pages 20-27). It relates to an episode during the 1991 Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis on the mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi border. A piece by Fisk said that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting” stealing Iraqi Kurd refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”. This, according to him, had led to a near-armed clash between Turkish and British troops. Fisk’s report gravely set back Turkish-allied cooperation in the relief effort. Fisk was expelled and I was ordered out too, since I worked for the same newspaper, Britain’s Independent. I was later reprieved, partly because I had nothing to do with the story. I had been back in Istanbul, writing up my own experiences of the refugee camps.

While putting together Dining with al-Qaeda, I telephoned Fisk’s main named source in those mountains, a British military doctor. To make sure, I also contacted a senior British diplomat in charge in those days, now in retirement. Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalized. Moreover, I noted inconsistencies between Fisk’s accounts in the newspaper and in his memoir (The Great War for Civilization, 2005). For instance, in a major narrative section of his book that is absent from the original article, Fisk meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.

I had shrunk from confronting Fisk in person with my findings. Most journalists hate publicly accusing each other of making things up – after all, one might oneself be found to have made a slip in a race to a deadline. A major British journalist told me he’d liked Dining with al-Qaeda, but couldn’t review it because it meant making a choice between Fisk (seven times named Britain’s ‘International Reporter of the Year’ ) and me (last known award: my school’s poetry prize). The Guardian’s Ian Black put it coyly in his review that “Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk … he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day …’”. As leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani said in a review: “Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting … If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It’s a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.”

So it was that, when watching Fisk interviewed at length on Turkish NTV on 17 November 2011 (here), I averted my eyes towards the end when I heard journalist Barçin Yınanç pose a question that focused on my name. She said that “even though [Hugh Pope] praises your journalism”, I had written in a book that his report on that long-ago incident was exaggerated and “not based on data”.

After a dramatic pause in which presenter Oğuz Haksever apologized about not wanting a polemic, ear pieces were fiddled with and translations made, Fisk said the following:

Look, I don’t read Hugh Pope. Sorry. In the incident in question, I was in an aircraft, helicopter, full of CIA men, who had to go and intervene to prevent British and Turkish troops fighting each other. They were either side of a small stream with their rifles pointed at each other in front of my eyes. This wasn’t data. I was an eyewitness. The Americans had to go into the stream and stop them shooting at each other, because the British were trying to stop this small group of Turkish soldiers taking blankets and food from refugees … Hugh Pope’s got it wrong, as with other things during the past. I don’t have any feelings about Hugh Pope. I was an eyewitness to what happened. Sorry. I was there. He was not.

Oğuz Haksever swiftly moved the program on. The interview, mainly about the 936-page Turkish version of Fisk’s memoir, certainly had its moments. Fisk (correctly) predicted that “Bashar is going to last a lot longer in Syria than you seem to think he is … the Baath Party has a huge historical grip on Syria”; he warned Ankara to resist pressure from the U.S. and “La Clinton” to intervene against Damascus; said the words “Armenian Genocide” so often that the flustered Turkish translator gave up adding the word “alleged”; talked of the need for reporters to “be on the side of those who suffer” and “to monitor the centers of power, especially when they go to war, especially when they lie to do it”; confided that when reporting about the Kurds he wrote “with a very strong sense of cynicism … I mean irony, we need to have a certain black humour about this”; and finally dismissed Tony Blair as “the most meretricious, repulsive politician that we have in Britain, the most terrible prime minister we’ve ever had in British history”, who “seems to have a special relationship with God”, who “is a weird product of absolute self-conviction”, and who had written “an extremely self-congratulatory book.”

I was however only half-listening to the rest of the interview. Fisk had vowed three times that he had been “there”, an “eyewitness” to that 1991 incident, as he tells the story in his memoir. But he hadn’t explained why his original story (“Troops steal food and blankets from refugees”, Independent, Tuesday 30 April 1991) firmly sets the reported confrontation over the stream on Sunday night the 28th of April, while stating that he had arrived “yesterday”, which in the Independent‘s style means Monday the 29th, that is, one day after whatever happened was over. Furthermore, Fisk’s original story cites soldiers talking of past incidents, but makes no claim of seeing anything of a confrontation himself.

Whatever the British-Turkish tensions in the camp, Fisk has not convinced me that people are wrong to say that he over-played the situation. A question about his factual veracity about the incident has at last been put to him in public. I feel a sense of inner peace. The frustration that has nagged at me for 20 years has gone away.

A POSTSCRIPT (March 2012)

Britain’s satirical weekly Private Eye No. 1310 in March 2012 had the following take on the matter (apparently in part citing the above blog, so apologies for any repetition):

FISK ANALYSIS

MEMBERS of the Vulture Club, a closed Facebook group for foreign correspondents and aid workers, are circling the carcass of Robert Fisk, the Independent’s man in the Middle East, for his holier-than-thou rant against fellow war reporters following the Syrian Army’s murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Condemning the “colonialist” assumption that “the lives of western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the ‘foreign’ civilians who suffer around them”, Fisk accused Colvin’s editors and editors like them of pro-western double standards. “The newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs,” he concluded. “Just a thought.”

Glory-hunters and hypocrites

As a matter of fact, western reporters did get round the Israeli army’s restrictions on journalists during its war with Hamas. Led by Bruno Stevens, a brave Belgian photographer, 30 found a way in over the Egyptian border. Fisk’s innuendo that foreign hacks were glory-hunters for exposing the deaths of Syrians, and hypocrites for ignoring the deaths of Palestinians, has put the war correspondents on the war path.

On the Vulture Club’s web page, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, describes Fisk’s article as “unconscionable”. Catherine Philp, US correspondent for the Times, says Fisk “makes it up”. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor tells of Fisk writing a piece attacking the Baghdad press corps for being “hotel journalists” who dared not go onto the streets, while rarely leaving the safety of the hotel pool himself.

It is not only on closed Facebook groups that Fisk is being pummelled.

Hugh Pope, a former Independent colleague of Fisk’s, recently published a memoir of his three decades of reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al Qaeda. When they were both covering the Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis in 1991, he writes, Fisk reported that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting”, stealing refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”, and that British forces “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

For his book, Pope telephoned Fisk’s main named source, a British military doctor. He also spoke to a senior British diplomat who had run the relief operation in Turkey in 1991. “Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalised.” In a later account of the “clash”, Pope writes, Fisk “meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.”

When Pope’s book came out Ian Black, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, drily noted that he was “not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day’”. Meanwhile the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that “if you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk”.

Indeed you do. “It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,” writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of Pope’s book. “I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.”

The full text of U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer’s 1 April 2010 blog posting (here) goes like this

BOB FISK OUTED

Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines…

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.

Damian Thompson

Robert Fisk’s response to all this can be seen in a 29 March 2012 posting by Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph Blogs at the London Daily Telegraph. Thompson says (here):

[Many comments by foreign correspondents upset by Fisk's suggestion that news rooms were ignoring Gaza in favour of Homs] expand on a remark made in the Guardian by Ian Black, the paper’s diplomatic editor, who was reviewing the memoirs of Hugh Pope, a distinguished Middle East correspondent, which strongly criticise Fisk’s style of reporting … Black was choosing his words carefully (as am I) but read between the lines.

So I rang Fisk to ask what he made of all these claims … He said: “I do not make stories up, full stop. This is being put together in order to harass me and possibly The Independent.” …

What about Ian Black’s innuendo? “I’m very surprised that he wrote that. I’m amazed to see that he wrote that review [of Hugh Pope’s book]“.

But it isn’t just Black: it’s foreign correspondents from various publications who have encountered Fisk over the years. How could he explain their criticisms? “Colleagues will malign you if you’re a moderately successful journalist,” said Fisk.

Other comments on Robert Fisk’s reporting and its impact have been made by Reggie’s Blog here, and, back in 2007, by veteran Middle East correspondent (and former Independent reporter) Adel Darwish here. Private Eye revisited the story in February 2013 (Eye 1333 here):

Clip from Private Eye

Take my money or die

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.

One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:

“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”

Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”

Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”

I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”

The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.

Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”

Top US leaders never discussed if Iraq war was a good idea

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Fine 30 Sept 2011 New York Times review (here) of what looks like an important book on how President George W. Bush never discussed whether the Iraq war was a good idea, or, indeed, how nobody knows the answer to the question of what the reason for the war was at all!

Some excerpts from Thomas Power’s take on INTELLIGENCE AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY:  Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, by Paul R. Pillar.

… [The CIA's] hastily written October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate identifying Iraqi W.M.D. programs with “high confidence.” … was wrong in every finding … nothing … was found on the ground in Iraq… evidence may have been thin and sparse, but that there was evidence … What decided the matter … was the politicization of the whole effort… everybody at the agency, from lowliest analyst up to the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, knowing their careers were on the line, called the coin toss on evidence as desired…

[Quote from ex-CIA analyst Pillars book] “The pro-war wind that the Bush administration policy makers had generated . . . was strong, unrelenting and inescapable”.

[Yet] the administration never formally debated “whether the war was a good idea.” The implication is clear: a small group of officials made the decision on their own, without leaving any record. “It was never on any meeting’s agenda,” Pillar notes…

In Dining with al-Qaeda I write of feeling exactly the same wind that blew the US into Iraq, and it is some consolation to know that I was not alone in lamenting my impotence to stand up to it. I am still looking forward to reading the book that explains the real reason why all those people had to die.

Categories: Mr. Q's News

Tea with the Taliban

November 27, 2010 2 comments

When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.

Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You – and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.

Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.

Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”

Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.

“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.

She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”

Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of  kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.

She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.

Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.

She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”

Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”

Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”

I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.

Photo: David Gilkey/NPR

(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)

My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.

If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”

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