Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Don't Even Know What a Quail Looks Like

I wrote my last post about the lack of an actual, popular, narrative on Central Asia. This was originally going to be a part of that post, until I realized that they were only tenuously related and it would've gone on way too long.

I've made my interest in architecture and the built environment very clear in the past, but I can't help but think that I'm in the minority. All of these military bases, all of these dams, all of these roads, and all of these libraries are landmarks and logistical arteries for the future. If the United States doesn't want to be an Ozymandias, doesn't want to have the 21st century version of a T83-strewn landscape, there really ought to be more of a serious examination of what the next decade of American involvement in Central Asia will do to the environment.

G. Whitney Azoy's Buzkashi was a great read, mostly because it was a very real and concise look at how daily life is led in urban and rural Afghanistan. The khan-and-his-courtyard model is completely foreign to anything the Western folks are used to, can expect, and likely can build in central Indiana. It's also awfully different from Iraq.

So the bases that are built are often completely alien structures placed in the middle of an environment that they don't interact with. Sure, the soldiers or aid workers may leave the FOB to sally forth unto the land, but they are sure to return and retain sooner rather than later. But what's the plan for these bases after the next few Friedman Units? What happens to them during the next few Friedman Units? I've already borrowed his work for one post, but Nick Sowers examines this sort of stuff on a visit to a base outside Tokyo:
The funniest thing about it is that the Army employs people to work on the 'encroachment team' yet they have no right to actually take down these violations of military space. These minor interventions by the base's neighbors offer a means of resisting the Army's presence. I asked one of my 'encroachment team' experts, at the end, if she thought the city was encroaching on the base, or if it was really the other way around....what happens if when these tacit gardens and over-hanging branches are amplified? The base edge begins to erode in this incipient form of demilitarization.
So is the expectation that military bases will eventually decay and become artifacts, or will the bases become the basis of a new way of living in the region? And does it have to be a dichotomy, or can there be a middle ground?

I just stumbled into this website, run by Alexander Merkushev, full of great stories and better photos (including the one above) about Afghanistan. That is, generally speaking, what the country looks like now. This list is for what can be done to clean up America. It's not like list B won't help pictures A.

I've been running on this theme for a while, but it still is worth mentioning. How can design help make the Central Asian states downright livable?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What's the Narrative?

There's a weird dichotomy between the Orientalizing and Occidentalizing influences of popular (read: non-academic) works on Central Asia. The Kite Runner is probably the most popular of pop history, but it is basically a story of the success of capitalism by infantilizing Afghans, as Matt Miller can say better than me:
The most pernicious element of this novel, however, is also the same aspect that American readers consistently have identified as the most heart-warming and inspiring: the story of the redemption of Amir thorough his harrowing and heroic rescue of Sohrab. In short, Amir, the successful western expatriate writer must leave his safe, idyllic existence in the U.S.; return to an Afghanistan that has been ravaged by the Russians (our Cold War enemy) and the Taliban (the representation of our new Islamic enemy); and rescue the innocent orphaned son of his childhood friend from the incarnation of evil itself, Assef. Amir's descent into this Other World, a veritable 'heart of darkness,' appears to be the only hope for its victims' salvation.
The other narrative option is that of The Photographer, which is the story of Doctors Without Borders during the Soviet-Afghan war. It tells the story through the eyes of a photographer by way of graphic novel, and is well-worth reading (or looking at: the part drawing/part photograph exposition is pretty impressive). It still lacks much in the way of scope, though. It's the story of one group of westerners who live among the Afghans in the north, alternately saving some lives and being saved by others. But it's impossible (or at least irresponsible) to use it to paint broadly. There are no great protagonists or anything. The most heroic Afghan, Najmuddin, is absolutely lost in big cities. In many ways, The Photographer is just an American hipster's Kite Runner.

And then there's Shantaram, which is fun and all if you like plucky drug addicts making ends meet in the wilds of Asia.

GoA just put his new Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography up, and that thing is absolutely awesome for academic use, no doubt about it. But there's no popular concept of Central Asia stateside...even everything I mentioned so far is only Afghanistan. Once you go north, you enter a big, blank, space until Kazakhstan...even if you may want to tell TIME where Kazakhstan is. And it's worth mentioning Roman Vasilenko's finest moment as press secretary when he said that Sascha Baron Cohen lives in a one-man country called Boratistan.

I've mentioned it before, but Central Asia has no identity stateside, outside of general exotic place of danger. Or corrupt, post-Soviet, dinginess. I'd expect it to stay that way for a while, as long as journalists are being killed by security forces. But everyone who studies the region studies it because there's something about it they love. For me, it's the sheer opportunity, the possibility of something huge being created within my lifetime that I can be a part of. That and the mountains.

Unless Bekmambetov gets to direct the Kazakh national epic or something. Maybe some more big and flashy architecture. I'm not sure what else is going to put the stans on the map. Which is a shame, because I'd love to be able to say "I'm looking at natural resources in Uzbekistan" without having to draw an air-map to show what I'm talking about.

Terrorism as Semantics

In a class as part of my getting a degree in Terrorism, I remember that one of the first things the teacher said was, "there is no definition of terrorism." And indeed, one of the greatest problems with the War on Terror, especially in Central Asia, is that the various definitions all conflict with each other and lead the DoD, the Dept. of State, PMCs, NGOs, and the actual host government's police forces and military to all define their objectives differently and to then stake their claims on different goals.

Seriously, some quick wiki'ing can introduce you to the problem.
  • Department of State: "The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant [including off-duty military] targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
  • Department of Defense: "Calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."

So of course the DoD's definition includes attacks on military, because then they're relevant to the war on terror. So then people who fight ISAF in pitched battles are terrorists whether or not they kill civilians. Except for the countries in ISAF where DoD's definition doesn't fly. It gets really fascinating when you look outside of NATO, though. I can't find it for the life of me online, but I believe Iran defines terrorism as "an act of Zionism" or something along those lines. There is no international, interstate, acceptance of An Issue of Terrorism. Not even close. And if you wanted to bet that the UN's definitions have been lawyered beyond all comprehension, you'd be right.

The use of an amorphous definition to fight an amorphous problem allows repressive regimes plenty of room to operate. I'm not as well-versed in Central Asian sub-state actors yet, but the old Turkish Hezbollah was, by many smart folks, believed to be a government creation to fight the PKK. And, I mean, there's the whole history of the ISI. And though that stuff gets conspiracy-theorist in a hurry, the very existence of dark corners is a function of this vague and confused definition of terrorism.

I mentioned the terrorism degree before, and it stands to say that the folks I got it from also put out the Global Terrorism Database, which is a terrific amount of fun. If you're interested, you can download an excel file of all their data, which allows folks like us to crowdsource terrorism research. All of this is good, good, stuff.

At the same time, there are some gaps to fill. Gaps that exist because of the aforementioned amorphousness of the issue the GTD is there to study. And I hate to harp on Andijan, but I view it as a litmus test of someone's knowledgability of Central Asia: If you know about the events and the questions surrounding it, there's a good chance you're pretty knowledgable about the rest of the issues surrounding Central Asia (or at least are in a good position to learn more). And the GTD? Well, it don't know Andijan:
Thousands of armed protestors stormed a jail in an effort to free 23 members of the Akramia religious group in Andijan, Uzbekistan. At least nine people were killed and numerous others were injured in the incident. The government of Uzbekistan believed that the Akamia religious group was in contact with the outlawed, radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
So here we go again. It's not GTD's fault, per se. The point of the database is to create a set of datapoints, and this datapoint has the right date, the right location, and all of that. There's just a stark lack of sincerity about the underlying issue. This weird dichotomy exists between the "With us or against us" belief and the "Let countries figure out how to deal with their own problems" I'm honestly not sure how Karimov landed on a side, Kadyrov landed on a side, and all of that.

The tools to study exist, but there is no consensus on what to study. The whole inchoate beginning of Terrorism Studies as a field relies on an ability to define terrorism like one can define history, anthropology, or geology. Withouth that, it's just political posturing and think tanks. I'm not sure what the better solution is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Watch them build up a material tower

Think it’s not gonna stay anyway
Think it’s overrated

Lyrics are a stretch, but this song has been stuck in my head for a few days now.

And this'll be brief, because I'm trying not to be too snarky and besides, I have a final in less than 24 hours (and new stuff on Registan! Don't forget!) But still... In this corner (brought to you by Td'H) is William F. Owen:
The acts of Sept. 11 changed nothing in the Thucydidean and Clausewitzian nature of war, or even its modern practice.
Historically, armies have always gathered information about the ethnicity, tribal makeup and opinions of civilian populations. The argument that this was done in a “colonial” context is correct, but this is no different from doing the same thing in a “nation-building” context.
War is not changing. The aims and purpose of organized violence for political gain are enduring and unchanging. Insurgencies are war, and most if not all of the observations made in the Army’s new FM 3-24 “Counterinsurgency” manual could have been written in 1991 or earlier.
[note: I left out his gratuitous "hermaphrodite" comment, and the less said about counterinsurgency being the same pre-1991, the better]

And in the other corner (courtesy of Danger much as I want to mock them, I can't) is the Washington Post:
As the Pentagon contracts out activities that previously were carried out by troops in wartime, it has been forced to struggle with new management challenges. "Prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contracting was done on an ad-hoc basis and was not adequately incorporated into the doctrine -- or culture -- of the military," according to the CRS report. Today, according to Defense Department officials, "doctrine and strategy are being updated to incorporate the role of contractors in contingency operations."
[headline is that 56k contractors are joining the 30k troops in the new surge]

War is changing. States don't have monopolies on violence. Killing isn't as straightforward as it used to be. I'm willing to argue this, sure. Just not with dullards.

Making Foothils out of Footnotes

Partway through Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (which is fantastic and will be reviewed when I'm finished) I came across the following footnote to an article by Thomas Tuttig on Loya Paktia:
"'Taliban release video of German who Targeted US Afghan Base'"[cited]....According to one source, it 'appears the IJU is an umbrella term used to link a network of affiliated Jamoat groups from Central Asia, comprised of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Kazakh radicals, linked to, but not formally associated with, the IMU'. Another source describes it as an 'offshoot' of the IMU' and as 'dominated by Turkish Jihadists', at least members of the German Turkish Community[cite1],[cite2, same article, but originally from a different, less They Live! website]...The former British Amabassador to Uzbekistan, however, believes that IJU is a creation of the Uzbek Secret Service."[cite3]
OK, huh??? I obviously cut out the cites in favor of hyperlinks, but the footnote is referring to a bit on the relationship between the IJU as "the obscure Uzbek-Turkish Islami Cihad Ittehadi" Najmiddin Jalolov, and the Haqqani network. So there's a whole dogs breakfast of ethnicities and nationalities being jumbled together, and this footnote doesn't even mention the casual acceptance of Chechens swarming Afghanistan.

Ruttig is obviously a very sharp guy, and his CV is far more impressive than mine, and he cites Guido Steinberg, my favorite name in academia since P.L.O Guy, and I'm not knocking his research or writing at all...but that above paragraph displays a huge friction between the reality of terrorist groups and the study of them.

The first article is cited because of this note:
The plotters, who included two German converts to Islam and a Turkish Muslim, had allegedly been planning large bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in Germany. All have been linked to the Uzbek terrorist group Islamic Jihad Union. The videotape released in Peshawar also includes a message of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most wanted commanders in Afghanistan.
So far, we have 3 Germans, one of which is of indeterminate Turkish/swarthy origin, the other two apparently look like Beckenbauer. OK, maybe the linkage between them and IJU is confidential, that's fine, let's run with it.

The second link to Jamestown paints a very different picture of IJU. It discusses the same incident as above, but then goes into a quick history linking the IJU, IMU, IMT (Islamic Movement of Turkistan), East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Jamiati Tabligh, and assorted Kyrgyz and Kazakhs who got caught up in the movement. So what is this pan-ethnic, muti-tentacled, beast doing in Uzbekistan?
In effect, this culminated in the events in Andijan in which a peaceful demonstration against the arrest of 23 businessmen quickly escalated.
Oh. To be fair, this article was written in 2007 when I also still thought that terrorists had a big hand in Andijan, but, well, they didn't. The IJU, IMU, IMT are still fighting mostly in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and the real heavy fighting hasn't made Uzbekistan for a multitude of reasons.

The last article doesn't cite any sources for its portion on "An Uzbek-Turkish al-Qaeda" because that doesn't make any sense. To wit:
Whether the IJU can establish a new terrorist network dominated by Uzbeks and Turks and maintain it in the longer term remains to be seen. But the events of 2007 have given a clear warning. An Uzbek organization that operates transnationally and adopts an internationalist strategy like the IJU is ideally suited for recruiting Turks—either from Turkey itself or from the European diaspora—for al-Qaeda’s global Jihad.
That's pure Eurabia-level scare tactics. We have located one Turk in this entire web, and he wasn't actually Turkish, but German. In fact, we have twice as many Europeans as Turks so far, if we're going to make that distinction. The concept of Turks having an al-Qaeda uprising RIGHT IN EUROPE'S BACKYARD needs a wee bit more fleshing out before Munich joins the Exotic Place of Danger Watch.

As for what Amb. Murray has to say, well, the Uzbek internet militia have already been at this site in full force, so I hesitate to comment. He's probably the loudest, most famous, critic of Karimov's regime, but that cuts both ways. I'm a sucker for conspiracy theories, but I'm still looking for more verifiable proof that the Uzbek Government funds IJU.

So all in all, we still don't know what the IJU is about after looking into assertions on what the IJU is about. It's certainly possible that they want to turn the entire Dar al-Islam into a caliphate capitaled at Samarkand. It's also entirely possible that they only exist in the failed state between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that any pan-Turanian branding is just that, branding. Just because an organization wants to have Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Turkish, Uyghur, Chechen (I wonder if there are any Buryat, Tatar, or Kabardin terrorists...especially Tatars, wouldn't want to mess with them) fighters doesn't mean they exist in amounts worth putting resources towards.

If you want to save Central Asian from amorphous, platonically ideal, bad guys, then look towards good governance, fighting corruption, instilling civic pride and smart urban planning, education reforms, and by all means make sure the resource wealth gets converted into something useful. A pan-Turanian Takfiri uprising may just get put down without it getting started that way.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cryllic for Ryllic

I've fallen in love with Eternal Remont in the past few days while ostensibly doing other things (not reading about Central Asia as much, though). And I've found such wonders as Hottest Heads of State, multiple reasons why folks Stateside should start celebrating independence Abkhazia-style, and lots of other good Near Abroad goodness.

These photos are the coolest so far, though. And if you go through them all, you find that there's a Ближнее зарубежье themed restaurant in London that serves: Blini, Katchapouri, Chicken Kiev, Shashlyk, and 8-pound cocktails (that's money, not weight, sorry). So yeah, I know where I'll be a New Years down the road.

Because spending $70 on Caucasian food, however gauche, is not a crime.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

USAF General Doesn't Get It

Noah Shachtman over at Danger Room publishes an e-mail from Air Force General Deptula about civilian casualties. What does the good General have to say?

Well then.Of course polling data and Georgetown studies support what you have to say. It is their job to. As for what Afghans themselves have to say?
Instead, when Afghan people were polled about the reasons for their growing disillusionment with Kabul, insecurity and corruption overwhelmingly dominated their complaints; “too many innocent people being killed” barely registered. Intuitively, that makes sense in a country of a thousand villages separated by thousand of mountains and valleys, where tribal institutions are the paramount determinant of communication — not the International Herald Tribune or the New York Times, or CNN or Twitter…
How do airstrikes aid the perception of insecurity and corruption? If those are the greatest reasons why people distrust Kabul, then they should be looked at. And of course "insecurity and corruption" are the issues for Kabul. Civilian deaths are the issue for the war itself. Its easily construed as two different questions, this is why polling is flawed. People may very well distrust Kabul and think that the civilian casualties are egregious...I sincerely, sincerely, doubt that needless killing "barely registered" with, you know, human beings with families and other social ties. That's just dishonest and dismissive.

So is USAF going to take this polling data door-to-door throughout the provinces point out that, you see, if you look at the data right, it's not the US's fault after all? Or uh, are they going to expect that the people who don't use IHT or NYT or CNN or Twitter use Danger Room?

The air war is busted...the US hasn't found a good way to use its massive technology and monetary advantive without getting jujitsu'd. Terrorists hang out with non-terrorists, it's a fact. So I'd assume there's a cost-benefit sheet somewhere where the US Intel says how important one terrorist is vs. citizen casualties and backlash. A higher-up is worth 5, a solider is worth 2, and bin Laden is worth, oh, my guess is 2,000 or so. And if there is, woe be to HuffPo's server the day that gets leaked. But without someone doing that actuarial math, man, this is just message-board fodder.

[I'd love to post this up on Registan but I'm trying to be not-very Afghanistan-y and not-very terrorist-y, as there are writers there who know the stuff a lot more. But come on, guys! Speak up! The same goes for anyone reading here, I've yet to get a comment and I know you exist!]

Monday, December 7, 2009

Building a Better Afghanistan

The USMil plan for Afghanistan is to protect the population centers. Lots of things have been said about this, and I'm on the record now for support Joshua's thoughts on it. I suppose the heart of my version of the argument is that the urban population of Afghanistan is only ~30% of the total population. Even allowing that this is a low estimate due to refugees flocking to cities (or just the heck out of Afghanistan), it's easy to see that the vast majority of Afghanistan is NOT living in urban populations. So between that and the fact that Afghanistan's economy is still mostly agricultural/mining based, protecting population centers tactily means not protecting the economic and social base of Afghanistan. It is giving up on the historic understanding of what Afghanistan is.

The major refutation of my argument is that the "old" Afghanistan was obviously broken if it was taken over by Taliban, so now the idea is to recreate a new, better, Afghanistan. There's some sense to this, and also some opportunity. The GlobalSecurity infograph I linked to previous states [sic where necessary]:
About 77,000 urban houses, of which 63,000 in Kabul alone, have to be rebuilt and an additional 63,000 have to be built for the internally displaced people (IDP). 60% or Kabul urban roads have been destroyed; access to piped water is only about 20% in Kabul (10 to 30% in the other major provincial cities); more than 20 provincial capitals do not have any functioning piped water system and no more than 50% of solid waste is collected.
So there is a distinct opportunity to create a new urban fabric, since the existing one is ripped to shreds. This is a basis for HRTs, NGOs, and all of the other non-military COIN operations to be undergone. Bombing Taliban folks isn't going to get running water going, pitched gunfights aren't going to provide jobs. And it's not that "Roads = Security" or some such tosh, but if the military is operating under the assumption that they can provide a better future than the Taliban can, then a better future has to be built. There has to be an Afghanistan to be provided security, not just FOBs.

This is all a prelude to the work of Nick Sowers, an architect graduate student who, after a long time of traveling and studying on fellowship, is now writing his thesis on the built environment of militarized Afghanistan.* The conclusion to that post deserves quoting at length:
And yet, a recent NY Times article made me realize how neo-colonial the whole enterprise is. Top of the line hospitals sitting vacant. Energy infrastructure running at a marginal percentage of its capacity. So what role could an architect, or could Architecture, possibly have there? Good will has no place when it's towed in by a tank.

I've been running thesis end-game scenarios like this for a project in Afghanistan, to test my moral satisfaction with the potential outcome. I could design bases that are easily recycled to civilian uses. It might even get fun designing things like a church which becomes a mosque, or a defensive wall which provides some kind of infrastructure for refugee housing. Making a base easier to recycle will also make it easier for the military to plant bases wherever they please, under the guise of providing future infrastructure.
Is the military creating wholly new urban environments for their bases? Or are their bases symbiotic to the populations they're purportedly protecting? If the idea is to build up a state that the US can leave, what sort of footprint is being left behind? And how contextualized to the Afghan people is this? Do these "churches that become mosques" look like a mosque? Or a church? And most interesting to me is zoning and the urban fabric: is the new Afghanistan going to be something that an Afghan would feel comfortable in, that is, to the scale, using the materials, and involving the streetflow and roomflow that an Afghan can expect? Or will the Afghans be expected to Americanize or go back to the (not-USMil controlled, lest we forget) rural areas?

When we talk about withdrawal and exit strategies, I don't think any of these things get taken into consideration. But whatever else you say about the current war, the US military effort will probably leave the greatest urban footprint on the land of Afghanistan itself since Timur rolled through. We know his legacy from centuries past, but the USMil isn't thinking about its legacy decades from now. And if there's no consideration of the endgame, then, well, is there seriously an endgame?

Not entirely topical to this post, but when reading Sowers's notes, I keep on thinking of Full Battle Rattle. Yeah, its about Iraq, but it is still kinda relevant. Anyone seen it and want to give a film review to me?

*= I don't know Nick, I've just found his blogs through BLDGblog and find them interesting. I'm going to e-mail him once this is published, sure, but there is no pre-existing relationship.

I Scooped Steven Coll!

Steve Coll, Taliban expert extraordinaire, just found out about Leah Farrall's e-mail conversations with Abu Walid al-Masri.Unfortunately, he gets a little sexist and a little against standard tenets of academic research. Ms. Farrall writes 65 words to refute that better than I can.

Also unfortunately, I wrote about this over a month ago. And since he gets passive voice about his source, I'm going to operate under the assumption that he found this blog because of our 2-minute conversation last spring, and didn't cite me.

Que Triste, Que Triste. The internet is forever, and when you stumble over your words and say something regrettable, it's there to get made fun of. Mr. Coll is better than this, my guess is it was early and he was tired. He has done a lot of good work that shouldn't be dismissed because of that. Just another divide between grey journalism and blogs, I guess

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Family Business

The Central Asian Republics squabble like any good family, as early-stage Kanye could tell us.

Uzbekistan is acting the confident teenager, trying to build up its own energy infrastructure to leave the Soviet era behind them. From the Jamestown:
While every Central Asian country wishes to separate from the Soviet-inherited regional electricity transmission network, the costs remain too high. Tashkent’s decision was mostly political and Uzbek TPP’s will experience severe problems in the delivery of the necessary amount of electricity during peak and non-peak hours. Unlike TPPs, hydropower plants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are better able to regulate electricity supplies during daily fluctuations in the electricity demand.
Its the sort of ironheaded leap at modernization that it takes an autocrat to do. In democracies, people would vote you out of office if you cut off their electricity in the name of nationalism and geopolitical grandstanding. Karimov has nothing to long as the Tashkent Open can still run. [As an aside, Karimov has a rough google hit list. I'm surprised there's nobody at some embassy somewhere to make sure HRW isn't #2]. There's plenty of interesting angles to the story to take. For one, Tajikistan is now going to demonstrate (whether they can or not is a different question...I haven't gotten a clean word on how complete and effective dams like Rogun are). Tajikistan is instead getting their energy from Kazakhstan for now.

I also thought it was interesting that the article touts that the energy will come from thermal power plants. Mostly because I couldn't find much information on thermal plants in Uzbekistan...gas and some hydro makes the most of it. All the same, it opens an interesting window into Uzbekistans's interest in foreign investment. Their Government Energy Website is in Uzbek, of course. But their "Clean Development Mechanism" pages has English and Russian options, as well (and defaults into English). And there's information about TPP there. There are also loads of fun charts that I don't have the time to go into now, but will hopefully be able to get to in a few weeks. [Unless someone wants to beat me to it...paging Mr. Visotzky?] But I guess with the new openness that Western governments are showing to Uzbekistan, the government is trying to get hip with the new environment movement. I'm not sure how sincere that can be, what with the Aral and the Cotton and all, but at least it shows forward-thinking from Tashkent, which has been seemingly lacking for a while.

I've openly taken this story from the twitter of the writer, Erica Marat, but I wanted to peek around to see what's going on since then. As well as my conjectural Euro-friendliness, Uzbekistan's been meeting with Chinese and Pakistani businessfolk. Whew, Turkenistan its not.

Finally and terrifically unrelatedly, the latest US Casualty update made me do a double take: " As of Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009, at least 855 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan..." Wait, what? The article lists 13 other countries that talk about deaths on base (but 4 deaths in those 13 countries "as a result of hostile action") so apparently the casualties in Uzbekistan are more related to the War in Afghanistan then the casualties in, say, Tajikistan. So the American losses in Uzbekistan weren't on bases, and were the result of hostile action. Did I just stumble into a tacit acceptance of US troops fighting in Uzbekistan, or am I missing some head-slap obvious thing? Can the more military-focused folks clue me in, please?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mohsen Kadivar on Islamic Justice and Political Islam

Yesterday I went to a talk by Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian cleric who is currently lecturing stateside and on a speaking tour. He is one of the intellectual leaders of the Green Movement that picked up after the Iranian elections this year. I'm not going to discuss his political beliefes or the pros and cons of the Green Movement or Moussavi. I'm not going to discuss Iranian internal politics or anything re: Israel or nuclear power. That stuff is interesting, absolutely, but it's not the focus of this blog, and I certainly don't know enough to prevent putting my foot in my mouth. And of course, if you think I made an incorrect conclusion or I leaned to heavy on Twelver Shi'a belief when Sunni or Ismaili or other schools are completely different, just let me know in the comments.

All the same, Iran is clearly important to studying Central Asia (I'll let Olivier Roy do the heavy lifting). And I think one of the most interesting political questions in Central Asia is involved with the weight that should be given to Islamic Jurisprudence. Nobody in the West ever seems quite sure what to do with an Islamist Government, partly because nobody is particularly a fan of the ones that exist (I'm ignoring the Gulf Microstates, because I don't think anybody believes that those are reasonable blueprints for larger, economically diverse, countries). All the same, there is a clear interest on the ground level of Islamic Law and Islamic Rule, so its worth looking at, as Kadivar puts it, the tension between Islamic Law and Islamic Rule.

Kadivar is obviously a believer that Modernism, Democracy, and Political Islam can go hand in hand. He is just critical of how the Iranian government has done so, with the rule of Velayat-e Faqih being turned into a rule of infallibility of the jurists. His belief is that the state must never supercede the religion, and that the best way to ensure that the state will not supercede religion is to empower an independent judiciary (made of Islamic Jurists) to rule. He is a follower of Khorasani, a school of thought that has plenty of things to say.

I don't have access to his Persian sources, but I imagine that this would (or at least could) be done in a way similar to how the Supreme Court works in the United States: striking down laws that are against Sharia. I'm not sure if that is simply me imprinting my American upbringing on the Islamic system, but it seems that this would be a decent blueprint: by allowing a panel of jurists to review state-made law, the law can then become more cohesive, and Ijtihad may allow for creative views and modernity to be injected into the sytem. Of course, this implies that the political regime would accept ceding power to people they, by definition, cannot control. And I'm sure that there's a flaw in my understanding of Islamic Jurisprudence (which I am just beginning to jump into).

Another speaker was Professor Ahmet Karamustafa, an all-around great guy who specializes in Sufi Islam and Medieval Islam. He focused on what he calls "Quietist" judges, a term I love. He (and Kadivar, who used the term earlier) define it as apolitical jurisprudence. They both say that the vast majority (80% was bandied about) of clerics are Quietist, that they act for God independent of politics. They assert that Quietism is the "establishment", that localized clerics are the ones who address their communities' needs moreso than state authority. They do this not as a political act, but as a religious act: leading their followers towards better religion, not more correct religion.

This is pretty fascinating stuff from a nation-state perspective. He is stating that the Establishment within Islamic authority is not the state regime, and that the true Revolution of the Iranian Revolution was the attempt to co-opt the Islamic Establishment within a nation-state framework. Karamustafa and Kadivar believe that this is backwards, but this proposes a paradox: how does one form a state around an apolitical framework? And isn't apolitical judgement, leading a community irrespective of the state, stil a political act? This paradox led to the conclusion of the formalized state judiciary (Council of Guardians) but an empowerment of guardians leads to a segmented state based around localities. In short, it would turn Iran into Afghanistan.

I don't need to explain why the leaders of Iran don't want to see it turned into Afghanistan, but the idea of localized jurisprudence, conforming Sharia to the locality and to the state, is something to chew on, re: societal reform. I wonder what John Robb would have to say about it.

Finally, Professor Leila Sadat spoke on Islam and the United Nations. She has a background on Human Rights law, and has plenty of fascinating things to say, but unfortunately they are less relevant to the point I am trying to make, and I'm already gone on very long. Human Rights Law is fascinating stuff, and the fact that it was formed when Central Asia was seen as not-quite-human and lawless has a lot to do with many critiques of it. But that is a whole other discussion. I just would be terribly remiss if I didn't mention her (or Fatemeh Keshavarz, who moderated the discussion).

The overarching narrative, I suppose, is "What makes an Islamic State?" and "What does an Islamic State mean for its people?" In my mind, just because an Islamic State hasn't "worked" doesn't mean that the concept is anathema to economic growth, sane foreign policy, or human rights. My personal belief is that a religiously-rooted state is more predictable and more logical than many other options posited for Central Asia, but the trouble comes in the execution. Religious law is always a fractured thing. Kadivar said that this can be solved by democracy, he cites the AKP of Turkey, saying that population will choose and demonstrate which beliefs they are willing to accept. There may be some truth to that, I suppose, but I think that statement is terribly idealistic. I agree with him, though, that a functioning Islamic State hinges on the strength and creativity of the judiciary: that a cohesive jurisprudence must be formed from the locality all the way up to the capital, and that the Rule of God must be executed through the Rule of Law in order for the concept to work. I'm also pursuing a law degree, though, so I may be biased.

The final take-away from Kadivar is the following: A secular state cannot be criticized within the system from a religious source. You cannot go into an American court and cite the Bible. But, he asks, can a religious state be criticized within the system from a secular viewpoint? This is particularly relevant in Central Asia. All of our new states in the region rely on international acceptance for their power. If any of them were cut off from the international (secular) community, they would collapse under pressure from their own people. Therefore, for an Islamic government to rule, they would need to be open to criticism from outside, secular, sources. This openness to criticism from unbelievers must be balanced with the government's right to rule, which is derived from Islam. It's a tough ball of yarn to unravel, but the Central Asian ruler who does it may have stumbled upon a key to a stable Islamic state.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Nahme-notes: Decoding the New Taliban, Antonio Giustozzi editor

I'm usually pretty hestitant to give wholehearted "Read This Book" recommendation to anything. But read this book. Giustozzzi has taken time away from writing two books to edit this collection. I really like what he did. He got 12 writers (plus himself) to come together and have everyone write 15-40 pages about their focus in Afghanistan. Most writers chose to look at a province or a region, while others looked at something a bit more systemic. Overall, you get many readable articles that are dense with information. Some I agreed with, some I thought were coming out of left field, but by putting them all togehter, Giustozzi lets you see everyone's opinions and form your own. In such a politically loaded topic, there's something to be said for that.

The writers range from Gretchen Peters (who
Joshua Foust has already written a lot about and I pretty much agree) to an Afghan in Zabul writing under a pseudonym. There is lots and lots of food for thought, too. Joanna Nathan's piece on the Taliban's branding was right up my alley, and others may like Graeme Smith's notes on the structure of the Taliban. There's really something for everyone in the book, and you can be pretty well-served by reading the whole thing. It's great for plane trips (and starting fun conversations on plane trips). It's also interesting to see who writers' audiences are. David Kilcullen has a chapter, and its very obvious that he's writing with the military in mind. Martine van Biljert sounds like a politician. There are blurbs on everyone at the back of the book, so it's fun to reference that back and forth.

My personal MVPs of the book are Mohammad Osman Tariq Elias on Kabul, Logar, & Wardak and Sippi Azerbaijani Moghaddam on the north. Both were incredibly informative in very short articles, and both raised lots of questions as well as good answers. I didn't read either of them all that much beforehand, but now my eyes are going to be peeled for them from hereon out.

I've already raised a fuss about one footnote in this book, but there was another one that was also weird. Moghaddam references a 2005 paper that says the following:
Thanks to the CIA’s 51 million US dollar grant to the University of Nebraska to produce pictorial textbooks glorifying jihad, killing, maiming and bombing other human beings was made sufficiently entertaining. Sadism could now be cultivated as a virtue. That was when madrasa doors were opened to the mass of the poor. The new “education” they received was to hate the Russians, later generalised to include any non-Muslim. Jews, Hindus and Christians figured prominently and out of it came the expression of a Yahud-Hunud-Nasara conspiracy against Islam.
That sounds a bit extreme, and a rough google search of that dug up a lot of the sort of frayed edges of internet that I'd prefer not to link to. It's more weird than inherently wrong, I suppose, but it's still pretty darn weird. Occam's Razor makes a hashing out of that.

I think any overarching theme of the book is that of the Neo-Taliban's governing capabilities. Decoding the New Taliban shows many different sides of the Taliban's structure, and when put together, one can see that while the Taliban likes to think of itself as a state and conduct itself as a state, the Afghanistan under the Taliban did not even approach fulfilling government functions. And nowadays, as it purports to be more of a revolution than a simple insurrection, it still has not been able to provide a government. I'm talking about a very objective "can they tax their citizens, provide services, and maintain a monopoly on violence" sort of way. Decoding the New Taliban shows the many ways they are attempting this, but also how and why they are falling short. I would estimate that a plurality of the book focuses on their capabilities of violence, but there is certianly much more to the Neo-Taliban then that. I, personally, find it interesting to see how the many parts of it come together to form this inchoate version of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

So it is absolutely something worth reading, and the book should be in most university libraries for your borrowing enjoyment. I'm pretty sure that newbies and experts can all get something out of it, and once again, it was great to read something about Afghanistan that wasn't overtly political nor acutely academic (by which I mean taking great difficulties to avoid getting into politics, which can often just obfuscate a book about current events).

Since this is my personal blog, I'm going to include my incomplete notes on the different chapters so I can review them for more writing/researching points later on. They're probably not that interesting to look through, but if you want to do some research or writing for yourself, feel free.

Gretchen Peters on the Opium Trade:

Short-form of an article may hurt her. She doesn't get to expand on her ideas or posit solutions.
Short-form also lends itself to false dichotomies
Village-level leaders of Taliban rake in millions? And poppy as currency?
"Less Corruption than in regular government." Well...yeah. What's corruption in a drug trade?
Iran red herring. Corruption ipso facto not IRIran gov't: Why would they encourage trafficking?
Opium trade > Afghan GDP? Then who is the real state?
Is Talib. just banking the hundreds of millions? They could afford Migs with Peters's figures
I agree with JF, Opium is trailing indicator, not a cause.
How could she not mention Karzai's involvement with the trade?!? Instead just cutely skirts around it: "tribes allied with Karzai tend to suffer less eradication."
"Legal Alternatives"...ok, like what?
Attack trade at weak points, not at locality. Edible Geography's Quarantine is relevant?:
Also: Thesistan:

Joanna Nathan on Reading the Taliban
Emphasis on Shabnamah to create rumors at beginning of resurgence
Create agenda as parallel to Karzai gvt's. Focus on KarzaiGvt's weaknesses that are emirate's strengths (security, judiciary moreso than education)

Mohammad Osman Tariq Elias on the Taliban in Kabul, Logar, and Wardak
Very impressive and informative for 10 pages (one of which is a map)...more than START did
Looks at education: madrassas give them more power, recruitment, propoganda.
Re: education, generally more demand than supply (shocker, I know), esp. re: teachers
First step upon entering region/neighborhood is setting up parallel judiciary
Talib judic is more streamlined and less corrupt than govt's, so looks nice
Talib attempt a monopoly on violence in their regions (that ISAF/ANP/ANA then break)
He argues Talib has national scope, not ethnic/sectarian scope (or at least want to be seen so)

Haqqani in Loya Paktia by Thomas Ruttig
link to previous bit on the footnote
Lack of proper development, the arbaki "on retainer" weren't getting paid
"Pakistan is like your shoulder that supports your RPG"
fragmentation re: lots of little tribes may lead to more corruption in area?
lots of hate for the arbaki "arming the tribes" process
local militias mix with US Special Forces to get involved in local disputes...yick

Return of the Taliban in Ghazni, by Christoph Reuter and Borhan Younus
lots of finger-pointing on who is "really" Taliban.
people may have thought Afghanistan would become a "51st state"...guess not
militia-turned-security --> quasi-gendarme --> mad scary

Taliban in Helmand by Tom Coghlan
Folks working for drug runners were better fighters
British forces in poorly sited positions outside of urbanity -- so as not to disrupt it
Taliban kill Tribal elders! They're revolutionary!
Taliban fighters act ashamed at thought of being given salaries

Uruzgan by Martine van Biljert
"not everyone who is called a Talib is considered an enemy"

Kandahar by Graeme Smith
Formal structure is of no importance, leaders don't hold power in conventional military sense.

Giustozzi writes on Taliban in West Afghanistan

Kilcullen on Kunar
Admitted sketchiness of "checks-and-balances" between Ulema, khan, and malik
good introduction for military, definitely written with them in mind
"sanctuary's role in enabling the insurgency is a fact of life."

Sippi Azerbaijani Moghaddam on Taliban in the north
fantastic read, in my opinion
UNebraska makes pictorial textbooks glorifying Jihad for the CIA?
--> there's a link:

Tehrik-e Taliban in Pakistan by Claudio Franco
FATA allows for more freedom outside of Afghan Nationalism.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Battle of the Semester is Over

The Battle of Finals have Begun.

And with any luck, it'll go over with a bang.

But in reality, hopefully I'll be posting a bit more since I'll be around a computer a bit more. The Old Gray Lady of Blogistan is already at the seams with my blather.

Anyways, I just got a bunch of books from the Wash U library, and have not yet been given a restraining order by Canfield, so all is well.

Hopefully I'll have some reviews up once I read them. I already read Azoy's Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, but I'll just lead you over to Christian's report on it. I finished Selim Deringil's The Well-Protected Domains before then, but it's not really about Gaz nor Gazis. All the same, if you want to see how a state tries to cling onto legitimacy through non-martial means, it's an interesting read. You never forget that you're reading a Trotskyist's opinion of nationalism, but no matter: education and bureaucratization make a state just as much as a military does. That is one of my hammer-points of this blog.

A Word on Speeches

Since everybody else is feeeling pretty hip-hop lately, I think we should listen to Providence's finest:

I'm sure that some of the other good folks on Registan will get theirs up before I do, but that's no reason to stop talking. Ink Spots' live blog is probably the best thing I've read on Obama's speech, but really, you should be able to make your own opinion.

The most important thing to take out of this speech is that it wasn't about Afghanistan, it was about America. There was no talk about mid-level or micro-strategy, no discussion of how to defeat America's enemies through any other way than hoping they line up in front of some guns. As anyone who's been following Afghanistan could tell you, there was no discussion of how we're going to get from A to B. The Underpants Gnomes of Afghanistan live on!

The speech was about what Americans can expect to sacrifice and for what gains. Americans were told that 30,000 more of them will be going to Afghanistan (and one can assume a bunch more civilians will be making the trip as well). And they'll be back ~1 year later. There will be no occupation. There will be no Iraq. There will be no Vietnam. That was the message. Just 30,000, out of a country of 300,000,000. Christian can say it better than I can.

So the rest of the country can live on and forget about Afghanistan or Central Asia until the next voting cycle. Unless, of course, you were just stop-lossed or friends/family with someone who was. The speech didn't try to wrestle with realities on the ground in Afghanistan, the value of a population-centric and/or urban-centric strategy in a non-urbanized and agricultural country, nor whether federalization of power away from Kabul will be subjectively or objectively "good". In short, the speech didn't discuss the things we argue about every day around here.

There was nothing in the speech that will help us analyze the region and try to make second-order decisions later on, so there's no need to parse and auger for the words that say what you may like them to mean. So we wait and see if the assumptions we have already made will play out or not. I don't mean this as a knock on Obama, a knock on The American Way, or anything like that. I just think that serious answers to instability require serious scholarship, not gut reactions to political speeches.