Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oversimplifying Central Asia

I've written before on the absence of a coherent narrative from the United States' perspective on Central Asia, and I've talked about the importance of using words with meaning when we're doing analysis (others have agreed with me, here). But I haven't talked as much about the local understanding of a narrative.

The more anthropology-focused folks here will and should rip this to shreds, but I was chatting with another Central Asia nerd and he brought up the idea of a dual-axis frame of identity for individuals. The idea was to have "'Soviet' and 'Islam' being two universalist poles and 'Turkic' and 'Pagan' being two particularist poles, not to mention all four being measures of to what extent identification is made with modernity or antiquity." I'm not nearly as accomplished a Photoshopper as my compatriot Christian is, though. So I went with the old standby, MSPaint, for a mockup.
So what is the point here? I think there is plenty to unravel on the individual scale: how does someone view his role in society, and how does that role make him act in a certain way? How do Pan-Turkic or Pan-Islamic movements affect individuals? That sort of thing. I'm really out of my depth talking on the individual scale, though, so I thought about what the axes mean on a state level.

None of the Central Asian countries are too proud of their Muslim heritage, I would venture to say. They certainly don't brand themselves Islamic, no Jumhuriye Islamiye north of Afghanistan. And not all of them are as Stalinist as Turkmenbashy' Turkmenistan, but they're all certainly towards that end of the spectrum.

The Turkic/Pagan axis is a little more interesting, though. I have a dream Ph.D. Dissertation I'm going to write one day on "Enver Pasha in history and memory" or something like that, and I think there's something to the whole Pan-Turanian ideal that Soviets quashed. Then again, there's some good reasons why it never caught on. And if you want to get all Hobsbawm, young states otherize those nearby, and that'll make states look to their "essential" roots, which'll be more on the Pagan side of things.

So it's food for thought. It's overly simplistic, I realize, and that's why I'm more comfortable using it for the state level than the individual level. The Central Asian Republics try to brand themselves in a certain way, and they each try to identify what about their pasts they want to be represented by. For Uzbekistan that's Tamerlane, for example. It's a complicated issue, sure, but I just wanted to supply some food for thought.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gazistan Just Got a Mascot

And sadly, it's not Yerbolat. Let me introduce you to Baloji.

I haven't been able to find much information on him other than he's from Kinshasa, he's into witchcraft, and he makes brilliant songs with brilliant music videos. He'll be running with us from here-on out, whethere he knows/likes it or not (probably the latter).

Relatively big, interesting, things are going on in my life (I swear!) so I've been a little light since school's been back in session. I'll probably be going back to my once-weekly, longer-form, posts until May. Enjoy DRCongo's finest until next post.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Keep all my kicks in they case thats glass, aye

What do Cool Kids have to do with the Rule of Law? Nothing, really. But still:

Now that classes started up again, I'm going to try and be a bit more law-focused than I've been in the past. But I got struck pretty hard yesterday when a professor casually mentioned that in order for the rule of law to work, the state must have a monopoly on law like they ought to for a monopoly on violence. It's why I'd be more worried about the Taliban's Sharia courts then I would be about violent insurgency, if I was going to talk about Afghanistan. History is littered with failed armed uprisings, but courts that get listened to generally follow adhesion to a person or an idea.

It is awkward to state from an American perspective, but there is certainly a moral dimension to the war in Afghanistan. I'm sure one of the more Socy/Anth folks (or a real, live, actual, Afghan) would have more to say on the subject, but how Kabul brands its vision of Afghanistan, and how the Taliban brand their vision, are really the most divergent parts of their ideologies. And the Taliban get the Law-and-Order label.

It wasn't that long ago where news came stateside that the Kabul government is instituting the same laws that we thought ISAF was supposed to be stopping. And poor Karzai has to try to keep his government Afghan enough for respectability while being American enough to show Powerpoints demonstrating progress to ISAF. All the while, folks like Ashraf Ghani have vague, unactable ideas about how to turn Afghanistan into Pennsylvania. Say what you want about the Taliban, they have a clear moral compass. I have yet to hear any stories on widespread corruption on the lower levels of the insurgency. If people feel they can trust the white lines of Taliban rule (even if they stem from black tar) then they'll pick the Sharia-based justice system over the indeterminately-Western version.

Without a monopoly on justice, the fighting, the development, is all just assorted dead leads. Smuggling, violence, corruption, all stem from the lack of jurisdiction and the image of moral dubiousness coming from Kabul. You could, and many have, argued about what the Big Leading Factor is for the insurgency in Afghanistan. If you, like me, suppose that the lawlessness is the factor, then there are different sets of solutions than what are typically looked at. When Kabul begins a decent, cohesive, vision of what it's Afghanistan will look like, then Kabul can take the initiative. A constitution that wasn't made in Germany isn't a bad place to start.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rule of Lah-Dee-Dah

I was a bit into writing an entirely different post about the concept of "Rule of Law" when I stumbled into Erica Marat's Twittercast of Freedom House's new rankings. Kyrgyzstan has been dropped, joining the rest of Central Asia as Unfree. One of her tweets said, "Rule of law, civil society & freedom of the press have been under attack across the world" and I just blinked for a moment. One of these things is not like the other. You will never hear me argue against Civil Society or Freedom of Press. Rule of Law, however, is a whole lot more subjective.

In states that are hardly a decade into their existences, borne of a polyjudicial background of Communism, Sharia, and Locality, the Rule of Law is simply the rule of leaders. I'll admit that I'm not an expert, but I will assert that those years, mostly under the same people who were there in 1991, aren't enough to hammer out a system that your average legal scholar will be content with. Especially when those same leaders have more pressing issues, from their own perspective.

Take Kazakhstan. Arguably the most economically successful state in the region, their energy laws are the stuff that McMansions are made of (which is not a coincidence). The Caspian Fields have given Nazarbayev legitimacy and power. Those laws have made Kazakhstan more than just a joke. But their human rights law? Maybe a younger Zhovtis could say it better than I:
Defining the status of basic human rights and freedoms, it should be noted that in general the theory and practice of legal regulation still follows the Soviet model....We have neither the tradition nor the current practice of political debates over proposed legislation that concern basic human rights and freedoms...Such practice deprives citizens of any opportunity to have their say in passing laws, and denies political parties and movements and other public organizations any influence on public opinion with regard to government legislative projects.
If you were a sharp lawyer in 90's Kazakhstan, you are making a living in the energy sector, no doubt about that. Oh, and read that whole speech, it's well worth your time.

And apologies for leaning too heavily on NewEurasia here, but it seems that there are (at least) two narratives for how to make a better Kazakhstan. There is the plea for improved human rights and individual rights. At the same time, there are questions of how to make better Kazakh patriots.

Civil Society and Freedom of the Press are not part and parcel of Rule of Law. Kazakhstan does at least have a Transparency International presence. If you want to argue about Democracy, then that's a whole other argument that Richard Luger would love to have. Law has nothing to do with it.

The Rule of Law exists in Kazakhstan...the other countries are worthy of their own posts. But I think it's telling that there's no Luger arguing for a Twitter Revolution in Almaty, there's no shadow justice system raging against the state's monopoly on justice. There's a popular demand to change the laws and to stem corruption. Whether Civil Society and Freedom of Press gain a further foothold is is dependent on what the Rule of Law is, not on whether that rule is rising or falling.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"And the fact that you've got 'Replica' written down the side of your guns..."

There's a side you want to be on in the following exchange. It's not Sol's (NRemotelySFW, so we're clear):

...and then there's the side that the USMil has found themselves on.
Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the U.S. military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found....One of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Other references include citations from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John dealing with Jesus as "the light of the world." John 8:12, referred to on the gun sights as JN8:12, reads, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
Woof. Somewhere, someone in the military's procurement division is writing "I will not transform counter-insurgency into a crusade." a couple hundred times on the blackboard. It's a pretty small deal, seemingly. I'm not expecting many insurgents to be able to A) read Latin characters, B) know the New Testament inside-out and C) figure out the abbreviations. But that's not an excuse. Because you do stupid stuff like that, and it will be found out.

It will be found out, the Pashto Rumor Mill gets running, and then you have another great big Branding Fail for the USMil. If you're trying to prove you're not running a Holy War, you make darn sure that you don't start using some Holy Words. And it's funny, anyways, because the first thing I thought of was the ""B'Ismillah..." on the sword of Mehmed II (and many, many, other Gazis):

This is just getting embarrassing. In a time when the US really needs some good press, they just keep on doing stupid stuff. The FBI's SomethingAwful division decided that generically swarthy Spaniards would make a good stand-in for bin Laden, too.
Gaspar Llamazares said he would no longer feel safe travelling to the US after his hair and parts of his face appeared on a most-wanted poster. He said the use of a real person for the mocked-up image was "shameless". The FBI admitted a forensic artist had obtained certain facial features "from a photograph he found on the internet".
Again. Woof. Someone get Tyler Brule on the Nation Branding in DC, stat.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rather be up in the club shakin' for a thug

Get triple times the money and spendin' it like they wanna.

Danger Room has done a 180-degree turn in the past week or two. Most of their old pieces have been on the Drone War in Pakistan, and how American technology was affecting the War on Terror. Since the Haitocalypse, though, they've been doing a lot of stuff on American aid going to Haiti. It's a whole other way of looking at the same military. The whole thing kinda culminated for me with the following picture:That's the National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Taken from a spy drone. That's pretty neat. The theory is that the high-resolution imaging can help relief workers see what places need help and how to get there, since this scale of natural disaster, combined with Haiti's scale of infrastructure, makes street maps nigh-useless.

So here's the military using their awesome technological advantages for good. Not just for good, but for great. All of these drones, robots, and vehicles can be easily used for aid purposes. One of my favorite robots, the Big Dog, could bring food and medicine across Godawful terrain quicker then humans. It's a whole lot more useful for that then it would be for a military use (it can take a kick, sure. But I imagine there are easy ways to make it go awkward turtle.

I'm reading this at the same time that I'm reading Monocle, a great if ineffably pretentious magazine, discussing nation branding. They talk about how Western countries who use their military capabilities for soft power have this tremendous moral advantage. Tyler Brule's crew love the Norwegians and the Germans, but I'm sure there are hundreds of examples that can be thought of. Like, say, USMil sending drones over Haiti.

So what is really interesting for me is the military's ability to use their Haiti experience to build up infrastructure in Afghanistan (which is purportedly a huge goal). Sure, there's nobody shooting at them in Port-au-Prince, but that doesn't mean there aren't lessons in the building infrastructure in a difficult environment. Even if I couldn't think of an environment less like Afghanistan then Haiti (maybe Guam?) the concept of using a military as a massive Engineering Corps and pillar of soft diplomacy is a concept worth developing.

I can't be the only one who has this idea. But if I am, then cite me in your think-tank white paper.

UPDATE: Better yet, cite this guy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tabsir, Giant Anthropomorphic Polar Bears, are face-meltingly awesome.

Not a developed thought to be found here, but still, more fun things on the internet.

Similarly, Tabsir, the always-readable website on "Islam and the Middle East" is a lot of fun. They have two great articles up right now that are worth checking out. One is a book review generally on the "Anthropology of Secularism" and is pretty dang fascinating:
What is anthropology for? “Applied” anthropology, as in the hiring of anthropologists by the American military to help with understanding Afghanistan, for example, seems to assume that understanding difference can provide a road to a renewed progressive politics. But anthropology is not just about translating other cultures. It is also about understanding what Asad calls “the modern secular condition we all inhabit.” The sameness is as important as the difference. Asad and Mahmood each show us a different sameness than the sameness of the secular liberal order. And it has a very long history.
The book being reviewed was partly written by this guy. And that guy's father is this guy. They both seem pretty cool.

The second is by a Jewish fella from New York entitled "How I Almost Became a Terrorist" and does all of that fun paradigm shifting you go to the internet to get.
My friends and I, loyal Americans from the Bronx, freedom fighters in defense of our people, would have been seen as enemy combatants, supporters of terrorism, maybe even as terrorists. Many Americans would have wondered, what motivated us to do such terrible things?
It's pretty short, pretty easy to read, and does a good job explaining why a lot of the way things are portrayed makes no damned sense at all.

So I'm in no mood to do actual expository work, but do some reading and have a good weekend. And yeah, those links at the right sidebar are as much for my readers as they are for me (I come to Gazistan every morning to read everything new on that sidebar). Those are the websites I love and which get me thinking, so hopefully they do the same for you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Crime is a Way To Use the City"...and so is camo

When reading one of the most recent pieces on BLDGBlog, I was struck by how the writer describes how criminals and crime-fighters use the urban space to defeat their opponent. It's like chess, sure, but without rules: climbing through elevator shafts, breaking through walls and ceilings, and basically using any which way to get through a building to the objective without using doors. Sure, the writer uses Die Hard as his example, but its still applicable to Central Asia.

Local Knowledge is, I think, always the criminal's greatest asset. Whether you're talking about Taliban, Hekmatyar, or whoever in Afghanistan or smugglers in Tajikistan or anti-government opposition groups in, well, most anywhere, the criminal usually must leverage their knowledge of their environment for their own protection. And the more sci-fi and creative they can be, the better off they usually are.

As a result, government groups invest in technology to leverage their economic advantage. They get pretty sci-fi and creative themselves, as you can see every time you click on Danger Room. Drones, missiles, special forces all rely on leveraging technology and training, but even still they cannot realistically execute One Shot-One Kill attacks. Even more, armed groups like the Taliban, who used to take to the mountains, have now begun to take to urban areas to use the city as camoflauge and protection. The Quetta Shura is now in Quetta, not just Somewhere in the Mountains. It is a whole lot more difficult to isolate the Quetta Shura in an urban world, geopolitics between the nation-states aside. They can use the entire built environment as layers and layers of camoflauge allowing them to plan and meet without fearing an instant attack. In this case, the city can beat the technology.

But what about smugglers and their warehouses? Here, corruption can trump intelligence gathering. Knowledge of the city and the city's weaknesses allows drug runners to avoid arrest, if not detection. If the city is not camoflauge, it can also be armor.

So as much as some folks have derided the new ISAF plan to "take the cities" there is some logic and forward-thinking to it. If ISAF can prohibit Neo-Taliban folks and their cadres from entering the city, ISAF can then get them into the open, where they are more susceptible to the ISAF's technology advantage. ISAF can prohibit the Neo-Taliban from using the city as camoflauge or armor. This presumes, of course, that Signals Intelligence can combine with the work of the ANP to really put a squeeze in the rurality, and that this squeeze is still a sincere goal, not just "opening up" the already relatively opened up cities for Kabul to extend its influence. But if the "take the cities" approach is meant to be proactive, than its a bright move to put the Neo-Taliban to a disadvantage and one of the first real proactive strategies ISAF has had since 2008 or so (I'm sure that I'm going to be corrected on this, or pointed to some date closer to 2001. Correct/point away!).

ISAF can, and security forces from Afghanistan north to Kazakhstan can, choose between using greater force (Eyal Weizman has a fascinating, if a bit politically-charged, essay on Lethal Theory that is a must-read as far as I'm concerned) or greater policing (which involves lots of words to be spilled on corruption, of course). It's not a true dichotomy, but it brings up questions involving how to fight the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. I've mentioned Nazrif Shahrani before, and I think it's important to ask how to view these Wars through other perspectives. It's as much about creating a legal environment as it is a secure environment, in my opinion. And how the security forces choose to view the population centers, be it as dangerous wildernesses that must be tamed or as bastions of order that need coaxing, can affect how these Wars will be viewed by the populations themselves.

If Crime is a way to use the city, then the goal is to mitigate the crime while promoting the city. It is complex, sure, but proactive solutions can lead to successful resolutions, and those have been rare to come by recently.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

So this is, I think, my third Rushdie book I've read. I think my favorite part of reading multiple books by the same guy is that you get a sense of what characters he likes and what gets set aside for another book. I found about three side characters in this book that made their way into Enchantress of Florence. It's funny that way. There's like a little Rushdie universe that gets deconstructed and remade in a new image every book, where the same personalities get recast and put into new relationships. It's fun to read, you can almost see it as an experiment where he sees who clashes with who, who falls in love, and who gets to be the hero.

In The Moor's Last Sigh, though there is no hero. I mean, sure, there's a protagonist, but Moraes Zogoiby is noone's hero. Least of all his own. He's hardly even the focus of the story. One would argue that the entire da Gama side of his family, three generations of women so strong and beautiful they could only exist in book form, are the heroes. Except for the family drama that intercepts their family business (spices!) and the proof that all of the da Gamas (and Zogoibys, and any other family mentioned) are all hideously morally corrupt. In many ways its a Follett novel in India.

And that is the other argument, I suppose. That this book isn't about family, its about India. There's lots of inside jokes...wordplay, codeswitching, and the like, which require some background on India to get. And for those that don't know India that much? There's wikipedia. I love the wordplay, though, it makes it fun and lighthearted to read, even when we're talking about the illegal labor market of Bombay. The lightheartedness of it even can serve to emphasize how awful some of these things are.

In my personal opinion, Moor's Last Sigh isn't as good as the other two I've read, Enchantress of Florence and Shalimar the Clown. Again, this is just me. Moor's Last Sigh was up for some pretty awesome awards, so I may very well be in the wrong here. But I just felt that it wasn't as tightly written or as detailed, because of the family issue and the fact that there are so many "main characters" to focus on. And as much as Rushdie focuses on and raphsodizes about Bombay, I never really had a Feeling of Bombay. It isn't an ode to the city, as much as it talks about how wonderful the city is. I've never been to Bombay. I have no more, or less, desire to go after reading this book. Bombay is almost a non-place in this book, like something out of BLDGBlog. Though I suppose that could be on purpose, because Moraes never truly "lived" in Bombay, or anywhere else for that matter. But for all of these huge questions and sketchinesses in the book, somehow, because he says so, everything falls in its right place.

On a personal level, the book did spur a thought in me, which doesn't happen much. But I was talking to a friend about the whole "OMG! Travel! I love to see the worlddd!" sort of vibe is pretty big in certain circles, and leaves us with film dreck like this. And though Moor does do some traveling, he's not there because he loves to travel. He does his traveling because he has to leave.

It's not hard to make a parallel between the main character and Rushdie himself, living outside of India. There is a certain allure of exile, an attractiveness of leaving it all behind you for the great unknown. I've written about this before. [And because I haven't mentioned it in a while, I'm writing here as well. Check it.] But there is this whole ideal of leaving. We call it travel, but it's probably not. It's more. It's forgetting the past to forge a future, to an extent. And that forces us to put a value judgement on the past. Which is TOUGH, isn't it?

The book's title comes from Puerto del Suspiro del Moro, the last place Muhammad XIII (who somehow was code-switched into Boabdil) stood in Spain. He was forced out of his home, the only home he knew, and his entire kingdom. His exile is certainly not a romantic ideal, but all the same, there is a poetic beauty to his Last Sigh, is there not? I can't tell if this book clashes with the Boabdil story or not. I'm still sitting here chewing on that.

Loving and Losing, I suppose, needs something to love and to lose. There's something to be said for having those things, if only to leave them. I dunno, probably a whole other post one day.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

History is just a way to view the present

That's what one of my favorite professors said. We argue about history because history is the weapon used to prove what the present should look like. This is awesomely presented by Thessaloniki. The young Mustafa Kemal probably never imagined this happening:

And yet here they are, BMX rappers cruising through the capital of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire. I've written about Salonika and the Balkans a lot in the more-serifed past, but TabletMag, the "New Read on Judaism" blog just discovered them. Sorta.

Viewed through an American-Jewish lens, these folks are some weird outlier. THIS can't be Judaism: they blended into the ruling classes, ran the city, spoke weird languages, and ate funny foods. This ain't an outlier, this was ~350 years of existence. To paraphrase D'Israeli, Ottoman Jews were rolling deep in Ottoman Lands back when Lvov was a muddy speck.

I guess this piece bothered me so much because it Otherizes the whole aspect of a shared past. There's this nationalistic ideal that Jewish people are Different because they're Special and Untainted and Never Intermixed. In the American context, that means they've only spoke Hebrew or Yiddish, and while they may be nappy-haired, they're always sheeny-white. This ideal perpetuates hard-liners while ignoring an actual shared, legitimate past. Yeah, Shabbatai Tzvi was a weird dude. Yeah, he was a big deal in a big empire.

This is wayyy off what I mean to write about, and probably belongs on Blogging the Casbah, but still. History is complex. Historiography is arbitrary. This is very basic stuff, so embrace it and move on. Please.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Turkmenistan: Medecins avec plus fronteires

Medecins sans fronteires left Turkmenistan about a month ago, that much is old news. But EurasiaNet has a new story out on how far Turkmen Health Care has, while not precisely fallen, certainly skirted international standards:

Doctors quietly admit that access to the newer facilities is only possible with the payment of substantial bribes, despite the fact that the services are officially free.

Far more troubling to international observers is the government’s lack of interest in reversing the damage done by Niyazov’s malign neglect. During the last years of Niyazov’s rule, instruction for medical professionals was reduced from five years to just two, with one subsequent year of unsupervised training. In addition, many hospitals outside the capital were closed, and some were forced to use army conscripts to do the work of nurses. The drastic changes left Turkmen citizens increasingly vulnerable to epidemics.

As many new facilities have opened up and purported top-of-the-line care is offered, the reality of the situation has escaped the hyperreality of Ashgabat. Everything is new, cheap, and effective in the capital. Hardly anything exists outside of it.

I'm reminded of the old quote, "We have created France. Now we must create Frenchmen." I always wondered if Yelle was the kind of Frenchman he had in mind:

Turkmenbashi created Turkmenistan, but his Turkmenistan never expanded out of Ashgabat. The story's mention of press limitations and endemic prostitution are just as much of Turkmenistan as the shiny mosques, we all know that. He just never got around to creating his kind of Turkmen.

But we're likely not the audience. Turkmenistan needs investors, not analysts.. Berdymukhamedov knows that to turn the gas wealth into real wealth, he needs the mosques, the universities, and yes, the marble-clad clinics and hospitals. It's the silk road redux that energy folks fly in expecting to see. Those will get the breathless articles. By branding Ashgabat as a new Samarkand, Berdymukhamedov is attempting to broaden his reach.

It's an ugly bid at times, and a bit passe in many of our minds, but it may be affective. It is about the glory of the state and branding through architecture, not actual contemporaneous results. I'm interested to see what Ashgabat looks like in 5 years, post-boom and post-giant lake. Let's see what the branding bid looks like then.

And just another note I found while browsing EurasiaNet: Continuing the Uzbek-Tajik feud, it looks now like Tajikistan isn't getting literal trainloads worth of food it should be from its Uzbek border. What are the odds at cooler heads prevailing over this new import/export dispute?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Someone wants YOU to mumble a few words of Pashto

The US Military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, or I suppose someone on that board, came up with a moderate reorganization of the military. The plan is for a corps of experts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help drive military goals and make sure that their operations won't blow up in their faces. I really don't have anything snarky to say about this, it's a decent plan. But there are issues:
The program — which is expected to create a 912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years — was announced with much fanfare last fall. So far, 172 have signed up, and Admiral Mullen has questioned whether all of them are right for such a critical job.
The article gets into the fact that a 5-year commitment in something admittedly experimental is a really dangerous career path. Which it is, of course. If you jumped with both feet into studying Afghanistan in 2001, you would've been ignored 2 years later. If you jumped into Iraq in 2003, you'd be passe 4 years later. And now with the Yemen and the Somalia and the 2011 pull-out date, it's a dubious career move. And not all military folks have the opportunity to be as absurdly narrow-minded as us nerds, I understand that. But all the same, I think the only thing worse than having such small numbers is having the highest-ranking member of the armed forces say that you're not even worth the program's while.
“In many cases, the volunteers have been the right people for this very critical program,” Admiral Mullen said in the one-page memo, dated Dec. 14. “However, I am concerned that this is not the case across the board.”
Eeesh. Score one for slow-moving bureaucracy.

But the thing I'm most interested in the training. The article says that "volunteers receive cultural training and 16 weeks of language instruction in Dari, Pashto or Urdu" and for anyone that has learned those languages, 16 weeks ain't nothing. 16 weeks of Urdu and you're still wondering whether that's a "n" or an "l" and saying "Aap kya hal hai?" with a goofy grin on your face. I'd imagine that it would take more to break up the Quetta Shura. And speaking of Quetta, wither Balochi? Poor folks can't even get a government program to understand their region to fund studying their language.

So USMil is trying to fill up these slots with experts, and yet folks have graduated (including folks like me with exactly 16 weeks of Urdu under my belt, nontheless) and can't find jobs. Once again, the knowledge and people trying to find it are out there. But trying to find soldiers who you can force into learning really complex customs and languages and sacrifice their careers while they're at it is going to be difficult. Trying to convince history and linguistics nerds to study what they want: considerably less so. Sometimes, more bureaucracy is not the answer.

And I don't think Think-Tanks are necessarily the answer, either. Academics and warfare are really a nasty, ugly, mix, I realize that. I just suppose that trying to create a new Central Asia is going to take a lot more than guns, and any military solution should probably realize this.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Design Will Save Your Soul

I've been writing up a storm this week because it's my break and this is what I do, but there's lots of great stuff to stumble into these days.

The Swiss Minaret Ban was big news way back in 2009, and some of the aftershock has been fun to watch. A French-Swiss man put a minaret up on his shoestore, leading local authorities to, uh, shrug:

Claudine Wyssa, the town's acting mayor -- who called Mr. Morand's action infantile -- doesn't think the do-it-yourself project qualifies as a minaret and plans no legal action.

"It doesn't violate the law," she said in an interview. "It has nothing to do with Islam. A minaret needs a mosque. In this case, there isn't one. There's just a shoe warehouse."

Meanwhile, The good folks at Archinect sponsored a contest for a rapidly- or otherwise creatively-deployed minaret to get around the ban. The pool of 20 suggestions is here, but I think my favorite is this one:
Technology: 1, Political Grandstanding: 0

Elsewhere in the design world, EurasiaNet is leading for a postcard initiative to be sent to Yevgenii Zhovtis in jail. He's a journalist in Kazakhstan who is in jail for, um, something or another. The Kazakh justice system hasn't decided what, yet. They give the address and then say that they're sending in postcards of a picture of him. I say, "that's it?" You could do better. Any designers out there with a basic understanding of Kazakh? Give it a shot!

Finally, Seward of Seward's Folly fame went on a world tour after he was done in government work. Tabsir has the low-down, and, as one can expect of a public official in the 19th century with no background knowledge, he comes off kinda dumb:
India has a very imperfect and unsatisfactory civilization, but it never had a better one. The native population could never achieve a better one if left to themselves. Their whole hope of a higher civilization depends on the instruction and aid of the Western nations, and, taking circumstances as they are, that hope depends chiefly on the guidance and aid of Great Britain.
Yeah, that stuff don't fly no mo'. But isn't it kind of funny that he comes off sounding exactly like a NYTimes opinion columnist? The lesson: never write about things you don't know about, unless you're willing to look foolish in hindight. And in case you're wondering, yes, I'm willing to look foolish in hindsight.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's not copying if it comes with an acronym

Danger Room is really a best bet when it comes to news on the War on Terror. It's easy to read, can lean towards the funny, and although it can be a bit tech-y, they seem to have a good vibe on what's legit and what's not. But I think they missed the point on this post on what effective spying looks like in Afghanistan. Just because you can put "Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see" to a beat doesn't make you Muhammad Ali:

The post is about a report from a Major General, through Center for a New American Security, about how intelligence on Afghanistan is missing. Sure, the closed-source stuff on individual insurgents and positions of various guys the USMil doesn't like is valuable. But Maj. Gen. Flynn notes that if you don't know the context, all you're doing is hoping folks run into bullets. That's not nation building.

This is very valuable. It's almost so intuitive that I can't imagine why it would be counter-intuitive. Of course individuals are only as important as their context. Of course killing a khan you don't like at a village may help you, but only if you leverage it by knowing the other sources of power and influence in that village, and how it interacts with other villages. This is called "Anthropology". It works well with sociology and history to give information on background of a country, region, or province. And let me tell you, it's fantastic.

So Flynn wants "Stability Operations Information Centers" because the HTTs apparently failed and one bureaucracy oughta overtake another. This makes no sense. It doesn't follow to take the failing parts of the HTT (military oversight, no implenting of a reason why gun-soldiers should listen to them) and turn them into something that takes away the good parts (local context, flexibility). There's a better idea: read. Read Danger Room, Radio Free Europe, some brilliant academics (I have one in mind, of course) and by all means, Registan! Reading is free, non-bureaucratic, and by all counts, effective. And even Lieutenants and Captains are literate, Mr. Major General. I think they can handle it.

There is a LOT of information out there on Afghanistan. It doesn't need to be disseminated through military bureaucracy that'll just obfuscate things and obscure data. Give some officers links. Let the CIA and State Dept. read them blogs. It'll be ok, I swear.

Aliyev Must be Pandering for Votes...

...because he just decreed that the Azeri people's debt to the state owned gas company is kaput.
Wait, did I say "decreed"? I guess this isn't a vote thing after all. It's just Caucasus economics.

Aliyev looks great to his people (and his parliament). He gets to be a father of the people just like his dad. And considering that all he really did was creatively title a tax break, its a pretty solid PR win. Eternal Remont says as much in less words.

It's nice to see that Azerbaijan, for all of the freedom-of-press issues and single-track-economy issues at least ostensibly has Azeri folks' interests in mind. Even though I enjoyed my time in Azerbaijan myself, every time I think of the country now I think of Carpetblogger, who is hardly an Aliyev mouthpiece. But as much as Azerbaijan has gotten ragged on pretty often in the past, it is an actual country with an actual economy. It is far more like the countries to the west of it than it is to the ones on the other side of the Caspian, I would wager. It even has a national book! Written by one of the more fascinating men I've read about (Lev Nussinbaum has a better reason to hate Communism than you do: Stalin slept with his mom).

So there is something definitively there to get punditized. Aliyev's annulling of Azeri debt probably has investors in Azeri industry (read: BP) disgruntled, and it looks more like real governance than anything else going on between the Black and the Caspian. So there's something that could be responsibly discussed, which beats things like "zOMG! Circassians are a threat to Russia and thus must be looked at like Chechens or maybe like Ossetians or was it more like Georgians!"

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I booked a flight that didn't exist.

It ended with me spending a night with my old best friend from high school days and a sit-down in a train station bar with a guy coming from Montana. So I guess I can't complain too much.

In fact, I won't complain at all. I got to meet interesting people, go to one of my favorite restaurants, and meet up with one of the better people I know. So it was fantastic. And a couple of weeks earlier, my uncle gave me a book and told me to read it. With a few hours in a train station and 6 more on a train, I got to.

I read The Art of Travel in a day, or to be exact, in about five hours. It isn't exactly a technically complex book, even though de Botton writes on philosophy and quotes Flaubert (among many, many, others). The concept of it is pretty basic. It's a travel book, but instead of talking about the "what" of travel (what place to go to, what to see, what transportation, what lodging) it's the "why" of getting out. Why do some folks feel the need to leave? Why do they go where they go? That sort of stuff.

It could get really pretentious and obnoxious quite easily. De Botton avoids that. He writes well, and he explains his use of different poets and high art. This poet says this because of that. It makes sense, and de Bottom makes fun of himself to keep it from being all too much pendantical.

And sure, it's a celebration of Europeanness and high culture and all that stuff that is so cool to rag on these days. My personal favorite chapter was his "On the Exotic" which discussed Flaubert's boredom with France and white-hot desire for Elsewhere (in his case, Egypt). And this whole tug-of-war between what it means to be French, or Egyptian, or even just what it means to be Flaubert ensues. It's a microcosm of post-colonial theory in one man.

A lot of the book sort of fits in with a bit of a biography on de Botton. Apparently he was left with a huge fortune and a Cambridge education, but attempts to live off of his book earnings in lieu of all that (or as in lieu as you can be with those sort of credentials). De Botton may be a traveler, but as he puts it, all travelers are travelling to leave something. He may have been leaving his family's legacy. Not because he was shamed by it, but just to see what he could do outside of it. This book seems to be an exploration of that part of his identity that others certainly have within them.

As a product of a whole mess of immigration stories and a kid who always wants to leave wherever he is, I can understand this coming from de Botton. My desire to travel could probably stem less from a desire to see what's out there as it is to leave here. I've bounced around, and never have been too eager to go back to whever I left. For whatever reason, I don't feel the same about the whole 2007 wanderabout.

So this was a great (and quick) read. Interesting and thought-provoking while being easy and flowing. I'd recommend it to any of you all who have the tendency to fall off the face of the Earth every so often. And it makes me thing, especially in re my "wanderabout" comment above...are we ~5 years away from a great coming influx of study abroad literature? Can you imagine how much unreadable dreck there's gonna be in there?

I couldn't fit it into the narrative post-hoc, but I've fallen away from bringing songs into my posts. Here's a pretty rad, though unrelated, one, I was sent by a buddy of mine. I don't know how to mess with the embedding features, I use blogger because it is simple and I am a simple sorry about it being too big to read the sidebar. But yeah. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book Review: Manituana by Wu Ming

This book review has nothing to do with Islam, Central Asia, Energy, Design, or anything else this blog is purportedly about. But since I've kind of always wanted a list of the boks I've read, I figured I ought to put this one down.

I'm on the West Coast and Gjetost winter break tour, going from Los Angeles to Portland to Seattle, and I needed a sufficiently thick book to get me through it. And because I absolutely loved Q, a story of revolution and spies and general intrigue during the Catholic Reformation I decided to go dip into the Wu Ming well once again. I couldn't imagine anything going wrong with a 5-man Italian Anarchist Collective. But the one I chose, Manituana, was sort of, well, off.

First of all, I'll have to remember that now that I have free printing, I'll have to start just printing my books from their website instead of paying for them. That's kind of key for all of you folks out there with access to university computer labs, as well.

Second of all, leave it to Italians to write about the American Revolution. And sure, it's interesting to see a book where the Americans are the bad guys, Wu Ming could've done a better job with it. The basic plot line is that Joseph Brant must muster his Iroquois to serve the British and protect native lands from the encroaching rebels. In it, we're introduced to a lot of characters from Revolutionary War history I forgot about, being not from New York and not as much of a nerd, relatively. The New York German Protestant God-fearing Rebels are the bad guys, and they are a lot more interesting than Brant.

Brant gets his Noble Savage on, though he does do a lot of really bad things, its pretty clear that the Americans do, too. But the whole "protecting our native lands" is thin, in a way: it seemed to me that the writers never really understood the natives that much, although the half-Indian, half-British Peter Johnson is perhaps the most interesting character in the book. Otherwise, the Indians are bold, the women are nubile, and the religious folks are roundly evil (again, this is written by Anarchists).

I guess I was just expecting more. I loved Q's sense of place in the Reformation, and the main character's sense of huntedness and hauntedness. He was interesting to follow around Europe stopping the Papists. Here, we just have the sullen and stoic Brant. I suppose it was supposed to be a screed on the formation of America, but then I wish Wu Ming went more into the religious foundations of the US. Or how regional the conflict was, with Bostoners fighting for one thing, New Yorkers for another, and Carolinians for a third. If Manituana was supposed to be an expository on how nasty and destructive civil war can be, like Q was, then, well, it's overshadowed by folks who are much better at that.

It's not bad airplane reading. It has a quick pace, lots of battle scenes, and is generally as light and readable as something about the extermination of a nation can be. I'll read more of Wu Ming at some point, but probably not for a while. But it is hardly the most impactful book I've ever read. Maybe Revolutionary War buffs or people who hate Imperialism more than me (or the middle of the Venn Diagram connecting those two) would get more out of it. But it's certainly nothing earth-shattering.

But apparently, according to the UK's Independent, Manituana is a great Christmas gift. I guess it's good for that uncle of yours or something. And also apparently, Wu Ming is crowdsourcing the creation and upkeep of the fictituous world of the book, which is a kinda cool concept (Wu Ming is big on kinda cool concepts, as seen in this quote: "We have hallucinations, sort of. Historical research is like peyote to us. After we recover from all the shocks and flashes, we start to write."

And finally, they just came out with a book called Altai. I don't know Italian, but I do see pictures. And I do know what Altai Daglari are. So yeah, I'm excited.