Category Archives: U.S.

Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Caucasus, Central Asia, Indonesia, Islam, Mediterranean, Middle East, Philippines, South Asia, U.S., USSR, war

Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 997-1035:

Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.

Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)

The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.

If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Islam, language, nationalism, U.S., USSR

The American Revolution as Proxy War

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1016-1023, 3715-3731:

What had begun as a sectional rebellion in North America had grown into a major geopolitical shift thanks in part to the inability of the king’s commanders to snuff out the revolution in its infant stages. While the capture and occupation of New York and Philadelphia had been major benchmarks of Howe’s tenure on the continent, Washington’s penchant for escape had allowed a supposedly containable problem to spread. The loss at Saratoga and the entry of France had helped to legitimize the rebel cause. Now, with Washington’s army rejuvenated at Valley Forge, the British would have to not only deal with his rebels but also focus their military efforts elsewhere. As the Americans had no navy to speak of initially, they could not pose any meaningful threat to Britain’s island holdings around the world; the arrival of France, however, suddenly had George III fighting a defensive war, on land and on the seas.

French policy makers treated the American rebellion as a proxy war, an analog to the great struggle for influence and colonial control that was the defining theme of European conflict of the eighteenth century. With that commencement of hostility the war that began as a colonial uprising transformed into a global affair. Fueled by Old World rivalries and longstanding animosity over decades-gone wars, the planet was divided into theaters of combat that extended far beyond the initial shots at Lexington Green. The still smoldering kindling of over six centuries of periodic conflict between Great Britain and France reignited in a blaze ranging from the Caribbean Sea and Central America to the subcontinent of India. The two world powers had each lain in wait with long-standing strategic objectives and contingencies in place for capturing high-value possessions of the other, and with the formal declaration of war it did not take long for them to go into motion. Already by the time that the Waldeckers sailed from New York in November, the British East India Company had successfully orchestrated a ten-week siege to capture the highly profitable French-controlled port of Pondicherry on India’s eastern coastline.

War had come, and the Caribbean was equally on notice. It did not take long for action to get under way, and for the French it began almost immediately. Situated in the heart of the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica was a long-standing reminder of the lingering animosity of the Seven Years’ War. Originally a French colony, Dominica was captured in 1761, and by 1778 remained firmly in British hands; the fact that it was nestled between the French islands of Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north made this especially insulting. Although it was a painful memento of their past defeat, for the French high command it was now serving as a practical thorn in their side as well. It was no secret that privateers often used the island’s ports as launching points to raid enemy shipping, and if Dominica could be captured it would take away Britain’s vital toehold in the area. Along with disabling Britain’s overall effectiveness, French policy makers believed that reclaiming the island would greatly improve communication between the two island colonies that it separated.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Caribbean, France, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

A Cossack Mercenary in North America

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1464-1476:

As was often the case, Ewald was aware that Patriot politicians had labeled his Hessian comrades as “mercenaries,” or soldiers of fortune. For this reason many Americans despised the German auxiliaries that fought alongside him. It was no secret that the Hessians had no real practical issue with the American rebels, and Ewald was only serving the British king under the wishes of his own Landgraf Frederick II. A mercenary, in contrast, fought for his own material gain and epitomized opportunistic soldiering in this period. Yet Diwizow was quite different as he was not German, Irish, or British. He asserted that he was a Cossack from the Don River valley in southern Russia. Ewald’s interest was piqued at this development. Diwizow explained that he was already well into his fifties, and the thought of retirement was simply not tenable. He had battled in one way or another for his entire life and as war was his primary income he was looking for a fight. At Ewald’s inquiry, the Cossack explained how his travels brought him to America. He had spent twenty-four years as an officer with the Don Cossacks, and had battled the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War. Ewald first saw action in that same conflict and his curiosity grew. Diwizow continued by claiming that his mercenary travels took him far and wide, from the jagged lands of Ottoman Turkey to the rich valleys of Poland. He fought for no flag and no country, merely for raw economic gain. Twenty years earlier Diwizow battled against the Polish, and as recently as 1774 alongside Yemelyan Pugachev, the royal pretender who led a massive revolt in Russia against Catherine the Great. If there was ever a mercenary in North America, it was this hardened Cossack.

Leave a comment

Filed under labor, migration, military, nationalism, Russia, U.S., war

Imperial Britain’s German, Irish, and Iroquois Warriors

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1331-39, 1366-86:

The [Hessian] captain’s fascination with partisan warfare make his recollections especially insightful; nearby villages, most notably the former rebel post at Peekskill, were now all but abandoned. Surrounding him in the days that followed their victories were a motley collection of soldiers, none of whom could be identified as Englishmen. Along with his Jägers from Hesse-Cassel, Ewald noted that much of the fighting was accomplished by fellow Germans from Anspach as well as a multitude of Irish volunteers. Ewald would have been considered a hardened veteran of wilderness combat and his Jägers in their forest green had been on the continent almost continuously with him since 1776. In contrast, the Anspachers, who spoke his mother tongue in their royal blue jackets and tall black fur caps, had only been in America for days. Those representing the Emerald Isle were assembled from within existing provincial units by the Irish Lord Francis Rawdon-Hastings during the occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. These Irish volunteers had performed so well that they were named the 2nd American Regiment. Although the American Patriot politicians desired a clear enemy to vilify, King George’s imperial forces were actually something of a patchwork army.

It was soon revealed that this mysterious Loyalist ranger was in the service of Lieutenant Colonel John Butler, and he had seen more than his fair share of action. Butler, a native of New York’s war-torn Mohawk River valley, was for many the face of the Loyalist movement in the colonies. He led dozens of his “rangers” across the frontier, raiding Patriot homesteads and villages with extreme prejudice. Fighting with Butler in the service of the Crown were the warriors of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk nations, collectively known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois had been longtime allies of the British Empire before the conflict, and following the defection of the Oneida and Tuscarora to the Patriot side they were almost fully aligned with the king. The unified forces of Butler’s rangers and the Iroquois warriors saw some of the most brutal fighting of the entire war, and were considered a vital part of Britain’s overall strategy for success in the colonies.

Ewald was familiar with the exploits of men like Butler and Joseph Brant, sachem of the Mohawk, and his guest claimed to have served alongside both. Ewald proceeded to inquire into his experiences, and as a testament to his deep interest made a nearly exact transcription of their conversation in the glow of the campfire that evening. He began by asking about Butler’s overall strength; the man replied that he had fifty Loyalist Americans and upwards of five hundred Indian warriors on hand.

The tactician Ewald could not help but inquire as to how they supported such a large force of men in such difficult wilderness conditions. The ranger explained that in the beginning they lived entirely on the wild game hunted by the Indian warriors. As soon as they reached the borders of Pennsylvania and Maryland, though, they found provisions in abundance. It was clear to Ewald at that point that this man must have had a range of hundreds of miles during his guerilla campaign. But what of the ferocity of the Indians? The Jäger captain was a man of modern European military training, and the tales of the Indian fighting style was as ferocious as they were legendary.

The stranger explained that they rarely took prisoners, and every man, woman, or child was either cut down or carried off. He continued by claiming that the dwellings were plundered, devastated, and burned. He concluded his conversation by recalling that he and his Indian allies killed two entire regiments along the Susquehanna River with no thoughts of taking a single prisoner. To Ewald this was a great affront. The European tradition of war grew out of medieval chivalric values under which men who surrender were allowed the dignity to live to fight another day. The Indian tradition of war, however, was largely in place centuries earlier. It seemed that 1492 and its aftermath could do little to redirect it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, Ireland, labor, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

British Surrender to Spain, Pensacola, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 5195-5220:

Finally on May 10, 1781, exactly forty-eight hours after the original surrender, Don Bernardo de Gálvez and General John Campbell met to negotiate the official capitulation of Pensacola. Flags flew on both sides and drummers added an air of ceremony to the proceedings, but for the British Empire there was little dignity to be found. From that day the rebellion that began in a tiny corner of New England had proven much more costly than ever anticipated and in a matter of weeks the Bourbon flag of Spain flew proudly over Florida once again.

THE CAPTURE OF PENSACOLA AND SUBSEQUENTLY ALL OF WEST Florida brought to a close one of the most controversial and misunderstood conflicts within the larger revolutionary era. Don Bernardo de Gálvez has been long admired by social organizations that commemorate the American rebellion; the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution have granted official status to Hispanic descendants of those who battled along the Gulf Coast. But from the historical vantage point there has been a struggle to place Spain’s role in the greater conflict and measure accurately how important it was. Some historians claim that Gálvez’s invasion of West Florida was entirely separate from the larger American rebellion, going so far as to call it the “Anglo-Spanish War.” Still others believe it was so vital that they refer to it as “George Washington’s Second Front.” As is typically the case in history, the truth is somewhere in-between, but important parallels can be readily drawn that warrant further investigation.

The actions of Don Gálvez along the Gulf Coast were not the sum total of Spain’s contribution to the rebel war effort, but merely an active part of it. Spain lent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to the would-be American nation, and like France that generosity was largely fueled by a desire for revenge from the Seven Years’ War a generation earlier. But regardless of the motivations behind the governor of Louisiana’s actions, the results are undeniable. The entrance of both France and Spain into the war drastically changed the way that administrators in London viewed the conflict; rather than it being a separatist rebellion it became a global struggle for imperial supremacy. By the end of the conflict King George’s focus was directed so much toward his old European enemies that the ongoing struggle in the colonies was considered by many to be less important and by some as a distracting afterthought. Following the surrender of Pensacola, Don Gálvez also maintained that the greater American struggle must continue, and he offered one hundred thousand pesos to his French allies so that they could head up to Virginia and aid in the siege at Yorktown.

The ultimate reconquest of West Florida would not be complete for the Spanish until the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, but Gálvez’s victory made immediate waves. Charles III made the young commander “Count of Gálvez” and subsequently promoted him to governor of Louisiana and the freshly acquired West Florida. It was a time of great glory for Spain, but ultimately it was only a spark in the darkness for a dying empire. For the people on the ground in Pensacola, however, the defeat was devastating. As part of the agreement, soldiers taken prisoner were not to be held in the legendarily cruel dungeons of Mexico or Central America but paroled back to British control.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Caribbean, France, Germany, Latin America, military, nationalism, North America, Spain, U.S., war

Hessian Impressions of Creek Sachems

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4585-4623:

[Hessian Chaplain] Philipp [Waldeck] had read about the Indian warriors of the southern frontier but he had never seen them in person, and when the proposed meeting took place he was certain to involve himself. He was by no means a thrill seeker, but such a rare and uniquely American experience as a native council was something he could never experience in Germany. He and a few of the officers looked on the delegation from a distance, taking note of their dress and weapons, and he was struck by just how familiar they all looked. From the German viewpoint the American Indian was the proverbial “savage,” and the chaplain used this term throughout his journal to describe the men he observed. He did not use it disrespectfully, in fact he wrote candidly of his admiration for them. These warriors were not the ravenous, cannibalistic caricatures that he had read about as a child in Waldeck, in fact they were quite European. They carried muskets that had clearly been manufactured in England bearing the bold “GR” insignia of King George, for George Rex, and they wore some European garments. Their outward appearance retained a wild quality, but they had more similarities to than differences with some of the more distant American frontiersmen. For chaplain Philipp Waldeck the events of this day would be nothing short of transformative.

The council began soon after the arrival of the Indian elders, or sachems, but General Campbell made it clear that he was not interested in taking part. Instead he ordered his subordinate and direct commander of the 3rd Waldeck Regiment Colonel von Hanxleden to sit in his place. By the time that Philipp finished his sacred duties the proceedings had already begun and he rushed to take part. The meeting itself was held in one of the large open halls of the city, and as the tardy chaplain entered the room a member of the Creek delegate was already speaking. In a moment of embarrassment the native speaker stood silent as though acknowledging Philipp’s lateness, and sensing the tension the chaplain quickly was seated next to his comrades. The scene before him occurred countless times in the annals of America’s colonial past and was an integral part of native power and politics. As the Creek sachem spoke he did so in short bursts so that a translator could relay the message to the other party; Philipp noted that this particular translator was very talented.

The agenda of the day seemed mundane, which was why General Campbell chose to occupy himself elsewhere, but for Philipp the spectacle was enthralling. The unnamed Creek delegate came to Pensacola to demand food from the British commander stationed there, and his justification was legitimate. Unlike the European settlers who were regularly supplied with goods from overseas, the great Indian nations of the South still depended on their own ingenuity to feed their families. While there were small pockets of subsistence agriculture in the colonies, most still relied on hunting. Since the outset of the American rebellion, though, the British had placed a great emphasis on wooing the natives to their side with offers of gifts in exchange for alliance; as the warriors were now operating in accord with the Crown they had very little time to attend to their own needs.

Philipp largely tuned out the proceedings and directed all of his attention to recording the visual details all around him. He wrote that most of the chieftains present were elders of the tribe and they all sat on the floor, he also noted that they each smoked a ceremonial tobacco pipe throughout the negotiations. The speaking was done by one person, and the man did so while waving a large red feather in his hand. All the while the sachem spoke he did not look at the German officer but only the interpreter so as to ensure that his exact meaning was expressed.

While the faces of these men were stern, they were also terribly scarred. To become an elder, a great sacrifice earlier in life was expected. That tally was only collected by proving oneself in battle, and Philipp saw that many of the men present carried tremendous battle scars across their bodies. As he studied their mannerisms and reactions the chaplain soon noticed one of the sachems was different than the others . . . he was white. Although the mysterious stranger dressed as a Creek headman and decorated his body similarly, he was certainly not of Indian blood. After asking around, Philipp discovered to his amazement that the man was a fellow German, formerly named Johann Konrad Brandenstein. Years earlier the forty-nine-year-old Brandenstein migrated from Germany to the New World and married a Creek woman. After his adoption into the community the expatriate proved to be a valuable asset to his communal brethren and there he sat in 1779 not as a German but a full member of the Creek Nation. While they sat in council Philipp was astounded by the fact that even though he was surrounded by his countrymen, Brandenstein never behaved as anything but a member of the Creek delegation.

The chaplain wrote that the sachems and warriors before him were physically strong and well built, and although they had varying interests they were fully behind King George. In reality the proceedings he witnessed were much more nuanced and the result of months of negotiations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, education, Germany, language, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war