Category Archives: war

Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

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What Aid to Afghanistan Bought

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 271-274:

Not long after, I returned to Afghanistan. President Obama’s plan to withdraw US troops was well under way, with bases closing and equipment being destroyed. Could the war’s true winners be found in what we were leaving behind? I traveled through Uruzgan, and on the KandaharTirin Kot highway I could see Matiullah’s men everywhere, as they had been during my last visit. But the road north of Tirin Kot, heading into Ghilzai country, was now dotted here and there with new militia outposts not adorned with Matiullah’s photo or the Afghan flag. I stopped at one, a small wooden trellis with a canopy of leaves as cover, and met the fighters. They were under the control of a local strongman, who was being paid by a private company to protect a road construction project. Every mile or so I came upon another such militia, each run by a different strongman.

Later, I arrived at the home of Daud Khan, a leader of the local Barakzai tribe and one of the key militia commanders in the province, perhaps second only to Matiullah himself. He was heavily invested in protecting road construction crews against Taliban attacks, and the impending US withdrawal was hurting his business prospects. “We need money,” he told me. “We need money because life is hard out here. We’ve got a lot of expenses—I need weapons, RPGs, trucks, we want body armor. I keep asking the Americans for body armor but they won’t give it to me. They expect us to fight with nothing.”

I asked him if he had gotten into firefights with the Taliban recently. He clasped his hands together and laughed. “The Taliban? My mother can fight the Taliban. They just put bombs in the ground. They won’t be a problem after the Americans leave.”

Then why the need for all the weapons?

“Matiullah,” he said. “He’s worse than the Taliban. After the Americans leave, we’ll need to protect ourselves.” Tirin Kot was now caught in a cold war between Daud Khan’s and Matiullah’s forces. By my count there were more than thirty pro-American armed groups operating in central Uruzgan alone, some aligned with Matiullah, some against.

Later that afternoon I visited Daud’s uncle, a militia commander named Shah Muhammad. We sat in a field overlooking his poppy plantation, surrounded by nearly a dozen fighters. “There’s something I want to tell you,” he said, looking at me keenly. “There’s only one force that can save Afghanistan. The Americans. And I want you to know how much I despise the Taliban. Even if my father was a Talib, I’d kill him.” He shifted to sit next to me, nearly whispering in my ear. “I’m in trouble. You’re an American. I need your help. I want to fight the Taliban, I just need contracts. If the Americans give me some contracts, I can bring security. I can turn this war around. I just need money.” He begged me to pass on the message to politicians in Washington.

Such jockeying for patronage was nothing new. From its earliest days, the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own. It was reminiscent of the Communist regime of the 1980s, which lived and died by Moscow’s patronage—except that now there was a twist. Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad [Khan]. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state.

These were no conditions for nation building. Instead, as journalist Matthieu Aikins has pointed out, a weak Karzai administration found itself competing with strongmen of the countryside for funds. With warlords like JMK developing their own business and patronage relationships with the United States, the tottering government in Kabul had no choice but to enter the game itself. As a result, the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank. So corrupt, in fact, that nearly every metric that US or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection. “Under Taliban rule, only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with less than 50,000 of them girls,” a US forces press release stated in 2011. “Today, under the government of Afghanistan, there are 8.2 million students, of which nearly 40 percent—or 3.2 million—are girls.” But these were largely phantom figures. In the central province of Ghor, for instance, independent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were “not operating at all.” Nonetheless, over four thousand teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence. The story was similar around the country. Traveling through Wardak Province, I came upon one long-abandoned school after another that was still included on the much-touted government tally.

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Wardak No-Man’s-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

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Using U.S. Troops to Settle Afghan Feuds

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 130-131:

As winter settled across Uruzgan and people marked the first full year since the Taliban’s downfall, tit-for-tat killings and feuds over access to the Americans continued. But a new political order was slowly, undeniably crystallizing, unwittingly enforced by American forces.

Away from the Pashtun south, the story was different. In the northern province of Balkh, for example, two warlords—Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta—jockeyed for control, leading to multiple small-scale skirmishes. The possibility of open warfare seemed all too real, but things never came to a head. Instead, United Nations negotiators were able to preserve the peace, as Atta accepted a governorship and Dostum a post in Kabul. I asked Eckart Schiewek, then a political advisor with the UN mission to Afghanistan, why the outcome was so different, why the southern pattern of killings had never taken hold. “There were no American troops,” he replied, pointing out that almost the entire US military presence was concentrated in the Pashtun south and east near the Pakistani border. “You couldn’t call on soldiers to settle your feuds.”

Anthropologist Noah Coburn found a similar dynamic in his study of Istaliff, a district near Kabul similar in size to Khas Uruzgan but with no regular US troop presence. “International military forces,” he wrote, had “little interest in involving themselves in local politics” in Istaliff. Because none of the various Afghan factions competing for power enjoyed privileged access to foreign troops, no group could outmuscle the other, and no one “seriously considered trying to establish hegemonic control over town politics.” The result was a tenuous, fragile stability—but stability nonetheless. No communities were severed from state access, nor were there cycles of bloody revenge. And, to this day in Istaliff, there is no anti-American insurgency.

In southern Afghanistan, the mix of American boots on the ground and strongmen itching to outflank their rivals prevented such détentes. Day by day, marginalized southern communities from one valley to the next were slipping out of the government’s orbit. The Americans were beginning to wear out their welcome—and it was only going to get worse.

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Flexible Loyalties in Afghanistan

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 104-105:

Within a month of its military collapse, the Taliban movement had ceased to exist. When religious clerics in Pakistan launched a fund-raising campaign to get the Taliban back on their feet and waging “jihad” against the Americans, it was roundly rejected by the Talib leadership. “We want to tell people the Taliban system is no more,” Agha Jan Mutassim, finance minister of the fallen regime and Mullah Omar’s confidant, told reporters. “They should not give any donations in the name of the Taliban.” He added: “If a stable Islamic government is established in Afghanistan, we don’t intend to launch any action against it.”

Khalid Pashtoon, spokesman for the new Kandahar government, declared: “Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us.” The list included the Taliban ministers of defense, justice, interior, vice and virtue, information, health, commerce, industry, and finance—in effect, the entire Taliban cabinet; key military commanders and important governors; diplomats; and top officials who had worked with Mullah Omar. The avalanche of surrenders knew no bounds of ideology: leaders of the notorious whip-wielding religious police were among the earliest to defect. A group of former Taliban officials even announced that they were forming a political party to participate in future democratic elections. “We are giving advice to Hamid Karzai,” said their leader. “We support him.”

By surrendering, the Taliban were following the pattern that had marked Afghan politics for much of the previous two decades. After the Soviet withdrawal, many Afghan Communists had rebranded themselves as Islamists and joined the mujahedeen. During the civil war, factions shifted loyalties based on nothing more than bald pragmatism. Upon the Taliban’s entry onto the scene, warlords across the Pashtun belt had either retired, fled, or joined them. Now it was the Taliban’s turn, and as one member of the movement after another submitted to the authority of the Karzai administration, there emerged the possibility of a truly inclusive political order.

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Afghanistan Civil War, 1992-1996

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 63-65:

All around him, families were crumbling. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it—it didn’t matter what you thought, whether you supported the mujahedeen or the Communists. The only households surviving unscathed, he knew, were the neighborhood’s few Uzbek families, members of the same ethnic group as Gelam Jam.

He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him. There were no more innocents, no more neutrals, only sides already chosen for him. The choice was clear: pick a side, or end up like his brothers. It would have been unthinkable before the war, but now he felt he could trust only his fellow Pashtuns. They had borne the brunt of Gelam Jam in his neighborhood, it seemed. At first, they had hidden their ethnicity, speaking only Farsi in public, but soon they were getting plucked from their vehicles to have their pronunciation checked—and if their speech sounded Pashtun, they were often killed on the spot. This was a war against people who spoke like him, who looked like him, and if that’s what the enemy had decided, then he’d play by their rules. So one morning he went to a camp of Hizb-i-Islami, a Pashtun-heavy militia, and sought out an acquaintance. “I want to do jihad,” he announced. The man broke into a broad smile. “Welcome,” he said.

* * *

Thousands of young men, many of them now orphans and widowers, flocked to the various factions feuding for power in the civil war. There were no heroes; each group proved as responsible for the bloodshed as the next. Broadly, the factions were organized along ethnic lines—not so much due to ethnic nationalism but because in the face of perpetual instability, with a weak or absent state, you allied with those you knew and trusted. In fact, it was often unclear what ideological differences, if any, divided the men fighting each other on Kabul’s streets. Still, the struggle for power and survival was imbued with meaning: more than simply a battle of wills, for many the war was “jihad.”

The West responded to the civil war by simply ignoring it, and after the 2001 invasion the years from 1992 to 1996 were all but stricken from the standard narrative. It was dangerous history, the truths buried within it too uncomfortable and messy. If the mujahedeen had been no better than the Taliban or al-Qaeda, any attempt to bring the principal actors of that period to account could only lead to the highest echelons of Hamid Karzai’s government, and, by extension, to American policy over the previous thirty years.

Yet it isn’t difficult to uncover this history, for every Kabuli has a story to tell. Deadly roadblocks, disappeared neighbors, and decaying bodies were woven into the fabric of daily life, like going shopping or saying your prayers. Every day brought fresh destruction; any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll.

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Afghanistan’s Year Zero: 1979

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 52-53:

As with Mullah Cable and Jan Muhammad, I was interested in Heela’s experience in the new American-backed order. But to start her story with the US invasion would be like “watching a movie from the middle,” as she put it. In truth, Afghanistan’s real Year Zero was 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, and nothing—not the Taliban, or the American invasion, or the trajectory of Heela’s life—makes much sense without first coming to terms with the Russian occupation and its aftermath.

In the veritable Afghan prehistory of peace and anonymity, the era before the Soviets, there lies a world lost and yet to be recovered. In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail”—a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India—the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.

Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that era, this disjuncture spawned a crisis of modernity, and the disillusioned urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements, and the other, Islamism, which took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world.

For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the late 1970s.

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Congo’s Tantalum Wealth

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle p. 30:

The Congolese are consistently rated as the planet’s poorest people, significantly worse off than other destitute Africans. In the decade from 2000, the Congolese were the only nationality whose gross domestic product per capita, a rough measure of average incomes, was less than a dollar a day.

Tantalum’s extremely high melting point and conductivity mean that electronic components made from it can be much smaller than those made from other metals. It is because tantalum capacitors can be small that the designers of electronic gadgets have been able to make them ever more compact and, over the past couple of decades, ubiquitous.

Congo is not the only repository of tantalum-bearing ores. Campaigners and reporters perennially declare that eastern Congo holds 80 percent of known stocks, but the figure is without foundation. Based on what sketchy data there are, Michael Nest, the author of a study of coltan, calculates that Congo and surrounding countries have about 10 percent of known reserves of tantalum-bearing ores. The real figures might be much higher, given that reserves elsewhere have been much more comprehensively assessed. Nonetheless, Congo still ranks as the second-most important producer of tantalum ores, after Australia, accounting for what Nest estimates to be 20 percent of annual supplies. Depending on the vagaries of supply chains, if you have a PlayStation or a pacemaker, an iPod, a laptop, or a mobile phone, there is roughly a one-in-five chance that a tiny piece of eastern Congo is pulsing within it.

The insatiable demand for consumer electronics has exacted a terrible price. The coltan trade has helped fund local militias and foreign armies that have terrorized eastern Congo for two decades, turning what should be a paradise into a crucible of war.

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Lebanon’s Civil War and Its Aftermath

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. x-xii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

All this explains why the tensions between the large religious groups remained very strong, in particular because the constitution created in 1945 implicitly gave more power to the roles reserved for Christians than to those accorded to Muslims. The Muslims demanded reforms, but the Christians, fearing for their status and survival and continuing to believe that Lebanon was created for them, refused. Moreover, the Christians held great fears at the prospect of the rise in power and militarization of the Palestinian organizations that had sprung from the refugee communities in Lebanon in 1948, and that started demanding to play a role in internal Lebanese politics in 1969 and 1970. The strategy of these organizations consisted in giving their support to Lebanese Muslims. Faced with this coalition of Islamic-Palestinian interests, the Lebanese Christians took fright and armed themselves in turn, leading inevitably to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

This was indeed a civil war, in that most of the fighting was between the Lebanese people themselves, but it was also very much a foreign war, because the Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis were also involved. In 1982 the Palestinian militias were forced out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion. But the Israelis had to evacuate the invaded Lebanese territories and confine themselves to the southern border regions adjacent to Israel. This opened Lebanon’s doors to the Syrians, who allied themselves with the Lebanese Muslims and Druzes, and with war chiefs such as the Druze Walid Jumblatt or the Shiite Nabih Berri, as well as with the Shiite Hezbollah organization, which was engaged in a war with Israel in the regions it still occupied. For their part, the Christians resisted the Syrians for years, under the command of men such as Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea. In 1989, the reckless and unruly Christian general Michel Aoun took it into his head to unite the Christian ranks, and threw himself into devastating wars against his rivals on the same side, notably Samir Geagea, which led to the collapse of the Christian camp in 1990 and to the entire country falling to Syrian control.

This marked the end of the civil war and the start of what is called the second Lebanese republic, which is divided into two eras. In the first, from 1990 to 2005, Syria dominated the country and its ruling class. The Muslim or Druze war chiefs, Jumblatt, Berri, along with the Hezbollah leaders, but also the less powerful Christian leaders who had pledged allegiance to the Syrians, all took over the controls. The other Christian leaders, such as Geagea and Aoun, found themselves respectively either in prison or in exile. The allocation of posts along religious lines was reinstated during this period, but with a notable difference: the dominant positions were given to Muslims and no longer to Christians.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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