Category Archives: war

Reactions to Atrocities at Port Arthur, 1894

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 492-493:

Everything seemed to be going favorably for the Japanese when reports sent by foreign newspaper men who had witnessed the occupation of Port Arthur not only horrified readers abroad but for a time threatened Japan’s reputation as a modern, civilized country. The first report on the Japanese troops’ actions after conquering Port Arthur was made by Thomas Cowen, a foreign correspondent of the Times of London. After leaving Port Arthur, he reached Hiroshima on November 29 and had an interview the following day with Foreign Minister Mutsu. Cowen astonished Mutsu with his detailed descriptions of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed. That night Mutsu sent a telegram to Hayashi Tadasu:

Today I met with a Times correspondent who has returned from Port Arthur. He says that after the victory the Japanese soldiers behaved in a outrageous manner. It seems to be true that they murdered prisoners who had already been tied up, and they killed civilians, even women. He said that this situation was witnessed not only by newspaper men of Europe and America, but also by officers of the fleets of different countries, notably a British rear admiral.

The immediate reaction of the Japanese government to this and similar dispatches that appeared in the foreign press was to send out reports favorable to the Japanese. Bribes were given to Reuters to circulate pro-Japanese articles. Some newspapers like the Washington Post were directly paid to print articles favorable to Japan. Various foreign journalists were by this time in the Japanese pay.

Military censorship of the Japanese press was initiated at this time. A set of four regulations was drawn up, headed by the following instructions: “Reports should record insofar as possible true facts concerning acts of loyalty, courage, righteousness, and nobility and should encourage feelings of hostility toward the enemy.” Those who violated these regulations would be suitably punished.

Worldwide attention was drawn to the events that had occurred at Port Arthur by a brief cable dispatch from James Creelman, a foreign correspondent of the New York newspaper the World:

The Japanese troops entered Port Arthur on Nov. 21 and massacred practically the entire population in cold blood.

The defenseless and unarmed inhabitants were butchered in their houses and their bodies were unspeakably mutilated. There was an unrestrained reign of murder which continued for three days. The whole town was plundered with appalling atrocities.

It was the first stain upon Japanese civilization. The Japanese in this instance relapsed into barbarism.

All pretenses that circumstances justified the atrocities are false.

The civilized world will be horrified by the details. The foreign correspondents, horrified by the spectacle, left the army in a body.

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First Foreign Enclave in Tokyo, 1869

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 164-165:

During Meiji’s stay in Tōkyō, negotiations were opened with the foreign diplomats living in Yokohama on a number of matters: the end of their policy of neutrality in the conflict between the government and the rebels; the destruction of the rebels in Hakodate; the disposition of the Japanese Christians; and the issuance of paper money. The negotiations did not go smoothly. The foreign representatives, headed by the redoubtable Sir Harry Parkes, refused to consider any request that seemed to threaten the sacred right to trade—in Hakodate and anywhere else.

On January 2 a foreign trade center was opened in Tōkyō at Tsukiji, which was also made available to foreigners for residence. Samurai were forbidden to enter the settlement without written permission. This restriction on the passage of samurai into the concessions was probably intended to allay the foreigners’ fear of sworded samurai, but it had the effect of lowering their prestige. Before long, the samurai were given the task of protecting foreign ships, something none of them could have foreseen. Ōnuma Chinzan wrote a poem on their plight:

A little Yang-chou—that’s the new Shimabara;
Our browbeaten Japanese warriors guard the barbarian ships.
“Please don’t come here wearing your swords—
Please come instead with a hundred thousand coins.”

In the winter of 1868, at the same time that daimyo mansions in Tsukiji were demolished to provide living space for the foreigners, a new licensed quarter, named after the old Shimabara in Kyōto, was opened nearby. The last two lines of the poem indicate that for the prostitutes of the new Shimabara, money counted more than a customer’s rank. This surely was no less humiliating for the samurai than the duty of protecting foreigners, despite their jōi [Expel the Barbarians] convictions of a few years earlier.

On January 5 and 6 the emperor received the ministers from foreign countries, evidence of his hope for increased and better relations between Japan and the rest of the world. In Western diplomatic practice, there was nothing remarkable about the emperor’s receiving foreign diplomats and providing refreshments for them, but it was unprecedented in Japan. It is all the more astonishing when one recalls that Kōmei, who considered that the presence of foreigners on the sacred soil of Japan was an unspeakable offense to the gods, had died less than two years earlier. The young emperor was willing not only to meet foreigners but was affable to them.

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Meiji and The Mikado

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 136:

Three days after [British envoy Sir Harry] Parkes and [junior interpreter A. B.] Mitford were presented to the emperor, the first clash occurred between the imperial forces advancing on Edo and the Shinsengumi, a band of some 200 men under the command of Kondō Isami (1834–1868). The imperial forces under Itagaki Taisuke were victorious. Perhaps the most memorable thing about the march of the imperial troops to Edo was the song they sang, “Tokoton’yare,” composed by Shinagawa Yajirō (1843–1900) during the battles at Toba and Fushimi. This song spread not only throughout Japan but also to England, where the music and part of the Japanese words were incorporated into the operetta The Mikado, composed in 1885: Miyasama, miyasama, ouma no mae no, pira pira suru no wa nan jai na, tokoton’yare ton’yarena. Arya chōteki seibatsu seyo to no nishiki no mihata ja shiranka, tokoton’yare ton’yare na.

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Tibetans Encounter the Long March

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-23:

The Communists were ensconced 1,200 miles away at the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, where they had formed a mini–Soviet state. When Chiang’s forces launched an attack to dislodge them in 1934, the Communists broke into three armies and escaped in a retreat that would become known as the Long March. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is an epic event, enshrined in revolutionary ballads and operas—roughly the equivalent of the exodus out of Egypt, except it was not Moses but Mao leading the Red Army to safety.

With Chiang’s army in hot pursuit, the Communists fled farther and farther west into China before turning north in Sichuan province. For Tibetans, it marked their first encounter with the Chinese Communist Party. It did not go well.

The Red Army of the 1930s was not yet the formidable fighting machine that it would later become. The Chinese soldiers were short of equipment, food, and local knowledge. The last overlords of the plateau, the Qing, were Manchus, not Han; the envoys they sent to the plateau were usually Manchus or Mongols. Many of the maps and documents were in Manchurian. The Red Army soldiers were mostly Han from the lowlands of eastern and southern China.

Idyllic though Tibet looks in those coffee table books, the habitat is brutal to the uninitiated, the weather perilously unpredictable. You can be soaked through the skin one minute, charmed the next by a magnificent double rainbow, then shriveled by ultraviolet rays of the high-altitude sun. Hailstones big as chicken eggs can kill an adult yak and occasionally humans. The oxygen-starved atmosphere leaves newcomers faint and headachy. Even Tibetans get lost in swirling blizzards and die of exposure.

The Tibetan plateau was terra incognita for the Chinese. “Where are we? Have we left China?” one bewildered young soldier asked his commanding officer as they trekked through grasslands to the east of Ngaba, this according to a book by Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of China’s Founding Myth. The commanding officer admitted that he didn’t know himself. He suggested they wait until they encountered somebody who spoke Chinese. They didn’t. The most pressing concern for the Red Army was a lack of food. The Chinese soldiers started by picking crops from Tibetan fields—some of them unripe—and stealing stockpiles of grain. They captured sheep and yaks for slaughter. Many young Communists were still idealistic about helping the poor, and the memoirs reflect that they sometimes left IOUs after they looted Tibetan larders. It didn’t do much good because there was a limit to how much food could be raised. The plateau couldn’t support a large population, certainly not the thousands of newly arrived soldiers. For the first time in living memory, Tibetans experienced famine conditions.

At some point, the Chinese discovered that the Buddhist monasteries contained not only the treasures of Tibetan civilization, but potential comestibles. Drums were made of animal hides that could be eaten if boiled long enough—a technique the soldiers knew because they’d already consumed their own belts, rifle straps, leather bags, and the reins of horses. They even ate figurines that had been sculpted out of barley flour and butter, according to a memoir discovered by scholars Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester, who have extensively researched this period.

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Negotiating the Treaty of Nerchinsk, 1689

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 63-66:

Nerchinsk has been in decline ever since the Trans-Siberian Railway bypassed it at the end of the nineteenth century. Its distant silver mines are long worked out, its factories failed. A palisaded prison spreads close to where the Nerva river joins the Shilka, and a military airfield lies abandoned on the outskirts. I search in vain for any memorial to the treaty signed here: an agreement whose breach and promise still resonate across three centuries.

The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk marked the first check to Russia’s headlong conquest of Siberia. From the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean, over more than three thousand miles, Cossacks and soldiers had traversed the whole continent in less than sixty years. It was in the frozen governorate town of Yakutsk, six hundred miles from the still-unknown Amur, that rumours spread of a mighty river flowing through a paradise of harvest fields to the south. In 1643 a desperate, three-year expedition under Vasily Poyarkov descended from the starving settlement and ravaged the middle courses of the Amur, exacting a tribute of furs from the scattered Daur tribespeople, or slaughtering them. By the journey’s end Poyarkov’s mutinous force of 150 men was reduced to 20 by starvation, disease and fatal flogging – some he killed with his own hands – and he returned to Yakutsk with the first, tentative mapping of the Amur. In a pattern that would be repeated, Poyarkov was recalled for trial in Moscow, and vanishes from record.

Four years later a more terrible scourge was unleashed on the Amur by the buccaneer Yerofei Khabarov, who ravaged the riverine settlements for over five hundred miles. In one episode alone he boasted of the massacre of 661 Daur villagers ‘with God’s help’, along with mass rape.

But now the native peoples appealed to the nominal suzerain of the region, China. Khabarov was withdrawn for trial in Moscow, and his eventual successor, with more than two hundred men, was blown to bits by Chinese cannon on the lower Amur. For thirty years afterwards the two great empires fought a shadow war of mutually ignorant diplomacy, while a flood of Russian peasants, Cossacks and criminals, beyond government control, poured into the Amur basin. It was after 1680, with their rule secure, that the Manchu Chinese at last lost patience. One by one the Russian forts were eliminated, and after the death of more than eight hundred besieged Cossacks in their last Amur stronghold, Moscow and Peking moved to negotiate a peace.

Nerchinsk by then had become Russia’s gateway to the Amur, yet was little more than a stockaded fort with a few government and traders’ dwellings. This wooden village would later be wrecked by the flooding river, and rebuilt more durably on higher ground; but in 1689 the waterside meadows became the venue for the first treaty China ever concluded with a European power. The two empires – the parvenu Russian and the ancient Chinese – were deeply strange to one another. Their delegates were well versed, but their rulers far away. Peter the Great, barely seventeen, was preoccupied with domestic turmoil, but his depleted Treasury was dreaming of trade with China. The Chinese emperor Kangxi, the most powerful and cultivated of his dynasty, was anxious above all to seal his frontiers against the incursions of these brutish northerners, and to prevent Russia from allying with a newly belligerent Mongol power pressing in the west.

The delegations agreed to meet in scrupulous equality, but China’s two ambassadors, close relatives of the emperor, arrived from Peking with 1,500 soldiers and a fleet of supporting junks and barges, loaded with cannon, that converged on Nerchinsk along the river. Against this entourage of some 10,000 the Russians could muster barely 2,000 men. But issues of procedure and etiquette stifled all else. Noting the Russians dressed in cloth of gold and precious furs, the Chinese stripped off their blazoned brocades and moved to the conference in sombre dress under huge silk umbrellas. An identical number of guards attended each embassy: 260 men, who faced off at equal intervals and ceremonially frisked each other for hidden weapons. The Russian ambassador advanced behind a slow march of flute-players and trumpeters. The delegates dismounted in unison and entered their two tents simultaneously – tents that had been scrupulously merged so that no one would suffer the indignity of visiting the other first. The ambassadors sat down and shouted their greetings in concert. Only three Russian dignitaries took seats, and the Chinese mimicked them, leaving more than a hundred mandarins standing opposite their Russian counterparts during the first session. They remained in mutual incomprehension. The ambassadors shared no word of language. So the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.

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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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