Tag Archives: war

NYT: U.S. Funding Both the Afghan Government, and an Afghan Warlord Who Undermines It

An illuminating front-page story today by the Times’ Dexter Filkins, on how the U.S./NATO strategy to mesh Special Forces with the locals has led to a situation in which millions of dollars – monthly – is given to a Matiullah Khan, a warlord who fights the Taliban, yet threatens the official government that the U.S. hopes will bring stability to the region.

Khan is billed as a “lesser of two evils” and is providing security through a Taliban-thick region. But how will this strategy differ in its end-game than the short-term-gain, long-term-loss strategies we’ve used in the past to stabilize Afghanistan?

In little more than two years, Mr. Matiullah, an illiterate former highway patrol commander, has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess. His fighters run missions with American Special Forces officers, and when Afghan officials have confronted him, he has either rebuffed them or had them removed.

“Oruzgan used to be the worst place in Afghanistan, and now it’s the safest,” Mr. Matiullah said in an interview in his compound here, where supplicants gather each day to pay homage and seek money and help. “What should we do? The officials are cowards and thieves.”

Deeper into the story, Filkins reports suspicions that Matiullah and the other U.S. backed-warlords are suspected of protecting the opium trade, and even worse, secretly boosting the Taliban so that the chaos – and thus the need for Matiullah’s services – continues:

A former senior official in the Kandahar government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Mr. Matiullah and the Karzais, said he believed that Mr. Matiullah was facilitating the movement of drugs along the highway to Kandahar.

“I was never able to look inside those trucks, but if I had, I am fairly certain what I would have found,” he said.

Despite his relationship to the Special Forces, Mr. Matiullah has been suspected of playing a double game with the Taliban. Asked about Mr. Matiullah earlier this year, an American military officer in Kabul admitted that Mr. Matiullah was believed to have a relationship with insurgents. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters.

Hopefully, this is just a phase, with the happy ending being that the shadow government set up by Matiullah is gently, but doggedly nudged with American carrots and sticks to merge with the official, legitimate one as Afghanistan stabilizes. Because we’ve learned from the last time we backed a charismatic insurgent in Afghanistan, right? Right?

Marine Sgt. Tyler Ziegel, Photog Nina Berman at the Whitney

Jan. 2, 2012: Tyler Ziegel passed away on Dec. 26, 2012. He was 30. The Peoria Journal Star has a story about his funeral. RIP Tyler.

Tyler and Renee. Photo by Nina Berman

Stopped at the Whitney Biennial last night at around 2am (it’s been open on a 24 hour schedule this week). The modern art at the Whitney may be too modern for me and my MoMA-loving-style, but there were a couple rooms of powerful documentary photography, including Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo Portraiture winner, of Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel.

Even if the Whitney isn’t your kind of art, the Berman exhibit is worth a visit this Memorial Day weekend.

Ziegel suffered burns over his entire body after a suicide bomb attack in Iraq. Berman’s award winning photo was of Ziegel, then 24, and his 21-year-old bride, Renee, getting their wedding portrait taken at the studio. I don’t know what the official portrait ended up being, but Berman’s take, with the bride’s haunted expression, turns the cliched-wedding-portrait on its head. Read a Salon Q&A here.

Tyler and Renee, before IraqI remember seeing that photo in the awards gallery, but the Whitney exhibit featured more than a dozen photos of Ziegel’s life, then during the wedding, and then a follow-up in 2008.

Their marriage on Oct. 7, 2006 was hailed as an example of the power of love: two high school sweethearts making the commitment despite Ziegel’s disfigurement. That day was declared a state holiday: “Renee and Tyler Ziegel Day”.

Despite everyone’s hope for a happy ending, they divorced the following January. A Times of London profile in 2008 resignedly states, “It turns out love doesn’t conquer all. It’s a myth.”

In the Salon Q&A, Berman talks about how Ziegel’s sense of humor persevered:

I asked Ty, what do little kids say? Do little kids get scared? In my book, I’d photographed a really severely burned soldier. And when I was with him I’d see kids shy away and he would smile at them.

Ty would just laugh — he’s got a great sense of humor. Kids would say, “What happened to your ears?” and he’d say, “The bad guys took ’em.” They’d say, “What happened to your nose?” and he’d say, “The bad guys took it.” I guess he tried to make some little game out of it to deal with it.

In the Times UK profile, the author writes of the difficult time faced by both Tyler and Renee:

Most of the time, [Buddy Robison, Tyler’s best friend] and Ty talk about music. And, like Becky, he isn’t worried about Ty moving on and falling in love again. “Someone will see through his skin and see his heart,” he says. And what of his own personal feelings about Renee? Buddy smiles. “That’s a hard question.” He takes his time before answering, choosing his words with care.

“I respect her a lot for sticking by Ty’s side. Moving to San Antonio? she helped him through the hardest time in his life

“Before he got blown up, we were both shy. We were exactly alike. Now he’s not afraid to go up to someone he doesn’t know and talk to them. He doesn’t hide. Obviously, people look, but he walks straight ahead.”

There has only been one incident where there’s been trouble. A little over a year ago they were leaving a bar and a bunch of local college kids made fun of Ty. There was a fight.

“They made fun of him, called him a freak. You can’t just brush that off. Someone’s got the audacity to do that to someone who served his country, protecting them?”

Tyler and Renee, Nina Berman

Nina Berman Photography

The WikiLeaks Hellfire Video vs. Video Games

The WikiLeaks release of classified U.S. military video depicting American helicopters gunning down Iraqis (which appeared to include children and two Reuters staff) was easily a milestone of modern journalism. Even though Reuters had reported the story aggressively, the deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh were easily forgotten amid the war’s constant newscycle in 2007.

The video below, combined with boots-on-the-ground reporting by WikiLeaks, has an unmatched power to shock, awe, and sicken:

A side-angle to all this is how chillingly-similar the released video is to today’s video games. This was a point Jane Mayer touched on in her excellent New Yorker piece on Obama’s increased usage of Predator drones:

Using joysticks that resemble video-game controls, the reachback operators—who don’t need conventional flight training—sit next to intelligence officers and watch, on large flat-screen monitors, a live video feed from the drone’s camera. From their suburban redoubt, they can turn the plane, zoom in on the landscape below, and decide whether to lock onto a target. A stream of additional “signal” intelligence, sent to Langley by the National Security Agency,* provides electronic means of corroborating that a target has been correctly identified. The White House has delegated trigger authority to C.I.A. officials, including the head of the Counter-Terrorist Center, whose identity remains veiled from the public because the agency has placed him under cover.

People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying. “You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,” a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) Human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: “squirters.”

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/26/091026fa_fact_mayer#ixzz0kIeSEK1h

The striking similarity inspired some soul-searching from this Redditor:

After watching the wikileaks video I found myself thinking back to the aerial segments of Modern Warfare and MW2. I’m not sure I’d want to play them again; the anonymity of the people you’re shooting seems a little too true to life for me.

Modern Warfare and MW2 are part of the highly-successful Call of Duty first-person shooter video games. One of the segments has the players manning an AC-130 Spectre gunship to wipe out the enemy:

Some interesting comments from Redditors on that angle:

a_culther0 22 points 9 hours ago[-]
I always believed the main point of those levels in the game was to illustrate that certain things in Modern War can be achieved with the push of a button. The AC-130 level in COD4 has essentially 0 difficulty; which in my eyes makes an excellent statement on its own.

awills 15 points 9 hours ago[-]
This is also how I read this scene. It’s actually the most realistic depiction of war in the entire game, because what you’re doing is remarkably similar to what it would be like in real life, just aiming at tiny targets and destroying them. Interestingly, it was also the most distancing from the actual results of your actions.

bumrushtheshow 35 points 9 hours ago[-]
…The grainy TV footage and shooting at tiny people made me question more than usual what the hell I was doing. I was blowing up “bad” people who looked exactly like the “good” people. I was clearly in the “bad” people’s country, with only vague justifications for why I was there blowing the place up.
I’ve seen some awful footage from Apache gun cams on Youtube. Ones where maimed “bad guys” crawl out of a burning truck, while hillbillies say “that one’s still moving, hit ‘im again” left me literally feeling nauseous. I thought of these throughout the AC-130 level in COD4.

“Unmasking Horror: Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity” from the archives of the New York Times

A 1995 article by the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof, with an unforgettable, chilling lede:

ORIOKA, Japan— He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down,” recalled the 72-year-old farmer, then a medical assistant in a Japanese Army unit in China in World War II. “But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming.

And this dark humor:

Japan’s biological weapons program was born in the 1930’s, in part because Japanese officials were impressed that germ warfare had been banned by the Geneva Convention of 1925. If it was so awful that it had to be banned under international law, the officers reasoned, it must make a great weapon.

And the relevance today, if you believe that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it:

The research was kept secret after the end of the war in part because the United States Army granted immunity from war crimes prosecution to the doctors in exchange for their data. Japanese and American documents show that the United States helped cover up the human experimentation. Instead of putting the ringleaders on trial, it gave them stipends.