Tag Archives: terrorism

“The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime” by Bryan Glyn Williams

Copyright 2013, includes maps and notes. A follow-up on my post of December 27, 2016.

This is an unusual book about an unusual person. The book is unusual because it’s rare for a biographer to be able to interview a warlord from “another world”. Dostum (born in 1954) was raised under conditions that were medieval, speaking a language that was not “recognized” by any government, part of an ethnic tribe (the Uzbek) then split by the national border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. What is a warlord, anyway? What does it mean to be part of a “tribe”, as opposed to a community, state, or religion?

It seems all I can do here is ask questions. What is the relationship between modernization and religion? Is modernity inherently secular?

What does Williams’ biography tell us about Dostum? His name was Abdul Rashid. “Dostum” was added by his followers, and means “friend”. He was educated to about age 12, trained in the sports important to Afghan men (horseback riding and wrestling), then worked in the gas and oil industry. He served in the Afghan army 1974 – 1976, then signed up with the Afghan Communist army in 1978, in order to prevent his brother from being drafted. “By the mid-1980s he commanded around 20,000 militia men and controlled the northern provinces of Afghanistan”. (Wikipedia) What?? How?! This is where Dostum’s history strains the credulity of the reader. It sounds impossible. Dostum’s militia was initially mostly mounted on horseback, armed with rifles. Who fought that way, in the 1980s? How did it work? Williams gives us Dostum’s version of the story. Dostum’s assistance to the US military after 9/11 critically facilitated the downfall of the Taliban. Unfortunately, some Americans thought further intervention in the Middle East was going to be similarly “easy” in terms of American investment in lives and troops. “Light footprint” warfare has not become the norm.

I looked for current information. Dostum is now Vice President of Afghanistan. As of April of 2016, he is barred from entry into the United States. He has been accused of war crimes. Some details are provided in Williams’ book. His personality is described as “volatile”.

Dostum now has accounts on Facebook, Twitter and U-Tube. He has traveled from the distant past to 2017 in sixty years. If nothing else, he is possessed of astonishing adaptability and leadership. I hope he will continue to contribute to the fight against extreme religious fundamentalism. His social orientation is primarily secular, and his attitude towards women is modern.

Williams is an academic. He describes his sources as “wonderful storytellers”, but not fact-oriented linear thinkers. His field work was performed under stressful conditions, and complicated by of the number of languages involved. “The Last Warlord” is important reading if you want to understand international geopolitics. But you can also read it as a wild tale of adventure!

“A Conversation with David Sanger About Today’s Global Realities and America’s Next President”, a lecture by David E. Sanger

The college where I work has a partnership with The New York Times. Students (and others) receive The Times free of charge, and it is used in various ways, in various classes. I think this is great! And the paper generously sends us a distinguished guest speaker annually.

David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. His speech (title given above) was well worth my time. He also discussed the question of what kinds of issues can be addressed during the Presidential campaign. He thinks the campaign is NOT a good forum for analysis of international affairs, which are a major focus of his reporting.

That said, he gave his list of the three global challenges our next President will face. It turns out I have been worrying about the wrong problems! His big three:

  • Terrorism, or “the forces of disorder”
  • Cyber attacks
  • Dealing with a China (as a “rising power”) and the former Soviet Union (still capable of causing trouble)

Sanger had the luck (good or bad) to speak a few days after the Paris terrorist bombings of November 13.

He considers these problems challenging but manageable, pointing out that we survived the shocking instability of the Cold War and other very dangerous situations over the past decades.

Questions were taken in writing, and I handed in the following: How will climate change impact these global issues? He answered that its major impact will be in the arena of terrorism, because populations may be displaced and having masses of (desperate) people on the move is destabilizing. Some “climate refugees” (my term, not his) may be susceptible to recruitment by extremists.

I was/am completely uninformed about cyber attack. This I will continue to ignore. If my computer at work gets crotchety (it has happened three times in the past month), I will call Computer Services and leave it to the experts.

Sanger’s cautious optimism was a balm. I don’t have to build a fallout shelter immediately. Wait, that was the 50s! What is the equivalent in this year of 2015? I don’t have to give up air travel, stop using a computer or panic about “communists”. Whew! I will continue to nurse my personal concerns about climate change and racial justice.

America’s Wars – 2001 to the present

In 2009, I decided that I wanted to understand the wars that have dominated our foreign policy since September 11, 2001. My immediate sense of urgency arose from the death of one of my son’s schoolmates, age 19. Rest in peace, Brad.

I read unsystematically, choosing books that came to hand. Soon I realized how silly I was being – I could earn PhDs in field after field and still not “understand” the Middle East, terrorism and our responses. I would need to study history, religion, languages, political science and so much more. A dozen or so books into this “project”, I began to have war nightmares, and resumed my previous scattered and rather random reading habits.

By good fortune, I did read some excellent works, and I will share them here. Watch for posts with “America’s Wars” in the title.

Favorite novel – 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (published in 2001).

I love this book! It’s wonderful. Looking back through my reading journal, I find that I (first) read it in 2010, but wrote only that it was “magical” and dealt with music and love.

!! SPOILER ALERT !! Stop here if you don’t want to know the outcome. But do read the book!

I wasn’t sure whether the term “bel canto” referred to the singer or the song. Wikipedia tells me it an Italian operatic style, light and agile, with clear phrasing. The main female character in the book is an American opera singer of highest reputation. She has the misfortune to be taken hostage at a diplomatic party in an unnamed third world country, along with several dozen men.

If I start to summarize the story, this will go on forever. The plot is “encapsulated”, tight – terrorists invade a party and take hostages. A long period of (gradually decreasing) tension and negotiation ensues. The mansion in which the hostages are held becomes a microcosm and Patchett develops complex, surprising and loveable characters and relationships within it.

Two themes that twine through this book are music and language. Everyone is in love with the singer – she is beautiful, accomplished, famous, and usually gracious. Even the young, unsophisticated terrorists worship her, and over time, everything revolves around her singing.

Two important male characters are an ultra wealthy Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, and his younger translator, named Gen. Gen becomes the communication node in a group where five or six languages are in use – Spanish, English, French and Russian, primarily, and sometimes Italian. it turns out some of the terrorists speak mostly an indigenous language, and barely understand Spanish, so Gen is sometimes at a loss.

There’s another fascinating male character, Messner, the Swiss Red Cross negotiator who is the only person able to come and go freely from the besieged mansion. He is sophisticated, experienced at negotiation, and knows that the situation is likely to end in terrible violence. So, what does it mean to be “neutral”? What can he accomplish?Messner struggles with this.

Inevitably, the fragile “community” is torn apart. All the terrorists are killed, and the hostages go back to their lives with memories and scars that will be permanent and incomprehensible to those around them. The book, somehow, is more positive than negative.

I will probably return to this book over and over. It’s a treat.