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Friday, October 30, 2009

Satyajit Ray - Ashani Sanket - Distant Thunder (1973)

Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), a movie made by Satyajit Ray in 1973. I had seen before only his first three movies, the Apu Trilogy. I haven't dared to speak about them on the blog, so far: I keep them as the masterpiece of the masterpieces.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 1/10
(video by taipeistory)

If it's someone greater even than Ozu, then Satyajit Ray is.

Here is what taipeistory (who published on youTube the whole Distant Thunder, in 10 successive videos) says:

Distant Thunder is the work of a director who has learned the value of narrative economy to such an extent that the movie, which is set against the backdrop of the man made famine that wiped out 5 million people in 1943, has the simplicity of a fable. Though its field of vision is narrow, more or less confined to the social awakening of a young village Brahmin and his pretty, naive wife, the sweep of the film is so vast that, at the end, you feel as if you'd witnessed the events from a satellite. You've somehow been able to see simultaneously the curvature of the earth and the insects on the blades of field grass.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 2/10
(video by taipeistory)

What makes Satyajit Ray unique?

I think he is treating a fundamental theme: the conflict between History and Cosmos.

History: what humans perceive as past, present and future, their system of values, their sense of progress. Cosmos: what is eternal while in continuous change, what is not necessarily beyond our reality while being beyond our past, present, future, beyond our history, collective or individual, beyond our logic, our values.

Is Cosmos the place of Gods? Maybe, not necessarily: if they exist, it's not because we believe in them. If they do not exist, it's not because we do not believe in them. They do exist or do not, beyond our powers of decision, beyond our knowledge, beyond History.

I think this is the image Ray has on Cosmos and History.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 3/10
(video by taipeistory)

And he speaks with gravity about this. Gravity, yes, not emphasis; seriousness, not dryness. Because he has empathy for the belief of humans in the logic of history, of their past, present and future; though he knows that the ultimate reality is beyond us, the ultimate outcome. Actually this is what makes his movies so poignant: his empathy for our illusions.

Profundity in extreme simplicity: his succession of scenes have a biblical profundity and simplicity.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 4/10
(video by taipeistory)

Here in Distant Thunder a young Brahmin is convinced of the importance of his civilizational mission. He is the village priest, the officiant of the sacred rites, he is also the physician, and he struggles to make villagers understand the necessity of the hygiene rules, of medical control and medical treatments. He is also the teacher, and he struggles to bring the kids of the village to school. He is clearly the man of progress, acting in History, to build the future.

Images from Distant Thunder: Part 5/10
(video by taipeistory)

It is 1943: the war brings in that part of India a radical shortage of rice - a great famine that will make millions of victims.

The accepted values of the village start to shift. Struggle for survival brings loss of solidarity, loss of dignity; but beyond anything else there is terrible starvation, the only thing that matters any more.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 6/10
(video by taipeistory)

And the young Brahmin is starting to realise, step by step, the relativity of his values, and the ultimate truth, the only one that is important: the sense of humility.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 7/10
(video by taipeistory)

And all this is taking part while the Nature remains indifferent to our tragedies: the insects play on the blades of the field grass, flowers and leaves blossom in warm colors, sunshine comes, then rain, then sunshine again; Eternity in continuous change, beyond our powers, our decisions, our understanding.

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 8/10
(video by taipeistory)

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 9/10
(video by taipeistory)

Image from Distant Thunder: Part 10/10
(video by taipeistory)

(Satyajit Ray)


David Ignatius on Surge in Afghanistan

David IgnatiusDavid Ignatius in W. Post:

Kandahar, Afghanistan: here's what you would see if you traveled this week to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two big battlegrounds of the Afghanistan war: a conflict that is balanced tenuously between success and failure. The United States has deployed enough troops to disrupt the Taliban insurgency and draw increasing fire, but not enough to secure the major population centers. That's not a viable position.

I visited four U.S. bases in the two provinces this week, traveling with the military. I was able to hear from local commanders and talk with a few Afghans. I'll describe what I learned, positive and negative, so readers can weigh this evidence from the field. Then I'll explain why my conclusion is that President Obama should add some troops.

We began in Kandahar city, at the headquarters of what's known as Regional Command South, which oversees the battle in the two provinces. It's a city on the edge of the desert, surrounded by jagged, slate-gray mountains. Just over the border to the east are the Taliban's supply lines in Pakistan.

America's NATO allies have been running the war in Kandahar province, but they have been badly outgunned. So several months ago, the United States sent an Army brigade of about 4,000 troops with Stryker armored vehicles. That disrupted the Taliban insurgents, but they have responded with more roadside bombs along Highway 1, the main route that connects Kandahar to Afghanistan's other major cities.

The day before we arrived, a large bomb destroyed a Stryker vehicle in Arghandab, a Taliban stronghold northwest of Kandahar city, killing seven U.S. soldiers. That loss of life cast a shadow over my visit, and it highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. troops as they push deeper into Afghanistan. More coalition soldiers unfortunately represent more targets for the enemy.

Kandahar city remains insecure, especially at night. And 15 miles west of the city, the line of Taliban control begins. Coalition forces conduct punishing raids there, but there aren't enough troops to clear and hold the area.

A U.S. success story in Kandahar province is Spin Boldak, a town on the border with Pakistan. The Stryker brigade has launched an array of economic development projects there. A recent poll showed residents were worried far more about clean water than security. But the Taliban continues to infiltrate fighters and supplies through rat lines north and south of Spin Boldak, bypassing this small ink spot of progress.

In Helmand province to the west, the story is much the same. We visited Camp Leatherneck, where about 10,000 U.S. Marines are based near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The Marine surge, which began last year, has sharply improved security in Garmsir and Nawa districts, south of the capital.

But in the middle of Helmand lies a Taliban sanctuary called Marja. To clear the insurgents there would require about 2,000 more Marines. That's beyond the current U.S. troop ceiling, so Marja remains a cancerous sore in the middle of our lines, according to one American officer. He explains: We can't do Marja with what we have now.

The Marines in Helmand, like U.S. forces throughout the country, have embraced counterinsurgency methods to befriend and protect the local population. They carry cash to buy sodas and food in the local markets. They work with the provincial government and tribal leaders to provide services for the people. I've bought more friggin' pomegranates than you can imagine, says the Marine commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.

It's too early to be sure, but this people-friendly strategy seems to have helped. The local provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, says security is better now in some areas of Helmand than it has been in a decade. We need the Americans at this moment, he told me.

So what should Obama do? I think he should add enough troops to continue the mission he endorsed in March to reverse the Taliban's gains and improve security in Afghanistan's population centers. I don't know whether the right number is the roughly 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has recommended, but it should be the minimum number necessary. The additional troops will come at a steep political price, at home and abroad.

The goal isn't to transform Afghanistan into a 21st-century showplace but to buy enough time for the country's army and government to fight their own battles. A year from now, that may seem like an impossible mission, but the evidence from Kandahar and Helmand this week suggests that it would be a mistake not to try.

(Zoon Politikon)


Ireland's Four Courts in Courthouse

I've just got an invitation in my eMail for Halloween, at Ireland's Four Courts in Courthouse, the Arlington County.
I cannot honor it any more, as I am now in Massachusetts, but I remember a fine evening I spent there on the terrace, with a glass of good Irish beer, and some fries. There were three guys at another table, two young gentlemen and a young lady, and we started a discussion together. I felt at the beginning like they were somehow making fun, so I answered kind of cool. But I soon realised that I was actually tired after a long work day and that they were just nice. I told them this and we became friends immediately, despite of age difference. So the rest of the evening was great.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Anne Frank

(Zoon Politikon)

David Rhode: Held by the Taliban (6) Epilogue

(Journalist David Rhode interviewing peasants in Southern Afghanistan, one year before he was kidnapped)

Journalist David Rhode was kidnapped by the Taliban inn November 2007 and succeeded to escape in June 2009. Here is the epilogue of his story published by NY Times:

Five weeks after our escape, Asad crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan, called his family and said he was free.

Ten days later, I spoke with him by phone. Asad said the guards had slept until dawn on the night Tahir and I escaped. At first, they thought we were in the bathroom. Then they realized we were gone.

Asad said he was accused of knowing about our escape plan. A Taliban commander then chained and held him underground for 17 days. For three of those days he was beaten, he said.

Asad’s family sent a tribal delegation to press his captors to release him. Asad said that after a guard left him alone on July 27, he fled, found a taxi and took it to the Afghan border.

In our phone call, Asad denied cooperating with the guards during our captivity and said that he had carried a gun because the Taliban had ordered him to do so. In the end, I believe that Asad played along with the Taliban to survive.

Upon my return to New York, I learned that a wide array of people had worked for our release, including family members, colleagues, government officials and security consultants.

A number of Afghan and Pakistani men also offered to try to obtain information about our whereabouts or to gain our release. Some volunteered, others asked for money. During that time, two of the Afghan men died in ambushes, but it is not known whether those attacks were related to work on our case.

Determining the truth of events in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is notoriously difficult. The current fighting in the region makes it even more so. Killings are rarely investigated. Disputes, vendettas and rumors are constant.

After I returned home, I discovered that my captor’s fabrications were even larger than I had realized. Abu Tayyeb, it turned out, had made his name in the late 1990s by killing a group of Afghan prisoners who opposed the Taliban. He is believed to be hiding in Karachi in southern Pakistan.

His claim that I had told the military of his location on the day of our Nov. 10 interview was false. There had been no military operation.

The video of us trudging through the snow in January was never broadcast. Al Jazeera ran a brief promotional segment but then did not broadcast the full video at the request of The Times.

Virtually all of the statements Abu Tayyeb made to me regarding the negotiations turned out to be false. The Afghan government never agreed to exchange prisoners for the three of us. And the United States did not offer to trade us for the remaining Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. After our escape, rumors circulated that a ransom had been paid or our guards bribed. My family and The New York Times paid no ransom. The Times has decided not to make public its efforts to secure our release because details could endanger correspondents and others working in the region.

American government officials worked to free us, but they maintained their longstanding policy of not negotiating with kidnappers. They paid no ransom and exchanged no prisoners. Pakistani and Afghan officials said they also freed no prisoners and provided no money.

Security consultants who worked on our case said cash was paid to Taliban members who said they knew our whereabouts. But the consultants said they were never able to identify or establish contact with the guards who were living with us.

False reports persist. On Sept. 13, The Sunday Times in London reported that $9 million was paid for our release. Then it issued a full retraction.

The Taliban continue to abduct journalists. On Sept. 6, fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz kidnapped a New York Times correspondent, Stephen Farrell, and the Afghan journalist working with him, Sultan Munadi, as they reported on a NATO bombing that had killed many civilians.

Four days later, a raid by British commandos freed Stephen, but Sultan was killed, along with a British soldier and an Afghan woman. Sultan was a good friend. He was the father of two and was home on a break from studying in Germany.

My suspicions about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the Pakistani military proved to be true. Some American officials told my colleagues at The Times that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, turns a blind eye to the Haqqanis’ activities. Others went further and said the ISI provided money, supplies and strategic planning to the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups.

Pakistani officials told my colleagues that the contacts were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan to prevent India, Pakistan’s archenemy, from gaining a foothold. One Pakistani official called the Taliban proxy forces to preserve our interests.

Meanwhile, the Haqqanis continue to use North Waziristan to train suicide bombers and bomb makers who kill Afghan and American forces. They also continue to take hostages.

I feel enormous gratitude for everything that was done on our behalf. We were extraordinarily fortunate to have escaped from the Taliban mini-state in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Countless others have not been — and will not be — so lucky.

For much of their captivity, David Rohde and his colleagues were held in Miram Shah, above, in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, the stronghold of a Taliban faction

(Zoon Politikon)


Phyllis Chen Playing Toy Piano

Is there a place, a moment, when Performing Art ends and Perfomance Art begins? A place, a moment, that differentiates bewteen concert and happening?

Phyllis Chen is a concert pianist trying to express herself in the fullest extent, and here comes the free space of Performance Art.

She will play tomorrow toy piano at Christopher Henry Gallery, on Elisabeth Street in SoHo (NY): works by John Cage, Julia Wolfe, Adrian Pertout, and Karlheinz Essl. It's the release of Phyllis Chen's new CD, Uncaged Toy Piano.

(Musica Nova)


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lazarus, a Tryptich by Zsolt Suto

Zsolt Suto created this A/V installation: a homage to Bill Viola.

Reality is a code, not an image, and those codes are the underbelly of the infrastructure of what we are experiencing. The artists of the future are going to understand the image as a surfeit and their work as artists will be in the subterranean levels beneath the image, where the real reality is.

(Bill Viola, quoted by Zsolt Suto)

(Contemporary Art)


1981111 Got a New Toy

Says 1981111,

sorry about my cool hair
sorry about my cool voice
sorry about my cool face
sorry about my cool skill

Well, don't be sorry, 1981111, you are just great!

(The videos of blwolf)


David Rhode: Held by the Taliban (5) A Rope and a Prayer

(Journalist David Rhode interviewing peasants in Southern Afghanistan, one year before he was kidnapped)

Journalist David Rhode was kidnapped by the Taliban inn November 2007 and succeeded to escape in June 2009. Here is his story published by NY Times:

I stood in the bathroom of the Taliban compound and waited for my colleague to appear in the courtyard so we could make our escape. My heart pounded. A three-foot-tall swamp cooler — an antiquated version of an air-conditioner — roared in the yard a few feet in front of me. I feared that the guards who were holding us hostage might wake up and stop us. I feared even more that our captivity would drag on for years.

It was 1 a.m. on Saturday, June 20, in Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency in Pakistan. After seven months and 10 days in Taliban captivity, I had come to a decision with Tahir Luddin, the Afghan journalist I had been kidnapped with, to try to make a run for it.

By then, we had concluded that our captors — a Taliban faction led by the Haqqani family — were not seriously negotiating for our release. In the latest of countless lies, they announced that the United States would free all the Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for us. We found the statement ludicrous and insulting. As they had a dozen times in the past, our captors claimed that a deal was near. Then nothing happened.

Tahir and I had decided that I would get up first that night and go to the bathroom without asking the guards for permission. If the guards remained asleep, Tahir would follow. Twenty feet away, on a shelf outside the kitchen, was a car towrope we planned to use to lower ourselves down a 15-foot wall ringing the compound. I had found it two weeks earlier and hidden it beneath a pile of old clothes.

Several minutes went by, but Tahir did not come out of the room. I stared intently at the entrance to the living room where we slept side by side with the guards — roughly 15 feet away and directly across the courtyard from the bathroom — and waited for Tahir to emerge. I had pulled his foot to rouse him before I crept out of the room. He had groaned and, I assumed, awakened.

As the minutes passed, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood in the darkened bathroom and wondered if Tahir had changed his mind. If the guards caught us, they might kill me, but they would definitely kill Tahir. Part of me thought it was wrong even to have agreed to do this. After seven months in captivity, I wondered if we were capable of making rational decisions.

Even if we made it over the wall, we would have to walk through Miram Shah to get to a nearby Pakistani base. The town teemed with Afghan, Pakistani and foreign militants. Whoever caught us might be far less merciful than our current guards. Once on the base, we might encounter Pakistani military intelligence officials or tribal militia members who were sympathetic to the Taliban and would hand us back to the Haqqanis.

Yet I desperately longed to see my wife and family again. And I hated our captors so vehemently that I wanted them to get nothing in exchange for me. I pushed ahead.

Following a backup plan that Tahir and I had discussed that afternoon, I stepped out of the bathroom and picked up a five-foot-long bamboo pole leaning against the adjacent wall. I walked to the living room window and peered inside to make sure the guards were still asleep.

Beside me, the swamp cooler covered up the noise I made. Inside the room, a ceiling fan hummed. I opened the window, pointed the pole at Tahir’s side and poked him. I quickly walked back to the bathroom, leaned the pole against the wall and stepped inside.

Still, Tahir did not appear. I was convinced that he had changed his mind. It wasn’t fair of me, I thought, to have expected a man with seven children to risk his life.

Then, like an apparition, Tahir’s leg emerged from the window. His upper body and head followed and, finally, his second leg. As he stood up, I rushed out of the bathroom to meet him and kicked a small plastic jug used for ablutions. It skidded across the ground, and I motioned to Tahir to freeze, fearing that the noise would wake the guards.

Tahir and I stared at each other in the darkness. No guards appeared from the living room. Taking a few steps forward, I whispered in Tahir’s ear. We don’t have to go, I said. We can wait.

Go get the rope, he said.

Inside the living room, Asad Mangal, the young driver who had been taken hostage with Tahir and me, was sound asleep with the guards.

Several weeks earlier, we decided we could no longer trust Asad, who had begun cooperating with the guards and carrying an assault rifle they had given him. That afternoon, Tahir and I made a gut-wrenching decision to leave without him, fearing that he would tell the guards of our escape plans — as he had before.

Our rupture with Asad had become the darkest aspect of an already bleak captivity. Over the many months, the solidarity the three of us shared immediately after the kidnapping on Nov. 10 frayed under the threat of execution and indefinite imprisonment.

In December, Tahir and Asad expressed fury at me for exaggerating what our captors could receive for us in ransom. After being told that crews were on their way to film our beheadings, I had blurted out that our captors could receive prisoners and millions of dollars if we were kept alive.

I repeatedly apologized to Tahir and Asad, saying I had been trying to save us. But they called me a fool.

Over the course of the spring, Tahir said Asad told the guards that Tahir once had encouraged him to escape on his own. He said Asad told the guards that I was an American spy.

Finally, Tahir said he had whispered to Asad we should escape one night two weeks earlier. Asad did not respond. Days later, a guard announced that he had heard that Tahir was trying to escape.

Yet I also knew that Asad was under enormous pressure. As the driver, he would probably be the first one killed by the Taliban. He could be cooperating with the guards in order to survive.

Still, I did not trust him. If Tahir and I spoke with Asad about escaping for a second time, he could once more inform the guards. At the very least, we would squander an opportunity we might never have again. At worst, Tahir and I would be killed.

We had arrived at the Miram Shah compound the first week of June. It was our ninth location in the tribal areas; we had been shuttled by our captors among homes in North and South Waziristan.

As I had done when we arrived in each new place, I swept floors and picked up trash to create a sense of order. It was then that I found the car towrope beside some wrenches and motor oil. The discovery, I thought, was the first stroke of good luck in our seven months in captivity. Thinking we might be able to use the rope during an escape, I hid it under an old shirt and pants.

In the days that followed, I tried to think of ways we could flee. When the guards let us sit on the roof with them at dusk, I noticed that it was surrounded by a five-foot-high wall. If we could hoist ourselves over it, I thought, we could use the rope to lower ourselves to the street.

At the same time, Tahir surveyed the area around the house when the guards took him with them to buy food and watch cricket games once or twice a week. He determined that the compound was closer to Miram Shah’s main Pakistani militia base than any other house we had been held in.

Tahir and I kept our conversations brief about how we could escape, worrying that the guards or Asad would overhear us.

On the afternoon of June 19, electricity returned to Miram Shah for the first time since fighting nearby cut power lines a week earlier. It was a fortuitous development. Electricity meant the swamp cooler and ceiling fan would help conceal any noise we made when we fled.

Already angry at new lies the guards had told us that morning about the negotiations, we agreed to try to escape that night. Tahir would keep the guards up late playing checkah, a Pakistani version of Parcheesi. If they were tired, they would sleep more soundly. Our plans for how to get over the wall were in place. Unfortunately, we disagreed about what to do after that.

Tahir said the Pakistani militiamen who guarded the military base would shoot us if we approached them at night. He said we should hike 15 miles to the Afghan border. I responded that we would never make it that far without being caught. Going to the Pakistani base was a risk we had to take. If we could surrender to an army officer, I said, he would protect us.

As we continued to argue, the guards returned to the room, and Tahir and I had to stop speaking. For the rest of the evening, we were never alone again. Our plan had no ending.

Tahir kept the guards up late as we had discussed. By roughly 11 p.m., everyone was in bed. I lay awake, trying to listen to the guards’ breathing to figure out whether they had fallen asleep.

I blinked over and over in the darkness but saw no difference when my eyes were open or closed. It was as if I were blind. I turned around at times to look at the orange light on the swamp cooler to make sure I could still see.

Anxious, I tried to calm myself by praying. In February, a Taliban commander who had been pressing me to convert to Islam told me that if I said forgive me, God 1,000 times each day our captivity might end. I had done as he had suggested, with no results. But I did not care.

The prayers soothed me and passed the time. Each day, I would stare at the ceiling and say forgive me, God 1,000 times while the guards took naps. Counting on my fingers, it took me roughly 60 minutes to reach 1,000.

That night, waiting to make sure the guards were sound asleep, I asked God to forgive me 2,000 times.

In truth, I expected the escape attempt to fail quickly. I thought a guard would wake up as soon as I tried to leave the room. I would say I was going to the bathroom, walk to the toilet, return a few minutes later and go back to sleep. I would feel better the next morning for at least having tried.

Instead, to my amazement, our plan was actually working. After Tahir and I made it to the courtyard, I retrieved the rope and we crept up a flight of stairs leading to the roof.

Tahir tied the rope to the wall surrounding the roof. Placing his toe between two bricks, he climbed to the top and peered at the street below.

The rope is too short, he whispered after stepping down.

I shifted the knot on the rope to give it more length, pulled myself up on the wall and looked down at the 15-foot drop. The rope did not reach the ground, but it appeared close.

I glanced back at the stairs, fearing that the guards would emerge at any moment.

We don’t have to go, I repeated to Tahir. It’s up to you.

I got down on my hands and knees, Tahir stepped on my back and lifted himself over the wall. I heard his clothes scrape against the bricks, looked up and realized he was gone.

I grabbed his sandals, which he had left behind, and stuffed them down my pants. I climbed over, momentarily snagged a power line with my foot, slid down the wall and landed in a small sewage ditch. I looked up and saw Tahir striding down the street in his bare feet. I ran after him.

For the first time in seven months, I walked freely down a street. Glancing over my shoulder, I didn’t see any guards emerge from our house, which looked smaller than I had expected.

We headed down a narrow dirt lane with primitive mud-brick walls on either side of us. Makeshift electrical wires snaked overhead in what looked like a densely populated neighborhood.

We walked into a dry riverbed and turned right. I kept slipping on the large sand-covered stones and felt punch-drunk. I caught up to Tahir and handed him his sandals.

My ankle is very painful, Tahir said, as he slipped them on and continued walking. I can’t walk far.

A large dark stain covered his lower left pant leg. I worried that he had ripped open his calf on his way down the wall. At the same time, my left hand stung. I noticed that the rope had made a large cut across two of my fingers.

Where are we going? I asked Tahir as we quickly made our way down the riverbed, afraid someone would see or hear us.

There is a militia base over there, Tahir said, gesturing to his left. I don’t trust them.

Neither did I. Earlier, Tahir had told me there was a checkpoint maintained by a Pakistani government militia near the house. Turning ourselves in there would be a gamble, I thought. I still believed that our best chance was to surrender to a military officer on the Pakistani base in Miram Shah.

We have to go to the main base, I said.

Impossible, Tahir said, continuing down the riverbed. The guards said that Arabs and Chechens watch the main gate 24 hours a day.

The Taliban would recapture us, Tahir believed, before we got to the base. I started to panic. We had made it over the wall but did not know where we were going.

Despite his ankle, Tahir seemed determined to hike 15 miles to the Afghan border. As we walked, we argued over which way to go.

We have to go to the Pakistani base, I told Tahir.

Striding ahead, he didn’t respond. Dogs began barking from one of the walled compounds to our right.

We can’t make it to the border, I said. We have to go to the base.

Tahir continued walking, but after a few minutes he complained about his ankle.

There is too much pain, he said.

We stopped and I pulled up his pant leg. His calf had not been cut. The dark stain on his pants was from the sewage ditch we had both landed in outside our compound.

There is another gate, Tahir said, changing his mind. Come.

I waited for Taliban fighters to emerge from the darkness, but none did. Tahir told me to put a scarf I was carrying over my head.

If anyone stops us, your name is Akbar and my name is Timor Shah, he said. Act like a Muslim.

My sense of time was distorted, but it seemed as though we had been walking in the darkness for 5 to 10 minutes. I did not feel free. If anything, I was more frightened. I worried that an even more brutal militant group would capture us.

We left the riverbed and walked down an alleyway between compounds for about 50 yards. We arrived at a two-lane paved street.

This is the main road in Miram Shah, Tahir whispered.

To our left was a vacant stretch. To our right stood a gas station with four pumps and several shops. Dim light bulbs hung outside and illuminated the area. I silently questioned why Tahir was leading us down the center of the road where we could be easily spotted.

Suddenly, shouts erupted to our left and I heard a Kalashnikov being loaded. Tahir raised his hands and said something in Pashto. A man shouted commands in Pashto. I raised my hands as my heart sank. The Taliban had recaptured us.

In the faint light, I saw a figure with a Kalashnikov standing on the roof of a dilapidated one-story building. Beside the building was a mosque with freshly painted white walls. The building and mosque had concertina wire and earthen berms in front of them.

If you move, Tahir said, they will shoot us.

Then, Tahir said words I could scarcely believe.

This is the base.

We had made it to the Pakistanis.

I held my hands high in the air and dared not move an inch. A nervous Pakistani guard could shoot us dead as we stood in the street. With my long beard, scarf and clothes I looked like a foreign suicide bomber, not a foreign journalist.

Another voice came from inside the building. It sounded as if the guard was waking up his comrades. One or two more figures appeared on the roof and aimed more gun barrels at us.

The Pakistani guard on the roof intermittently spoke in Pashto with Tahir. I heard Tahir say the words for journalist, Afghan and American.

My arms began to burn, and I struggled to slow my breathing. I desperately tried not to move my hands.

Tell them we will take off our shirts, I told Tahir, thinking the Pakistani guards might fear that we were suicide bombers who wore vests packed with explosives.

Tahir said something in Pashto, and the man responded.

Lift up your shirt, Tahir said. I immediately obliged.

The guard spoke again.

He is asking if you are American, Tahir said.

I am an American journalist, I said in English, surprised at the sound of my own voice in the open air. Please help us. Please help us.

I kept talking, hoping they would recognize that I was a native English speaker. We were kidnapped by the Taliban seven months ago, I said. We were kidnapped outside Kabul and brought here.

Do you speak English? I said, hoping one of the Pakistani guards on the roof understood. Do you speak English?

The guard said something to Tahir.

They are radioing their commander, Tahir said. They are asking for permission to bring us inside.

Tahir pleaded with the guards to protect us under the traditional honor code of Pashtunwali, which requires a Pashtun to give shelter to any stranger who asks. He begged them to take us inside the base before the Taliban came looking for us.

About two or three minutes passed. The Pakistani guards stood behind sandbags on the roof. Above us, stars glittered in a peaceful, crystal clear sky.

For the first time that night, it occurred to me that we might actually succeed. Escape — an ending I never dreamed of — might be our salvation. I held my hands still and waited.

Several minutes passed, and Tahir and I grew nervous. Please allow us in the mosque, Tahir said. Please let us inside.

The Pakistani guard on the roof said they were waiting for the senior officer to arrive. Tahir asked what we should do if the Taliban drove down the road. The guard said that we should dive behind the dirt embankment, and that they would open fire on anyone who approached. But they still declined to let us on the base.

Tahir complained to me about the pain in his arms as he held them in the air. His ankle hurt as well.

Please wait, Tahir, I said, encouraging him to keep his hands in the air. Please wait. We’re so close.

Tahir asked for permission to sit on the ground, and the Pakistani guard granted it. Tahir sat down and groaned. He seemed exhausted.

Soon after, the Pakistani guard said we could walk toward the mosque. With our hands in the air, we crossed over the surrounding berm unsteadily. As the loose soil gave way, we both nearly lost our balance. I worried that we would be shot if we slipped and fell.

Lie down on the ground, Tahir said. If you move, they will shoot us.

Soon after, a senior Pakistani officer arrived, and Tahir told me to stand up. The officer stood a few feet from us on the other side of the concertina wire. He spoke with Tahir in what sounded like a reassuring tone.

He is a very polite person, Tahir said. We are under their protection. We are safe.

In one moment, the narrative of our captivity reversed itself. The powerlessness I had felt for months began to fade. We were achingly close to going home.

I thanked the officer in Pashto, Urdu and English, desperate to win his trust.

How are you? the senior officer said in English.

How are you? I replied, trying again to demonstrate that I was an American.

At this point, Tahir and I had been standing outside the concertina wire for 15 or 20 minutes. We still needed to get inside the base.

We offered to take off our shirts, and the officer told us to do so. I watched Tahir step unsteadily over the concertina wire and into the base.

Come, Tahir said. Come.

I followed Tahir inside, and the senior officer and several Pakistani guards shook my hand.

Thank you, I said to them in English, over and over. Thank you.

The politeness of the Pakistani guards amazed me. I knew we could still be handed over to the Taliban, but I savored the compassion we were receiving from strangers. For the first time in months, I did not feel hostility.

They let us put our shirts on and drove us in a pickup truck toward the center of the base. I stared at Tahir and slapped him on the back. We were both in shock.

Thank you, I said. Thank you.

I asked Tahir to tell the guards that I wanted to call my wife, Kristen. I needed to somehow communicate to the outside world that we were on a Pakistani base. If we could get word to American officials, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the Pakistanis to hand us back to the Haqqanis.

We arrived in the center of the base, and I got out the back of the truck. A row of well-lighted, white one-story offices sat 50 feet away on the other side of a neatly manicured lawn. It was the first green grass I had seen in seven months. I walked across it and relished the sense of openness and safety. The guards brought us to a clean, modern office with a large desk and couches along the walls.

After several minutes, a young Pakistani captain who spoke perfect English introduced himself as the base commander. He looked as if he had just gotten out of bed.

After explaining our kidnapping and escape, I asked him if I could call my wife. He hesitated at first and then said he would try to find a phone card to make a long distance call.

As we waited, Tahir spoke in Pashto to the various militia members on the base. A doctor cleaned and bandaged the cuts on his foot and my hand. Tahir laughed and his face beamed as he spoke. I had never seen him so happy. But after several minutes, his face darkened.

David, I feel terrible about Asad, Tahir said of our driver. What have we done?

I looked out the window in the direction of Miram Shah and wondered whether the guards who had been holding us captive had awakened yet. When they did, they would be furious.

We had no choice, I said, trying to rationalize abandoning Asad. I wondered if our escape could prompt our captors to kill him. I prayed that they would be merciful.

About an hour later, a soldier arrived with a phone card, and I wrote my home number on a white slip of paper. The captain dialed the phone on his desk and handed me the receiver.

The phone in my apartment back in New York rang repeatedly and no one answered. Finally, the answering machine picked up and I listened to my wife’s cheerful voice ask callers to leave us a message. Our escape still seemed like a dream. The machine beeped, and I spoke in an unsteady voice.

Kristen, it’s David, I said. It’s David. Please pick up.

I repeated the words several times. Fearing that the tape on the answering machine would run out, I finally blurted out, We’ve escaped.

Someone picked up the receiver in New York.

David, a woman’s voice said. It’s Mary Jane.

My mother-in-law had answered.

We’ve escaped and are on a Pakistani military base, I told her.

Fearing retaliation by the Taliban, I asked her to call The Times immediately and tell them to evacuate Tahir’s and Asad’s families from their homes in Kabul, as well as the people in the newspaper’s bureau there.

I spent the next several minutes describing our exact location. I gave her the names of the tribal area, town, base and commanding officer. I told her she needed to contact American officials and ask them to help evacuate us. I wanted the Pakistani officer to hear that the American government would soon know we were on his base. At the end of the conversation, I apologized to her for all of the pain and worry I had caused.

Just come home safe, she said.

Thirty minutes passed, and the captain agreed to let me make another call to try to reach my wife. With each passing minute, I began to believe that we were finally safe and would return home.

The phone rang. This time, Kristen picked up.

David? she said, breathlessly. David?

Kristen, I said, savoring the chance to utter the words I had dreamed of saying to her for months.

Kristen, I said, please let me spend the rest of my life making this up to you.

Yes, she said. Yes.

(Zoon Politikon)


David Rhode: Held by the Taliban (4) A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope

(Journalist David Rhode interviewing peasants in Southern Afghanistan, one year before he was kidnapped)

Journalist David Rhode was kidnapped by the Taliban inn November 2007 and succeeded to escape in June 2009. Here is his story published by NY Times:

Two deafening explosions shook the walls of the compound where the Taliban held us hostage. My guards and I dived to the floor as chunks of dirt hurtled through the window.

Dawood? one guard shouted, saying my name in Arabic. Dawood?

I’m O.K., I replied in Pashto. I’m O.K.

The plastic sheeting covering the window hung in tatters. Debris covered the floor. Somewhere outside, a woman wailed. I wondered if Tahir Luddin and Asad Mangal, the two Afghans who had been kidnapped with me, were alive. A guard grabbed his rifle and ordered me to follow him outside.

Go! he shouted, his voice shaking with fury. Go!

Our nightmare had come to pass. Powerful missiles fired by an American drone had obliterated their target a few hundred yards from our house in a remote village in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Dozens of people were probably dead. Militants would call for our heads in revenge.

Outside, shredded tree leaves littered the yard, but the house and its exterior walls remained intact. Tahir and Asad looked worried. No one was hurt, but I knew the three of us might not survive for long.

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.

Our guards believed the drones were targeting me. United States officials wanted to kill me, they said, because my death would eliminate the enormous leverage and credibility they believed a single American prisoner gave the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction that was holding us. Whenever a drone appeared, I was ordered to stay inside. The guards believed that its surveillance cameras could recognize my face from thousands of feet above.

In the courtyard after the missile strike, the guards clutched their weapons and anxiously watched the sky. Fearing a direct attack on our house, they ordered me to cover my face with a scarf and follow them outside the compound. I knew that enraged Arab militants or local tribesmen could spot me once I was outside, but I had no choice.

They hustled me down a hillside to where a station wagon was parked between rows of trees. Opening the rear door, they ordered me to lie inside and keep the scarf on so passers-by could not see my face.

I lay in the back of the car and silently recited the Lord’s Prayer. In the distance, I heard men shouting as they collected their dead. If many people had been killed, particularly women and children, we were sure to die. For months, I had promised myself that if they taped our execution I would remain calm for my family and declare our innocence until the end.

After about 15 minutes, the guards returned to the car and led me back to the house. The missiles had struck two cars, killing a total of seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. I felt a small measure of relief that no civilians had been killed. But I knew we were still in grave danger.

Two weeks earlier our captors had moved us from Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency, to a remote town in South Waziristan. I had seen on a receipt from a local shop that we were in Makeen, a stronghold of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. The region teemed with Uzbek, Arab, Afghan and Pakistani militants.

For the next two hours, I did my best to placate the guards. I did not walk in the yard. I did not speak unless spoken to. I praised God for saving us.

Later, I learned that one guard called for me to be taken to the site of the attack and ritually beheaded as a video camera captured the moment. The chief guard overruled him.

The Taliban assailed the drone attacks, and my captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush. They bitterly criticized the Obama administration for increasing the missile attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

A stalemate between the United States and the Taliban seemed to unfold before me. The drones killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.

The strikes also created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed.

Several days after the drone strike near our house in Makeen, we heard that foreign militants had arrested a local man. He confessed to being a spy after they disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. Then they decapitated him and hung his body in the local bazaar as a warning.

The house in Makeen was the crudest we had inhabited in Pakistan. Perched on a hilltop, it had no running water, fleas and a courtyard littered with trash.

Makeen was colder than Miram Shah, and frequent rain and frigid temperatures created miserable conditions. Hailstorms were common and viewed as punishment from God by our captors.

I was given daily chores by guards who were half my age. The tasks were demeaning, since elders are treated with reverence in Pashtun culture, but I did not care. The chores helped me pass the time and appeared to give the guards the sense I was loyal.

Twice a day, I filled a barrel in the bathroom with water, which we used to flush the toilet, and methodically swept the dirt floors. It was a Sisyphean task, but cleaning gave me the illusion of control when in reality I had none.

Rarely allowed outside the house, I saw my world shrink to a few dozen square feet. My daily focus simply became survival.

Tahir struggled as well, telling me at times that he could no longer remember the faces of his seven children.

This is not life, he said. I want to die.

With each passing month, we felt increasingly forgotten and at the mercy of the young guards who lived with us. The chief guard was the younger brother of Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander who had abducted Tahir, Asad and me in November after inviting us to interview him outside Kabul, Afghanistan.

He began pocketing some of the money given to him to buy our food and supplies. He dared us to try to escape so he could end our captivity with one bullet. He complained that mujahedeen were dying in the drone strikes yet enormous attention was being wasted on one American prisoner.

When I showed him several dozen flea bites on my stomach and arms, he bought a pesticide and suggested that I put it on my sleeping bag. Fearing it would make me sick, I declined. When the bites continued, I showed another guard. His response was to show me his own stomach, which had no bites on it.

I never get sick while I’m on jihad, he said.

After long conversations between Tahir and me prompted the guards to accuse us of planning an escape, we spoke less. Some days, we talked only a few minutes. Increasingly, I became lost in my own thoughts, and my memories of the world I had known began to fade.

Trying to stay connected, I listened to the BBC’s shortwave radio broadcasts for hours at a time. The news broadcasts raised my spirits, but they also gave me the sensation of being in a coma. I could hear how the world was progressing but could not communicate with anyone in it.

The video image was grainy but I immediately recognized the hostage’s face. Hello, Peter, an off-camera questioner said. How are you?

Fine, answered Piotr Stanczak, a soft-spoken 42-year-old Polish geologist kidnapped by the Taliban in September 2008. Two masked militants holding assault rifles stood on either side of him. A black sheet with jihadi slogans hung on the mud-brick wall behind him.

In mid-March, one of our guards arrived with a DVD player. After that, watching jihadi videos became the guards’ favorite pastime. Playing along with his captors in the video, Stanczak called for the Polish government to stop sending troops to Muslim countries and to break relations with the Pakistani government.

I had never met Stanczak but had read about his ordeal in Pakistani newspapers. When I realized the video would end in his beheading, I stood up to leave. I did not want to watch it — or give the guards the satisfaction of seeing me watch it.

I would say people of Pakistan is very good, people is very good, I heard Stanczak say as I walked out of the room.

The videos were impossible to avoid at night, when I was confined to the room the guards were in. They were little more than grimly repetitive snuff films. The Taliban executed local men who had been declared American spies. Taliban roadside bombs blew up Afghan government trucks and American Humvees. The most popular videos documented the final days of suicide bombers.
As I silently watched, the guards repeatedly asked me what I thought of seeing American soldiers killed on the screen in front of us.

All killing is wrong, I said.

The guards would watch for hours at a time. Over all, the videos created an alternate, pro-Taliban narrative of the war in Afghanistan. A recurring theme was that the United States and NATO underreported the number of foreign troops dying in Afghanistan.

The videos were not limited to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Images of dead Palestinian, Kashmiri and Iraqi civilians delivered the message that vast numbers of Muslims were being slaughtered across the globe.

The constant images of death seemed to be cynical efforts by Taliban commanders to numb their young foot soldiers to the prospect of sacrificing their lives. Death, the message went, was not a distant fate. Instead, it was a friendly companion and a goal.

The guards knew little of the outside world and had limited education. They shared a book that glorified martyrdom, promising saccharine fruit juices, sumptuous food and 70 virgins in heaven. One of the guards read haltingly, pronouncing each word out loud as if he were an elementary school student.

I feared that the videos were brainwashing our driver, Asad. After we moved to Makeen, he seemed more friendly toward the guards and began carrying a Kalashnikov they had given him. He also stopped smoking, which the guards said was forbidden under Islam. He was only doing what he needed to do to stay alive, I told myself.

In late April, a surprise visit by Abu Tayyeb, the commander who had kidnapped us, raised our hopes that our freedom was being negotiated. Dressed in an expensive white tunic, he strode into our compound just before dinner.

Dawood, he asked, what would you say if I told you that you could start your journey back to New York tomorrow?

That would make me incredibly happy, I said.

He told me to get a notebook and pen and ordered everyone to leave the room except for his deputy commander, Tahir and me.

Your family has been very slow, he said. Write this down.

This is my proof-of-life video, he dictated. Maybe another video will come that will be very bad.

He paused and tried to think of his next line.

If this message does not help, he said. I cannot say what will happen to me.

I quickly realized that Abu Tayyeb had not shown up to complete a deal. His visit was another effort to extort money from my family. Five months into our captivity, he had refused to lower his demands below a $5 million ransom as well as an exchange of prisoners.

Calmly sitting across the room from me, he dictated more lines.

If you don’t help me, I will die, he said. Now the key is in your hand.

He paused again for a moment.

Please save me, I want to go home, he said. Don’t you want me to stay alive with you? Hurry up. Hurry up.

Then he told me I would need to cry for the video. I stared at Tahir. If I refused, the Taliban might kill him or Asad to drive up a potential ransom payment. I hated the thought of my wife, Kristen, and my family seeing such a video, but Tahir was the father of seven children, and Asad the father of two. I agreed to make it.

The deputy commander, a man in his 50s, placed a scarf over his face and picked up a .50-caliber machine gun. He pointed it at my head, and one of the guards turned on a camera.

During the filming, I tried to convey that I was reading a prepared statement by intentionally looking down at the pad of paper. I sobbed intermittently but no tears flowed from my eyes.

After the first take, Abu Tayyeb announced that I hadn’t cried enough. He ordered me to read the message a second time. Standing behind the guard holding the camera, Abu Tayyeb waved his hands in the air, as if he were a film director, motioning for me to sob louder.

I tried to cry in an exaggerated fashion so that my family would recognize that none of it was real.

Later that night, Abu Tayyeb announced that the Afghan government had agreed to free 20 prisoners in exchange for our release. The problem, he said, was that my family would not agree to pay the $5 million ransom.

My family does not have $5 million, I told him angrily. Why do you think we have been here for so long? Do you think they’re sitting on $5 million and just playing a game? If they had the money, they would offer it.

Abu Tayyeb continued. He smiled and told me I was a big fish. He said my brother was the president of a company that manufactured jumbo jets. If my brother would sell one plane, he explained, my family could pay the ransom.

He had clearly looked up my family on the Internet. My brother was, in fact, the president of a small aviation consulting company, but it consisted of six people and manufactured nothing.

Abu Tayyeb claimed that the American government paid $10 million for the release of John Solecki, a United Nations worker kidnapped in Pakistan in February. As I had for months, I told him that the American government didn’t pay ransom.

Ignoring me, he said that the head of the F.B.I.’s office in New York had traveled to Afghanistan to secure my release. He vowed to force the United States government to pay the $5 million.

You know where the money will come from, he said. And I know where the money will come from.

I told him that he was delusional and that he should just kill me. Tahir refused to translate my words. Don’t provoke him, he said.

I told Abu Tayyeb we would be here forever if he did not reduce his demands.

You are a spy, Abu Tayyeb declared. You know that you are a spy.

I told him that he was absolutely wrong and that I was a journalist. Then, I tried to shame him in front of his men.

God knows the truth, I said. And God will judge us all.

Abu Tayeb disappeared the following morning. We spent the next six weeks in a new house in a remote village in North Waziristan.

Each week, we received bits of information about the negotiations. First, our captors informed us that an agreement had been reached on the 20 Taliban prisoners who would be exchanged for our release. Then they said that not enough money was being offered along with the prisoners. Finally, they told us that only 16 of the 20 prisoners had been agreed upon.

In late May, we were taken back to Miram Shah, where we were informed of a final deal. All that was needed, they said, was for the two sides to agree to where the prisoner exchange would take place. The next day, they announced that there actually was no agreement.

In early June, Abu Tayyeb reappeared and announced that the American government was offering to trade the seven remaining Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for us. I told him that was ridiculous.

For months, Abu Tayyeb had been vastly exaggerating my value. He falsely claimed that the American diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke had freed Serbian prisoners in 1995 to win my release in Bosnia, where I was arrested while reporting on war crimes against Muslims.

He insisted that I was best friends with Mr. Holbrooke, now the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Then why I am still sitting here after seven months? I asked him.

He smiled. If I made one more video, he said, we would be released. Ashamed of my previous video and convinced that Abu Tayyeb was lying yet again, I refused.

This is all about you, I said, raising my voice. You are demanding millions of dollars so you can make yourself look good to the other commanders. You are the problem.

He declared that he was doing everything for the jihad. Visibly angry, he again told me to make the video and then left the room.

Thirty minutes later, he returned and said that making the video was not a choice but an order. The half-dozen guards in the room stared at me.

Once again, Abu Tayyeb repeated his order, and I said no. I knew it was reckless, but standing up to him felt enormously liberating after months of acquiescing.

Sensing that Abu Tayyeb and his men were about to beat me, Tahir and Asad told me to make the video. Just do it, Tahir said.

I finally relented, but I was determined to turn it into an opportunity to console our families, not worry them. No guns were pointed at my head. I refused to cry. I spoke to the camera calmly and said the three of us were well.

At the end of the video, I included a message I had wanted to relay since the day we were kidnapped.

However this ends, Kristen and all my family and friends should live in peace with yourselves, I said. I know you have all done absolutely everything you can to help us.

(Zoon Politikon)


Fareed Zakaria, Roger Cohen About Surge in Afghanistan

What strategy to follow in Afghanistan? Here are the opinions of two well-known political pundits, Fareed Zakaria and Roger Cohen.

Fareed Zakaria in Washington Post:

Dick Cheney has accused Barack Obama of dithering over Afghanistan. If the president were to quickly invade a country on the basis of half-baked intelligence, would that demonstrate his courage and decisiveness to Cheney? In fact, it's not a bad idea for Obama to take his time, examine all options and watch how the post-election landscape in Afghanistan evolves.

The real question we should be asking about Afghanistan is: Do we need a third surge? The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January 2008 was 26,607. Over the next six months, the total rose to 48,250. President Bush described this policy as the quiet surge, and he made the standard arguments about the need for a counterinsurgency capacity -- the troops had to not only fight the Taliban but also protect the Afghan population, strengthen and train the Afghan army and police, and assist in development.

In January, 3,000 more troops, originally ordered by Bush, went to Afghanistan in the first days of the Obama presidency. In February, responding to a request from the commander in the field, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops into the country. Put another way, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled. Sending an additional 40,000 troops would mean an over 300 percent increase in U.S. troops since 2008. (The total surge in Iraq was just over 20,000 troops.) It is not dithering to try to figure out why previous increases have not worked and why we think additional ones would.

In fact, focusing on the number of additional troops needed misses the point entirely, says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander Obama put in place this summer. The key takeaway from his now-famous assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate. The quotes are from the third paragraph of his 66-page memo. These changes in strategy have just begun.

To understand how U.S. troops had been fighting in Afghanistan, consider the Battle of Wanat. On July 13, 2008, a large number of Taliban fighters surrounded an American base in that village, in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. After a few hours of fierce fighting, nine American soldiers lay dead, the largest number killed in a single engagement in years. Former Post reporter and defense expert Tom Ricks points out that Wanat is in a mountainous region with few people, many of them hostile to outsiders. So, he asks, Why are we putting our fist in a hornet's nest?

McChrystal has since pulled U.S. forces out of Wanat. The Post's Greg Jaffe, reporting on the town a year later, concluded recently that ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year's attack. So why not let the Taliban try to set up bases in these remote areas with prickly locals? NATO forces can then periodically disrupt the Taliban rather than the other way around. In these places, counter-terrorism -- now often associated with Vice President Biden -- could work well with the grain of Afghan society.

Advocates of a troop increase act as if counterinsurgency is applied physics. McChrystal's team, having done the mathematical calculations, has apparently arrived at the exact answer. There is no room for variation or middle courses, the argument goes. But the theory that it's 40,000 troops or no counterinsurgency is absurd. The best evidence is that senior military officers assured me at various points over the past year that with the latest increase in troops they finally had enough forces to do counterinsurgency.

The crucial judgments that have to be made involve what the troops will do and how much of Afghanistan to cover. One option is the idea Ricks recently suggested to me: Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country? Following that middle course might be the most practical solution; more forces could still be needed, as McChrystal suggests, or perhaps we can make do with the almost 100,000 coalition forces already there. Obama should carefully consider all the options before racing to demonstrate how tough he is.

Roger Cohen in NY Times:

In Afghanistan there’s the United States, Britain and then the rest. Britain has lost 85 soldiers this year, more than all other European NATO allies combined. For both countries the annual death toll has been rising steadily since 2006, and with it the drumbeat of public opposition to the war. In all, more than 1,100 U.S. and British troops have died.

Special relationships are forged in blood; the U.S.-British bond is no exception. So, as President Obama hesitates, his decision on American troop levels ever weeks away as the weeks pass, the British view of the war offers as good an indication as any of what Obama will do. An hour-long conversation with David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, suggests reinforcements are on the way.

When I asked if the mission needed substantially more troops, Miliband said, What I think that you can see from the prime minister’s strategy is that we believe in serious counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is a counterterrorist strategy.

He continued: The Taliban has shown what it means to provide safe space for Al Qaeda. Describing the fights against the Taliban and Al Qaeda as distinctive but related missions, Miliband said the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the incubator of choice for international terrorism, adding that, Ceding ground happened in the ’90s and then we all know what happened.

That’s a clear rebuttal of the ever-larger school, most often identified with Vice President Joe Biden, advancing the view that Al Qaeda is the real threat, the Taliban much less of one; and so the United States should not commit more military resources to a nation-building struggle in Afghanistan that’s an expensive diversion from core U.S. strategic interests.

Wrong. Counterinsurgency in the Af-Pak theater is indeed a counterterrorist strategy. I see no workable distinction.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown has noted, three-quarters of all terrorist plots uncovered in Britain in recent years had links to Islamic extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The defense of the West begins in the Hindu Kush and Helmand. Would-be bombers must be kept off-balance. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

But of course the campaign has to be smart. Miliband identified several things that have to change, among them governance, outreach and military strategy.

Whatever Afghan government emerges has to be credible, where Hamid Karzai’s administration has not been, and provide a new offer to the Afghan people of security and economic development.

Miliband also called for serious outreach to the insurgency to divide it, estimating that 70 to 80 percent of the foot soldiers are recruitable. The choice they are being given now is fight or flight where it should be fight, flight or flip because an enduring settlement must be a political settlement in which conservative Pashtun nationalism has a place.

That’s critical. The Taliban are a Pashtun movement. Pashtunistan straddles the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. Afghanistan has always been ungovernable without a Pashtun buy-in. Pakistan’s strategic interest in that buy-in is non-negotiable. These are basic — but long ignored — building blocks of successful strategy.

Finally, Miliband argued for a different focus to military operations. Occupying land for the sake of occupying land is not what counts, he said. It’s population. You need to make sure the major cities are secured and Kandahar is vital.

These were the convictions behind Brown’s decision earlier this month to send 500 more British troops to Afghanistan, bringing the contingent to 9,500 — a decision the prime minister expected to be consistent with what the Americans will decide.

The reinforcement was about one quarter of what British generals had requested. In the U.S. case, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked for about 40,000 more troops. Doing the math on a consistent basis suggests a substantial American reinforcement short of McChrystal’s request will eventually be announced by the White House.

I asked Miliband if Obama’s protracted ponder worried the Brits. Miliband pondered in turn before saying, No, I think it’s a measure of the seriousness with which he takes the decision.

O.K., but I still worry. If counterinsurgency is counterterrorism, if this theater is the incubator of choice, if McChrystal is the most lucid product of America’s crash post-9/11 course in counterinsurgency, then Obama should step up.

Beyond Kabul I got these two nuggets from Miliband. Asked how worried he was about an Israeli military strike on Iran, he said: I don’t provide a running commentary on other countries’ concerns or policies, but we are one hundred percent committed to a diplomatic resolution.

Asked about a Mideast peace, he said, It’s very stalled and that’s very dangerous. He said Israeli settlements must stop, calling them illegal and an obstacle to peace. He said: I profoundly believe that Israel’s security depends on a two-state solution and I think that a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders plus or minus agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and a fair settlement of the refugee issue is the right basis for Israel’s future as well as the Palestinians’ future.

I have not heard President Obama be quite as candid. It would help.

Zoon Politikon)

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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Movie I'll Ever Miss: A City of Sadness

Bei Qing Cheng Shi (A City of Sadness), made by Hou Hsiao-Hsien in 1989, the movie that I'll ever miss. Impossible to find, even on Amazon, till today: one used copy of four hundred dollars!

A movie about the so-called 228 Incident, the infamous massacre from February 28, 1947, in Taiwan. And about that whole period.
Taiwan had been since 1895 under Japanese administration. Naturally the Japanese influence had been strong in all respects. Taiwanese intelligentsia was dreaming at China as their Motherland, while being actually shaped in the Japanese culture.
In 1945 Taiwan passed to China, only to find a new country in harsh civil war. KMT versus Communists in a ruthless struggle that left no room for nuances, genuine disagreements and the like. Anyone who was not keeping straight to the rules of your camp was suspected. Taiwan fell under KMT control, so naturally all Taiwanese were suspected; especially Taiwanese intelligentsia.
It would take a very long period of time to emerge a unique society in Taiwan, a unique nation. Now Taiwan is a vibrant democratic society: it emerged through lots of innocent blood; the massacre from February 28, 1947 made tens of thousands of victims, and it was followed by other brutal events, along the late forties and the fifties, and even later: the whole period is known as the White Terror; the martial law would remain in effect till 1987!
As I said, I haven't had the chance to watch the movie of Hou. It seems, from what I have read about, that Hou tried to understand the whole, that he avoided simplistic judgement: there are no bad guys and good guys in his movie, only two camps in a tragic conflict, that would eventually end in a unique nation. Today's Taiwanese inherit both the victims and the perpetrators, and it is good to fully understand both sides.
Naturally the 228 Massacre still raise passions in the Taiwanese society, so the movie raised many critics there (and I am making here a parallel with another great movie, made this time in Mainland China, Huozhe - To Live, of Zhang Y-Mou).
But I think in both movies the historical approach was right: your own past should be understood as a whole.
Anyway, it's sad I would not have the opportunity to watch A City of Sadness.


And however, here it is: