Friday, December 02, 2016

13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (Book Review #71 of 2016)



13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright

I suppose the title is a play on 13 Day in October about the Cuban Missile Crisis; there is nothing that dramatic in this book. The strength of the book is that the author delves into biographical details of every character at Camp David in those days, even giving a history on how Camp David itself was saved from Carter's budget axe after inauguration. All of the main characters have written autobiographies and several other books, so it's nice to have a more miniaturized form by an author who has presumably read them himself and uses them to help understand each party's motives and emotions in the peace conference. I listened to the Washington Post's Presidential podcast episode after this book and found much of the same information covered.

September, 1978 was sort of the peak of the Carter Administration, or the beginning of the end. The Peace Treaty, when signed in March the following year, marked the beginning of the end of the presidencies of President Sadat and Carter and PM Menachem Begin's government in Israel. With a religious commitment to peace, Carter had been inexperienced with Arab policy until his time as a governor eyeing a run for President. He visited Israel in 1973 and noted the strong Jewish voting bloc and lobby, which tended to vote Democratic. Egypt's Anwar Sadat was religious as well. Sadat was the grandson of a slave whereas one of Carter's constituencies in Georgia were the descendents of slaves. Wright discusses how Carter walked the racial tightrope as a politician, winning over African Americans in private meetings and later implementing policies that he would not have advocated publicly for fear of losing the white vote. His campaign played the "race card" as needed, a blemish in hindsight but pragmatism at the time. But he had been criticized as a "nigger lover" all of his life and was deeply aware of black/white differences from an early age. Wright gives a history of Carter as governor of Georgia, and the difficulty of running as progressive conservative. Carter is an odd president in many ways and apparently a micromanager who often had the most facts in the room and could be rather difficult to work for.

Sadat was an interesting character who came to power after the death of Abdel Nasser in 1970 and had worked quickly to show himself to be a bold leader. Sadat grew up admiring and studying Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Adolph Hitler, who he saw as reformers, and particularly liked Hitler's suspicion of Jews. His military's bold 1973 crossing of the Suez had created great Israeli insecurity, even if it ended up being a tactical defeat for Egypt. Former General and later Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan worked secretly with Sadat's representatives when Sadat made rumblings about peace. Sadat made the unthinkable move of going to Israel, including the temple mount in Jerusalem on Eid al-Adha; one of his bodyguards died of a heart attack. Sadat gave an unprecedented speech at the Knesset in which he demanded Israel withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories of 1967 as a condition for peace, a non-starter in the Knesset. Begin and Sadat both were combating economic stagnation and inflation at home when they arrived at Camp David for the accords.

Menachem Begin defended the Israeli occupation after the Six Day War and worked to dispel the "myth" that there were Palestinians in the land before Israel, reaching back to ancient roots that Jimmy Carter would have been plenty biblically familiar with. Begin spent time with Carter in Washington, but Carter held out hope of negotiating some kind of deal. If you believe that you are God's chosen people, then you had the right to strengthen the rights of others. Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat's PLO did their best to distract and disrupt any negotiations via terrorist attacks. Wright writes that Begin had similarly pioneered terrorist tactics against the British Mandate in Palestine in order to get the UK to relent and allow more Jews to migrate from Europe to save them from the holocaust. Ironically, Osama bin Laden later read Begin's book to learn how to make a movement from terrorist to statesman.

The author chronicles each day's events with the tangents into histories and personalities of all the participants. Future UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was in Egypt's delegation. Rosalyn Carter gets her own mini biography. Wright delves deep into the frustrations, the shouting matches, the lists of points to resolve, and the sticking points that almost derailed the negotiations. The participants tried to choreograph and sometimes walk on eggshells to keep things going. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski loses to Menachem Begin at chess on purpose at one point in a psychological tactic.

Sometimes there is too much information, but to understand the ramifications of the peace accords you need a lot of historical context. Begin hearkened back to the Old Testament and saw the founding of Israel as a "new Exodus." They revisit all the wars and battles fought, with particular focus on independence and atrocities in 1940 and the consequences of 1973. Wright rejects any historical timeline of Genesis-Exodus that would put the book of Joshua in any actual reality, writing that Jericho and Ai had already been destroyed. Wright writes this as incontrovertible fact, when the reality is anthropologists and archaeologists still debate who the Sea People were, when and whether an Exodus occurred, and what explains the collapse of civilizations around the time of the 12th century (see Eric Cline's book 1174 BC for just one example). Begin also understands American history, citing Gettysburg and other events. In a roundabout way, Nixon and Kissinger's policy of "detente" made the Camp David Accords possible, writes Wright.

The settlements were particularly the sticking point. Carter wanted an official Israeli commitment to the suspension of settlements on the West Bank and elsewhere. Moshe Dayan started to undermine the negotiations over disagreements with Begin about the Palestinian settlements and would later resign his position after the actual treaty was signed. General Ariel Sharon, a war hawk signed off on settlement evacuation. Carter thought he had agreement on the suspension of Israel's building of settlements but Begin never produced the letter. On Day 13, there was a failure over the state of Jerusalem, which the US still does not officially recognize as the capital of Israel. (These are the days before personal computers, every jot or tittle in wording has to have new drafts typed up, giving a new appreciation for the President's staff.) Carter personally draws up redrafts and cajoles and does all he can, shuttling back and forth. Just when things look like they won't happen, they do. They agree upon "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East" and "A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel." Among the key points of agreement to present to the world would be that there would be a five-year transition plan to sovereignty and autonomy for the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. (The stipulations of this agreement were rejected by the UN). Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai and Egypt would require permission to place troops there in the future, like a neutral zone of free passage. Egypt would officially recognize Israel, and the US would give them both money. Further, the peace treaty would have to be approved by Egypt's parliament and the Jewish Knesset to be binding--nothing they would shake hands on here would truly matter.

After smiles and handshakes, things go south when Begin and Sadat return home. Begin seemingly begins to undermine the deal and Carter has to travel to the Middle East himself to iron it out, his Presidency in the balance. He succeeds, the treaty is officially signed, and peace is had, but at great price. Egypt is suspended from the Arab League as most conservatives, and the PLO, reject the deal and the UN refuses to acknowledge or enforce key aspects of the agreement. In 1981, Sadat leads a viscous crackdown and mass arrests of many parties on intelligence of a coup plot by radicals. In October, he is assassinated in a celebration of the 1973 war by radical conservative members of the army. Menachem Begin's Likud party faces a setback in Parliament and Begin eventually withdraws from public life and is a recluse that barely agrees to speak to President Carter on the phone years later. Gaza and the West Bank would not have the five years to autonomy they would hope for, but Egypt and Israel would have a decent relationship of trade and peace. Both have made billions in aid money and hardware from the United States. Carter cemented his legacy as a peacemaker, but would lose the 1980 election partly over his inability to do anything about the Iranian hostage crisis. (A memoir I read recently by the Ambassador to Turkey in 1980-1981 suggested Carter's various quirks toward foreign policy (particularly budget cuts) were not very popular. I've not read any books suggesting that the US military was sorry to see Carter leave, either. But he seems to be a man of consistent principle.)

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Other books I have reviewed on Israel's founding and modern history:
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (4 stars)
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (4 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (5 stars)
I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish (4 stars)
Six Days of War by Michael Oren (4 stars)
13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (4 stars)
Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (2.5 stars)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (Book Review #70 of 2016)



Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Along with this book, in the last couple years I have reviewed this book along with others on Israel's origins and history (see list as the bottom). This book fails to live up to its promise on the book's cover of being "the first popular account of this key era" of Zionist migration during the late Ottoman empire. A survey of books written in the late 19th and early 20th century on Gutenberg.org uncovers some looking specifically at the Ottoman empire's weakening and the potential for Zionism (from a Dispensationalist Christian viewpoint). The US minister (before there was an Ambassador) to Turkey, Samuel S. Cox, wrote a memoir in 1887 that also speaks of the growing population of Jews in Palestine, particularly Jerusalem, and what it may mean for an eventual Jewish state. There were plenty of times in the early 1800s when the Ottomans fought battles or sent armies to put own uprisings in the greater Levant. The Crimean War was, in part, a question of how nationalities in Palestine were being treated. So, there is no shortage of sources from which to make this "discovery" of zionism before 1920. Ari Shavit's My Promised Land goes back to 1897 and the landing in Jaffa of his ancestors, Zionists from Europe following others who had come before. He examines their influences pretty well. Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia the work of Aaron Aarohnson, who migrated to Palestine in the 1880s and worked for the cause of Zionism through WWI. While Shavit's and Anderson's works were written after Marcus', they draw on earlier works about the era prior to 1913. Marcus' book was the basis for a one-hour PBS documentary and I would recommend that over the book, which is short enough that it could really just have been a long-form article in The New Yorker or someplace.

The author views a film shot by Noah Sokolovsky as a sort of documentary in 1913 and recently discovered and restored; that gives some of the oldest footage of Jerusalem and Palestine known to exist. (You can watch it on YouTube now.) This leads the author to investigate the origins of the film, to be presented to the 11th Vienna Zionist Congress. If there have already been several Congresses convened and now someone is making a propoganda video urging further settlement, there must have already been a growing movement. This is the supposed "discovery" of the book.

The first Vienna congress was founded by Theodr Herzl in 1898, building on the work of previous zionists. By 1913, there were many Jews living along side a much larger Arab population, but with plenty of other ethnicities such as Armenians, Greeks, Druze, and various other sects. In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem to inaugurate a Luthern church. The Kaiser supposedly privately voiced his support for a Jewish protectorate but later changed his mind. As the population grew, so did a sense of a growing importance about the area. It was integrated and largely peaceful under Ottoman rule. In 1908, the Young Turks succeeded in re-establishing democratic reforms in the Empire, which meant Palestine would have official represenation in Istanbul. There was a growing sense in the early 20th century of national determinism, a flame later fanned by Western influences like President Woodrow Wilson. With more freedoms came further demands for greater media as newspapers began to spring up. (While 1908 and previous reforms had given freedoms to the hinterlands, many decrees from Istanbul were dead letters outside of Istanbul, something the author might downplay in this book.) By 1913, Hebrew was beginning to be important for a unified Jewish identity. One sore point was when a British radio station began translating into Hebrew the word "Israel" to describe the territory.

Marcus details the lives and interactions of a few specific characters in the book including a Russian-born Jew who founded the Rehovot colony in 1890 and a Muslim leader who is increasingly concerned about Jewish activities. While Jewish nationals and Arab nationals may have been united in their desire for independence from Ottoman control, there were also many who did not seek that, or perhaps sought only that the other party would not gain the upper hand. By 1914, there were something like 80,000 Jews living in 30 different colonies in Palestine, pioneering and making money off the land. If private property rights to the land would be held, then you were not far from having a state. As one side has property, it protects that side and hence Jews begin arming themselves. The Ottomans were generally not strong enough to balance all the influences and local corruption allowed skirting of the law. By 1916 and British invasion of the continent, the Arab Revolt began and the Jewish Question would demand an answer.

I give this book 2.5 stars out of five. I don't believe Marcus "rewrites" anything as is said in the book's promo. Plenty of things were written at the time. It is short, and somewhat interesting. I recommend following it with Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia as he takes a similar approach to detailing the lives of a few characters as they cross in Palestine during WWI.
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Other books I have reviewed on Israel's founding and modern history:
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (4 stars)
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (4 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (5 stars)
I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish (4 stars)
Six Days of War by Michael Oren (4 stars)
13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (4 stars)
Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (2.5 stars)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni (Book Review #69 of 2016)



The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni

(This is one of several books I reviewed in 2016 related to the rise of ISIS and the war in Syria. See full list below.)

This is a 5-star intimate portrait of how war affects people, as well as a good chronicle of how the Syrian uprising unfolded and quickly spun out of control. I recommend it along with Reese Erlich's Inside Syria for a portrait of the early days of the uprising in 2011-2012. Giovanni has worked as both a journalist and for the UNHCR. Her career interest is the hardship of the hardship of women in war, but this book tells the tales of Syrian men and boys as well. This is not an easy book to read, of all the books on the war I've seen, this is the most vivid in the recounting the testimonies of survivors and what the author witnessed herself. I am friends with a few Syrian refugees from Homs, and her description of what (almost slowly) unfolded in Homs fits with what they have said. I retell some of the horrors below, reader beware, because the world needs to know. She is not a disinterested actor and records her own feelings as she tries to do unbiased reporting.

The author begins in Belgrade, years after the Balkans War, the latest of war-torn countries she has lived in. She is made sick by all the rape and war crime survivors who go about their lives while their perpetrators, sometimes now their neighbors, walk free, all living together in the same community--there is no real justice, everyone just wants to move on. The author has traveled all over the world and seen many wars, they all begin roughly the same. When the Arab Spring began and she heard of brutality against women she thought "we are allowing it to happen all over again," and went to Syria to report.

Giovanni has a great appreciation for Syrian history and culture, even the subtleties of the Syrian Arabic dialect. She gets written permission from Damascus to venture about, she has surprisingly few minders. She surveys a Syria that is only "Syria" by the post-WWI French Mandate and has plenty of factions. While they may have sung patriotic songs about "Syria is one" in school, regions of the area "feel" different depending on whether they are Alawite, Christian, Sunni, etc. But there are pro-Assad Sunni as well as anti-Assad Alawites; the war gets more sectarian as it goes. It seems that early on, 2011, Hezbollah or other Farsi-speaking armed groups were seen confronting protesters. Things get more sectarian as the violence continues. The Saudis are quick to put in arms, people start to get radicalized. The author never mentions that Assad released hundreds of anti-regime jihadis from jail intentionally, writing that even in 2011, before ISIS, people suspected and feared the Salafists.

The book is filled with examples and anecdotes from families the author comes across. As the war begins in 2011, Giovanni finds a Damascus in denial. People downtown are partying to the sound of shelling. Asma al-Assad is the elegant Western face that the Syrian government is keen to show the world, she was interviewed in Vogue and had friends in Western fashion and arts circles. Her popularity is part of the larger facade. Few are willing to acknowledge a war is beginning, much less that the Assad regime may be "putting down" its own people-- unless you're a member of the opposition. Giovanni interviews the fearless ones that are publicly opposed as well as the secret ones who run websites or write blogs. Some disappear publicly, some are taken from their offices. Everywhere there is the feared "Mukhabarat," Syrian intelligence forces. di Giovanni's connections are largely Western-oriented, initially it is actors, artists, and others with opportunities abroad. The denial is palpable until 2012, when things get bad enough that people begin to question what they're told-- namely that it's all foreigners doing the fighting against Assad. A large car bombing in Damascus in 2012 and the assassination of several in Assad's inner circle have people questioning, and the author meets some who want to travel to other provinces to find out what is going on. A mortician quietly tells her that he's seeing 105 dead Syrian soldiers a week, a number increasingly hard to hide; "No one likes to count the dead."

The first detailed story Giovanni tells is that of Nada, a female activist who was given up by a fellow activist while he was being tortured. She likewise is beaten mercilessly. Rape is listed as the primary reason that refugees have fled Syria, and Giovanni recounts several of the tales from survivors; males are also raped in the jails. Many of the acts were committed in prisons and in homes that were being raided by the Mukhabarat, although there are stories on both sides. With them come PTSD and large numbers of suicides. One estimate at the time put 36,000 held by the regime with another 12,000 detained by ISIS.

Giovanni details the war from a few cities: Ma'loula in the South, Homs in the North, and Aleppo. When she visits some famous sites she takes pictures knowing that these sites may never been seen again.

Ma'loula was the home of ancient Assyrian-speaking Christians. It was first attacked by the government, then retaken by Jahbat al-Nusra rebels with atrocities committed on both sides. In March 2012, the author makes her first trip to Homs where the battles began in 2011 and lasted until the opposition withdrew in 2014. She interviews people from the Baba Amr neighborhood, including boys who were tortured while their fathers were killed. There is one particularly gruesome story about a boy tortured by medical professionals, they throw him in a hospital morgue to sleep on top of corpses and the dying, among whom is his dead brother. He's rescued by a mortician who declares him dead and a nurse working with the FSA. She returns to Homs in October 2012, this time as a government-appointed embed with the Syrian army-- she is told by a press officer to report the "truth" about the foreigners fighting against Syria. She witnesses the battle from the Syrian side and the back-and-forth nature of urban warfare.

She retells what is known about the Darayya massacre in August, 2012. There were stories of FSA hostage-taking and prisoner swaps. There was a massacre of Syrian soldiers, but also stories of Farsi-speaking fighters committing atrocities. Who actually knows?

The author visits Aleppo and witnesses the siege, an outraged population, and barrel bombs. In 2006, Aleppo was an award-winning tourism spot that was having a renaissance as foreigners looked to buy property there, six years later it was hell. She interviews a FSA-supported bread maker, one of the last lifelines of food in the city. She witnesses a near-riot after the UN Security Council vote on Syria is blocked by Russia and China (2012). A man angrily berates her with news that the UN had promised that hospitals wouldn't be bombed, and yet they are. The author watched a young baby die in the hospital from an ordinary infection and it sticks with her because she is a mother herself; that has changed her view of war. She includes here own thoughts in prose "War is..."

Steve Sotloff, the journalist later beheaded by ISIS, was a long-time friend of di Giovanni's who had expressed interest in helping her own work interviewing refugees. She had also met Kayla Mueller before her capture. Later, di Giovanni would work recording the stories of women in UN refugee camps outside Syria. This book is not for the squeamish. She's still writing and editing for Newsweek, check out her website.

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Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016, in the chronological order I recommend reading them:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (3 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

I also highly recommend Reese Erlich's 2014 book Inside Syria for other eyewitness accounts of the Syrian uprising (4 stars).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (Book Review #68 of 2016)



The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising by Patrick Cockburn

Mr. Cockburn has worked as a journalist on the ground in the Middle East for years and seen the mess up close, he is also familiar with the Lebanese civil war that he often compares Syria to in the book. He advocates the "bang bang journalism" that gives readers an up-front picture and criticizes colleagues (without names) whose newspapers have them cover war from, say, Istanbul. But the reality is that this book is short and other larger books give a wider view, and you can get most of what Cockburn has written from the various articles of Cockburns in The Independent and other authors in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and others. It is limited in the time period prior to 2013. Cockburn's own analysis only differs from the mainstream at points, and subtly, and not always correctly. Joby Warrick's book gives a more complete backstory of Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq that was the forerunner to ISIS that Cockburn summarizes without as much detail. Other works like Stern & Berger's ISIS and Henin's Jihad Academy delve into the eschatology, operations, and psychology of ISIS better, and several other books do a better job on Syria as a whole (see list below.)

One criticism I have of the book is that the author ignores all of the hawkish advice that President Obama did NOT follow on Syria; Cockburn makes it sound like Obama went with the military/CIA/Saudi recommendations all along. He writes that Obama asked Congress for money to arm rebels in 2014 without recognizing that he went through all of 2012 and most of 2013 without arming rebels against the advice of Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus and others. Obama has famously given interviews being critical of the idea that "a bunch of farmers and school teachers" could take up arms against Assad and win. Cockburn praises the more hawkish Sec. Clinton's criticism of the Saudis' funding of Wahabbism, which makes his criticism of Obama seem a bit uneven.

Further, there is a blurring of all the Sunni jihadi groups into one. Cockburn writes that "Al Qaeda is an idea, not an organization." That would seem to make all the books and intelligence on the details of that organization's structure seem fanciful. If he'd said "The Caliphate is an idea, not an organization" that would be correct as he is basically saying their Sunni-based theology and eschatology are the same. But their organizations are different enough that they are literally killing one another. Cockburn notes a video threatening Jordan in which ISIS claimed they were their descendents of Zarqawi and writes about how in 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke from the Jahbat al-Nusra group he helped founded, but he does not mention the reasons. Nor does he mention the history of Zarqawi's issues with Al Qaeda prior to 2003. (Cockburn does not provide much detail about Baghdadi himself, maybe strange given the title of the book, but I think he simply leaves it to other authors to cover.)

Cockburn recounts the failures of Nuri al-Maliki as PM in Iraq, which could only have been made complete by the simultaneous Sunni uprising in Syria that led men to arms and created furhter Sunni insecurity. He surmises that Iraq could soon descend into a civil war similar to that of Syria that could likewise rage on for years. The end of sectarian hostilities in 2006 was only temporary; hostilities have picked up where they've left off (and now Iran is playing a more obvious role). Cockburn surmises that drawing a map with sectarian boundaries could lead to more bloodshed similar to what was seen in India. (One wonders if the Balkans might be a better, more eventually peaceful outcome.) In reality, there was never a dividing line between radical jihadis and "moderate" rebels (although Cockburn later calls some elements of the FSA "secular"). Weapons going to Syrian rebels were always going to end up in ISIS' hands either by force or because ISIS had a lot of money-- even before Mosul and Northern Iraq fell, Cockburn writes that ISIS was collecting taxes in the millions, even in Northern Baghdad (is this substantiated?).

The author writes that it does little good to combat the symptoms of terrorism without attacking its cause--massive funding of Wahabbism by the Saudis. He notes the 9/11 report, reports from the EU and elsewhere that criticize Wahabbist funding of activities. Saudi primary school textbooks demonize Shiia, Jews, Christians, and others. He writes that Sunni Wahhabism crowds out other sects mainly because non-Sunni groups don't have access to Saudi funding to build mosques, centers, and other things Saudis are willing to fund worldwide. The Saudis bulldozed Shiia shrines in Bahrain. The 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, just as the Taliban operate freely in Pakistan and attack coalition troops in Afghanistan and we reward both countries with more weapons and aid. We do nothing to those countries precisely because they buy our weapons and other goods. Cockburn writes of how the Saudis (and other Gulf states) were quick to arm rebel groups. The Gulf States perhaps underestimated how quickly Assad would fall, that would seem to have been what global intelligence estimates indicated since Obama publicly stated his belief in such. He notes that two of the Saudi ministers meeting with Syrian rebels in Ankara in 2013 have lost their jobs, a rare event in the Kingdom suggestive of recognition of failure.

Another problem with the book is that perhaps Cockburn's distaste of Gulf actors tints his vision a bit too much. He is skeptical that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons and does not mention evidence to the contrary. He doesn't report much on events from 2011-2012, although he does note that Syria has always had deep sectarian divisions that the Syrian regime has tried to gloss over. Janine di Giovanni was on the ground interviewing rape and torture victims but Cockburn does not indicate much awareness of this period. It seems from the timeline of all these books that Assad was the first to call on Hezbollah and Iranian-backed troops for help before the Gulf states decided to counter by arming rebels. But Cockburn is correct with his reminder that truth is the first casualty of war. One reason ISIS was so effective is that their media showed a much more real portrayal of events than Iraqi or Syrian state television did, and the whole internet noticed.

The greatest value of this book is the author's reminder that the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years and was a similar cast of characters with no good choices. There were 600 ceasefires that were ineffective or even laughed at, but they saved a lot of lives. He suggests that local ceasefires among the various factions will do a lot to save lives, but what ended the Lebanese civil war, ironically, was when the West finally allowed Syria to assert its control and its army into the country. People finally just got tired of fighting, writes Cockburn. Partitioning Iraq and Syria now would difficult and bloody.  Frustratingly to the reader, the author offers no suggestions for ending the conflict in Syria or even a next step. 3 stars out of 5.

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Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (3 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni (review forthcoming)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux with Ralph Pezzullo (Book Review #67 of 2016)



Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda
(This book was one of several I reviewed in 2016 related to the US war on terror. See list below.)

This book had a lot to do with why I couldn't vote for Evan McMullin, even as a protest vote, in the 2016 election. I recommend reading it with Ali Soufan's Black Banners, which details the FBI's run-in with the CIA and their illegal, ineffective methods at interrogation and complicitness in terrorist activities by way of not sharing information the FBI could have used to prevent attacks. Laux's account of the CIA backs up Soufan's account for me. I have not yet read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Michael Morell's memoirs, and others, but I feel like I have seen and heard enough. Like Soufan's book and Mohamedou Slahi's Guantanamo Diary, much of this book is redacted by the CIA. Laux seems trying to blow the whistle on CIA incompetence but still does enough to glorify the CIA lifestyle that I'm certain the book will be a movie. What appears to be a highly-valuable field agent almost dies of an alcoholism-induced heart attack at age 29 from the stress of his work.

CIA officers are liars and killers trained and rewarded by your tax dollars and with little public oversight or accountability. They are not "bad" people, indeed recruits are generally disqualified if they drink or have smoked marijuana-- finding recruits that pass with such a clean record has become difficult in recent years. Hence, agents are made up of largely conservative people, it's easy to understand why a Mormon like McMullin would be an ideal fit. You just have to chuck your identity and morals at the door-- Country First. Surprisingly, most of the CIA is risk-averse, they are career-minded agents that are looking forward to retirement and pension just like any government worker. Hence, as Laux describes it, this culture contributes indirectly to one of the most inept operations in US government history--Afghanistan. (Maybe if it wasn't for all the other CIA follies such as Vietnam and not forseeing the fall of the Shah in Iran, etc.)

Laux gets an offer out of a college job fair and away he goes. Much of Laux's recruitment and CIA orientation is redacted, but he spends four months "on the farm" in Virginia doing interrogation training.  He comes across as the arrogant and immature type described by FBI agent Ali Soufan who decried CIA interrogators. He basically demands an action/hardship assignment and gets it. Laux has multiple romantic relationships in this book, all of which he has to keep his job as CIA officer secret. He's spent the last 10 months studying Pashto and can't explain that other than being a "contractor." In most cases, they're wise, but they want to be let in on a life he can't share. So, he becomes a good liar. Combine that isolation with the stress of keeping up with multiple, detailed, identities and passports and living in a hostile environment every day and you have the inevitable psychological self-destruction that occurs by the end of the book. Laux at least has the good sense to see a psychologist, who can't completely help him because Laux can't say exactly what he does. But the rapid spiral into very deep alcoholism is saved only by a angel-woman who does not know him but takes pity on him and saves his life. (Laux is probably a fascinatingly mysterious and physically strong specimen that attracts women, I imagine college students reading this and thinking "Jason Bourne-like life killing 'bad guys' while having romantic and dangerous rendezvous in Paris and drowning all your sorrows by hard-partying with alcohol sounds like an ideal life, sign me up!" After all, he's made the newspaper headlines in this book being courted like a Hollywood star.)

The author gets an assignment in Afghanistan in 2010 shortly after a bomber the CIA had thought was an Al Qaeda informant blew up a base and killed nine CIA officers. He's left at a remote Southern base (Wahid) with little info and from which the US military rarely ventures out. Alas, his Pashto training was for a Northern dialect and it takes him a while to get up to speed (but he does get to operate some in the North, which helps). "We haven't been in Afghanistan for ten years, but one year ten times," Laux writes of the one-year tours of duty that destroy any hope of policy continuation. Everyone wants to do their year as safely as possible, then punch out to their desk job in DC. Some CIA agents are simply learning names of wanted Taliban agents from locals who were learning names from US military radio broadcasts, and then selling them to the CIA agents for cash, who would then include the names in their reports back to Langley. Amazing incompetence. If an operation you helped design went bad, your "head rolled," so there was little risk in not actually doing anything.

Laux wanted to go after the Taliban itself, which were more dangerous, but the US had declared war on Al Qaeda so they were the target. As Richard Holbrooke would say about the war, "We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country." Laux recruits a Pashto driver to spy on Taliban activity and begins developing a network of informants, giving the military valuable intel on roadside bombs. He writes of pedophile warlords and other such things that have made the news in this quagmire. However, his own agency undermines him; one of his high-valued contacts is treated badly in Kabul by incompetent CIA officers and an opportunity is lost. The highest-value target that Laux identifies, codenamed Wolverine, is unmasked in a scene that is redacted-- Wolverine is funded by _______ and the government will not believe reports that connect him to _________, and he is eventually released. The reader is left to guess who the ____ is. Possibly Pakistan's ISI, possibly the Saudis, or someone else? The supply chain through Pakistan was frought with problems. At one point, 600 trucks carrying weapons and supplies from Pakistan and Afghanistan were either hijacked or stolen from and the government did nothing.

There are trips back to DC and rendezvous with one of his girlfriends in Paris, in which he's tailed by some counterintelligence. Relationships are all built around lies and emails are obviously difficult. At one point, he has emergency surgery that he refuses to let slow him down. He has so many identities in his head that his life is a maze of confusion and he basically tries to destroy himself. A woman named Emma, who was keeping bar during one of his benders, sees how hard he's trying to kill himself and vows to help him.

Laux ends his career working on Syria, he was on a team meeting with Syrian opposition in an undisclosed country (he needs a translator, suggesting to me this really happened). After Sec. of State Clinton visits Turkey and claims the US is considering a no-fly zone, the US lost all credibility. Barack Obama's "red line" was crossed and all hope was lost; the Syrians refuse to meet with him or the CIA any longer. He writes that the Free Syrian Army has lost all faith in the US. Supposedly, a plan Laux had worked on was eventually presented to Obama. In the book, his policy advice on Syria is to either get all the way out or get all the way in, don't muddle around and stick our fingers in the dike like we have been doing making false promises. Getting all the way in would mean setting up a multi-national decades-long occupation that can keep peace and rebuild in Syria and Iraq, something no one has the stomach or desire to do-- so the US should stay out, as hard as that may be for Syrians and others.

Much of this book is redacted, if you've read other CIA-redacted works then this won't surprise you. But some of the redactions are more tantalizing than I've seen in other works, which actually make me question their authenticity or purpose--mystery makes things more attractive. I give this book 3.5 stars. It contributes a good chapter to the failed campaign of Afghanistan and takes a shine of the CIA's work as an opaque agency, even if it seems to make the work the agents do sound "cool" to a generation raised on video games. But take Laux's testimony to heart, the demons of his work almost robbed him of life at age 29, they certainly ended his career.
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Other related books reviewed in 2016:
Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (3.5 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)
Fault Lines - ...Understanding America's Role in the...Middle East - Don Liebich (2.5 stars)

Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

Also useful for perspective on Afghanistan/Pakistan:
Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill (Book Review #66 of 2016)



A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill

(I reviewed this book with several others on Americans living in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East. See list below.)

If you want to know what it's like to be a hostage in a hostile land, or the wife of a hostage trying to maintain a normal life while also working on whatever channels are available to free your husband, this is your book. If you enjoyed the season of Serial that looked at the captivity of Bo Bergdahl, you might like this book better. This book might be The Taliban Shuffle if a kidnapping had happened.

Rohde was already an accomplished journalist working with the Christian Science Monitor at the time he was kidnapped in 2008 and held for seven months. A decade before, he had been kidnapped by Serbians while reporting on the Balkans war; his reporting gave the world evidence of Milosevic's war crimes. Richard Holbrooke had negotiated his release and once Holbrooke learns he's going to Afghanistan, he almost jokingly cautions him on getting captured a second time. Rohde had been in New York on 9/11, had already made a career reporting on the harsh treatment of US prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo-- making him an ironic kidnapping target. Rohde admits that his ambition got the best of him, he reached out for one great story, one risky interview that would have really made the book he was working on Afghanistan valuable. He had just gotten married and his wife deserves great credit for helping his situation. The proceeds of this book go to Kiva.org and another non-profit, meaning the author did not personally benefit from his (and his employees') captivity, which I greatly respect.

Rohde gives a depressing account of the war in Afghanistan, of the lack of coordination and aid. At some point, President Bush favored a "Marshall Plan" for the country, but this was shot down by Donald Rumsfeld who publicly said the US did not have the resources to engage in nation-building. So, the US would muddle through, particularly after the Iraq invasion began and world attention was diverted elsewhere. USAID had few members (and according to Kim Barker's book there was no central agency coordinating military and civilian efforts). Rohde decries the amount of aid going to Afghanistan as inadequate from 2001-2005. But judging from World Bank statistics over that period, Afghanistan received $2.5 billion in aid in 2005, an ever-increasing amount. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/DT.ODA.ALLD.CD?end=2005&name_desc=false&start=2001 Other countries, like the Congo, received similar amounts and perhaps that works to Rohde's point-- Afghanistan was a bigger mission than was funded (Iraq, by comparison, received over $22 billion in foreign aid in 2005). Rohde writes that much of the aid was lost to corruption and to the Taliban-- that's sad but true in just about every war-torn country.

Rohde is kidnapped with his translator Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah "Asad" Mangal, mostly likely by the Haqqani network. Like Bergdahl's kidnapping, there is a hierarchy the kidnappers are subject to, and whom they want to impress. Pashtun Wali is what keeps the men alive, they are shown hospitality. (See Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for a similar tale, as well as the similarity of a husband-wife team telling the story from different sides.) Unlike Bergdahl, they were fed well and had electricity, warm water, fruit, etc. The Taliban wanted a prisoner swap, and then millions of dollars.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the story is that multiple news agencies worked together to keep the kidnapping a secret. Wikipedia even agreed to combat efforts to put the news on their pages; the less public the kidnapping, the lower the ransom and the less incentive for others to be kidnapped. Initially, the Taliban wanted to keep it out of the media because they did not want elders to know. The Red Cross does not get involved in negotiations, and Kristen has to work a network of sources while keeping her day job. The US government officially does not negotiate with terrorists but off-the-record encourages families to negotiate. Mulvihill has a love-hate relationship with the newspapers' lawyers, government experts, and others that are helping. She decides to hire a private firm to do the negotiation. They hire a team of ex-military contractors who are supposedly doing scouting on the ground. It's never clear whether the intelligence they are gathering is accurate or whether the family is just being played/extorted by these guys. (The company was later investigated for shady dealings with the military.) Kristen has to keep her hopes up but realistic. Their families offer a great deal of moral support. The Taliban are cheap enough to make a collect phone call in November, 2008. They believe Kristen's family is made of money, like millions of dollars are no big deal for Amerians. Another time, David calls home and leaves a message on the answering machine. There are negotiations and demands. At one point, Mulvihill meets the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and gets a strong word of support.

Rohde ponders a hunger strike as well as fakes a suicide attempt, putting pressure on his guards. A nearby drone strike shows the company is in grave danger and enrages his guards. One night in Pakistan, he and Tahir make their escape, leaving their house ostensibly to use the bathroom and lowering themselves out a window with a rope. David feels bad that they did not inform their driver, Asad, but he also does not know if Asad or anyone is trustworthy. Once they arrive on a Pakistani base, things get tense again as they want the Americans contacted before the ISI can find out-- as they do not trust the ISI since they are so complicitly working with the Taliban. The Taliban guards apparently beat Asad after finding him alone, but he later is able to escape as well. Fears of the ISI are not unfounded, but the men are safely carried away and Rohde is reunited with his family.

It's a good story and the reader is glad that it only lasted months and had a happy ending. While deplorable, the Taliban were much more humane to their guests than, say, ISIS would be. From a 2016 vantage point, there does not appear to be much long-term hope from the international community regarding the country-- we never fixed the problems Rohde identified. Rohde advocates somehow empowering Pashtu moderates in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help counter the extremism of the Taliban. In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Some of the political commentating was perhaps a bit much, but Rohde is as credible a source about what happens there as one can find.
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Other books by Americans abroad, in the general region, reviewed in 2016:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (4 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)

Other books on US intervention in Afghanistan/Pakistan related to the review above:
Lone Survivor - Marcus Luttrell
Descent Into Chaos - Ahmed Rashid

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Taliban Shuffle aka Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker (Book Review #65 of 2016)


The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

I found out about this book just as the movie was coming out in 2016, I listened to an interview on WBEZ World View's podcast in early 2016 where she described some of the events in the book (published 2011) and what it is like to try and readjust to life in the States after her journey. I am glad to have found the book but doubt I will see the movie.

The author worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004-2009. Much of the book is about the relationships and their inevitable awkwardness, particularly the ones one builds as an expat who lives in a foreign culture while tied to their home culture. Being an "unaccompanied woman" in Afghanistan and Pakistan is hazardous duty; the same qualities that allowed her flexibility to get the difficult assignments--single, childless--mean she will endlessly be asked about her marital status. There's also a loneliness that comes from covering traumatic events in those cultures, like terrorist attacks, that most back home could never understand. She is likely PTSD, witnessed a lifetime of bad things in her five years, and like many expats finds comfort in the expat community where smuggling in alcohol and "hooking up" with each other is how one copes. Some over there are adrenaline junkies, struggle with depression, have multiple identities, etc.

Barker worked Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune for several years. She has to deal with the shrinking budget of newspapers as they wither from internet competition as well as compete for news-worthiness in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. "There are no 'Green Zones' in Kabul," there is no hiding from the risk or culture. Barker writes of the checkpoints in Afghanistan where women guards basically get to molest other women. Probably the greatest scandal from the book is that now-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif tried to become her "friend" (wink) after months of establishing a more formal relationship with her, including offering her a job, helping her get interviews, trying to arrange romantic relationships for her with others, buying her gifts, etc. Barker turns him down. It's an example of the problem of relying on various nationals' hospitality and not knowing whether it's hospitality or with some sort of strings attached. In some cases, Barker knows she's being used or what the motive is, but she needs the story and the connections that it will open for her.

Another official who Barker had an awkward relationship with was Abdul Sabet, who Hamid Karzai had appointed Attorney General. Sabet was supposedly rooting out corruption but was corrupt himself. He made enemies on all sides. Barker is not sure what to think about him, but at one point he apparently begins stalking her.

Barker relies on her interpreter, Farouq, for much of the book; apparently they are still friends. He gets her into places and helps her out; but relationships with nationals you pay to help you can be awkward for both sides. If she has to cut his pay, for example, the friendship gets threatened.

Barker is able to have hidden and not-so-hidden romantic relationships with Westerners; one of whom goes nuts. Her travels and their travels make relationships difficult. Like several books on my 2016 list, relationships dealing with mysteries and secrecy generally are frought with tension and don't end well. One could see how scenes where Barker gets to fire guns while out in the wilderness with warlords would make for a good movie.

But the book is also a unique window into how badly the war in Afghanistan was going, how incompetent and dangerous the work really was, and how low morale was among troops. Eight years into the war, there was no single agency coordinating the military and civilian efforts. May, 2006 saw the beginning of a downward spiral in the country, roughly the same time as the insurgency was at its peak in Iraq as well. Provincial elders were losing ground to the Taliban and frustrated with the Americans. Everyone knows that Pakistan's ISI is complicit with the Taliban, but this does not change anything. Barker witnesses the poorly-named Operation Mountain Thrust in the summer of 2006, trying to oust Taliban from the south of Afghanistan. The US have an outpost that is turned over to the Brits, abandoned, and then the Taliban move in and kill all the local chieftans who had agreed to a truce with the NATO troops. Troops with extended or repeated rotations because of stop-loss puts an enormous strain on the morale of US troops as well. There are constant problems of training Afghan police, many of whom are illiterate and their lives are in danger. There are ethnic tensions among all the players in Afghanistan. The struggle is truly reminiscent of everything I've seen and read about Vietnam, and confirms much of what I've read in books like Left of Boom (3.5 stars) and Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos (3.5 stars). The author suggests that the only solution would take a long-term commit from the entire world that does not appear to be forthcoming.

Barker witnesses the Afghan elections, and the comical difficulty of having 390 candidates on a ballot-- too many for them all to have symbols, and people might vote based on the symbol chosen. Warlords, of course, are included on the ballot, along with any variety of characters.

There are some breaks in the action as Barker returns home to the US on leave, to Indiana, Chicago, and elsewhere. Vacations are cut short as she's always on call, needing to go anywhere in Central or South Asia on a moment's notice. Amazingly, she's highly allergic to dust and is debilitated eight times a year in Afghanistan with a sinus infection, eventually having surgery in the US. There are definite bright spots. Besides favor with Nawaz Sharif, President Obama apparently helps her get a much-covereted interview with Hamid Karzai.

Barker fell "in love" with Pakistan in her time there. She writes of how women were treated better in Pakistan, she did not have to go through the molestation of checkpoints there. Maybe the hardest part for her was the coverage of Benazir Bhutto's campaign. There is a danger and the inevitable feeling that an assassination will occur; Barker is on the scene when it does. She is there to write the story just steps away from the bloody aftermath. We take the mental health of foreign correspondents for granted. Even her going away party coincided with a terrorist attack in which she received a concussion. Barker never fully unpacks all of this for the reader, but she tells of the difficulty returning to the US to write about more mundane topics and deal with US domestic life. Having lived a few years overseas myself, I can empathize, but not to the depth she experienced. She now writes for the NY Times, but the WBEZ interview I heard suggested she may end up overseas again one day.

I enjoyed this book and the insights into Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the life of a rare female journalist there. The reader may find some parts of her personal life uninteresting, or perhaps like the personal parts but find the war uninteresting. 4 stars.