Chad announces withdrawal from Central African Republic

The Republic of Chad, considered something of a military power in Central Africa, announced today that it would be withdrawing all its troops from the African Union mission in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR).

It is worth noting that the New York Times’ first version of the story from this morning described the announcement as “an apparent blow to international efforts to bolster peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic.” (You can read the early version here.) But the story had become more nuanced by the afternoon:

“The pullout solves an immediate problem for the United Nations, which plans to redeploy some of the African Union forces into a peacekeeping mission under a United Nations mandate in the coming months. The withdrawal means that the world body no longer faces the awkward choice of whether to accept Chadian forces as part of that mission…But it also potentially creates new logistical and political problems. The United Nations must find additional troops at a time when several peacekeeping missions worldwide are struggling to fill their ranks.”

This improved depiction strikes a better balance as we consider both the fragile AU operation in CAR (known as MISCA) and the growing anxiety in CAR, the wider region, and the international community over Chad’s military presence. The decision comes five days after a widely-reported incident of Chadian troops opening fire on civilians in Bangui and accusations building for months that Chad is aiding and abetting Muslim rebels against Christian “anti-balaka” militias. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon entered the fray, reminding “all those who are involved in spreading the violence, including those directly or indirectly supporting or otherwise facilitating the actions of armed groups, that they will be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.”

This is the second conflict in two years in which Chadian forces have entered the fight just long enough to announce a quick withdrawal. In neither instance were N’Djamena’s interests altruistic. But while Chad’s withdrawal from Mali came on the heels of disproportionately high casualties in two months of fighting (it would later return under a new UN mission), today’s announcement coincides with a growing sense that, as Chad’s foreign military grumbles, “Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering in CAR.” In other words, Chad retreated from Mali to satisfy a domestic constituency (local elites and the military itself), but its withdrawal from CAR may reflect a sense in N’Djamena that it had to save face with the region and international community.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Central Africa, Central African Republic, Chad | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A divorce years in the making: Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

The tendency in international affairs after a dramatic event is to hastily address the question of “what does it mean?”—as if the event represents a pivotal turning point that bends an otherwise steady trend line. Such is the case after Al Qaeda’s central command in Afghanistan/Pakistan posted a message online last week disentangling itself from its affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria/Levant), now popularly known as ISIS. The key line of the damning statement reads: “ISIS is not a branch of the al Qaeda group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions.”

The instinct for many analysts has been to characterize Al Qaeda’s decree as either a boon or body blow for ISIS. However, considering the tenuous history of Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Iraqi jihad, the divorce is perhaps better seen as the next data point in a steady pattern, rather than an inflection point.

Continuation, not deviation

Al Qaeda’s apprehension about its Iraqi outfit dates back effectively to AQI’s inception in 2004, when the group’s increasing brutality caught the attention of Osama bin Laden and the senior leadership. In a 2005 letter to AQI’s infamous founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri (now Al Qaeda’s leader) criticized Zarqawi’s excessive brutality toward the local population. Yet Zarqawi continued to flout the judgment of Al Qaeda’s leadership, eventually provoking a largely sectarian civil war that all but extinguished AQI’s popular support.

AQI, rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, recovered after the departure of U.S. troops in 2001, yet Zawahiri’s relationship with current emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears outright acerbic. ISI-turned-ISIS’s escalating violence in Syria and Iraq in many ways mirrors the Zarqawi days. Having observed the evaporation of public support for AQI in 2006-07, Zawahiri seemed determined in May 2013 not to make the same mistake again: in a letter to budding rivals ISIS and Syria-based Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri commanded ISIS to return to Iraq. Nonetheless, Baghdadi rebuffed Zawahiri’s overtures, retorting in June that ISIS will remain in Syria “as long as we have a pulse or an eye that blinks.” Fast forward to February of this year—after an escalation of ISIS belligerence toward both fellow jihadists and the Syrian population writ large—and Zawahiri has decided he had enough.

Very rough approximation of ISIS' territorial control in Iraq and Syria By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Very rough approximation of ISIS’ territorial control in Iraq and Syria, as of January 2014
By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Where is ISIS heading?

Jihadist fighters, donors, and other Al Qaeda sympathizers undoubtedly paid keen attention to ISIS’ expulsion. A number of influential pro-Al Qaeda ideologues have since scolded ISIS and even called on members to defect to other jihadist outfits. Moreover, ISIS’ retreat from some areas of Syria this week may be attributed in part to Jabhat al-Nusra’s (a de facto Al Qaeda affiliate supported by Zawahiri) newfound resolve to fight ISIS after a recent peace initiative failed. As Barak Mendelsohn argues in Foreign Affairs, “now that ISIS is disowned, its own reputation is in peril, with potentially devastating consequences.”

On the other hand, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross suggested to me that if ISIS can now demonstrate that it is possible to survive as a powerful jihadi front sans Al Qaeda’s blessing, Baghdadi’s organization could attract additional donors and prestige. As Will McCants has quipped, “Nothing says ‘hard-core’ like being cast out by Al Qaeda.”

Despite compelling narratives for both sides, I am of the view that Zawahiri’s disavowal will be neither a boon nor a death blow for ISIS. If one accepts that the writing was on the wall since Baghdadi’s objection last year, or even since AQI’s emergence in 2004, the separation’s direct impact may have less impact than analysts suggest. ISIS’ donors will more or less keep donating, while ISIS’ critics will more or less comprise the same opponents as before (e.g., the same influential clerics who criticized ISIS after the split also cajoled ISIS prior to the split).

This is not to say ISIS will simply stagnate—neither gaining nor losing territory, standing, or donors in the future. I hope instead to capture the idea that exogenous factors are likely to have more bearing on ISIS’ trajectory than whether the group has organizational links with Al Qaeda—the independent variable implicitly being addressed.

What other factors influence ISIS’ trajectory?

The most apparent exogenous factor is escalating brutality (which, notably, was not the reason Zawahiri cited for expelling ISIS). As both Mendelsohn and Aaron Zelin have suggested, ISIS—widely considered the most terrifying jihadist group in the neighborhood—risks repeating the same mistakes of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of the 1990s. According to the most common narrative, GIA’s downfall in the Algerian Civil War in 1998 was due in large part to excessive violence. So too with Zarqawi’s hyper-aggression toward both Iraq’s Shi’a and fellow Sunnis in 2005-2006, and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s extremism in Egypt in the mid-1990s.

While disregard for civilian casualties certainly contributed to both GIA’s and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s strains with Al Qaeda, it was the loss of local support that spelled their undoing. ISIS may very well commit the same error, or, alternatively, scale back its malicious modus operandi to win more local influence—regardless of its Al Qaeda affiliation. Additionally, other exogenous factors that might have bearing on ISIS include: the group’s level of internal cohesion, a shift in strategy in Syria and/or Iraq, new alliance-building, and/or a change in the external environment.


Supported by a history of tensions between ISIS and Al Qaeda’s leadership, it is not unreasonable to assert that last week’s divorce simply formalized a long-time de facto split between the two organizations. Initial indications from U.S. intelligence officials seem to corroborate this view.

Of course, in a murky environment where reliable reporting on ISIS is sparse, there is unlikely to be a “smoking gun” that either confirms or dispels this proposition. And considering the novelty of the situation—Zelin points out that this marks the first time that the Al Qaeda core has disavowed an affiliate that has used its name—there is little obvious precedent.

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda’s divorce with perhaps its most powerful affiliate offers an opportunity to revisit our assumptions about the global jihadi enterprise. Was Al Qaeda in Iraq ever truly on the same page as the “core” in Afghanistan/Pakistan?  Furthermore, do jihadist groups need Zawahiri’s blessing to be successful? What factors are important for jihadists to make progress toward their ends? A clearer understanding of these questions, of course, is helpful for thinking about how to contain and counter Islamic extremism in the Middle East and beyond.

One could conversely look at the split from the perspective of Al Qaeda’s core, but for now let me defer to others who have wrestled with this issue:

Further reading:

Posted in Al Qaeda, Iraq, Middle East and North Africa, Syria, terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympic-sized Corruption: A Visual Guide (see link)

While we all wish politics would take a back seat to the athletes and their competition during the Olympic Games, this year’s events in Sochi, Russia make such a dream difficult (if not impossible).

Noted Russian netizen activist and anti-Putin voice Alexei Navalny produced a fantastic map of Sochi highlighting the actions of a corrupt oligarchy which led to significant cost overruns and instances of shoddy construction.

I hope representations such as this map help to highlight the social consequences of the Games, which are always internationally relevant but may take a more high-profile political role this year.

Posted in General, North Caucasus | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Benghazi whodunit: the curious case of Sufian bin Qumu

The same week that the State Department blacklisted three different but identically-named armed groups in North Africa as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, two conflicting reports—a Washington Post story and a New York Times article one day apart—resurrected a related, highly charged debate: who was responsible for the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans that eerie night in Benghazi in September 2012?

The Benghazi mystery is a classic “whodunit?” A year and a half after armed attackers pillaged and set fire to the U.S. consulate in Libya’s second largest city, there is still no clear universally-agreed upon account of who did what, how they did it, and why.

Libya’s most wanted: Sufian bin Qumu and Ahmed Abu Khattala

The latest source of head-scratching involves a shady character named Sufian bin Qumu, believed to be the head of the Ansar al-Sharia militia in Derna—a four hour drive east of Benghazi. Qumu’s pedigree reflects that of an experienced Islamist terrorist, earning him tremendous scrutiny from the CIA and others. He fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s as one of the original “core” members of the Al Qaeda franchise, trained at Osama bin Laden’s camps, and worked for a Sudanese company owned by bin Laden in the 1990s. Qumu was captured and held at Guantanamo Bay until 2007, when he was transferred to Libyan custody and subsequently released three years later. He went on to establish Ansar al-Sharia in Derna during Libya’s 2011 revolution. (To label Qumu’s group today as “Al Qaeda” requires a considerably broad definition, however, despite Congressional Republicans’ claims to the contrary…but that is a topic for another day.)

While a primary suspect immediately after the Sep. 2012 attacks, media attention on Qumu seemed to subside over the course of the last year. That is, until last Wednesday, when Adam Goldman reported for the Washington Post that the “former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role” in the assault that killed four Americans and “militiamen under the command of Abu Sufian bin Qumu…participated in the attack.” This information comes from anonymous “U.S. officials” who in turn were informed by presumably Libyan “witnesses.”

View of Derna, Libya, suspected base of operations for Sufian bin Qumu and his Ansar al-Sharia militia By Maher A. A. Abdussalam (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

View of Derna, Libya, suspected base of operations for Sufian bin Qumu and his Ansar al-Sharia militia
By Maher A. A. Abdussalam (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Contrast this characterization with New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick’s account a day later. Though not dismissing Ansar al-Sharia Derna’s likely role in the attack (“Many people from Derna, including Islamist fighters, are in Benghazi on any given day,” Kirkpatrick writes, “and there is no evidence that the fighters from Ansar al-Shariah of Derna who were involved in the attack came to Benghazi for that reason.”), he casts doubt on Qumu’s involvement. Sufian bin Qumu, he writes:

“…is identified as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Derna, but officials briefed on the designations and the intelligence reports said that there was no evidence linking him to the attack.”

David Kirkpatrick also reached a similar conclusion in his fuller account of the Benghazi attacks on December 28. In that report, Kirkpatrick reported that:

“Neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.”

Though it depends on how one defines “significant,” it appears the Washington Post’s reveal that Qumu’s men did indeed participate in the attack calls this claim into question.

Instead of Qumu, the New York Times pins the blame for the attack largely on Ahmed Abu Khattala, a senior leader (though not the brigade’s overall leader) of Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi, an entity separate from (though identically-named) Qumu’s Derna branch.* An FBI investigation identified Abu Khattala in July 2013 as a primary suspect. (U.S. Special Forces’ bold capture of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Liby off the streets of Tripoli in October 2013 has almost certainly driven Abu Khattala, another proposed target in that raid, into hiding.)

The Washington Post report does not dismiss Abu Khattala’s role. The picture it paints of the Benghazi attack is of a joint operation consisting primarily of fighters from Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia Derna. This is slightly different from the New York Times account, which downplays Ansar al-Sharia Derna’s significance, especially Qumu’s role in the attack.

What accounts for the difference in reporting?

There follows a handful of potential reasons for the differences between the New York Times and Washington Post reports:

  • Kirkpatrick and Goldman may have interviewed different “U.S. officials” from separate divisions of the U.S. government, perhaps with access to different evidence, yielding slightly divergent conclusions.
  • Kirkpatrick and Goldman may have interviewed the same U.S. officials, but at different times, suggesting the U.S. government had slightly altered its views in the interim. A gradient of this explanation could be that U.S. intelligence remains ambiguous, explaining the mixed messages sent by American sources.
  • The two reporters may have misconstrued what their sources were saying or reached alternative conclusions, even if based on largely the same group of U.S. officials.
  • Kirkpatrick and/or Goldman may have intentionally written general and somewhat cryptic descriptions due to gaps in information or a careful effort not to admit contradictions with their respective news organizations’ earlier assessments (e.g., the claim about Qumu in Kirkpatrick’s Dec. 28 report).
  • Goldman’s characterization of Qumu as having “played a role” in the Benghazi attack, the starkest difference from the New York Times’ reporting, may have been an exaggeration. While both suggest Qumu’s men may have participated, neither story links Qumu directly in either the planning or execution of the Benghazi attack.

“Fog of war”

Perhaps the safest way to characterize the confusion is to admit the limitations of accurate reporting in a scenario clouded by what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called the “fog of war.” (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius riffs on McNamara’s apt description in several posts on Benghazi.) Those looking for a cookie-cutter label for the attacks that night in September 2012 are asking too much.

Was it Al Qaeda? Well, yes and no. Was the attack in Benghazi improvised or planned in advance? Well, yes and no. The question of Qumu’s involvement yields a similar answer. Yes, his fighters seem to have been involved, though perhaps not at Qumu’s behest. But also no, there is no evidence (yet) that suggests Qumu was calling the shots.

Until a slew of new evidence emerges, the answers will likely remain elusive. This is an unsatisfying state of limbo for both the Obama administration and its fierce critics, but perhaps the fairest conclusion at this point in time.

*For excellent analysis on the various groups calling themselves “Ansar al-Sharia”—including their origins, evolution, and differences—follow researchers Aaron Zelin and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. For a good primer, though slightly outdated, check Aaron Zelin’s “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.”

Posted in Al Qaeda, Libya, Middle East and North Africa, terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colombia’s peace process: a current overview

The talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla militant “terrorist” group, have already had a significant impact on an important region in the global economy due to a loosening of threats against multinational companies, especially in the retail and natural resources sectors.  The diplomatic efforts to end the 50+ year old conflict are also a promising sign in that the government and the FARC were engaged in more violent conflict just a few short years ago.

Getting to this point has taken decades.  Founded in the mid-60s following the polarizing bloodshed of “La Violencia” (see link), the FARC’s mission was to overthrow the state, espousing a Marxist philosophy.  Using drug trafficking as a fundraising vehicle throughout Colombia’s infamous period of drug production, the FARC engaged a new enemy in the 1990s: right-wing paramilitary groups.  When many members and allies of these groups came to power in Bogota in the decade that followed, a campaign of military action ensued.  The successes of increased military action against the guerrillas under the previous administration of President Alvaro Uribe (plus strong US support in the form of the Plan Colombia initiative) paved the way for realistic peace negotiations.  For the FARC, four events between 2008 and 2011 were especially devastating: the internationally-reported military rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the individual assassinations of 3 FARC commanders (“Tirofijo,” the group’s founder, Mono Jojoy, and Alfonso Cano).

Given the traditional close ties between Colombia and Washington, it is striking that these peace talks (held in Cuba, an American foe) with a recognized “terrorist” organization have held such weight so far.  This is especially notable given some of the terms and conditions that the two sides are working to address and resolve:

  • Political Representation

To me, this is one of the more astounding developments in the peace process.  FARC leaders are attempting to enter Colombian politics and represent the very government in Bogota their organization was essentially founded to overthrow.

The lack of outrage over such a proposal suggests that Colombians are truly (and understandably) tired of extremely high levels of violence in their country over the past generation.  At the same time, economic growth potential for Colombia, as well as much of Latin America, also lead me to believe that the debate has shifted emphasis away from political power towards equitable economic distribution and opportunity.

That said, for as much as the FARC are well-known, well-organized, and well-established as a socialist-leaning political force in Colombia, it is doubtful that it would do well in elections as a political party.  Recent estimates indicate that it would have an electoral base of only 18,000 Colombians in a country of 47.7 million.

  • Immunity for FARC Leaders

This may well become a case where politics does indeed produce strange bedfellows.  The question of immunity from prosecution (especially for war crimes) is one that has plagued Colombian politics years before the idea of peace talks with the FARC came into the forefront.  As such, the precedent set by the incorporation of former paramilitaries into key political institutions favors such treatment for the FARC, even though influential forces within the Colombian government may be heavily opposed to it.

  • Reparations for Conflict-generated Damages

This is an extremely difficult issue to resolve on account of the environment. The terrain in which the conflict has been fought is treacherous and remote rainforest.  This Amazonian environment can be so dense that political borders and indigenous homelands can be extremely hard to determine. Add to that the length of the conflict, external actors (US, Venezuela, Ecuador), and the nature of the damages (human casualty, destroyed homes/crops, persecution/coercion, etc.) and the chance of evaluating land claims with a modicum of accuracy and objectivity become more remote.  With land ownership a central issue throughout the conflict (as addressed in the compensation-oriented 2011 Victims Law), it is clear that tensions in the most affected regions will most likely persist even if there is a strong, comprehensive peace deal.

  • Drug Legalization

This is a surprising point of agreement for both sides, especially given potential US opposition.  For the government, it is simply trying to do what it takes to avoid a return to the horrendous 1980s, when drugs (especially cocaine) ravaged the country and created quite possibly the world’s most dangerous hotbed of violence. Contemporary measures to outlaw the drug trade globally have merely pushed drug trafficking underground, thereby increasing prices–and profits for the kingpins.  For the FARC, it is a bold acceptance to give up its most significant source of funding in recent years.  As it sees itself as a community-based organization, the FARC believes that the current prevailing view on drugs misses the point because it seeks to punish the end user while allowing producer and distribution networks to remain underground and flourish.  It thus supports greater commitment to addressing substance abuse over regulating production, which alienates many indigenous communities in Colombia due to the traditional consumption of coca leaves.

  •  Potential Breakdown of Negotiations

Recent political events have presented a challenge to maintaining the often uneasy discussions between the right and left in Colombia.  Given some of the recent breakthroughs, the timing of the ouster of leftist Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro by a right-wing Inspector-General who is a close ally of former (right-wing) President Alvaro Uribe could not be worse.  In short, this is highly significant for a few reasons:

  1. The mayoralty of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is considered a position nearly as powerful prestigious as the presidency.
  2. Petro is a former guerrilla with the M-19 movement, a leftist rebel group with a heyday in the 1980s.  The group’s peace deal with the Colombian government in 1990 is being used as a model for the current talks in Havana.  There is concern – particularly among the FARC – that the recently negotiated political participation rights for their members will not be enforced.  There is now also a general credibility issue with regards to the good faith the Colombian government brings to the table.
  3. When he was a member of the country’s Senate, he led investigations against the Uribe regime for collaborating with paramilitary groups accused of human rights abuses.  It is, therefore, not a stretch to believe that his current ouster might be a form of payback from Uribe allies.

The above analysis suggests that Colombia currently stands at a crossroads.  Having overcome substantial challenges to state sovereignty (in the form of FARC territorial control) and public order (in the notoriously high murder rates in the 20th century), policymakers on both sides of the Havana talks as well as the Colombian government face serious decisions with regards to the future of their country.  Examples in world history show that reconciliation and integration of former enemies into a unified society can foster stability and growth.  Therefore, the proposition to grant FARC a place at the table in Bogota’s democracy- while controversial and emotional for many- could be the first step for Colombia to become a stronger society and a role model for Latin America in addressing issues of systemic, crippling violence.

Posted in Colombia, drug trafficking, Latin America, terrorism, Uncategorized, US policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book review: “Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia” by Philip Shishkin (2013)

Mao Zedong, the notorious and brutal father of China’s Communist Party, once wrote:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence.” (Yu Hua, 2011: 130)

Wall Street Journal reporter Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia covers the wild and mysterious lands to the northwest of Mao’s China—now an eclectic group of six “-stans,” the historic hinterlands of many great empires: Persian, Chinese, British, Russian, Soviet.

By Cacahuate (Own work based on the blank world map) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Cacahuate (Own work based on the blank world map) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Shishkin’s riveting account of the past decade in Central Asia—mostly of Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Uzbekistan with a touch of Afghanistan , Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan (Turkmenistan is conspicuously missing)—certainly lives up to its title. The pages are overflowing with real-world conspiracies that at times rival the best of murder mysteries or mafia thrillers. The big ticket items in the book are undoubtedly the 2009 murder and elaborate cover-up of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous and ambitious presidential chief of staff, Medet Sadrykulov (himself a sort of villainous mastermind in the likes of Rasputin)—and the unravelling of a worldwide corruption scheme with its locus in Bishkek.

“The Land of Perpetual Revolution”

That is not to discount the seriousness of this book. Restless Valley is not all juicy tales of drugs, money, mobs, and Russian vodka (though there is plenty of that to go around). Perhaps the most interesting thread is Shishkin’s depictions of the intense disorder of revolutions, down to the personal or micro level. The book’s opening scene describes with stunning detail the haphazard plundering of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev’s office in March 2005, just hours after Akayev fled a revolting nation during what was later cherished as the “Tulip Revolution”:

“The foot soldiers of the revolution, many of them young and covered with grime and a little banged up but delirious with joy and adrenaline, swarmed around the president’s desk and took turns sitting in his chair. Until a few hours earlier, this has been nothing less than a king’s throne, but now it was just a fancy office chair where a commoner could recline.” (p. 1)

Just five years later, history repeated itself in 2010 as the Kyrgyz dethroned Akayev’s successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose reputation was quickly soiled as the overseer of the “fat onion of corruption, intrigue, and geopolitical games” (p. 2) that had come to define—and smother—post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. As Vladimir Putin put it, the author notes, Kurmanbek (as well as his tenacious brother Janysh and son Maxim) “stepped on the same rake” that had knocked Akiyev on the head. (p. 160)

In one particularly sharp scene, Shishkin turns his attention to the fundamental conundrum of revolution on the streets through the eyes of a conflicted young army cadet tasked with protecting the “White House” (Kyrgyzstan’s presidential palace) from an angry mob:

“Thoughts of saying, ‘To hell with it’ and deserting entered his mind, and he wrestled to shoo them away…‘Cadets too were talking about it. I could see anxiety and fear on their faces. That’s understandable. We have things to lose. And for whom? For the people in power we don’t particularly like? For those who are thinking only about how to save their skin?…Of course we could take off our uniforms right this minute and go face the people with the words ‘biz el menen,’’ Chingiz wrote, using the Kyrgyz phrase for ‘We are with the people.’…But doing this, Chingiz continued, would be treason.” (p. 166)

Like they abandoned Akiyev, the country’s security forces eventually deserted President Bakiyev and his hated cronies, exemplifying a central lesson from Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution: a government simply cannot continue to survive without the subservience of its armed forces (see: Egypt 2011).

2010 revolution in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan By Brokev03 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

2010 revolution in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
By Brokev03 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

On a more macro level, as President Bakiyev and his inner circle fled to southern Kyrgyzstan, and then Belarus, the country imploded, like a needle popping a balloon. The charismatic, long-time opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva quickly emerged as the consensus candidate for interim president (with the ease that today’s Egypt or Libya could only dream of)—but the absence of order across the country unleashed ethnic violence in spades. The country’s Uzbek minority, constituting a majority in a handful of southern Kyrgyz towns, renewed a long-time struggle to assert its rights, an effort that quickly devolved into political violence. The Fergana Valley—for which the book is named—became the epicenter of a brief, but nasty “civil war”—as Shishkin terms it.

From the “Color Revolutions” to the Arab Spring

The parallels with today’s sputtering “Arab Spring” are, of course, many. The power vacuum left after Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 revolution mirrors that of Libya’s lawlessness today—and to a lesser degree, Tunisia’s. On the other hand, aside from the defections of Syria’s Sunni Muslim soldiers, the Alawite core of Bashar al-Assad’s security forces has remained loyal and vigilant.

In Restless Valley, Syria’s counterpart is Kyrgyzstan’s western neighbor Uzbekistan, led since independence in 1991 by an autocrat named Islam Karimov. Eyeing the quick fall of despotic leaders in three other post-Soviet republics—Georgia (“Rose Revolution,” November 2003), Ukraine (“Orange Revolution,” January 2005), and Kyrgyzstan (March 2005)—Karimov was determined not to meet the same fate. When 23 prominent businessmen escaped from prison on May 13, 2005 in Andijan, the commanding force of regional security forces nipped the subsequent public clamor in the bud. Disparaging the businessmen and their supporters as “Islamic extremists,” Karimov’s regime massacred perhaps as many 1,500 defenseless civilians at Andijan.

The incident sparked international outrage, but Karimov’s strategy for preserving his grip on power paid off:

“The government’s subsequent slaughter of Andijan residents made sense in the cold logic of a dictatorship. If you are a dictator and want to remain in power, you eventually have to go all the way because there’s nothing more ridiculous than being a half-ass dictator…As a half-ass despot, you don’t kill, jail, or scare enough people to make others think twice about getting rid of you. So, eventually, you fall…In neighboring Kyrgyzstan (just thirty miles south of Andijan), a half-ass dictator had just been overthrown and chased out of the country in a popular uprising. The Uzbek leader decided not to show any weakness in the face of a challenge.” (p. 84)

Similarly, having observed the fate of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad sees little incentive to quit fighting. As long as his security forces remain loyal, the Syrian conflict is unlikely to dissipate.

The enigma of Central Asia

If not a true treatise on revolutions and their discontents, Restless Valley at least provides a window into a part of the world that is poorly understood. As legend has it, “the Kyrgyz were asleep when God was distributing lands to the peoples of the Earth. When the Kyrgyz woke up landless, they pleaded with God to give them at least something.” (p. 4) This seems an apt description of Kyrgyzstan or its neighbors today. It is in many ways a listless place—subdued from meeting its potential by a mountain of corruption, cronyism, and organized crime—riding helplessly from one violent and chaotic revolution to the next.

Shishkin’s book is as insightful as it is fun—well worth the read.

(See here for Monica Whitlock’s review of “Restless Valley” in the Wall Street Journal and here for Lewis Garland’s account in the LSE Review of Books.)

Full citation: Philip Shishkin, Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Posted in Book reviews, Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Middle East and North Africa, Syria, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book thoughts: “The Dispensable Nation” by Vali Nasr (2013)

A Middle East scholar and former aide to the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, Vali Nasr holds back no punches. His latest book, The Dispensable Nation, rips into the Obama administration—particularly the White House—on one foreign policy challenge after another. The America he portrays is of a country in retreat abroad (read: intentional retreat, not objective decline), an America without a guiding strategy for dealing with emerging challenges (Arab Spring, Iran, China, AfPak)—despite its centralization of decision-making in a single branch of the nation’s foreign policy apparatus: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While his observations about the inner workings of interagency foreign policy-making—and politicking—are welcome, The Dispensable Nation reads far too much like a tirade by an academic with a grudge, confronting an institution and a process which he found unsuitable.

U.S._Special_Representative_for_Afghanistan_and_Pakistan_Richard_Holbrooke_meets_with_U.S._Army_Col._William_Hager,_the_commander_of_Afghan_Regional_Security_Integration_Command_West,_during_his_visit_to_Herat_0 (1)

Richard Holbrooke, Vali Nasr’s boss at the State Department,
meets with a U.S. Army commander in Herat, Afghanistan (2009).
By SrA Dustin E. Payne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The good

There are some redeeming qualities about Vali Nasr’s book. He is not afraid to demonstrate his regional expertise—reflected in his chapters on Iran and Pakistan. In many ways, his depictions of foreign governments—a schizophrenic Pakistan hungry for U.S. aid and a decentralized Afghanistan with little prospects for peace without reconciliation—are far more believable, and therefore more valuable, than his portrayal of an America in retreat.

Some of his observations on America’s foreign policy decision-making process are also useful. Echoing what many others have observed, he depicts the Obama administration as PR-obsessed—developing and packaging policies to satisfy domestic public opinion, at the cost of reaching sub-optimal policy solutions and marginalizing our allies abroad. Since it has been corroborated by others, this claim seems about right. So too are the general contours of the argument that the White House has taken a more assertive role in foreign policy during this administration, even while some of the particulars Vali Nasr describes seem to tell only one side of the story. One anecdote he borrows from Rajiv Chandrasekaran is particularly powerful:

“On one occasion the White House’s AfPak team came up with the idea of excluding Holbrooke from the president’s Oval Office meeting with Karzai and then having Obama tell Karzai, ‘Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust’ (i.e., not Holbrooke)…The message to Karzai was: ignore my special representative.” (p. 39)

Similarly, recent events in the Middle East have added fodder to Nasr’s claim that this administration has marginalized America’s Middle East allies: namely negotiations with Iran and a decision to pull back on striking Assad’s regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia is the most obvious case of ally-turned-critic of the United States. It is hard to argue that there is considerable frustration from Riyadh to Amman to Tel-Aviv with what appears to be America’s unpredictable policy in the region. (Conversely, remember that, in light of 8 years of Bush-Cheney, America is similarly criticized for having too heavy a hand in the region.)

The not-so-good

Unfortunately, Nasr’s incessant criticism—almost disdain—of the Obama administration blemishes the book’s potential. Nasr focuses overwhelmingly on foreign policy failures, and scarcely gives the Obama administration credit for almost anything. If the event of rare successes, they were the brainchild of his ex-boss Richard Holbrooke or his supervisor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Nasr repeatedly heaps blame on the White House with insufficient supporting evidence. (Perhaps this sentiment is a reflection of his rather convoluted writing style—long-winded and poorly structured, almost mirroring the style of Henry Kissinger’s mammoth volumes.) He makes bold claims about the White House (e.g., “The White House resented losing AfPak to the State Department”) without having served on the National Security Council staff. He holds the White House responsible for quandaries that are beyond its control (e.g., Arab Spring)…or for not doing enough (ignoring Iran during the Green Revolution of 2009)…or for doing too much (focusing too much on Iran sanctions today). He incessantly critiques Obama’s advisers (Tom Donilon, David Petraeus, etc.) in what comes off as petty politicking (one should perhaps read The Dispensable Nation in conjunction with the memoirs of other Obama administration officials). Nasr attempts to lay siege to the White House using every trick in the book—with the consequence being that the siege undermines the book’s credibility. Michiko Kakutani’s review of the book in the New York Times perhaps puts it best:

“The problem with this book is that its genuinely interesting analyses are often undermined by Mr. Nasr’s certainty about matters that are subject to an incalculable number of variables; his vitriolic anger at the Obama White House; and his penchant for making overly broad, sometimes willfully alarmist generalizations.” (New York Times, 4/18/13)

Building on Kakutani’s last point, The Dispensable Nation is full of contradictions. In one particularly bold section, Nasr blames the Obama administration for prioritizing sanctions against Iran while ignoring the rise of Russia and China:

“America got Russia and China on the hook for Iran, but at what cost? Is Iran, a country whose economy is not all that much bigger than that of Massachusetts, a larger threat to U.S. interests than China or Russia? Is Iran so severe a danger that America should subsidize China’s economic rise by pushing the Saudis with all their oil right into China’s lap?…The price for Russian cooperation from here on will likely be facilitating Russian domination over energy supplies to Europe…When the dust settles…China will have gobbled up Central Asia, cornered Europe’s energy markets, and planted themselves smack in the middle of the Middle East…Is it really smart to contain Iran’s threat by subsidizing China’s and Russia’s rise to the top?” (p. 122)

Never mind that these worst-case scenarios are questionable at best (and assumes the U.S. is capable of thinking about only one adversary at a time). The more confounding contradiction is this: he speaks like a realist on China and Russia, but like a liberal interventionist on other matters. If we take Nasr’s premise that the Obama administration has limited resources and should selectively pick and choose its battles, why should we double down in Afghanistan—of low strategic interest—as Nasr advocates? Why should we aim to place ourselves in the middle of revolutions in tiny Tunisia or Bahrain, as Nasr argues, if our attention should be on Russia and China?

Take another example. Nasr’s best chapter is the one titled “Who Lost Pakistan?” But it contains one obvious contradiction. Throughout the chapter Nasr criticizes Islamabad’s “cozy” relationship with the United States, by which Pakistan has exploited and siphoned away billions of dollars in U.S. assistance since 2001. Later in the chapter, however, he endorses Holbrooke’s argument that:

“The key to winning over Pakistan was simply giving Pakistan more (much more) aid for longer (far longer) in order to change the dynamic of the relationship…If we wanted to change Pakistan, Holbrooke thought, we had to think in terms of a Marshall Plan. After a journalist asked him whether the $5 billion in aid was not too much for Pakistan, Holbrooke answered, ‘Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion.’” (pp. 79-80)

In 2009, the landmark Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation (which Nasr treated as too “modest”) was passed, promising $1.5 billion in non-military assistance to Pakistan in each of the following five years. As of 2013, Kerry-Lugar-Berman has fallen far short of these goals: while meeting the $1.5 billion mark in 2010, Congress has dispensed barely $400 million in each of the years since. Why has it failed? Not least in part due to Pakistan’s continued recalcitrance and corruption, a perpetuation of the “cozy” relationship that Nasr critiques, then implicitly endorses. What sense does it make to pump $50 billion into a corrupted government when the billions already spent have achieved little in building a stronger bilateral relationship? Without a more convincing case that a “Marshall Plan” can overcome the fundamental problems with aid to Pakistan—corruption and the inability to translate money to leverage—there seems little reason for Obama to approve the measure.

No solutions

Perhaps most frustrating, Nasr diagnoses plenty of problems (the verdict is normally: Obama messed up), but offers next to no solutions. His Iran chapter is rife with accusations (principally that the White House began to treat sanctions as an end in itself rather than a means to and end) but scarce on policy recommendations. In the AfPak chapters, he defers to his boss: WWHB, or What Would Holbrooke Do? For the Middle East and Afghanistan, Nasr advocates “a little community organizing”—eerily echoing George W. Bush’s misguided vision that America could actively re-wire societies about which it knew little. The Dispensable Nation is long on criticism and vague rhetorical alternatives, but short on constructive, actionable recommendations.

At its essence, The Dispensable Nation is a brutal charge against the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but not an effective one. Readers are likely to walk away from this book bewildered by Vali Nasr’s roundabout writing style and frustrated that it is long on complaints and short on solutions.

(See here for another book review by Steve Coll for New York Review of Books and here for one by Michiko Kakutani for the New York Times.)

Full citation: Vali Nasr, The Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

Posted in Afghanistan, Book reviews, Central Asia, Iran, Middle East and North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Asia, US policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment