FP Mag: Blood on The Tracks (photo story)

Every year, tens of thousands of people, 90 percent of them Central American, cross the length of Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States. They travel by foot, train, car, bus, or truck, facing kidnapping, extortion, rape, robbery, sickness, hunger, and death along the way. Ecuadorian photographer Felipe Jácome Marchán followed migrants on this perilous journey, documenting the trials and dangers of heading north. And it has only become worse since Mexico ramped up the drug war; in search of easy profits, cartels have started to seize migrants, holding them ransom. As a result of these growing threats, in April Amnesty International called the migrants’ route “one of the most dangerous in the world.”

The majority of the migrants starting out on the route are young men. But there are women and children, too, like the ones pictured here crossing the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico. Mexico’s National Migration Service (INM) estimated that one in 12 people on the route are under 18, some making the journey alone.

The safest place on the train is the last car, where Jácome sat for the trip. Trains often derail along the route — and when that happens, it’s the rear cars that absorb the least impact. The ride is bumpy and dangerous, so most migrants find a way to strap themselves to the roof of the cars with belts, rope, or anything they can find.

The routes that migrants travel are well known — to Mexican authorities, criminals, and local people. Operativos, the mobile Mexican military units based along the route, sometimes stages night ambushes on trains. Terrified of being sent back home, migrants often jump from moving trains. The operativos send dogs to find them.

Kidnappers are another group that preys on migrants, taking advantage of the confusion of small towns along the route, where the trains stop. Most migrants have a “backer” in either the United States or Central America who helps pay for their trip. (An entire journey can cost as much as $8,000, Jácome estimates.) “They say [to the migrants,] give me the phone number” of the backer, Jácome recounts from interviews with kidnapping victims. Even if the ransoms they collect are small, say 2,000 pesos (about $150), the volume makes up for it: On a good day, kidnappers could make thousands of dollars.

Catholic priests have set up several shelters for migrants along the route, including this one in the small city of Tapachula. Offering food and sometimes a bed, the shelters welcome migrants for a few nights before newcomers push them out again. A wall map gives migrants a glimpse at the long journey ahead, but many travelers will never make it to the United States.


NYT: Roger Cohen- The Forgotten American


Furkan Dogan

Troy,  New York — The Dogans were a quiet family little noticed by their neighbors here in upstate New York. Ahmet Dogan had come to the area from Turkey to study accounting at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a serious student; the Dogans did little entertaining. But when their younger son, Furkan, was born in 1991, the family threw a party and a neighbor recalled a toast “to the first U.S. citizen in the family.”

Furkan Dogan would live just two years in Troy, returning to Turkey with his family in 1993. But he was proud of his American passport and dreamt of coming back after completing medical school. Five Israeli bullets — at least two of them to the head — ended that dream on May 31. Dogan was 19.

The young American, who had just completed high school with excellent grades in the central Turkish town of Kayseri, had seen an online advertisement for volunteers to deliver aid to Gaza. The ad, from a Turkish charity called the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or I.H.H, said the goal of the trip was to show that Israel’s “embargo/blockade can be legally broken.”

Little interested in politics, but with an aspiring doctor’s concern for Palestinian suffering, Dogan won a lottery to go.

How he was killed is disputed — as is just about everything concerning the Israeli naval takeover of the six-boat Gaza-bound flotilla — but his father suspects a video camera carried by his son may have provoked Israeli commandos.

O.K., enough said, that’s the start of the story you haven’t read about the short life of Furkan Dogan, an American killed by Israeli forces in international waters on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara.

In truth I have not been to Troy but I do find the effacement of Dogan since his death almost two months ago at once offensive and instructive.

I have little doubt that if the American killed on those ships had been Hedy Epstein, a St. Louis-based Holocaust survivor, or Edward Peck, a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, we would have heard a lot more. We would have read the kind of tick-tock reconstructions that the deaths of Americans abroad in violent and disputed circumstances tend to provoke. (Epstein had planned to be aboard the flotilla and Peck was.)

I also have little doubt that if the incident had been different — say a 19-year-old American student called Michael Sandler killed by a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank when caught in a cross-fire between Palestinians and Israelis — we would have been deluged in stories about him.

But a chill descends when you have the combination of Israeli commandos doing the firing, an American with a foreign-sounding Muslim name, and the frenzied pre-emptive arguments of Israel and those among its U.S. supporters who will brook no criticism of the Jewish state.

This chill is a bad thing. Let’s do whatever it takes to find out how Dogan died — and the eight other victims. The Middle East requires more open debate and the dropping of taboos. It needs the leading institutions of American Jewry to encourage broad discussion rather than, as Peter Beinart put it in an important recent essay in The New York Review of Books, checking “their liberalism at Zionism’s door.”

Let’s face it, without the flotilla outcry that allowed the Obama administration to question Israel’s self-defeating suffocation of Gaza, Israel would still be imposing the blockade that handed Hamas control of whatever was left of the Gaza economy. Now that blockade has been eased.

As this suggests, Israel will, ostrich-like, push policies born of the security mantra way beyond their rationale, only changing course when its critical friends raise their voices. It’s time for the U.S. Jewish establishment to think again — and think openly — or risk losing the many younger Jews troubled by Israel’s course.

I hope every member of Congress read Beinart’s piece. I contacted the office of Congressman Paul Tonko, who represents the Troy area, to ask about Dogan. A spokesman, Beau Duffy, wrote saying that “There really isn’t much of a local connection here” and that Tonko had no comment. Hardly a surprise: Nobody in Congress has had anything to say about this American death.

I called the State Department, where an official said the U.S. ambassador in Turkey has offered the Dogan family assistance. (He also denied reports that the United States plans to designate I.H.H. a terrorist organization.)

Any further action, including a possible F.B.I. investigation of Dogan’s death, will hinge on the results of the inquiry being led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice and including two foreign observers. The Dogan family could also request F.B.I. action.

But it seems they have few illusions. Professor Dogan, who teaches at Kayseri University, told the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Champion (who wrote the best piece on Dogan) that he’s been wondering what the U.S. response would have been if his son had been a Christian living stateside. Having lived in America, he said, “I know what people do there when a cat gets stuck in a tree.”

It’s different, however, when an American Muslim male gets stuck in a hail of Israeli gunfire.

International Herald Tribune: Command and Control of War

Pakistan’s army chief has received the much-desired extension. The decision of the civilian government was applauded by all on the basis that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s performance in the past couple of years should have been rewarded by giving him an extension in tenure. According to Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood, this is the first time that a political government extended the tenure of a serving army chief instead of the officer granting himself an extension.  But it is worth seeing what the decision means for civil-military relations (CMR) balance and for the armed forces as an institution.

It is wrong to see CMR in a binary trajectory, which means that it is incorrect to assume that things will repeat themselves and not morph into newer shapes. The extension might be given by the civilian administration but the decision underscores the power of the army and its chief who was keen to see his tenure extended. Many commentators believe that this was being considered for the past several months. Some day one hopes stories will simmer in the public through the grapevine about how members of the political government fought the possibility of an extension.

The GHQ, on the other hand, operated through its usual tools: the free media in the country and its American partner in the war on terror. The team of American generals such as David Petraeus and Mike Mullen were all for General Kayani. This was a major source that pursued Islamabad for this decision. A number of GHQ-friendly journalists keenly advised the civilian government to extend the services of the army chief. Job well done, boys!

The fundamental argument supporting the extension is that it will ensure continuity of command during the ongoing war. There are several examples of when absence of this factor produced less exciting results. One such example pertains to the change of command during the 1965 war. But the current war is very different from the conventional war of 1965. This is a slow and simmering war which will not end in the next three years either. An operation in Swat or different parts of Waziristan will not do the job alone. This is a battle which requires serious socioeconomic and political initiatives, especially after the military clears the path. This is also a battle which requires the will to abandon security assets if the country is to be saved at all. The war on terror is not something which can be fought with tanks, fighter aircraft and drones. Just consider the cost-benefit ratio of drone attacks and you can see the limited advantages.

From an organisational perspective, we are told that the Pakistan army is the only surviving institution of the state. However, an organisation’s survival is demonstrated by how well it can nurture and breed internal systems. Prime evidence of this is that the senior management is in sync with the objectives and can plan the operations with a sense of a joint mission. So, what does the decision fundamentally tell us about the organisation? Is it an organisation which will be unable to battle the internal enemies once the top man and his inner team are gone?

The army is involved in fighting a war on terror for the past 9-10 years. This should mean that the top management understands the objectives and that the next army chief will be able to act as well as the outgoing. Or is it that other officers don’t have the same level of competence? Or, perhaps, the US government was convinced that the rest of the generals might contain a surprise like General Ziaul Haq. What does one make of an organisation that begins to depend on personalities rather than processes?

Although predicting Pakistan’s politics is both difficult and useless, it is quite possible that the political government might have bargained for some more time to remain alive. A relatively honourable exit will bring kudos for the general and might win him a visiting fellowship in one of the US think-tanks after he finally retires.

Pakistan indeed has its unique model of CMR, which it seems, eluded academics like Francis Fukayama. He might have solved the puzzle had he looked deep into the history of the Prussian military.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2010.

BBC: US says Wikileaks could ‘threaten national security’

The leaks raise “serious” questions about US policy in the region, a senior US senator has said The United States has condemned as “irresponsible” the leak of 90,000 military records, saying publication could threaten national security. The documents released by the Wikileaks website include details of killings of Afghan civilians unreported until now. Three news organisations had advance access to the records, which also show Nato concerns that Pakistan and Iran are helping the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan has denied claims its intelligence agency backed the Taliban

 The huge cache of classified papers – posted by Wikileaks as the Afghan War Diary – is one of the biggest leaks in US history. It was given to the New York Times, the Guardian and the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. In a statement, US National Security Adviser Gen James Jones said such classified information “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk”. He said the documents covered the period from 2004 to 2009, before President Obama “announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan”.

Pakistan denied claims its intelligence agency, the ISI, backed the Taliban in the war in Afghanistan. One of the leaked documents refers to an alleged meeting between insurgents and the former Pakistani intelligence chief, Lt Gen Hamid Gul. He dismissed the Wikileaks material as “pure fiction which is being sold as intelligence”. “It’s not intelligence,” Lt Gen Gul told the BBC. “It may have a financial angle to it but more than that it is not hardcore (intelligence). I’m an old veteran. I know. This is not intelligence.” 

 The documents are a treasure trove for historians, showing the fragmentary, elusive quality of raw intelligence. The picture they paint is of American naivety at the beginning, a distracting obsession with Osama bin Laden, aid programmes that did not work, failure to understand the nature of the Taliban, and the continuing poor quality of Afghan police and soldiers.

 It is easy to see why the leak of all of this information would infuriate a White House desperate to make 2010 the year they change the way they do business in Afghanistan. The extent of American penetration and control of Afghan intelligence revealed in the documents will also raise questions about Afghan independence. Reports show that targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, stepped up under the Obama administration, have often killed civilians.

The reports also suggest: The Taliban has had access to portable heat-seeking missiles to shoot at aircraft

A secret US unit of army and navy special forces has been engaged on missions to “capture or kill” top insurgents

 Many civilian casualties – caused by Taliban roadside bombs and Nato missions that went wrong – have gone unreported ‘Civilian deaths’ But the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate said the leak came at a “critical stage” for US policy in the region.



Foreign Policy Mag: Ramadan The geopolitics of the world’s other biggest holiday


Mid-August marks the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when hundreds of millions of Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk; for the faithful, that also means no daytime arguing, cursing, or sex. But it’s not all about pious asceticism. Ramadan is a world-moving force in its own right — an unpredictable time of rampant consumerism, surprising conflict, and political skulduggery.

 1. RAMADAN IS A TYRANT’S BEST FRIEND. Secular dictators have long used the holiday to shore up their sagging religious legitimacy. Turkmenbashi, the late neo-Stalinist ruler of Turkmenistan, pardoned 8,145 prisoners during Ramadan in 2005; autocrats from Damascus to Algiers have followed the same playbook. Saddam Hussein, who cynically tried to style himself an Islamist during his regime’s latter years, twice made Ramadan cease-fire offers to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. And in 2008, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya during Ramadan, Muammar al-Qaddafi refused to shake her hand, citing Muslim strictures against touching women while fasting — all the while surrounded by his cohort of amazonian female bodyguards. It highlighted, once again, how the Islamic holy month has always been a mix of the sacred and the profane.

2. AFTER OIL, RAMADAN IS SAUDI ARABIA’S BIGGEST EXPORT. Until the 1970s, the strict observance of Ramadan remained a voluntary affair across much of the Muslim world, an expression of cultural solidarity as much as personal piety. Then came the oil shock of 1973. Petrodollars flowed into Persian Gulf coffers, gilding the desert kingdoms, which supported conservative Islamic clerics and built mosques and seminaries around the world. Guest workers brought home strict attitudes about women, education, and religious practices to the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and the flood plains of Bangladesh. Today, in Aceh, Indonesia, failure to observe Ramadan is punishable by flogging; in 2009, Egypt’s Interior Ministry began enforcing edicts that made daytime eating during the holy month a misdemeanor offense.

3. RAMADAN IS BIG BUSINESS. Although not quite the global consumer behemoth that is Christmas, Ramadan comes in a respectable second. Yes, productivity in the Muslim world plummets during the fast, and government business grinds to a halt. But malls in Istanbul are thronged, and it’s one of the busiest times of year for luxury-car dealers in Riyadh. Fast-food chains offer nighttime Ramadan “meal deals,” and Egyptians purchase nearly twice as much food as normal. With captive audiences at home for iftar, the nightly breaking of the fast, TV programmers roll out the year’s biggest shows: 25 to 30 percent of Arab TV ad revenue comes during Ramadan. Even Australia feels the economic bounce: In the lead-up to Ramadan, exports of sheep (a holiday indulgence) spike up to 77 percent.

4. RAMADAN IS A TIME OF PEACE, BUT IT’S ALSO MARKED BY WAR. Religious contemplation has not always been synonymous with pacifism. The Prophet Mohammed waged the Battle of Badr, the very first Muslim war against Meccan “infidels,” during Ramadan in 624. The 1973 conflict that Israelis call the Yom Kippur War is known to Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians — who launched their surprise attack while fasting — as the Ramadan War. More recently, in Iraq, the month of Ramadan has seen dramatic upticks in sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. troops, reaching a high of more than 1,400 incidents in 2007. But Ramadan has also complicated military maneuvers: During the battle of Tora Bora, some of the Afghan fighters closing in on Osama bin Laden insisted on going home at dusk to break the fast.

 5. GLOBALIZATION HAS CHANGED RAMADAN. For the roughly 45 million Muslims now living in the West, strict religious observance can be a lonely affair. Work does not slow for Ramadan, and those fasting must go through the day with co-workers eating and drinking all around. Online guides have sprung up to offer advice on how to manage the resulting feelings of isolation, and influential clerics have made special allowances for Muslims living outside the Middle East. Rulings dating back to the 1970s, for instance, allow Muslims living above 64 degrees latitude (where the sun never sets in the summer months) to start and end the day’s fast when it occurs in Mecca or the next major city to the south with a regular sunrise and sunset.




Scheme: Yemen was once considered a leader in terrorist rehabilitation, after the government set up one of the first rehab programs following the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately the program, known as the Committee for Religious Dialogue, proved to be a complete disaster.

As part of the program, hundreds of radical prisoners in Yemeni prisons engaged in “theological duels” with religious counselors, who urged them to renounce violence — a process that generally lasted only a few days. Once the debriefing was over, the men were released into society with no support or follow-up. More troublingly, the counseling tended to focus on convincing the militants that Yemen was an Islamic state and receiving their assurances that they would refrain from carrying out attacks within the country. Discouraging militant activity elsewhere was not a priority. Perhaps not surprisingly, the program had a high recidivism rate: Some distinguished alumni were killed while fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, and many others remain unaccounted for.

Due to a lack of funding and political will, the program was cancelled in 2005. In counterterrorism circles, Yemen is now best known for releasing some of the world’s most dangerous militants from jail, including the American-born cleric Anwar al-Alwaki, who reportedly counseled both Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and the “Christmas bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.



Scheme: For many years, militant front groups in Pakistan were able to take advantage of a loophole in a 1997 anti-terrorism law to hide in plain sight — so long as they changed their name.

The law treated groups with new names as entirely different groups, even if they were founded by the same members. Lashkar-e-Taiba, for instance, the anti-Indian militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was first banned by Pakistan in 2002. But many of its leaders continued operating under the new name Jamaat-ud-Dawa. When that group was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2008, the Pakistani government cracked down and members rebranded themselves as “Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool.” Most recently, senior members of the group were holding rallies under the name “Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal.”

To close down the loophole, the Pakistani government amended the law in late 2009 to say that a group formed by members of another banned group with the same aims would also be banned.

Chechnya, Russia


Countries: Chechnya, Russia

Scheme: Beginning soon after the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the regional government of Chechnya began a policy of punishing militants by targeting their families. That year, eight relatives of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov were detained in a small room for six months and tortured with beatings and electric current. Relatives of other militant leaders simply disappeared.

Lately, authorities have adopted a new tactic — burning down the houses of militants’ families. While only top leaders used to be targeted for this treatment, Human Rights Watch documents 26 cases of punitive arson between June 2008 and March 2009. Moscow-backed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to deny responsibility; he has publicly warned the families of militants that they can expect punishment unless they turn their relatives in.

Kadyrov’s tactics are proving popular. Regional authorities in neighboring Dagestan have also taken to threatening villages with destruction unless they turn militants in. But the measures appear to have little effect, as the deadly attacks in the Caucasus and Russia continue.



Scheme: Throughout the Middle East, mass arrests are a popular strategy for suppressing Islamist movements. The problem is, locking up large groups of radicals in a room together is not necessarily the best way to keep their ideology from spreading. Egyptian prisons, where the father of modern militant Islam, Sayyid Qutb, wrote his most influential works during the 1950s, and al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri was radicalized, currently hold somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners. These include members of the banned but relatively nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood and partisans of more militant groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Rounding up the usual suspects is also a popular tactic in Jordan, where human rights groups say prisoner abuse is widespread. Jihadist groups are thought to have established extensive networks in Jordanian prisons, at times even organizing simultaneous riots in multiple prisons. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who went on to lead al Qaeda in Iraq, is said to have been radicalized during a prison stint in the late 1980s that turned him from a petty drug user into a committed Islamist militant. Mass arrests have also been used to crack down on Islamist movements in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere — with, mostly likely, similar degrees of success.

Of course, it’s not that prison never works. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the former al Qaeda early adopter, began to publish books critical of his old militant friends once he was locked up for life in the Egyptian prison system.

Al Jazeera English: Wall Street, Main Street, and Penn. Ave

On September 16, 2008, as the financial crisis was mushrooming across the US economy, Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised, “To get out of this crisis – and to ensure that we are not doomed to repeat a cycle of bubble and bust again and again… we must build a 21st century regulatory framework, and we must pursue a bold opportunity agenda that creates new jobs and grows the American economy.” 

Nearly two years since the global economic meltdown, now-President Barack Obama has signed into law financial oversight reform.  The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is meant to prevent another 2008-type economic meltdown that spent shock waves throughout the world. 

The bill includes a new watchdog organization to examine and enforce regulation over banks and credit card companies to prevent them from beating up beleaguered consumers.  Financial institutions will have their speculative practices regulated and the government will be able to intervene in firms about to collapse. 

So when will we know if this bill is enough to save us from financial doom?  Critics have lambasted it from the start – saying it wouldn’t prevent another catastrophe and doesn’t offer the kinds of protections that were dismantled a decade ago. But maybe it was as good as Democrats in Congress could get… and maybe some reform was all that the American public could stomach.  Polls show Americans are apathetic about Wall Street regulation and reform in general.  

A recent Bloomberg National Poll found 78% of Americans aren’t confident that the bill will make their financial assets more secure.  The poll also found Americans split evenly on whether more, less, or the same amount of regulation is needed. Not surprisingly, there weren’t too many bankers in the 400 person audience for the signing.

 That’s because the vast majority of them don’t support Wall Street reform and it’s not good politics for Obama to be friends with fat cat bankers. With this speech and signing at the Ronald Reagan building instead of at the White House, Obama is trying to appeal to a wider audience of voters, telling them this isn’t just about Wall Street, it’s also about Main Street.  In his speech, Obama said, “these protections will be enforced by a new consumer watchdog with just one job: looking out for people – not big banks, not lenders, not investment houses…”  Look for more of that type of populist message as the White House gears up to campaign for Democrats ahead of the critical Midterm Elections in November.

 The President has to sell financial reform along with healthcare reform and the stimulus to voters, three watershed legislative achievements that the public has been lukewarm about.  To win them over, Obama needs to find a way to fulfill the second half of that campaign promise from 2008, to “pursue a bold opportunity agenda that creates new jobs and grows the American economy.”