Monday, May 5, 2014

What and why we write

The title caught me. It contained the word international, as in International Blog Hop.

It came via writers I know only through Facebook, such as JD Rhoades and Elizabeth Lynn Casey aka Laura Bradford.

Blog about writing and pass the pen. No Bogarting allowed.

I like the international thing. I spent 10 years knocking around largely forgotten, yet unforgettable corners of world, like Albania, Slovenia, Moldova, Armenia, Afghanistan, Uganda, the Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia, with a pit stop in Zanzibar and a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

(My wife Dina finally said I had to unpack that carry-on I kept next to the bed. I didn't grumble much.)

Staring at this blank screen, I thought of the writers and journalists I've worked with in far-flung places. They're fearless scribes who face unimaginable difficulties -- the ever-present threat of being killed for broadcasting or writing the wrong thing (aka the truth) about a maniacal president or warlord.

Here in the U.S. the biggest problems are Internet speed, occasional heartburn, and too many choices.

Yet, these writers had a refined sense of beauty and art, and an appreciation of the time it takes to create it -- notions lost in our headlong rush into the digital age.


1) What am I working on?

Fiction. After six books of narrative nonfiction, I've conceded that Americans don't care much for what happens in the next county, let alone on another continent. It's an unfortunate fact even if we have 100,000 troops in a country for more than a decade to fight a nebulous "war on terror."

Never mind that we don't know who the enemy is, what language they speak, or why they hate us.

For international issues to find a place in the American psyche demands delivery by mythological creatures known as super agents. They're typically misfit ex-CIA-turned-contractors or rogues brought back from obscure locales like Uruguay or Monte Negro for one last chance. (Normal people don't live and work in places like that, do they?)

They often have special knowledge and experience of the countries or regions, even if only bits and pieces of that are revealed. No matter, though. They're really good at knocking off the bad guys, who are always potent and plentiful.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Other than it brings to light global tragedies that compel reconsideration of our role in the world, which no one wants to do?

With my fiction foray, I've deviated from the cop/agent as the central character and substituted a journalist. (Write about something I know, right?) But journalists don't carry guns, even though they're good at digging up dirt and getting into trouble. So, my guy's got a special agent friend with weapons and he knows how to use them.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Nothing is more satisfying than going into a global hot zone, and getting paid to do so, then emerging with the story-behind-the-story. But enough of that. My move toward fiction is explained above.

4) How does my writing process work?

Nonfiction requires organization and preparation: detailed book proposals and sample chapters. Not a lot is left to the imagination, but manuscripts are malleable. Chapters are whacked and others added. Then there's the logistics of finding contacts and meeting sources. I've had the luxury of working in places and at jobs that afforded me time to develop the books on the side. But not always.

For fiction, I like three things: an issue/theme, a beginning, and an end. The rest happens at the keyboard. I start in the morning and don't quit until I have at least 1,000 words. By then I can usually hear a glass of Cabernet calling my name.

We'll see soon enough how the process works, though. My agent specializes in nonfiction. She flinched when I told her I was working on fiction. There's always Amazon.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The nightmare of the Navajo

Twenty years ago I was asked by a remarkable man named Michael O'Shaughnessy and his wife Marianne if I would write a book about the devastation caused by uranium mining on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners Area.

I was thrilled at the prospect. At the time I had been working as a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper covering the battle to bury so-called low-level radioactive waste in underground salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The stuff to be buried was the contaminated debris -- tools, gloves, beakers, etc -- used by the plutonium handlers in America's nuclear weapons factories.

(The controversy surrounding that project, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), is far from over since now the site, just as many opponents feared, is being mentioned as a burial site for high-level radioactive waste.)

The story of the Navajo uranium miners was a compelling aspect of the same story. With the waste burial project, I had been writing about the end-game of America's Cold War nuclear arsenal. The Navajo people and their lands told of the front end, the source of of America's Cold War weaponry.

I researched and wrote the book on the fly, making frequent trips to the reservation to meet with former Navajo uranium miners who were dying of lung cancer. They lived in all corners of the reservation, in communities that were left with contaminated water supplies and piles of  uranium ore and processed waste.

I visited one family that had used the chunks of discarded uranium to build a house. It had exposed the family and others similarly situated to constant bombardment by low levels of radiation, the effects of which are only now becoming apparent.

I visited dozens of abandoned mine sites, which was easy to do. There were more than 1,000 on the reservation due to its unique geography that had left the Navajos sitting on rich deposits of uranium that were critical to America's nuclear arsenal.

Most mines were small. They called them "dog holes." They'd been dug by crews of miners who worked with picks, shovels and wheel barrows, loaded the ore in trucks, and drove it to one of the processing plants built on the reservation.

Some were bigger mines, but the techniques and tools were the same. The uranium was found in horizontal layers of sandstone, which cracked and crumbled easily with dynamite. Eager to earn profits quickly, the miners often scrambled into the mines shortly after the blasts and inhaled choking clouds of dust laden with silica and uranium.

The silica from the sandstone lacerated the miners' lungs and left deadly particles of uranium lodged in the delicate tissues. Some miners died within years. Others died after decades of dwindling health.

The Navajo uranium miners knew nothing of the dangers they faced, since few spoke English. Their ancient language lacked a word for radiation. Yet the government was well aware that the miners were in trouble. But rather than insuring miner safety, the government conducted a secret study that charted the deteriorating health of the miners. It was a well documented death watch.

Despite the destruction of environment and the death and health problems caused by the uranium mining, little was or has been done to rectify these problems. Two massive lawsuits filed on behalf of the Navajos by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, resulted in no award of damages or cleanup.

The major mining companies were not held responsible because the Navajo miners had not filed their worker compensation claims in time. The government was excused when a federal judge ruled that in times of national emergency, such as the Cold War, certain people were expendable.

The only relief came in 1993 when the U.S. Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provided one-time payments of $100,000 to stricken miners or their surviving families. Qualifying for the compensation was yet another nightmare for the Navajos.

The results of my work became the 1994 book, If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans, published by Red Crane Books, the publishing company that the O'Shaughnessys created. The company's amazing book list was ultimately turned over to the Museum of New Mexico Press.

The story of the Navajo and uranium is far from over, however. As was once again made clear in an article this past week in the New York Times, the uranium and radioactive pollution continues to plague the Navajo. Rather than cleaning up the mess, the U.S. government is now moving the Navajos off of their land.

This situation on the Navajo lands is undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history. It is an on-going human and environmental disaster that neither the public nor the government wishes to acknowledge.

It is absurd that these original Americans have been subjected to such an on-going horror. As the government drags its feet, refusing to face the problem, the radioactive pollution continues to creep across the Navajo lands and leach into the ground water.

This nightmare began in the mid-1950s, nearly 65 years ago. Several generations of Navajos have suffered, and many more will as well. When will the nightmare end?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The deafening silence

Yesterday evening I was a guest at KGNU, a community radio station in Boulder, CO. The talk show topic was Afghanistan, where the U.S. has fought its longest war.

With me on the show by phone was Noor, an Afghan law student who worked with me as a fixer and translator for my book, Above the Din of War, a collection of wide-ranging interviews with Afghans about how they see their lives, their country, and their future.

Their view is bleak, and rightly so.

I wrote the book because the Afghan people are the most important, yet most ignored piece of the Afghan puzzle. Yet their views, their wants, and their needs are ignored as the debate over Afghanistan flares and fades from day to day.

It is as if 30 million or so Afghans don't exist. Yet, they have suffered the brunt of nearly 13 years of war that the U.S. and the international community have waged in a futile effort to defeat the Taliban.

Afghanistan is slowly but surely disintegrating. As the U.S. and international community prepare to decamp, President Hamid Karzai flails and wails and his corrupted and disconnected government crumbles.

The U.S. is on a trajectory to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. It is not only a strategic and diplomatic mistake on a monumental scale, it also will open the door to a humanitarian disaster that will make Afghanistan's horrific civil war of the early 1990s look tame.

This became clear as Noor told the tragic tale of one of his best friends who died at the hands of the Taliban. The radio host had asked why, if most Afghans hate the Taliban, don't they rise up against them?

Noor explained that his friend had worked for one of the many private security firms operating in Afghanistan that collect exorbitant fees to protect people and materiel vital to the war.

When a relative died in Kabul, his friend's family took the body to be buried in their home village in Paktia province, one of the most deadly and dangerous for U.S. and Afghan forces. Paktia is on the border with Pakistan and in the rugged mountains where the Taliban holds sway.

When the Taliban learned that Noor's friend was in the village for the burial, they beheaded him. He was accused of being traitor and spy because he had worked for an international security company that supported the war against the Taliban.

The village was horrified, but crippled with fear and helpless to fight back, Noor explained. The villagers lacked the weapons, supplies, and men to resist the Taliban. The Afghan army unit in the area only sporadically fought the Taliban there and spent most of its time in a secured compound. The village was at the mercy of the Taliban.

No one in the village knew who the Taliban were, Noor said, since they were not locals and spoke a foreign dialect of the Pashtun language. The Taliban traveled freely across the border into Pakistan where they were supplied and armed. The local villagers were defenseless.

His friend's family was left destitute. His friend's widow and children now beg on the street and rely on handouts from friends and relatives.

This story illustrates what can and will happen many thousands of times over as U.S. and international forces complete the Afghan draw-down.

Noor is one of the lucky ones. He recently obtained a visa that will allow him to live in the U.S. and he stays in daily contact with his family and friends in Kabul. Everyone there is preparing for the worst, he said. Many are making arrangements to flee the country.

Meanwhile, the White House and the Pentagon tell the American public that the Afghan army can handle things, that a new president will be elected in April, and that all is well. Mission accomplished.

Sadly, the only accomplishment will be leaving Afghanistan in worse shape then when we arrived, a country edging toward civil war with tens of thousands of lives at risk.

When it came time for the call-in portion of the show, the station phones were silent. It was not surprising.  America grew tired of the war in Afghanistan long ago.

Yet, the silence was deafening.  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Karzai's desperate moves

It should come as no surprise that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been engaged in supposedly "secret" talks with the Taliban, as reported in today's New York Times.

A survivor, Karzai is desperately trying to save himself, his friends, and his family. And, I doubt that US intelligence was not aware of Karzai's actions. What's fascinating, however, is that Karzai's actions are newsworthy.

As the article points out, these behind-the-scenes talks have produced nothing. One of the reasons that they've been fruitless is that Karzai and the US have had no luck in finding anyone of any substance who truly represents the Taliban's seemingly untouchable leader, Mullah Omar.

But that too, should not come as a surprise. As I wrote in Above the Din of War, one of the Taliban's best games has been to pose impostors as their inside men, people who supposedly have direct access to Mullah Omar.

The funniest one was when US and British intelligence services sent a mission into Pakistan to pick up a man who was said to be a Taliban insider. The man was handed a bag of $100s and whisked into a series of high level meetings with US and Afghan officials.

Though this man did little more than grunt and nod, he was touted as a breakthrough. In the end, however, it was revealed that this man was little more than a Pakistani shopkeeper. His story is the Pakistani version of Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure.

The Taliban is still laughing over that one. But there's more. Take, for instance, the death of the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the man who Karzai appointed to head up his Peace Council.

After a couple of years of trying, the Taliban sent an envoy to meet with Rabbani, who was kind enough to let the man stay at his home while he was away from Kabul. When Rabbani returned and met with the man, the envoy detonated a bomb hidden in his turban, killing himself and Rabbani.

Hmmm. Could there be a message here?

Then there was the time when Karzai killed talks that the US State Department had arranged with the Taliban in Qatar. In one of the few instances where I have agreed with him, Karzai said no because the Taliban had essentially set up what amounted to an embassy-in-exile in Qatar. The Taliban wanted to conduct talks posing as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Karzai refused.

So, why would Karzai continue to reach out to the Taliban after all of this?

As I've written in earlier posts, Karzai has lost touch with reality. He lives exclusively inside the confines of his fortified palace, yet is able to see the writing on the wall. The Taliban's grip is growing stronger each and every day. It is only a matter of time before their strangle hold on Afghanistan is once again complete.

Karzai knows that when the Taliban takes over again, his life and that of his extended family and associates is over. What can be confiscated of his will be taken by the Taliban. If he escapes alive, he'll be lucky. In an effort to forestall this inevitability, Karzai has reached out to the Taliban.

As the Times points out, this may help explain why Karzai has refused to sign the agreement that would put the US forces inside Afghanistan for another decade. It would also explain why he has so steadfastly insisted on releasing dozens of Taliban prisoners the US has kept locked up in Baghram.

By delaying the signing and ranting against the US, Karzai has foolishly tried to curry favor with the Taliban. Sorry. It won't work.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The cost of corruption

This past week, a US government oversight agency issued a quarterly report on the handling of US aid to Afghanistan that underscores the abject failure of America's longest and perhaps most tragic war.

The report was produced by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR, and its report can be found on-line:

Among the reports key findings are:

--USAID contractors assessed 16 Afghan ministries and found they are unable to manage and account for funds; they identified 696 recommendations for corrective action -- 41 percent of them rated "critical" or "high risk."

--USAID's own risk reviews of seven Afghan ministries concluded each ministry is unable to manage U.S. direct assistance funds.  The reviews identified 107 major risks -- 99 of them rated critical or high.

--USAID said it would not award direct assistance dollars to these Afghan ministries "under normal circumstances." USAID waived its own requirements for providing direct assistance funds.

--USAID has not required the Afghan ministries to fix most of the risks identified prior to receiving U.S. money.

--USAID’s assessments revealed a high risk of corruption at the Afghan ministries.

--USAID failed to fully disclose to Congress that none of the ministries it assessed are capable of managing direct assistance funds.

--USAID insisted that SIGAR withhold key information from Congress and the public, even though USAID shared it with the Afghan government.

If one looks beyond the bureaucratic language, it is clear that those in the Afghan government are stealing US funds with wild abandon. USAID knows  it, yet by its own admission, the agency continues to dispense the funds, even against its better judgement and in violation of its own rules!

This might be an argument for an immediate cutoff of funds and a speedy withdrawal. But not so fast.

War time corruption is nothing new. Iraq was rife with corruption and it drove the cost of the war both in Iraq and and Afghanistan to dizzying heights. Corruption in the Afghan government also is not new. In fact, it has been going on for much of 13 years of this war, everyone knows it.

As I wrote in Above the Din of War, the corruption has been so pervasive that the vast majority of Afghans divorced themselves from the government long ago. And along with that estrangement, most Afghans pulled back their support for the US efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Their thinking was quite clear and straight forward. After the initial excitement of a country having been liberated from the oppressive and fundamentalist Taliban regime, the vast majority of Afghans felt their country was on the verge of prosperity and new found freedoms.

Instead of building on that all of this goodwill, the US inexplicably diverted its military and civilian resources to Iraq. This was undoubtedly the worst possible move the US could have made. The decision's dreadful economic impact was such that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal must someday be held accountable.

While the Iraq war was waged, Afghanistan was put on the back burner. Afghanistan's puppet leader, President Hamid Karzai, was left to run the show. He took advantage of the situation by surrounding himself with family and friends who helped themselves to largess of America and the international donors.

America simply looked the other way. But the Afghans did not. They saw the billions of dollars that they had thought would help them and their fellow Afghans recover from decades of war being stolen each and every day by the people the US had put into power.

They were not only Karzai and his pals, but the dozen or so warlords that still control Afghanistan. These former warlords were handed various and sundry ministries much like spoils of war.

The Taliban took advantage of the growing discontent and rampant corruption. They rightly asked their fellow Afghans to once again join them to help root out those who have been corrupted by the westerners and their money and their armies.

Slowly but surely, the Taliban was resurrected and now controls and estimated 80 percent of Afghanistan.

With Karzai refusing to sign a bilateral agreement that would let the US stay in Afghanistan for another decade, the Taliban is salivating. In the coming months, the Taliban knows, it will be able to quickly pounce and again claim Afghanistan, having driven the corrupted westerners from their land.

But the US cannot and should not let that happen. As I wrote in earlier columns, there is too much at stake to be lost, not only in Afghanistan and the region, but at home and around the world.              

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is Karzai crazy?

In the Monday, January 27 issue of the Washington Post, reporter Kevin Seiff reported from Kabul that Afghan President Hamid Karzai believes that the U.S. is secretly helping the Taliban and is behind many of the deadly attacks there in recent years.

This includes the recent suicide bombing and gun attack on La Taverna, the Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, where 21 people, including three Americans, were killed.

The rational response, of course, is that this is ridiculous. Why would the United States fight a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban for 13 years, and all the while secretly help the Taliban? Of course it's absurd.

But as I researched and wrote Above the Din of War, it's an attitude and belief in Afghanistan that is shared by many people.

The thinking is this: Why has the world's most powerful army, which has the world's most sophisticated weaponry, best intelligence services, and employs the best trained soldiers not been able to defeat the Taliban? After all, the Taliban are essentially untrained and miserably equipped. They use antiquated weapons, only AK-47s and RPGs, communicate largely by cell phones, and run around the countryside wearing blankets and broken down shoes.

Good question. Many Afghans answer by saying that the U.S. simply does NOT want to defeat the Taliban. They believe the U.S. is keeping the Taliban alive by equipping it and aiding it.

Karzai has picked up on this thinking and is now, according to Seiff, trying to develop a dossier of photos and information that would prove this assertion. Unfortunately, the evidence that Karzai has been gathering is bogus, as was pointed out in a recent article by the New York Times.

In that Times piece, angry survivors of a northern village that had been attacked by an airstrike showed a photo of dead and mutilated bodies that was from an attack that had occurred elsewhere in 2009.

What's going on here? As I have said before, it is time to stop taking Karzai seriously, which is what the Obama administration continues to do, and is why Seiff and the Washington Post tried to make sense of Karzai's comments and thought process.

I can only agree with U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham's assessment of Karzai's comments: "It's a deeply conspiratorial view that's divorced from reality," the Post quoted him as saying. "It flies in the face of logic and morality to think that we would aid the enemy we're trying to defeat."

The key words here are "divorced from reality."

One of the few times I saw Karzai in person was during a 2004 press conference with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At the time, Karzai was friendly and talked about the great cooperation between the two countries in fighting a common enemy.

But what struck me, however, was that Karzai was essentially a prisoner of his own device inside the highly fortified presidential palace. As far as I knew, he never left. It was too dangerous. The only people Karzai sees are the ones who come to him, passing through an incredible gauntlet of security -- paid for by the U.S.

No wonder he sounds wacky. He has spent the last 10 years knocking around a fortified palace watching as the war has dragged on for more than a dozen years with no clear resolution in sight. Meanwhile, the Taliban grows stronger and stronger as the U.S. and NATO steadily ratchet down their forces.

After more than a decade as Afghanistan's nominal leader, Karzai sees his country ebbing into the chaos, civil war, and the hands of the Taliban. There's nothing Karzai can do to stop it. He has been and is completely at the mercy of the U.S., which after the coming April 5 presidential election -- if it actually occurs -- will happily toss him out on the street.

(Karzai will probably turn up in Dubai the day after the election, if not earlier.)

What few shreds of dignity that Karzai may have left can only be salvaged by his increasingly strident and self-destructive anti-American ravings. These are, after all, nothing more than his sad and futile attempt to align himself with the 30 million Afghans who abandoned him long ago.

It's pathetic, of course, but no more pathetic than the U.S. government officials, policy makers, and perhaps even some journalists who still take him seriously.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Abandoning Afghanistan

An article in today's New York Times raises a lot of issues surrounding the so-called "zero option," which would be a total pull-out of Afghanistan by the end of this year.

While the headline suggests that the drone program would be put in jeopardy, a lot more is at stake. Not only would total withdrawal simply turn over large portions of the country to the Taliban and the fundamentalist elements in Pakistan, it would pave the way to a return to civil war. That alone is enough to reject the zero option. 

As the article mentions, a major reason for our presence in Afghanistan is to keep an eye on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. While it is well known that Pakistan and India have arsenals aimed at each other  -- a sad homage to the paranoia that grips the region -- it's much more serious because Pakistan is apparently developing highly mobile "tactical" nukes. 

Given the inherent instability of Pakistan, its illusory control of the northwest provinces, and its widely accepted ties with and support of the Taliban, possession of tactical nuclear weapons poses a big problem.

It requires no stretch of the imagination to suspect that these exceedingly destructive weapons could fall into the hands of elements of the Taliban and/or the fractured and diverse incarnations of al-Qaeda.

The threat of this to both Afghanistan and Pakistan is obvious. But it doesn't stop there. The region is at stake as well.

Perhaps the best example is al-Qaeda's recent takeover of Fallujah, the bloody and bitterly contested city in Iraq. This is a clear and dangerous consequence of the US total pull-out of Iraq. 

Now Al-Qaeda militias control parts of Syria. They're scattered across northern Africa in countries such as northern Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, and Mali.

This makes a domestic threat to the US all the more real. 

Yes, this theme has been explored extensively already by thriller writers and Hollywood productions. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, this is a real situation that is evolving slowly but surely.

Because of this, it is all the more important that the US abandon the zero option in Afghanistan. The threat posed by the region, if left to its own devices, is frighteningly real. 

There is historical precedent. The attacks of 9/11 were hatched by bin Laden while he was in Afghanistan. And where did he go to hide for more than a decade? Pakistan.

What is still more disconcerting is that the US policy makers are presenting Afghan President Hamid Karzai as an obstacle because he won't sign the agreement that would give us a long-term presence in Afghanistan.

This is absurd. Karzai is in office and is only alive, in fact, because the US put him there and keeps him there. Not only is the stability of the region dependent on US and NATO presence, so is US long-term security.

All of this is at risk because Karzai is throwing yet another irrational and self-destructive temper tantrum in a fake show that he cares about the Afghan people? No one in Afghanistan takes Karzai seriously, so why should the US?

It is apparent that by giving Karzai the credence that he does not deserve, the Obama administration is giving itself political cover for a possible total withdrawal.  

The US cannot abandon Afghanistan. There is far too much at stake, in the country, in the region, and at home for the US to pull out. It would be a huge mistake.