Archive for April, 2012

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos (orig. pub. in WSJ 4/23/2012)

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

April 23, 2012

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos

Sometimes men do dumb things. This is one of them, little more.

By Ann Marlowe

Last week’s U.S. military “scandal”: Some young enlisted men from a platoon in the 82nd Airborne, most barely old enough to vote, posed for photos in 2010 with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers.
In some of the photos, Afghan National Police officers posed alongside U.S. troops. This group has taken the heaviest losses from suicide attacks. No American in the photos committed any atrocity or required subsequent military discipline. In fact, according to Col. Dave Oclander, who commanded the battalion that included the platoon in question, this unit was one of his best, and many of the men in the photos had performed acts of humanitarian service while deployed.
Military investigators have found that the men might have violated General Order No. 1, intended to “identify and regulate conduct which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline of forces.” Section 2f prohibits photography of “human casualties.”
No one had published the photos anywhere until last week, when the good people at the Los Angeles Times decided that the world would be best served by doing so. The Pentagon had requested that the newspaper refrain since some of the men in the photos are currently deployed in Afghanistan.
By now, every bien-pensant commentator has weighed in with self-righteous indignation at this manufactured story. It symbolizes a breakdown in command, the effects of overly long and frequent overseas deployments. And somehow, although it took place two years earlier and under different senior leadership, it is of a piece with last month’s alleged shooting spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
In polite circles today—meaning circles in which few people under 60 have served in uniform—the American military is seen through distorted lenses. One lens exaggerates the good characteristics of those who serve, making even the most indifferent truck mechanic or supply-chain manager a “hero.” This does little for the real heroes, who have received less recognition in our Afghan and Iraq engagements than in any previous war. The other lens, measuring ordinary men and women against this impossible standard, labels every ordinary lapse of judgment as a grave indicator of the failure of a chain of command, a moral blemish, and a comfort to our enemies.
These young men should never have taken those photos. But that is the extent of their “crime.”
Was the picture-posing culturally insensitive? Probably less so in Afghanistan than it would have been here. Afghans themselves have often denied Islamic burial to suicide bombers. When I was embedded with U.S. troops in Khost province several years ago, the Afghan governor allowed one bomber’s body parts to be left in tree branches as a deterrent to others. The Afghan National Police—who lost 1,555 men between mid-2010 and mid-2011, according to figures reported by the Washington Post, most to improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks—hate suicide bombers as no one else does.
Afghan civilians mainly feel the same way. Like the police, they don’t drive around in armored vehicles that can withstand bomb blasts. In 2011, according to United Nations figures, the Taliban killed about 2,600 civilians, 431 in suicide bombings. Just about the only Afghan to get on his high horse about the publication of the photos was the feckless president, Hamid Karzai.
Part of the issue here is also the accelerating feminization of American culture, which has caused the increasing demonization of relatively normal male behavior. Men at war demonize their enemy and enact their triumph over him symbolically. That is part of the psychology that makes them able to kill.
No, it isn’t pretty, but it’s not that different from the way football teams psych themselves up for games or the way that (with less physicality) a big company’s sales force revs up for a new product introduction. Male aggressivity serves a purpose in a healthy society—as many of us realized for the first time when the U.S. had to fight back after 9/11.
And sometimes, men do dumb things. This is one of them, and not much more.

Debating Democracy Under Fire in Zwara (April 3)

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Zwara, Libya

As shells fell around the Amazigh city of Zwara on the evening of April 3, the city’s five tanks thundered back at its Arab neighbors in Rig Dalin. Men, ranging in age from their teens to their sixties, fought and supported the fighters—and updated the Zwara Media Center’s very active Facebook page. Also, they talked incessantly about the meaning of democracy, minority rights, gun control, and other topics usually left to less urgent settings.

Libyans are often having the right kinds of discussions among themselves, but there’s a huge gap between conversation and the actions needed to nudge the nation closer to a functioning democracy.

The roots of the Zwara-Rig Dalin animosity stretch back decades, even centuries. One local activist invoked the Arab invasion that displaced Amazigh from the coast inland. But last year, hatred spilled over into violence as former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmudi (now jailed in Tunisia), himself from Jumayl, an ally of Rig Dalin, promised the local Arabs Zwara’s fifty miles of coastland if they supported Qaddafi. Armed by Mahmudi, Rig Dalin, Jumayl, and another Arab city, Ajilat, fought fiercely for Qaddafi until the end, raising the green flag defiantly even after Qaddafi’s death on October 20.

The current conflict began when Jumayl fighters kidnapped and tortured 25 Zwara border guards on April 1 and refused to return their cars and weapons, even after releasing the men. It escalated from skirmishes on the outskirts of the two cities on April 2 to Rig Dalin shelling the town of Zwara, to Zwara men burning buildings on the outskirts of Rig Dalin, to mutual lobbing of shells by the evening of the 3. At that point, thirteen Zwara men had been killed and 177 wounded, the largest number ever killed in a single conflict and far more than even died in the revolution itself. (Two more men died from wounds by April 5.) The young fighters didn’t wear the flak jackets and helmets provided to the revolutionaries by foreign countries last summer: several of the deaths were by sniper shots to the heart or head. When I visited one frontline at Abdul Samed Air Defense base on April 2, none of the revolutionaries were wearing protective gear.

On Wednesday night, the government in Tripoli sent troops to enforce a ceasefire. The long term damage from the violence is Zwara’s trust in the fairness of the national government.

“No one here believes in this Libya anymore,” claims Ayoob Sufyan, 24, who works at the Zwara Media Center. “We have been betrayed by this government and the National Transitional Council.”

Sufyan and many of the twenty-something-year-old men clustered in a brightly painted room in the former internal security building were furious at what looked to them like biased treatment by the government and government-owned TV stations. For the last two days, they’d been posting graphic photos of the wounded and dead on their Facebook page on an hourly basis. Yet Libya’s government had done nothing to capture and punish the kidnappers of the Zwara guards. They pointed to the fact that the minister of sefense is from Zintan, an Arab town loosely allied with Jumayl.

The upcoming June 23 elections could provide a chance to debate and resolve these issues peacefully. But in late March, the NTC announced that Zwara was too small to be entitled to its own seat in the Assembly. Instead, it would have to share one with Zultan, a pro-Qaddafi town against which the Zwarans were recently fighting.

As Libyan National Army Special Forces moved into a buffer zone between Rig Dalin and Zwara, Zwarans complained of the unfairness of the government’s demand for both sides to disarm. Zwara, after all, had supported the revolution since the beginning, capturing weapons from Qaddafi’s troops.

Wail Moammer invokes the American right to state militias and the right to bear arms. “Texas is the best model. Zwara is like a state,” he argues.

Khaled el Naggiar, 55, an Amazigh activist trained as a pilot in the U.S., rejected the separatist argument, insisting instead on the need for a strong national government. “Texas is a better place than any Arab country. They have laws. They have police. If you shoot someone, you will go to jail. In Libya there is no law now. Libya is like a patient who has had a serious operation and needs to recover.”

Naggiar counseled patience to the younger men – difficult advice in this lively culture at any time, especially after the town’s terrible losses.

Surprisingly Normal: Sabratha Comes into Its Own

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Surprisingly Normal
Amid an economic boom, Sabratha comes into its own.
Ann Marlowe
April 3, 2012 5:20 PM

Sabratha, Libya
The future here was hard to discern when I was last here in November. Would it gradually descend into conflict between militias, or would it enjoy some level of security? Would the town’s Salafi contingent rule, or would Sabratha come under the sway of a more moderate Islam?

The answer now is, it’s a mixed bag.

A group of Salafis tried to destroy Roman statues in the town’s world-famous archeological site on March 17, but they were thwarted by the site’s guards – some of them revolutionary fighters – who put the statues in the site museum.

But, on the other hand, a prominent local businessman, Hassan al-Fathily, recently planted hundreds of trees along one of the town’s main roads, paying tribute to the town he loves. Fathily, 42, explained his generosity to me: “Before, there was no love of nationality. But now, I want to serve my city and my country.”

All agree that the economy is better now than under Qaddafi. Part of that is because of increased economic freedom. Colonel Omar al-Herik, 54, a pilot in the Libyan Air Force who also produces honey on his Sabratha farm, told me, “Now all the people can do whatever business they want to do.”

Also, Qaddafi’s security establishment distorted the Libyan economy, raising prices. Previously, Herik explained, the Qaddafi militia stationed around Sabratha had first crack at anything in the markets or stores. Now, everything except meat is cheaper.

Herik also said that the country was finally free of Qaddafi’s treasury-draining follies, many of them aimed at bolstering poor African states. Herik explained that he once saw a Libyan Air Force “plane filled with bags of cement from Ukraine that Qaddafi was sending to Chad to build a hotel so he would have a place to stay there.”

Khalid al-Fathily, Hassan’s cousin who owns a computer equipment and repair shop on Attar Street, says he is grossing around $16,000 in a good month and earning a profit of about $3200, more than double what he made before the revolution.

Meanwhile, government services are functioning here on a basic level, better than in Tripoli. The schools are operating in both cities, and while trash piles up in frightening heaps in the capital, the garbage is collected daily here. The shops on Attar Street now put their trash out in plastic cans along the median, and the street itself is a lot cleaner than it was in November.

Sabratha was the first city in Libya where the police resumed work, according to Khalid Ahmed, chairman of the Supreme Security Committee. Previously there were about 600 policemen in Sabratha, about half of whom have returned to work. They are joined by 590 revolutionaries who want to become police or border police. At major intersections, blue-uniformed cops direct traffic with the help of revolutionaries still dressed in camouflage. The police salaries have been raised to about $810 a month. Ahmed said that the judicial system in Sabratha is functioning, with the usual routine of pre-trial jail during an investigation, a trial before a judge, and a verdict.

Under Qaddafi, Sabratha held both a major army base and the headquarters of one of the notorious militia commanded by regime thugs. Today, about half of the 1,000 Libyan army soldiers stationed in a camp in the center of town under Qaddafi have come back to work. (Glitches in moving from a cash payment system to direct deposit mean that salaries are two months in arrears, which might account for some of the absenteeism.) But about 200 men from Qaddafi’s militia have been accepted into the new army. These 700 men won’t be going back to work at the old base, which was severely damaged in the battle on August 14 that freed the town. The citizens of Sabratha objected to having soldiers in the town center – or rather, they’d always objected but now their wishes are often realized. So the old base will become a much-needed park, and a new facility will be built for the army on the outskirts of town.

The town council gets mixed reviews from many Sabratha citizens. Colonel Bashir al- Madhouny, a tank commander in the Libyan army who fought on the revolutionaries’ side last summer, explained that they wanted to hold an election to form a new council, but sitting members refused to vacate their seats. Khalid al-Fathily explained that, “some people say we are not ready for elections for mejlis.” Then the twenty-nine-year-old added that he thinks no one over 50 ought to be able to be in the new government, because “this was a revolution of young people.”

On Friday, March 30, about a hundred Libyans strolled around the famous Roman ruins, but no foreigners. This isn’t a huge revenue loss to the town – even in the best of times, numbers of overseas visitors were small – but the local business community is trying to woo Libyan tourists. The tourist board is renovating the large four star Dar Tlil hotel on the beach to the west of Sabratha. It’s the biggest beach hotel between Tripoli and Tunisia, with a projected room rate of around $56 a night geared to Libyan budgets. The work is very much in the do it yourself spirit of the revolution. One prominent local businessman used his own large tractor to grade the beach in preparation for opening to the public this summer.

The Dar Tlil is unlikely to host many women bathers, however. While perhaps one in ten women on the street in November wore a face veil, perhaps as many as three in ten seemed to be covering their faces now. Maybe this is because more women are going out now, including more conservative women. I saw two different groups of four niqab-wearing women walking into two of the new restaurants that have sprung up since the revolution. Is it progress if women feel free to go out to eat, and have the money to do so, but feel obliged to veil their faces?

In evaluating Libya’s progress since the revolution, it’s important not to forget that at independence in 1951 this was one of the poorest and least educated countries in the world. Many of the streets in the outskirts of town aren’t paved, and people born before 1950 or so are likely to have had little or no formal education. Hassan al-Fathily’s 72-year-old mother, Shala, is case in point. She never went to school, and married a farmer at 13. But the mother of nine and grandmother of 40 has composed dozens of poems in Libyan dialect celebrating the revolution, which she can reel off eloquently at the drop of a hat. (I was told they are very beautiful, but no one felt up to translating them.) Her six sons are all educated. One grandson, Mahmoud, a tall, powerfully built 18-year-old revolutionary fighter, is about to start university. It’s his generation – a huge slice of Libya’s population – that will determine what Libya looks like in the next decades. For the moment, it looks as though Sabratha is becoming more Sabrathan.