Archive for June, 2015

An Afghan Tale

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard:

An Afghan Tale
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.
Ann Marlowe
July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41

The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.

Like a classic Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, The Valley has a very limited geographic area and cast of characters. We follow Lieutenant Black—no first name—who’s been sent to a small American combat outpost to conduct a routine investigation: A villager’s house was damaged when an American soldier fired a warning shot in an unruly Afghan crowd, and the village chief complained to a passing civil affairs captain. Lieutenant Black is due to spend a week filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, he has his own demons: Something has gone very wrong in what should have been a promising Army career, and this is a chance for him to prove himself.

The ramshackle Combat Outpost (COP) Vega—supposed to be the furthest-east, most isolated, and most dangerous American outpost in a Nuristan valley that ends at the Pakistan border—is home to 47 soldiers and one translator, or “terp,” named Danny, the major Afghan character. The men are fighting with not only the Taliban but the villagers, who are also fighting the Taliban. Five days before Black’s arrival, a soldier from Vega fell behind 10 meters on a nighttime patrol and got snatched by locals. His end was gruesome.

In Army-speak, COP Vega is a “self-licking ice cream cone”: an isolated fort so poorly situated that it mainly exists to defend itself rather than to extend American control over terrain or people. Small wonder that the men are half-crazy with stress and treat Black as an enemy. It’s not even so odd that one soldier may be a killer. It is odd, though, that a soldier no one has heard of is listed on the personnel roster, and that another soldier Black meets in the flesh isn’t on the roster.

The U.S. Army doesn’t lose track of soldiers. Or does it?

The Valley draws as much on the conventions of gothic fiction as crime fiction: COP Vega is a castle clinging to a fog-wrapped mountain, surrounded by hostile, poorly understood forces. Black’s trip to COP Vega on a classically pitch-black, rainy night is full of ominous foreshadowing. There’s a joking road sign pointing to “Xanadu,” a cryptic warning to “beware he who would be king.”

The Valley gives the best description of the American military base environment (and the post-9/11 Army) that I’ve ever read, both accurate in the details and evocative in atmosphere. John Renehan nails the big Forward Operating Bases (which are anything but forward) and the tiny, patched-together COPs up in the hills or on dusty plains where the rubber meets the road. He also captures the tensions between noncommissioned officers and junior lieutenants, and between junior enlisted and NCOs. This is all, by extension, a portrait of America today. Consider this:

The room was standard-issue meathead. Heavy-metal posters and jugs of workout powder. An Xbox video game system sat on a shelf beneath a small and beat-up monitor.

Or this description of Lieutenant Pistone, the commander of COP Vega:

He became your squared-away super-soldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader. He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people.

It comes as a shock to read in Renehan’s acknowledgments that the pain-stakingly observed Afghan setting is a work of imagination. Renehan served as an artillery officer in Iraq and has never been to Afghanistan. As this suggests, Renehan is not only a brilliant writer, but a very clever one. Still, there are some first-novel fault lines here: The Valley is written in a close third-person, almost entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant Black. (The couple-dozen pages that take the points of view of other characters are far less successful.) But there’s a major surprise at the end, and the closeness of the narration makes it seem as though the author is pulling a fast one on us.

More seriously, I wish the novelist had opened up his main character more toward the end. He has elegantly avoided all the redemption clichés we might have expected, but the ending feels a bit choked, and The Valley ends on an uncertain note.

Renehan has spoken in an interview of writing a sequel, and I can’t wait; I hope there’s a movie, too. “You are [a] man who needs the truth,” the Afghan terp Danny says to Lieutenant Black. And we need these truths about our wars and our soldiers, too.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, was embedded with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in Afghanistan.

Behind the Mediterranean Migrant ‘Crisis’

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Ann Marlowe
Sinking Ships
06.02.154:25 PM ET

The flood of people struggling across the water from Africa began long ago. What’s new is Europe’s misreading of the situation in Libya—and the number of people dying.
We’ve been reading a lot recently about the tragic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean en route from Libyan ports to Italy—the port of first arrival for the overwhelming majority of migrants—and also about some notably bad ideas for solving the “crisis,” including Italy’s suggestion of putting European Union boots on the ground in Libya and destroying ships in ports there. Libya’s recognized government has rejected these ideas while signaling its willingness to do all it can to help solve the problem.
In fact, just a little digging into the facts shows that politics are playing as big a role as humanitarian concerns.
First and foremost among the bad ideas is the perverse E.U. and U.N. insistence that the way to address the issue is through a Libyan “unity government,” by which they mean bringing together elements from the Islamist Fajr coalition that seized Tripoli last August with the legitimate elected legislature in Tobruk and the cabinet it chose. “As long as there will not be a unity government that will exercise its legitimate authority over the entire territory of the country and its land and sea borders, the situation is likely to continue this way,” E.U. foreign policy head Federica Mogherini declared last month.
Problem is, most of the illegal migration to Europe relying on Libyan boats originates from the western coastal towns of Libya from Misrata to Zwara, with the cooperation of the Taliban-ish Fajr militias controlling these areas who cash in on the traffic. Tobruk, where the recognized legislature sits, is just 194 nautical miles or 360 km from Crete, yet there is no problem with vessels leaving Tobruk packed with migrants heading to Crete.
So the E.U./U.N. approach is like “solving” Mexico’s drug problem by bringing the cartels into the government.
Libya already tried that—it was called the Gaddafi regime. Under Gaddafi, as a 2014 U.S. Institute of Peace report on migration states, “the illicit economy was largely state sponsored.” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had warm relations with Gaddafi. So the Italian approach to migration in the Berlusconi years was a bit different. In fact, it involved forcibly returning migrants to Libya without investigating asylum claims.
According to a September 2009 Human Rights Watch report, “Italian patrol boats tow migrant boats from international waters without determining whether some might be refugees, sick or injured, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, or victims of trafficking or other forms of violence against women…. The policy is an open violation of Italy’s legal obligation not to commit refoulement—the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.” The full report is well worth reading.
The E.U./U.N. approach is like “solving” Mexico’s drug problem by bringing the cartels into the government.
So, because Gaddafi’s minions had their fingers in the smuggling pie, and Gaddafi was pals with Berlusconi, Italy was not asking the E.U. to put boots on the ground in Libya or destroy fishing boats to stop the human trafficking.
Reading news reports, one might have the impression that the number of migrants to Italy has increased dramatically in 2015, but this is only true of recent weeks, after the E.U. announced new rescue efforts (and threatened a crackdown on smugglers’ boats). Just last weekend, more than 5,000 were rescued, bringing the total this year to upwards of 40,000.
But until May the numbers in 2015 were running well below the 35,000 for the first five months of 2011 when the Gaddafi regime wobbled and Libya’s borders became more porous.
About 26,000 migrated by sea in the first five months of 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. But in 2006, even when the Gaddafi regime was firmly in control, 22,000 people arrived in Italy by boat from North Africa, and 19,900 in 2007.
There has been a migrant crisis in 2015—but of deaths, not of absolute migrant numbers. More than 1,800 migrants have died in 2015 to date.
The terrible death rate in 2015 is due to many factors, including the suspension in October of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue program which covered a much wider area of the Mediterranean than that now patrolled by what’s called Frontex; the switch by some traffickers to using plastic Zodiacs rather than sturdier wooden fishing boats; and the fact that many migrants are no longer supplied by traffickers with life jackets. (Nice folks.)
Of course, all of this begs the question of why tens of thousands of Africans think it worth a more than 4 percent risk of death to escape their home countries, and why the world won’t pressure governments like Eritrea—the single largest source of migrants as of the end of April—as well as Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria and Gambia to improve conditions. Not to mention Syria. But it’s easier for the E.U. and U.N. to pretend that the citizens of these tyrannical, corrupt or failed states have a right to become citizens of the E.U. than to deal with their rights under the U.N. Charter to have a decent, free life in their home countries.
Until the E.U. and U.N. are able to identify and punish the real culprits for the tragic deaths in the Mediterranean—ranging from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to the rulers of the Sub-Saharan African countries that most of the migrants flee, to the Islamist militias that fund their reign of terror in Libya by human trafficking—it is unlikely that there will be any solution to this problem. And until the west coast of Libya as well as the east is governed responsibly, the human traffickers will continue to prey on these desperate refugees.