Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Veeery interesting

This AP article packs some pretty interesting things into a few short lines:

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials say a Cabinet minister met secretly with Turkey's foreign minister in an attempt to improve relations between two allies after ties dramatically deteriorated.

The officials say Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer met Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Europe Wednesday.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the government did not confirm details.

The supposedly secret meeting was reported by Israel's Channel 2 TV. The Israeli prime minister's office eventually confirmed an "unofficial meeting."

The talks drew an angry response from Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who said he was not informed.

If this is true, it could mean that Lieberman's stock is falling pretty fast in the government and perhaps Netanyahu and co. are finally starting to see him as the obstacle that he is, rather than a convenient conduit to right-wing votes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I have a couple of major posts about Israel lurking in the back of my mind, but I doubt I'll find the time or energy for them until after finals are over (oy). Instead, here's an image-heavy, slightly sappy post about Afghanistan. At the very least, the pictures are really worth scrolling through.

Foreign Policy has a gorgeous photo feature about the Afghanistan of the 1950s. It really underlines the tragedy that Afghanistan and Iran, among other Near Eastern and Central Asian countries, share--a past that seems almost unthinkable after it was wiped out and covered over by civil war or civil strife and extreme social repression.

I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that dealt with the treatment of Afghan women as one of its case studies, and my research for the paper turned up nostalgic accounts of this past, as the authors I read sadly sought to fix in history the fact that Afghanistan enjoyed a brief, but not negligible period of stability, higher education and far more equitable gender relations for about thirty years up until sometime in the 1970s (the year escapes me--Afghanistan is not an area of my expertise). The photos give that period a clearer face, and so in some ways a sadder sepia tint.

Afghanistan is one of the few cases where I feel pretty comfortable abandoning the relativist skepticism of broad negative statements that was drilled into my every pore as a liberal child of a liberal family in a liberal city getting a liberal education. I certainly don't mean to say that Afghan culture is necessarily or inherently retrograde, evil, or anti-women; but Afghanistan--and Yemen, while I'm rambling--are the two places from which stories of women's lives consistently go much further than making my feminist blood boil and induce a simple, awful sadness in me. It's a place with some really incredible cultural heritage, as an exhibit at the Met last year demonstrated beautifully (that is the only time I can actually remember buying the damn book at the gift shop--the combination of amazing artifacts and a syncretic tradition that I knew nothing about was irresistible).

There's just something tragic about a place spanned by the Silk Road, whose history includes Mesopotamian influences,

Hellenic influences,

South or Southeast Asian influences--there are things about this that remind me both of India and Cambodia--

and a nomadic culture that carried around artifacts like these:

(The crown is collapsible, if I recall correctly!) That is to say, a place whose heritage included all of this, as well as, eventually, some pretty great-looking record stores:

Only to have nearly all of it burned and bombed away. The collection that was loaned to the Met is only extant because some courageous museum workers hid it in the presidential palace; the rest of the Kabul Museum's collection was lost in the civil war.

From all of that (with, of course, a great deal of history in between about which I admit I know next to nothing), to dark streets and girls burning themselves to death rather than be sold in marriage to pay off opium dealers.

I hope I get a chance at some point to learn more about Afghanistan's rich history that is not quite so recent. The introduction to the FP photo essay begins:

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.

But that is not the Afghanistan I remember.

It's important to remember not only what is lacking, but what was lost.

Two and two together

Marc Ambinder, who seems to have gotten some kind of fire lit under him in the past month or so--all of a sudden his stories are about forty times more interesting--has a brilliant piece about some of the interagency jockeying going on around the war in Afghanistan. It's a lesson in how to read for subtext and hidden information, and how much you need to know to be able to do so at all:

Greg Miller, the Washington Post's ace intelligence and national security reporter, poured a bucket of ice down the backs of American officials with his publication last night of a story about how U.S. special operations forces are hamstrung from pursuing high value targets in Afghanistan, even as they're quietly drawing up plans for direct military retaliation against entities who plan terrorist attacks in the United States. The Post chose to headline the story with what I thought to be of secondary importance -- the drawing of contingency plans for retaliatory attacks: "Options studied for a possible Pakistan strike." [...]

But the real interesting part of this story is subtextual. Miller is a fantastic journalist, and he has sources almost no one else has. But even the most voluble of sources chose to speak at moments when disclosing information would best advance their equities in a particular debate. So why are Miller's sources talking right now, and what message are they trying to communicate?

He proceeds to tell you his thoughts--which seem pretty plausible, but I'm hardly in a position to evaluate when it comes to the subtle discontents of CENTCOM vs. SOCOM in targeting procedures--and then wallops you at the end with a protip that, if you're me, leaves you gaping at the obvious genius of it while he vanishes cackling into the interweb.

By the way, note how two of the quotations in the piece use the word "punitive." If you've got some time today, run the word "punitive" and the names of the senior officers associated with the special operations command and see if you can figure out who likes to use that phrase a lot. (Do the same thing, incidentally, for the words "pulse" and "kinetic" and "senior administration official." That has nothing to do with this article, but it's going to be revealing, nonetheless.)

Trust, if I had any idea what the relevant names were, I would be happily digging around LexisNexis and not sitting here typing this.