Monthly Archives: April 2009


Last week I visited the former royal palace in Kathmandu, which was opened to the public for the first time  last month, less than a year after the royal family was deposed by the Maoists. It seems like the perfect revenge for the new Maoist-led government- turning the royal household into a tourist attraction.  Andwhat better way to bury the past than by thoroughly memorializing it? On a hot Sunday, I stood in a long line of Nepalis and a few tourists to get a glimpse of the compound where the royal family lived and died. The current palace was built in the 1960’s and is an imposing and dramatic structure. It sits halfway between traditional Nepali style and Jetsons-style modernism.

I entered through the high-ceilinged mirrored hall that once received heads of state and government ministers. Stuffed tigers reared up from the corners and full length portraits of the kings of Nepal lined the walls. I wound my way through the official entertaining rooms, the royal bedroom and diningroom, and the rooms reserved for visiting guests. The walls of long snaking corridors were lined with photographs of the late King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya smiling next to presidents, dictators, emirs, princes. On the lower level, a vast room held the various medals and honorary awards given out by the king. The furniture and decorations inside were fine quality but clearly dated, like the living room of someone’s rich grandparents. Somerooms bore a closer resemblance to  Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.

Behind the palace where the royals lived was the field where they died. The story of the Royal Massacre is the stuff of Shakespeare. The crown prince Dipendra burst into the royal family’s weekly evening of billiards, armed with machine gun,  shotgun, and pistol and opened fire on his relatives. He killed King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya, and others before turning the gun on himself in the garden. The building where the massacre happened has been torn down but the foundation remains and the exact location of the deaths are noted by numbered markers.

Between the strange monomaniacal faded glamour of the palace and the starck morbidity of the site of the massacre, I struggled to imagine the lives of this royal family or to draw out their humanity from the political history they helped to shape. Outside the high palace walls, congested traffic snarled through the dirty streets, boys huffed glue from paper bags and North Face-clad trekkers were propositioned with hashish and paid sex. Taxi drivers must wait in line for petrol for five hours each day because of fuel shortages. Power is on for only a few hours for the same reason. And this is in Kathmandu; conditions outside the valley are much worse. Inside the palace, all that seemed a world away.


Afghanistan 2.0

The most recent edition of Mother Jones referred to the war in Afghanistan as “Obama’s Great Gamble”. He has committed 17,000 troops to a war whose success will be determined largely by chance and an experimental “shoot first, ask questions later” strategy. First we surge; then we negotiate. It is a strategy whose startling simplicity might reveal a profound complexity to the situation in Afghanistan.

Thirty years of ongoing conflict has engendered a political environment suspended by incredibly tenuous and uncertain alliances. Despite the success of the Taliban, 9 out of 10 people disapprove of them, yet they pay them for protection. The government is seen as corrupt and irresponsible, yet, in the absence of any viable alternative, the international community continues to prop it up. President Karzai’s own family has been implicated in drug running and profiteering. Not even the 80,000 strong military, Karzai’s great achievement, is beyond corruption. Much of the military has been compromised by the Taliban, which compensates them handsomely while they look the other way. Insert into this picture Pakistan, whose refusal to control its Western border has created a safe-haven for Taliban insurgents; and India, whose continued financial support for the Afghan government has exacerbated tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan despite their shared conflict.

Whether or not we can drive a wedge between the hostile and helpful elements of Afghanistan’s society remains to be seen. The gamble has less to do with our ability to further disrupt an already chaotic region than our ability to ground floating allegiances once the smoke has cleared. This will require a strategy that responds to complexity with parity.

Stuck on the Roof of the World: Somalis in Nepal

“We fled our country in search of visa and future and now we are helpless here.”

These are the words of Billal Ali Hassan, whom I met two days ago outside the Home Ministry in Kathmandu. Billal was among several dozen Somali men and women lying to the shade of a brick wall. They had just launched a hunger strike to protest their situation in Nepal.  Billal told me that 72 Somali men, women and children currently reside in Nepal, trapped by bizarre circumstances in a legal twilight zone.

I would never have expected to find Somali refugees fleeing to the Himalayas, and according to Billal, neither did they. Many Somalis, as well as refugees from Burma, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, were brought here by human traffickers who promised them they would end up in Italy, the U.K. or other parts of Europe. Billal told me that in 2005 his family fled Mogadishu in the midst of fighting. They were members of a minority clan and suffered persecution by the armed militias. After Billal’s father and sister were killed, his mother decided to send him away. She paid a Somali British woman $6,000 US to transport him to the U.K. Posing as his mother, the woman flew him to Kathmandu where they rested in a hotel. After two days, she left to go shopping and never returned.

Confused and penniless, Billal wandered the streets until he was directed to the UNHCR by friendly Nigerians. There he was interviewed, classified as a political refugee, and given an identity card. Billal was placed in a hostel with a pension of 4,250 Nepalese rupees (approximately $53 US) each month. As the violence continued in Somalia, more people arrived in Kathmandu under similar circumstances.

After surviving the violence that destroyed their families, traveling halfway across the world, and  left helpless  in an alien culture, Billal and other refugees found themselves with another foe: bureaucracy. Although the UNHCR recognizes the Somalis as refugees, in the eyes of the Nepalese government, they are illegal immigrants. The government  only recognizes Tibetans and Bhutanese refugees, and accuses the UN of violating its sovereignty by unilaterally giving other nationals refugees status.

Billal cannot work legally in Nepal, and neither can he return to Somalia or emigrate to a third country. Each day, Billal accrues a fine for overstaying his visa which, after four years, has grown to a huge sum.  Thus, he is stuck in limbo on the roof of the world. The refugees have petitioned the government repeatedly and last October demonstrated outside the Home Ministry to raise awareness to their plight. Now they are lying in the same street, refusing food and hoping that the government will free them to live and work in Nepal or to leave. Billal has been thoroughly buffeted by the winds of history in the last decade and now again he finds his future tied up in the politics of others. Unfortunately, Billal and his fellow Somalis, starving or no, are small fish for the new coalition government here, which is struggling to revise its constitution and integrate 30,000 Maoist rebels into the national army, among other challenges. Lets hope they are heard.

What’s Next for Pakistan

The government of Pakistan continues to sleepwalk through its nightmare, and no one knows how to wake it up. As pirates were being killed off the coast of Somalia, another medieval-esque group was extending its political control over the shipwreck that has become the Pakistani state. It’s becoming harder to sympathize with the leaders of Pakistan, as they hand their country over piecemeal to the same ruthless militants who they decry in the international fundraising circuit. Just days ago, the parliament passed a resolution that allowed the Taliban to set up a parallel judiciary in the Swat Valley. Refusing to acknowledge the cravenness of this action, Zardari holds to his belief that the concession would bring “peace” to the area. However, the legal authority vested in the Taliban has only formalized the violence. Now, they patrol the town with AK-47’s and hang signs in the main bazaars that prohibit women from entering. Meanwhile, they are building an army under threat of legal recourse, recruiting every landless man who harbors a grudge against the political elite.


Underlying the success of the Taliban is the division of Pakistan itself. So far, the Taliban has proven to be one of the only unifying forces, avoiding the political infighting that has crippled the central government by pursuing a reductive ideological campaign. It’s on a singular crusade to establish Shariah. To this end, it has exploited class differences, turning tenants into victims and arming them with guns.  According to Pakistani-American lawyer, Mahboob Mahmood, after years of living in an essential feudal society, “the people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for a revolution.” As chilling as their tactics are, the goals of the Taliban are incredibly seductive to a group of people whose alternative is social and political immobility. None of this is to say that the Taliban will be more responsible oppressors. To fund their war, they have looted humanitarian agencies, blackmailed landowners, and seized property for their own use. Aside from weapons, it’s unclear whether the victimized class of Pakistanis are getting anything out of this revolution.


Still, the violence will continue to spread. A couple days ago, another province was taken over and the political elites chased away. Yet, the government refuses to face-off with the militants. While the machinery of the state is systematically dismantled, the civilian government still believes that India is a bigger threat, which is why most of the army is stationed on the Eastern border, far from the actual war. It’s hard to say how the situation will unfold. But it’s necessary to hope that the something stops the Taliban from taking over the central government of a nuclear state. Otherwise, Af-Pak will get a whole lot messier.

Drowned 183 Times

How a democratic state ultimately accounts for its use of extreme violence during wartime reveals much about its political character.

-James D. Le Sueur, from the  introduction to Henri Alleg’s The Question

Several years ago, I heard Henri Alleg speak on his experiences in Algeria and tell the story of his famous work, The Question, which is widely credited with turning French public opinion against the war in Algeria. In person, Alleg was small and portly, and spoke softly with a heavy accent so that the audience had to lean forward to catch his words. It was hard to believe that this frail old man was the one who brought France to task for its war crimes.

Now that President Obama has brought some of our own nightmarish violence into the light with the release of C.I.A. torture records, we need to ask ourselves how our democratic state will acount for its actions. Obama is resisting Congressional calls for a truth commission, but if ghastly new evidence keeps coming to light- such as the use of insects and the astounding 183 waterboardings of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed- the President will find it increasingly difficult to hold back further inquiry.

The Spread of War

What is the real reach of the war in Afghanistan? I was surprised by two news pieces that touch on the wide-ranging and disparate effects of the conflict in central Asia.

Yesterday the BBC reported on Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s vigorous denunciation of the human smugglers whose ship burst into flame after being intercepted by Australian warships. The passengers of the ship, many suffering from horrific burns, were Afghan refugees. While the focus of the article was on governmental shifts in policy on asylum seekers and Rudd’s political posturing, what really struck me was that the ripples of the Afgan war, in the form of refugees displaced by violence or persecution, had reached the shores of Australia. Here’s the full story on BBC:

In a second article, this one from over a year ago, Russian journalist Vladimir Radyuhin documents the rise of hard drugs in Russia since the start of the Afghan war. The inability of the U.S. military and the Karzai government to control opium production is no secret. The massive increase in production has flooded Russia and Europe with heroin and spurred a drug pandemic. Government authorities report that Russia has over six million drug users, and a society crippled by heroin addiction. 90% of this heroin comes from Afghanistan, and Radyuhin contends that segments of the U.S. military are active in the transport of narcotics out of Afghanistan. Since Vietnam, drug trafficking has followed the U.S. military and the C.I.A. in their military adventures, including during the C.I.A.’s covert support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan two decades ago. While the claim that the military is actively funneling heroin out of the country will raise some eyebrows, it it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Full story here:

Both articles reinforce the idea that this is a global war. The trauma of Afghanistan, long the ‘forgotten corner of the world,’ will not be contained within its geographical borders. As the U.S. foreign policy establishment begins to connect the dots with its Af-Pak strategy, we see that the web of violence stretches far beyond Kabul, Swat, Kashmir, and Mumbai to places we might not yet consider the frontlines of the war on terror.

Elections Act I

Yesterday marked the first phase of voting in the Indian general election, with relatively high turnout (around 60%) and sporadic violence from Naxalite insurgents in the western states that killed 19. With four more polling days spreading out over the next month, no one has a clear idea of what shape the next government might take.

What does seem to be clear is the increasing influence of regional parties and a decline in dominance of the two largestnational parties, Congress and the BJP. While it still appears unlikely that the Third Front will emerge with a plurality of seats in parliament and form the next government, its presence gives smaller parties with localized concerns far more leverage against the national giants.

This development has its advantages and disadvantages. Voters will have greater choice in who will represent them and potentially more issues will be brought to the table. Consensus-building, the great virtue of the parliamentary system, becomes more essential with more diverse coalitions. 

However, the unity of patch-work coalitions of regional players such as the Third Front lies more in pragmatism than in ideology. Without disregarding the importance of local concerns, the national government needs a strong, coherent set of economic, military, and trade policies in order to function effectively, especially at this volatile moment in history. This is the argument Congress has presented to voters. It is yet to be seen if this is enough to keep the party in power.