Dick speaks

We promised an all-out effort to protect this country. We said we would marshal all elements of our nation’s power to fight this war and to win it. We said we would never forget what had happened on 9/11, even if the day came when many others did forget. We spoke of a war that would “include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” We followed through on all of this, and we stayed true to our word.

To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed.


The International and Foucault

“The new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the states and its apparatus.”                                   Michel Foucault

The real value of the conflict- the true value- is in the debt.”                   The International

As the torturers of the past administration defend the usefulness of their indiscretions and the present administration colludes with banks engage in creative manipulations of bailout cash, the cold post-modern confusion of the The International struck a chord with me when I watched it last night.

Against the slick grey backdrop of European cities, two investigators struggle to ensnare a violent weapons-hawking international bank. They have the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Interpol to back them up, though they soon realize that national and international law are malleable in the Great Game the bank is playing. As they uncover the bank’s designs- a shadowy plan to fund third world conflicts and lend small nations into debt- their leads are made to disappear and their superiors pressure them to stop asking dangerous questions. In the end, the bloodied Interpol agent crosses the line of the law and seeks justice Dirty Harry style, gunning down the bank’s chairman on an Istanbul rooftop, only to find that his death simply benefits other banks and weapons mongers.

Despite the overly slick styling of the film and the generally poor writing, The International plays with some interesting ideas and constructs a parable on banking that resonates too deeply to dismiss out of hand. The film portrays an international order in which the institutions that uphold law and order are hollow when put to the test and any number of appeals to justice, honor, or duty fall on deaf ears. The police badges in the various cities they visit are capable of little more than opening apartment doors and scaring minor witnesses into talking while the unheard back room phone calls kill entire investigations, murder politicians, and brush away damning evidence. The harried investigators continue to brandish and resignedly throw away their evidence files, while the film makes clear that other systems of power are at work.

The climax of The International is a massive shoot-out inside the Guggenheim Museum. On display is a collection of videos projected against the walls and onto large glass screens hanging in the rotunda. The videos show people engaged in everyday business, walking through city streets, smiling at the camera. The sterile modernism of the setting- smooth, bright, edgeless surfaces, cold functional sharpness of glass and metal, the calm hush of voices and the controlled presentation of humanity on the video screens- is broken by gunfire and blood. The smooth walls are pockmarked by bullet holes, shattered glass rains down on the museum goers, and the sedate video images project onto snarling bloodied goons with semiautomatics.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Foucault. The symbolic destruction of the modernist Guggenheim and the apparent emptiness of the law echo Foucault’s assertion that:

We have been engaged for centuries in a type of society in which the juridicial is increasingly incapable of coding power, of serving as its system of representation.

The International playfully breaks apart our notion of a system controlled by law, and leaves in its place a murky, violent, but hardly anarchic, world of shifting power relations. The film ends abruptly, refusing to answer our questions or describe the new order, leaving us to discover it ourselves. As long as bankers continue playing with debt and politicos keep making war, we will have plenty of material to draw on.

A friend in Afghanistan

I spoke with a friend who has visited Afghanistan since 2002 as part of a project to build a new legal system. As we talked about the war, she said that after the Taliban were toppled, it felt like the nation would never turn toward them again.

“When I was in school, they wouldn’t let us outside if it was raining. And after the rains had stopped, we would all run out. That’s what it felt like [in the early days of the occupation]- everyone was so happy that the rain had finally stopped.”

She mentioned little things- a young man who had recently returned to the country walking down a  street with his grandfather, a girl wearing a ball cap over her headscarf- things that signaled to her that irreversible changes had come. The sings began to change in 2005-2006. Now she doesn’t travel to the country at all, for her safety and that of the Afghan lawyers with whom she worked.


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.