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Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]

Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.


I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.


If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…


Peter Matthiessen, 1927 – 2014, requiescat

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Wallace Black Elk & Wounded Knee, 1975, & the loss of a great writer, gone to paradise ]

Peter Matthiessen — novelist, zen priest and teacher, and author of a non-fiction book that means a great deal to me — has died.


I felt a strange and unique bond with the man, because he wrote a 550 page book focused largely on a time and date that were of great importance in my own life, setting my memories in a far wider perspective.

It was late June 1975, and as I was traveling from Denver to Rosebud, South Dakota with Roy Haber, an attorney friend from the Native American Rights Fund, to visit Wallace Black Elk, his Lakota medicine man friend and colleague, we heard word on the radio that two FBI agents had been killed in a shootout at Wounded Knee, the reservation next over from Rosebud.

The news meant little enough to me — as a Brit who had only come to the States a few years earlier, I had very little sense of the elite nature of the Bureau back then — and when at last we arrived at Wallace’s place, I found a tranquil scene. As I wrote recalling my visit a week or so later:

Feelings were running high in the newspapers, but the little town of Rosebud seemed to be an island of good natured calm.

Little did I know.


My recollections of that day will give you a taste of Wallace Black Elk, the man.

It’s fascinating to talk with Wallace, for he braids his topics together, each theme weaving in and out of his conversation for several hours. He speaks for the Indians as though he was carrying their whole history in his body. “I’ve been in prison two hundred years, and I’m about immune to it.” You mean your people?” I ask him. “Yes, my people.”

He’s full of short, pithy quotes, sometimes humorous, often breathtakingly beautiful. “Grandpa Great Spirit planted me here. I didn’t come in a plane or a bus.” “The Spirit comes when we put our ears down and curl our tail between our legs and humble ourselves. The Spirit comes and comforts us, and shows us a pathway through the traffic.”


As I mentioned above, my impression was one of peace and calm as Wallace talked with me for hours about the Lakota ways — but the situation was a great deal more complex, and in 1983, when Peter Matthiessen published his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, I was able to understand far better just how tense things must have been, not only at Pine Ridge but also on Rosebud where Wallace and I met — and sweated:

Wallace Black Elk invited us to take part in the Sweat Lodge ceremonies that evening. It’s very hard to describe the Sweat Lodge. It’s a place of purification, the place where the Indians meet to express their deepest hearts in prayer. And at the same time, it’s a place of bodily purification, a Native American sauna. So the purification is both bodily and spiritual.

Physically, the Sweat Lodge is constructed around a framework of young willow stems, covered over with heavy blankets and rugs. It’s very dark inside, and when the hot stones from the fire are brought in and sprinkled with water, it gets to be very hot in there. The Sacred Pipe is passed around, and after smoking it and passing it on, each person makes his prayer. Wallace instructed me to address my prayer to Grandpa Great Spirit, and told me, “When your turn comes to pray, your mind will go blank and you won’t know what to say, and the spirits will tell you.” He told me to close my prayer with the phrase “all my relatives,” because “we are related to the sun, stars, moon, to all green things, to fire, the stones, to water, all creatures.”

I remember, too:

After the Sweat Lodge was over, when we came out into the wide South Dakota plains, we could hardly believe the sky. There was no obstruction from where we stood to the horizon in a complete circle, and above us hung the most majestic sunset I have ever seen. Wallace later told me, “the spirits said they would help you increase your knowledge and understanding of our ways and will show themselves to you, and you will actually see them the next time you come to the Sweat Lodge.”


Wallace had been involved in the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation and FBI siege of Wounded Knee, two years before I met him. In the words of Carter Camp, given in memory of Wallace after his death in January 2004:

In the natural order of our ways it fell upon Wallace Black Elk and his beautiful companion Grace to minister to the needs of the young men and women of the warrior society of Wounded Knee. We were a rag-tag group of young men and women from many tribes and nations from throughout this invaded land they call the new world. Our squad leaders and military planners were veterans of Viet Nam and Korea and our cadre were the youth of the red people. We could fight and we were willing to die without exception, but to be a warrior society in the old way we needed to be more than that, we needed the guidance of a wise man to differentiate us from the hired wasicu killers. So we turned to Wallace Black Elk to be that guiding teacher and his companion Grace to be our clan mother. It was a rule among us for each patrol or squad to be cleansed in a Inipi [a stone people's lodge or "sweat lodge"] and for each to pray for bravery and success in the old way. Uncle Wallace was called on to do this sacred thing for us, to make us worthy to fight and perhaps to die for our little nation.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was, from Wallace’s perspective, yet another battle in the long war between US government forces and the Lakota and other tribal peoples — this one specifically commemorating the Lakota Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

You can get a sense of how Wallace comported himself under fire — and the intensity of his belief in the sacred ways of his ancestors — from the following episode which Camp describes:

Once as we prepared to enter the inipi, the sacred grandfather rocks had already been heated and a dozen warriors were inside the lodge, the enemy began to fire on us and bullets were flying around us like mad hornets. My brother Vic and I were the last ones outside, just undressing after bringing in the rocks. When the enemy began shooting we started to get ready to run and told Wallace and the others inside… “they’re shooting!” Let’s go!” but Black Elk calmly looked out and said, “come inside nephews, don’t leave”. Quickly we jumped into the lodge and closed the door. Uncle began to sing and we all began to pray with him, we could hear the wasicu firing their M-16′s and machine guns but nothing penetrated the thin covering of the lodge. Calmly, without fear or hesitation, Black Elk performed the ancient ceremony while the shooting continued and we could hear the gentle rain of the bullets falling upon the lodge.

Soon we forgot them and sang, and prayed and learned to believe, in an hour maybe two the fight ended and we came out to continue our duties. The next morning the people came and looked at what had happened, women and children picked up hundreds of spent bullets laying around and upon the lodge and then strung them into necklaces as souvenirs.


Wallace Black Elk prays with the Sacred Pipe in the tipi with Asst Atty General Frizzell and AIM leaders Means, Banks and Camp prior to signing of Wounded Knee peace settlement. AP Photo: Jim Mone


Agent Ron Williams' car, June 1975, FBI photo

It was a continuation of that century old struggle when two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, were shot and killed in a firefight on the Pine Ridge reservation on June 26, 1975 — not thirty miles and twenty-four hours from where Wallace welcomed me to his home and introduced me to the inipi ceremony.

Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse offers a detailed exploration of what was happening on Pine Ridge on and around the day Agents Williams and Coler were killed — and an impassioned defence of Leonard Peltier, who was found guilty of their murder in 1977 and remains incarcerated in US penitentiary in Florida today.

I cannot do the book, or Peltier’s case, justice in this post, but for those who are interested, Matthiessen’s book is required reading, while the Bureau’s account can be found on the FBI’s website, Minneapolis Division.


NPR yesterday ran a piece announcing the upcoming publication of Matthiessen’s last book:

At age 86, Peter Matthiessen has written what he says “may be his last word” — a novel due out Tuesday about a visit to a Nazi extermination camp. It’s called In Paradise, and it caps a career spanning six decades and 33 books.

This would appear to have been written before his death was announced. The New York Times obit, also published yesterday, says quietly:

Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books.

In Paradise… the timing could hardly have been more exact.


In paradisum deducant te angeli….

I offer this rendering of Faure’s beautiful In paradisum with prayers for the repose of Peter Matthiessen, Wallace Black Elk and Grace Spotted Eagle, and FBI agents Agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler: may they all rest in peace.


Perhaps Wallace should have the last word, as he did when I interviewed him that day in 1975, since he generalizes on the same theme: “I can see” he said, “we’re going back to paradise.”


Recommended Reading

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Top Billing! USNI Blog  Stanton Coerr – How James Schlesinger changed the Pentagon for the better 

….From 1973 to 1975, Schlesinger guided the Pentagon establishment from its wars in Southeast Asia to an aggressive posture of toe-to-toe superpower confrontation. As Washington imploded around him, he viewed the soldier, sailor, airman and Marine as throwbacks to the days in which America was the stalwart force for good and defender of right—what he termed the “pillar of stability” in a chaotic world.

Following brief service as director of Central Intelligence, James Schlesinger took office as the secretary of Defense in July 1973, at the age of only 44, young enough to be the son of some of the men whom he would lead.

He stepped into a maelstrom.

The Defense Department, enervated by ten years of grinding, bloody jungle warfare and just beginning to recover from the body-count era of Robert McNamara, was leery of reformist civilians. Nixon had just announced the end of America’s war in Vietnam, halting conscription and ushering in today’s all-volunteer force. Admirals and generals now had to convince young men to join and stay, while confronting racial unrest and drug dealing on military bases, reaping in the States the whirlwind of mutiny carried over from the disaster in Vietnam.

The military establishment responded to discipline problems by easing the rules, allowing young men in the military to grow their hair longer and even sport beards, further horrifying a World War II generation already disgusted with rebellious youth.

That same generation gaped in horror that summer at the unfolding constitutional—perhaps, some thought, existential—crisis unfolding across the river from the Pentagon.

SWJ  Octavian Manea -Reflections on the Continuities in War and Warfare 

SWJ: Are we at risk of pivoting too sharply towards an RMA-like, force-on-force construct?

MG H.R. McMaster: There is a danger that we will return to the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that dominated defense thinking in the 1990s. The RMA neglected continuities in warfare and focused on only one factor that affects the character of war, which is technological change. If we regard the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as aberrational, we risk failing to consider recent historical experience. In fact, these wars possess many continuities with past wars. We have to be careful that budget pressures do not push us toward simple solutions to the complex problems of future war. We should recognize that the orthodoxy of RMA. grew out of a fundamentally narcissistic approach to war and the associated belief that we could determine the future character of conflict mainly by developing technologies (advances in communications, in information collection capabilities, precision munitions, robotics) that would allow us to achieve military dominance mainly through the application of firepower onto land from the aerospace and maritime domains. We must be careful not to neglect the fundamental nature of war, as a profoundly human and political endeavor that is inherently uncertain.  In the end, people fight for many of the same reasons today as they did 2,500 years ago when Thucydides said people fight for three reasons: fear, honor and interest. I recommend Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, which is quite good on this particular point of why nations fight and the impact that has on the prospects for sustainable peace and how to understand the causes of wars.

SWJ: People’s wars tend to be driven by political, social and economic grievances. Fixing the starting causes does not require a technology-oriented solution. Does this mean that “winning” such wars ultimately requires some form of state-building or even nation-building?

MG H.R. McMaster: Most often, winning in armed conflict requires the achievement of a sustainable outcome consistent with a nation’s vital interests, those that were threatened and caused the initiation of the war. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we tried to allay fears of minorities, preserve each group’s sense of honor, and convince communities that they could best protect and advance their interests through politics rather than through violence.

War on the Rocks   David Maxwell – Taking a Spoon to a Gunfight 

While the United States has spent the last decade-plus trying to learn to “eat soup with a knife,” the Russians have been reaching back to some tried and true methods from the Cold War.  Some in the U.S. national security community want to continue to focus on expeditionary counterinsurgency warfare and armed nation building while others long for large-scale maneuver warfare along the lines of the Fulda Gap.  However, while we debate these two forms of warfare and the proper balance between them, the Russians are practicing something different: unconventional warfare in support of political warfare to achieve its strategic objectives.

A friend asked me recently if the Russians were conducting unconventional warfare in Ukraine and in particular in Crimea.  Even a superficial analysis shows that they are using much of the standard definition of unconventional warfare:

activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla forces in a denied area.

With the backing of Russian special operations forces, the Russians aided and exploited Russian-speaking Ukrainians who appeared to form some kind of resistance – as feigned as it might have been – against the Ukrainian government.  Certainly in Crimea the objective was to coerce the population into voting for cessation from Ukraine, which the Russians have achieved. Broader Russian objectives in Ukraine are to coerce and disrupt the current government and, in the long term, possibly overthrow it as well.  There is some evidence that Russian advisors have been assisting pro-Russian factions to form variations of an underground and an auxiliary in Eastern Ukraine. They also seem to have been developing some elements into overt action arms to politically mobilize the population against the Ukrainian government and conduct psychological warfare. 

Scholar’s Stage -“The Russian Strategy for Empire” and 5 Thinkers I Wish Had Their Own Blogs 

The Glittering Eye -Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

Blackfive -RADM Jeremiah Denton, RIP 

Metamodern - The five kinds of nanotechnology 

 Georgetown Journal  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Henry Appel  Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency in Somalia: a Data-Based Snapshot 

Jamestown Foundation Blog - Vladimir Putin’s Allies in the European Far Right 

That’s it


Raza Rumi: lines drawn & boundaries transcended

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an assassination attempt, a book review -- and a counterpoint of musicians ]


I have mentioned Raza Rumi only once before on Zenpundit, in Darfur question… and wider Sufi ripples two years ago. This week, however, there was an attempt on his life, and on the 29th, Rumi posted about it on his Jahane Rumi blog:

Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.

On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.

This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped…

As I tweeted when I heard about the attempt, I was distressed to hear of the attack, and wish him well — and Pakistan, too.


I’ve been a quiet admirer and occasional reader of Rumi’s blog for quite a while now, and am looking forward to reading his book, Delhi By Heart.

The first and final paragraphs from Venki Vembu‘s review of the book confirm me in my wish to do so. They also — and here’s what this post is really all about — show us both the deeply etched lines of division –

In his novel The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of the imagined cartographic lines that divide people in the Indian subcontinent and cleave their souls. Many of these “shadow lines” are etched in bitter, hand-me-down memories and imaginations, and for that reason are rather more indelible than lines on a map, which can perhaps be redrawn over time.

— and the possibility that such lines and boundaries can be overcome, erased, transcended —

Rumi offers this fascinating narrative as a “faint voice that wants to transcend boundaries and borders and reject the ills of jingoism spun by nation-state narratives.” In form and spirit, this unusual travelogue is like a jugal bandhi: songs of bhakti tradition fuse seamlessly with qawwali strains from the Nizamuddin dargah. It is an enchanting illustration of how the divisive shadow lines of history can be erased when hearts and minds are opened to new experiences.


Finally, for your listening pleasure: an intricate jugalbandhi or musical dialogue between Zakir Hussain on tabla and Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri flute…


Recommended Reading

Monday, March 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Top Billing! Adam Elkus – Blowback, Drones, and Narratives: Then and Now 

If it’s really just export controls that are the gateway to the “caricature” future that Zenko fears, then the US arguably could drone terrorists away without considering any of his previous precedent-based arguments as long as it keeps a tight grip on exports. Why not just drone the terrorists with a light conscience, if states can’t or won’t make killer robots anyway and the only way they could get them is if we allow it? Indeed, as later detailed, Zenko argues that even advanced industrialized states are having problems with the make and deployment of drones. If drones are so inefficient, difficult to make, and future use of them is so tentative that the only guaranteed pathway to drone dystopia is Uncle Sam giving the world drones, then the drone problem must be vastly different than we have imagined it. 

The XX Committee – Nobody knows Anything 

….Second, most of these smart young people really don’t know anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they had great SATs and went to top schools and have mastered the art of sounding smart, attaining admirable fluency in that unnatural dialect known as Beltway-speak, but as for any deep knowledge about any particular subject relating to how the world really works, that’s about as rare in this crowd as unicorns and Bigfoot. There should be no surprise that Chekists are winning handily these days. [....]

There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English. If you want to understand Putin’s Russia, you will need to seriously look at the history and culture of that place, and Ukraine too, and learn their languages to boot. If this is too hard for you, then don’t try. If you want to predict what Russians and Ukrainians will likely do next with any degree of accuracy, learn about Russians and Ukrainians. For Putin and his system, you will need to learn about Chekists too, since their worldview is unique and powerful to the initiated.

War on the Rocks (Sean Kay) NATO Revived? Not so Fast 


The crises in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are Exhibits A and B of a dramatic failure of the decision to extend NATO engagement into these countries.  Of course, Putin is responsible for his own actions. But this 2008 decision by NATO played directly into Putin’s own rationalization of the invasion of Georgia – which was followed by Ukraine’s withdrawal of its NATO application and the consolidation of pro-Moscow forces there.  Meanwhile, efforts at the time to get hard Russian sanctions on Iran were lost – which would have offered an opportunity to freeze Iran’s centrifuge numbers at 2008 levels instead of the current efforts to deal with far more advanced Iranian capabilities.  One might ask exactly how American national interests were served in this process.

WPR (Steve Metz) -Strategic Horizons: U.S. Military Is Not Ready for the Age of Megacities 

 Many security analysts and futurists agree that in the coming decades the prevalent form of conflict will not take place in remote rural areas like in Afghanistan but in the massive, highly connected megacities that are already experiencing most of the world’s population and economic growth. In his recent book “Out of the Mountains,” David Kilcullen, one of the most astute thinkers on the changing nature of security, argues that all aspects of human life in the future will be “crowded, urban, networked and coastal.” Megacities will be the locus of economic energy and cultural creativity in the future, but they will also be the source of much of the world’s insecurity.

Small Wars Journal (Octavian Manea) - Responding to Crimea by Bolstering NATO’s Military Presence in Central and Eastern Europe 

SWJ: How should we explain Putin’s escalation in Ukraine?

A. Wess Mitchell: There is a longstanding if somewhat repressed desire among the Russian political elite to repatriate lost limbs of the former Soviet empire. This impulse runs very deep in post-Cold War Russian strategic thinking. The conditions that developed in Ukraine over the last few months provided a political pretext for acting on that geopolitical impulse. The democratic backlash to President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to move his country closer to Europe at the EaP Summit and his ensuing ejection from Kyiv threatened the possibility of a more Westward oriented Ukraine on the doorstep of Russia. In both strategic and ideological terms, these developments were seen as being unacceptable for the interests of the Russian state and elite. Recent U.S. diplomatic behavior also suggested to the Russians a permissive strategic environment in which Putin could act without incurring high costs. This created an opening for a kind of “rebate revisionism.” Putin seized it. 

Nuclear Diner – War with No Hope

….Like many American kids in the decades after World War II, my friends and I fought the Nazis in a forested lot near my house. We took turns killing and being killed. War movies taught us about the French resistance, holding off the Nazis until the Americans arrived; the British, surviving through the bombing raids; soldiers engineering a break from a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Good guys and bad guys.

That mental frame made it hard to understand what World War II had been in Estonia and, from what I have read, in Ukraine. I kept asking questions, not getting it until one day I realized: the good guys didn’t come to the rescue on the Eastern Front. There were individuals who performed acts of heroism or who managed to keep the lives around them reasonably humane. But many, perhaps most, died.

Imagine that you own a small farm or a business in town or are the town’s police chief. A war is raging. The neighboring country has been demanding military bases in your country, and then their army occupies your town. They kill some people, put some people on trial, deport others without trial, and conscript some of the young men. The soldiers demand food and take up residence in houses they like. Women are raped. Some people learn to deal with the occupation and do well. The police chief has little choice but to cooperate; the alternative is death or deportation, leaving someone much more ruthless in charge. Your farm is torn up; your business is co-opted to provide the occupation.

A year passes. Now the other side advances and takes your town. The fighting kills more people. Cousin Endel retreats along with the army that conscripted him. Old Aunt Mari has a heart attack while she is gathering the chicken eggs.

Now other people are put on trial, raped, deported, conscripted. The police chief again cooperates, a different group of people ingratiate themselves with these occupiers. Your farm, if it still is in your possession, is torn up, your business co-opted. Endel’s brother Mart may now have to fight his older brother, neither for a cause that he chose.

Scholar’s Stage – Smallpox on the Steppes 

The Becker-Posner Blog -The Embargo of Cuba: Time to Go- Becker and End the Cuban Embargo—Posner 

Information Dissemination-Watching the Russians… Off Florida’s Coast

PARAMETERS –  (Robert Bunker)  Defeating Violent Nonstate Actors  and (Frank Hoffman)   What the QDR Ought to Say about Landpower 

Diane Ravitch-Michael Powell on the “Gilded Crusade” for Charters

Brainpickings.org -The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

The American Conservative   Twilight of the Right 

Al Jazeera America – The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals 

Cato Unbound – Human Nature vs. Libertarian Ideals 

ScienceDaily- Smart People Are More Likely to Trust Others


That’s it!



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