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REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

The size of the (reported) world, a matter of scale & compassion

Monday, February 5th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — sadly but explicably unable to fall in love with the world population ]
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I’ve been thinking about the appropriate scale of the world as it appears in different styles of reporting. The issue here is what happens when you zoom down from the abstract, group, to the individual, personal level.


Ava Olsen, perceived at the appropriate scale at which to view the world as a whole

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My tweet:

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My tweet explained — I hope!

A lot of journos take the wide-angle or “30,000 feet” view, dealing with a group or preferably larger community’s situation, eg “The Middle East after ISIS“, it's abstract and much smaller than the world – when you focus on one 7 yer old (eg Ava Olsen) you capture the actual size of the world, albeit only a tiny fraction of it — but with the appropriate level of compassionate response.

This is important becaus at full size, ie at the individual level, your writings elicit the appropriate compassionate response, which is key to our humanity, while at the more abstract and removed (“30,000 feet”) scale, both Ava herself and the appropriate compassion go missing.

And we desperately need the full appropriate compassion to be elicited, for the individual but for the individual at the group level!

I suspect, FWIW, that this is also, essentially, a quantity vs quality issue.

So 100 to 1 abstract, high level reporting will show the world, but garner only 1% of the appropriate compassion in readers (I know, it’ll do better than that, but only by a little), whereas 100 to 1 personal level reporting will garner the full compassionate impact — even with only 10% of the reportage, still the equivalent of 10 times the reportage at the abstract level — which then needs to be multiplied up to the abstract level.

image borrowed from one of a few dozen sites, then altered

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So we need a preponderance of individual focus, but also an individual to group zoom — even when the group is humanity as a whole.

The best news: We can improve our capacity for compassion

QED

Hunger, in the closing lines of a poem

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — of the space race and children unborn, hungry ]
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Here are the closing lines of the poem, The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon, by Leonel Rugama:

The children of the people of Acahaulinca, because of hunger,
are not born
they hunger to be born, only to die of hunger.
Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.

I find these lines quite striking.

Rugama’s moon is a bleak moon, but that’s a function of Rugama’s comparison of the cost of moon shots with the fate of generations hungry in Acahaulinca, wherever that is. I can point you to the moon, though — with the mandatory zen caution.

Ouroboros, btw.

Anne Smedinghoff Didn’t Have to Die Part 2

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

[ Last week, Zen hosted Pete Turner’s guest post, PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All. Here is part 2 of that article — posted by Charles Cameron for Zen ]
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pete turner header

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Last week I wrote about the tragedy of Anne Smedinghoff, who died on a patrol in Qalat Afghanistan.  This is part 2 of the story–

My intention here is to illustrate HOW? rather than “what” we (Dr. Rich Ledet and I) did regarding the proper means to improve education in rural Afghanistan.  I submit that our method is more reliable, predictable, measurable and can be replicated; yay scientific method.  

Dr. Ledet and I leveraged an unusually strong partnership with a key Afghan political-religious leader.  More than simply believing that we had a great relationship, we’d taken steps to build and validate the strength of our partnership, leveraging tools I had personally developed over years of immersion in conflict environments.  

To begin with, we avoided the common US “crutch” of dominance, never assuming that we were “in charge.”  Not only did we share many meals and tea with him, but we socialized with him and his family apart from any other American military elements. We also invited this leader to our dining facility to eat with us on numerous occasions.  We shared our relevant reports (normally made for US elements only, these reports dealt with our evaluation of his region) with him (unclassified or FOUO) so that he could better understand our role and how the US was attempting to support him–This post is long enough already. I’ll have to come back to this particular topic later.

As a side note, I thought I had a great relationship with this leader after working with him almost daily for months.  One day, he sat back, put his hand above his head and said, “I get what you are doing now.  I understand that you are truly helping me with the Americans.”  This breakthrough was surprising, as I thought we already had a good partnership.  But I had misjudged what was previously accomplished, and the lesson I learned was that not only is trust VERY hard to earn, but also that there are different forms of trust to be accounted for when attempting to partner with leaders in conflict environments.  Only after this point did I realize that I had earned an additional level of trust, and that he allowed me more latitude and access than he afforded any other American.  In fact, I could come to him for advice, as he knew that I was genuinely working to support the Afghans in a way that was within the bounds of their customs.

We brought our research problem regarding education to our partner, and asked him how to best work toward a solution.  He immediately identified the other elders with whom we needed to discuss and work, while providing us with the new Provincial Minister of Education’s (MoE) personal phone number (which we did not previously have on record) and advised us to mention his name when we talked.  He noted that he was also attempting to work with the MoE on education in his district, and although they hadn’t always agreed, he felt the MoE was an honest man.

This process of partnering, and acquiring information about other leaders and the MoE, demonstrated a measure of trust indicating that our partner indeed valued us and our efforts.  Further his validation through providing us with an introduction to other key decision-makers in the province which gave us unique access to a set of leaders that didn’t typically interact with US elements.  We had truly entered through a more culturally appropriate door, as our partner trusted that we would not expose him in a negative light to the other leaders.  

Once we were able to make contact with the recommended leaders, we were careful to explain the agenda, set up appointments, and accommodate their schedules as best as possible.  We never showed up unannounced, or uninvited.  With the safety of all involved in mind, we took time to determine their preferred place of meeting, which was critical considering that we lived on an American forward operating base, and could move in heavily protected convoys.  We were remarkably “safer” than those leaders, as they lived in constant threat.  We displayed a respect for their safety when we considered their venue preference.  While these logistical steps seem obvious, we found this level of respect nonexistent in DoS, PRT and US forces attempting to work with local leaders, again relying on domination to achieve goals; US forces prefer to show up unannounced, unscheduled and take over the Afghan leader’s schedule as we set fit.  

When we met, the recommended leaders were also accompanied by multiple religious elders.  We didn’t ask them to do this, by the way, but it was something that was required in their culture.  This was also an indicator to us that we approached the problem from the most culturally appropriate angle known to us (and recommended by our Afghan partner who originally set us up for success).  Afghan leaders, when not influenced by Americans, will have a religious leader (mullah) present as they make decisions.  

Over the course of several meetings, and after deliberation between the MoE and other family and religious leaders, we were able to ascertain what was expected in terms of US assistance.  Keep in mind that what we were also doing was helping to link family, religious, and political leaders with a valid MoE backed plan to improve education throughout all of Zabul province; a critical element of creating stability wins.  

These leaders never asked for money. They never asked us to build another school.  They recognized that we could help, and they also wanted us to help them determine if these programs were working.  They knew we had the capacity, which they knew they did not, to help them measure the success of the program.  

What is most telling is that these leaders noted a lack of security, which is a common theme throughout my time in conflicted areas.  Security concerns are superior, and every other effort is subordinate.  This is where you need to pay attention DoS–The MoE asked that he never be seen engaging with the US at his office, as US patrols could only expose him to harm, he and other leaders wanted to reduce the amount of contact between US forces and their children for the same reason.  Moreover, leaders in the district wanted us in the background, as they wanted to see the Afghan government and the MoE doing their job.  They wanted the people living in Zabul Province to see the same–This is setting the stage for believable, culturally based stability win…and there is no photo op.

Our work established the beginnings of a clear plan that meets the requirements for creating stability. It satisfies a test we developed that indicates potential success when conducting non-lethal missions or operations…Is the operation Afghan inspired, Afghan led, Afghan provisioned, and sanctioned by a Mullah?  

Is it possible that if DoS had bothered to teach Anne this test or heed our report, that she would still be alive?

Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

Monday, March 21st, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

AnnSmed

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Smedinghoff

ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi Freedom (2004-6, 2008-10), New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11) and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2011-12).

PRT and State  Department Ignorance Fails Us All

by Pete Turner

Anne Smedinghoff and 5 others died when a Taliban car bomb, a.k.a. VBIED, attacked her patrol almost 3 years ago on April 6, 2013 in Qalat city Afghanistan, Zabul province.  The mission’s purpose was to get a photo opportunity while the US patrol handed out books to Afghan kids.  Their deaths were completely preventable.

Ignorance, arrogance and incompetence by the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), Anne and her Department of State (DoS) peers surely contributed to her death, and the death of multiple soldiers.  I know that statement is pretty inflammatory…and it’s part of the reason why I waited 3 years to tell the tale.  Please read the attached article for the required context.  Also, read Peter Van Buren’s (former DoS boss) HuffPo blog in which he also criticizes DoS competence in this tragedy.

I worked in the same area as Anne, but I’d left about a year prior to her arrival.  It’s unfortunate that my research partner and I didn’t get a chance to meet her.  If we had, she would have been armed with some information that could have saved her life.  It is also unfortunate that the knowledge we gained while working in Qalat left apparently left with us.

Before going any further, my partner, Dr. Ledet and I conducted research into improving education in the province.  Specifically, we were tasked with learning how the US should distribute learning materials to Afghans, and we did so by working with tribal, religious, and political leaders in the area.  Our report was distributed to the PRT, US military and the DoS working in the areas, and briefed to higher authorities. The senior Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) representative for the province, and multiple leaders we consulted, provided us with the solution regarding how the US could help improve education.

Our Afghan partners clearly and forcefully stated, US elements were not, under any circumstances, to provide books directly to Afghan children.

Yet, Anne and the others died on a book delivery operation. WTF?

It’s critical to understand how bad this is, as not only did the DoS and PRT undermine the MoE directive, which was given with the consent of religious leaders and family elders; effectively the patrol’s objective undermined their authority as well, and created violence and more instability.

How does this happen?  Simply, our foreign policy theory doesn’t match our tactics.  We hire highly intelligent people to do complex work, but their personal intelligence and accomplishments often mean little in this environment.  Often, the people I encounter with fantastic resumes are not trained to listen and learn.  Our failings aren’t about individual brain power and desire.  Where we fail is in our overriding compulsion to help, coupled with our inability to make sure that “ground truth” knowledge is accurately passed on to our replacements when we redeploy.

When we as a nation, bring “help” it often harms locals but sounds great in our briefings or in a eulogy...These are John Kerry’s words the day following Anne’s death, “…Yesterday in Afghanistan, we had a different stealing of a young life. And I think there are no words for anybody to describe the extraordinary harsh contradiction of a young 25-year-old woman with all of the future ahead of her, believing in the possibilities of diplomacy, of changing people’s lives, of making a difference, having an impact, who was taking knowledge in books to deliver them to a school. “  

I have words to describe this, Mr. Kerry….and they are harsh.  THAT PATROL SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED!  Anne was not properly prepared, and it’s a failure of the existing DoS and PRT staff that should have known better.  It’s the failure of whoever disregarded that day’s threat assessment to send out a patrol on a photo safari.  Those photos only validate our ignorance, and do nothing to repair the damage of that day.

Mr. Kerry and Anne simply wanted to help the Afghans become educated, but in reality that patrol was indicative of the continued separation between the Afghans and US partners. That patrol also created another opportunity for the Taliban to show locals where their future interests lie.  Because we don’t learn, and continue to act as though our culture is superior to the Afghans, we fail to make the kind of progress necessary to create stability.

It’s one thing for me to criticize John Kerry and Anne…hang in there, when I post part 2, I’ll illustrate how Dr. Ledet and I were able to use culture to our advantage, and gain uncommon access to the Afghans while we learned the appropriate way to support the MoE.


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