Tag Archives: Soviet War in Afghanistan

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

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A Lost Afghanistan

A more expected headline for this post might be “Lost in Afghanistan,” given Afghanistan’s recent history and press, but while reading around today I came across some lighter fare than the standard news about the standoff in Egypt and the war in Syria.  The following two sites which depict life in Afghanistan as it once was (the second one re-uses some of the material of the first, which is a few years old now):

The former is a photo story by Mohammad Qayoumi, an Afghani engineer who is now president of San Jose State University, reflecting the Afghanistan he grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s, and (as he indicates) somewhat sanitized by mid-century government propaganda.  These two certainly do not reflect the whole breadth of Afghanistan’s society in the mid-twentieth-century, but they document a portion of the young, urban, professional culture of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul before the proxy war fought between the Soviet-backed government and the US-supported Mujahideen from 1979-1989, which was followed by Afghanistan’s Civil War in the 1990s which brought the Taliban to power.

These photos demonstrate many things, even with their great selectivity.  They reveal that the direction of “modernization” (which often means “Westernization”) is not one-directional, nor assured victory in any given context, despite the triumphalist narratives trumpeted from European and North American capitals.  They indicate the fragility of social structures which were taken for granted at that time, and how within a generation cultures and expectations can change so drastically that what was the norm can quickly become unthinkably risky.

One thing these photos do not show, and obscured in Qayoumi’s nostalgic captions, is the racial inequalities which at that time and still today privilege lighter-skinned ethnic Pashtuns at the expense of the darker-skinned Hazaras (although the section in the Hazara Wikipedia page is somewhat out of order).  But these photos show the pro-Western pre-Soviet government of Afghanistan “putting their best foot forward,” and the fact that many of these images would not even be desired by portions of the Afghani population today also indicates the failure of that government’s project of Westernization to take hold among much of the population.  What some people value, after all, should never be mistaken for what all people value, even when it is also what I value.