Article by Peter Maass

New Deal

The New Republic  |  December 22, 2003
On North Korea, the United States needs an alternative to the hawks’ belligerent rhetoric and the doves’ optimistic engagement. Fortunately, one is available.

It was a perfect day for a provocation. In late August, Norbert Vollertsen, a German human rights activist, traveled in a chartered bus from Seoul to Cholwon, just a few miles from the border with North Korea. His mission was simple: to launch a flock of hot air balloons, each bearing a small cargo of radios, that the day’s brisk wind would carry into the North, where everyone but the elite is deprived of radios that would enable them to listen to foreign broadcasts.

In addition to the balloons, the bus contained roughly a dozen journalists. Vollertsen knew that publicity would be as important as action, if not more so: The felling of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship in the North may ultimately depend less on North Koreans, who are quite possibly the most repressed people on earth, than on foreign governments that could, if they wished, destabilize his regime.

South Korea is not such a country, to say the least. Its government is now presided over by a new generation that wishes to work with North Korea’s dictator rather than provoke or topple him. Several years ago, when this “Sunshine Policy” was begun by then-President Kim Dae Jung, the South ceased its propaganda broadcasts across the border. The South Korean government is now not only reluctant to displease its Northern counterpart; it doesn’t want anyone else to do so, either.

So it was that Vollertsen’s bus was stopped at a roadblock made up of more than 50 policemen in full riot regalia. The provincial police chief told Vollertsen that he would not be permitted to launch his balloons; when the activist tried to inflate one anyway, policemen wrestled him to the ground, injuring his knee. Writhing in pain, Vollertsen was whisked away in an ambulance. Several days later, he showed up in Taejon, where a group of North Korean athletes was participating in a sports festival. On crutches, wearing a neck brace and a knee brace, he led a peaceful protest outside the press center—peaceful, that is, until he was assaulted by North Korean reporters. The next day, after the North Korean government complained about Vollertsen’s protest, the South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, apologized. Apparently, it did not occur to Roh, or to anyone in the South Korean government, that perhaps the North Koreans should do the apologizing.

At least the South Korean government has a policy toward the North, albeit one that is shameful. The United States does not even have a policy. Due to a conflict between hard-liners who want to topple Kim Jong Il as quickly as possible and moderates who wish to give him a chance to swap his nuclear program for aid, the White House is paralyzed (see Joshua Kurlantzick, “Look Away,” December 15). Each side in the internal debate has a correct goal and an incorrect strategy. The hawks, in their eagerness to remove Kim, are willing to risk a horrific war; the doves, in their desperation to avoid war, risk bolstering Kim’s horrid regime. Neither admits that a third option exists: to squeeze Kim while constraining the risks of war and proliferation. This option requires three elements: First, a campaign to use every diplomatic and intelligence lever to contain the North’s nuclear ambitions; second, the resolve to discourage efforts by Seoul and Beijing to provide an economic lifeline to Kim; and, third, the restraint to not use inflammatory rhetoric that could incite Pyongyang and lead to war.

The starting point for determining the correct policy should be human rights, of which there are essentially none above the thirty-eighth parallel. Kim’s regime is not just another repressive dictatorship with which we can do business while holding our noses. Testimonies from defectors and refugees paint a picture of a house of horrors. In the 1990s, North Korea suffered a famine that killed two million people or more. These deaths could have been avoided if the government had allowed foreign donors to deliver food; instead, the regime resisted, fearful of outsiders learning the true extent of the famine and the repression. Belatedly, some food was accepted after aid agencies agreed to leave distribution in the government’s hands; as a result, according to defectors, military and political elites were fed while ordinary citizens continued to die.

That’s not the worst of it. The North Korean regime operates a network of prison and labor camps, with several hundred thousand incarcerated. Inmates are starved and, quite often, executed. In late October, an advocacy group called the U.S. Committee for Human Rights, in North Korea released a report that included satellite images of the camps. The report is devastating, showing massive gulags spread over large swaths of territory and using testimony from North Korean refugees to highlight gruesome abuses at the camps. As Anne Applebaum, author of an acclaimed book about Josef Stalin’s prisons in the Soviet Union, wrote in The Washington Post, “If any of the democratic participants [involved in multilateral talks with North Korea] were to absorb fully the information the images convey, the knowledge would make it impossible for that country to conduct any policy toward North Korea that did not make regime change its central tenet.” Applebaum is right: Regime change must drive policy.

Engagers in Washington, and to a lesser extent in Seoul, say they are as eager as the hawks to see Kim removed, and they believe engaging his country will infect it with forces that will weaken his grip on power. In the long term, they might be correct. But the long term may be ten or 20 years away. In the short term, foreign aid will strengthen Kim’s hold on power by giving him the resources he needs—food, fuel, money—to retain the loyalty of his political and military elites. In the past decade, several billion dollars of aid and investment from the United States, South Korea, and Japan have been funneled into North Korea, but this has not led to improvements in the political or economic situation. If this trend continues, thousands of North Koreans (or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands) will perish until age or something else catches up with Kim.

The doves argue that only through engagement can North Korea be prevented from continuing its nuclear weapons program and perhaps exporting bombs or bomb-making know-how to rogue states or terrorist groups. A decade ago, the CIA estimated that Kim’s regime might have enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb or two. His government announced last year that it had begun reprocessing the spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor—which, experts believe, might provide enough weapons-grade plutonium for as many as 20 devices. Ten years ago, North Korea also provided missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for information about building nuclear weapons. And, in 1999, North Korea reportedly agreed to provide missiles to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions. (The missiles were never delivered.)

The problem, however, is that the United States has tried and failed to buy off Kim’s nuclear program before. In 1994, with Pyongyang beginning to reprocess plutonium rods at the Yongbyon reactor, the Clinton administration, along with South Korea and Japan, reached an accord, known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea would freeze its weapons program in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and the construction of two lightwater reactors, which would run on plutonium that cannot be reprocessed into weapons-grade matériel. That agreement fell apart last year when North Korea announced that, in spite of the agreement, it had secretly continued a uranium-enrichment program. Today, the odds that North Korea would keep its word under a new agreement are longer than before. One of the reasons North Korea has a nuclear program is because it believes the weapons ensure it will not be attacked by the United States. The Clinton administration was not nearly as hawkish as this White House, yet, even then, Kim hedged his bets. Now, with an administration that has invaded two countries since September 11, 2001, and has put North Korea in the “axis of evil,” Kim has far greater reason to feel threatened. In recent months, while working on a lengthy profile of Kim for The New York Times Magazine, I talked with dozens of security experts, and almost all of them agreed that Kim would not only be unlikely to fully dismantle his nuclear program but unwise to do so. What leader of a small country, faced with a potentially hostile and far larger enemy, would unilaterally disarm?

Still, anyone who opposes offering carrots to North Korea has to address the proliferation concerns. If the White House can’t sweet-talk Kim out of his nukes, what can it do to prevent him from making mischief with them? In May, the Bush administration launched a promising new effort, called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), aimed at working with allies to interdict the flow of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the matériel needed to make them. PSI is supported by hard-liners—including Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton—but, if history is any guide, their support is not rock-hard. In Iraq, the hawks believed containment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs (to the extent they existed) was not a matter that could be left to inspections or surveillance; only changing the regime, by force, would eradicate the problem.

And, even as the hawks voice support for PSI, their inflammatory rhetoric makes it less likely that it will be successful. On July 31, for example, Bolton delivered a speech in Seoul in which he mentioned Kim in less than flattering terms more than 40 times. The North Korean government responded by describing Bolton as “human scum” and demanding that he not participate in further negotiations. (Bolton was not speaking out of turn; President Bush has described Kim as “a pygmy” whom he “loathed.”) Satisfying as it might be, waging a rhetorical war on Kim does not further the cause of getting rid of him. It only ramps up tensions to the extent that a miscalculation by either side could lead to armed hostilities. Some hawks might not mind that, but a military conflict would be disastrous even if it fell short of a nuclear exchange. The North Koreans have thousands of artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, and Japan is within range of their missiles—as might be Hawaii and Alaska.

What is needed, in other words, is an alternative to the hawks’ belligerent rhetoric and the doves’ too-optimistic engagement. PSI’s strategy of containment, pursued tactfully and not merely as a pretext for escalating tensions with North Korea, is America’s best bet. Containment worked in Iraq, after all: WMD have yet to be found there. Of course, one of the reasons Saddam did not (apparently) carry out a serious WMD program in the ‘90s is that he had agreed to U.N. inspections, something it is hard to imagine Kim ever doing. So, without inspections in North Korea, what hope is there of containing the Dear Leader’s nuclear ambitions, PSI or no PSI?

While it is probably already too late to prevent Kim from building one or more nuclear bombs, it may be possible to prevent North Korea from exporting the weapons or related technology. A virtue of North Korea’s status as a hermit kingdom is that its borders are not porous. Intensifying surveillance and intercepting objectionable shipments are not impossible tasks. The southern border, with South Korea, is essentially hermetically sealed. The northern border with Russia is very short. And, while the border with China sees considerable traffic, it is closely watched by Chinese authorities. Neither China nor Russia wishes to see Kim augment his nuclear arsenal or export it, so, with discreet yet firm prodding from the United States, they should find it in their interests to tighten border surveillance. Ocean traffic, which is sparse, can be tracked through spy satellites and other intelligence-gathering means.

Getting Beijing on board is particularly important because China is the key to destabilizing Kim’s regime. China props up the dictator by delivering food and oil supplies that keep his anemic state alive. Chinese leaders do not do this because they are enamored with Kim. (He is, in his Stalinist ways, an embarrassment to their modernizing image, and they are almost as upset with his nuclear program as the Americans are.) The Chinese bolster Kim because he is preferable to what they perceive as the alternatives—an implosion of his regime that could lead to chaos, a horde of refugees, and/or the unification of Korea under a pro-U.S. government led by South Koreans.

But the Chinese have it wrong, and they need to understand this. China’s economic and political relations with South Korea are excellent—better, in fact, than America’s. China recently surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner. The young generation that now leads South Korea is deeply anti-American but likes China enormously. In the long term then, a unified Korea might actually be more pro-China than pro-America. Under this scenario, China would have on its border an economic tiger that could provide another spark to its own economy. American officials should further assure Beijing that American troops would not remain in a unified Korea. Of course, some in Washington would not want this: The troops are a projection of U.S. power and their withdrawal would diminish U.S. influence in Asia. But, whether we like it or not, it is historically inevitable that, whenever Kim goes, China will re-inherit its considerable historical influence over the entire Korean peninsula.

Wooing China as an ally against Kim’s regime is now being talked about in influential conservative circles. A few weeks ago, I met a prominent conservative Republican who has direct input into the formulation of the Bush team’s foreign policies. He said the White House should use all its influence with China to bring North Korea to the top of Sino-U.S. relations. This means, he told me, warning of trade losses if China refuses to do the right thing. Of course, the U.S. business lobby would howl, but this Republican argues the administration should put its money where its mouth is—if nuclear proliferation is crucial to national security, then the prospect of Boeing not selling a few 747s to Air China should not stand in the way.

What would we want the Chinese to do? They could tighten or halt food and oil shipments into North Korea or let more refugees escape into China, undermining Kim’s regime just as East Germans fleeing through Hungary in 1989 undermined Erich Honecker’s East German dictatorship. This may be too much to expect, but China already cut off fuel supplies to the North once, earlier this year, possibly to pressure Pyongyang. China might even be prevailed upon to use its leverage to force North Korea to agree to nuclear inspections without the generous payoffs Kim would ordinarily demand.

Pressuring China cannot be done by shouting or stomping one’s feet: Hard-liners must contain their warlike rhetoric. What’s needed is understated aggression. This is a job for a more aggressive Colin Powell, not Bolton or Donald Rumsfeld. Zealots may have the right goal, but the diplomats are the right people to carry it out. Zealous diplomacy—that would be a welcome first.

Beyond China, the United States can take steps to support outside groups committed to regime change in Pyongyang. The North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, introduced in the Senate by Sam Brownback, is a good start; it would allow North Korean refugees and defectors to settle in the United States and provide funding for a range of programs and initiatives, such as radio broadcasting into the North. The White House could lean on Seoul to let Vollertsen launch his balloons and support a panoply of other nonviolent operations that activists based in South Korea are trying to carry out. U.S. funds could be made available through third-party channels so human rights activists could infiltrate North Korea’s airwaves with opposition broadcasts, so citizens of the North wake up to news feeds from outside their penal colony.

Moderates in Washington and Seoul are cautious about forcing an endgame with Kim because they fear a suicidal doomsday in which North Korea would attack South Korea. These fears are exaggerated. Yes, there would be turmoil if Kim’s regime falls apart, but the chaos would fall far short of doomsday. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, worst-case scenarios of post-totalitarian turmoil were not realized. Tyrannies are toppled when they are weak—too weak to get revenge if revenge is on their minds. Kim Jong Il is neither insane nor suicidal. He is very pragmatic. At the moment, oppression and nukes are logical tools for him. If his regime begins falling, he is most likely to continue acting pragmatically, which in his case would mean trying to get out alive.

Enemy Combatants

The New York Times Magazine  |  December 15, 2002
Ideas of 2002

Should an American who is suspected of having links to Al Qaeda have the right to a lawyer and the right to not answer questions about coming attacks? The U.S. government has been holding two Americans incommunicado at military prisons. They have not been permitted contact with lawyers, family or friends. The Defense Department describes these men as “enemy combatants.”

Bush administration officials argue that some suspects who may have information about new terrorist plots should not be given the right to remain silent. After all, this silence could cost lives. That’s why, the argument goes, military interrogators must be allowed to question suspects at length, using strategies of persuasion that might not win applause from defense lawyers. The government also says it needs the unilateral power to detain some suspects indefinitely because national security would be jeopardized if a judge or jury chose to release a potential terrorist. The government’s rationale is simple and direct: in times of war, exceptional measures are necessary to protect the homeland.

Jose Padilla was named an “enemy combatant” in June; he was arrested in a Chicago airport after an overseas sojourn that supposedly included visits to terrorist camps in Afghanistan and meetings with Al Qaeda leaders. The government says he was planning to detonate a radiological bomb in America. Instead of being charged with a crime, Padilla was transferred to a Navy brig in South Carolina, where he is being questioned by military interrogators and has been forbidden contact with outsiders. A federal judge ruled on Dec. 4 that Padilla should be allowed to talk with a lawyer, but the decision may very well be appealed as the legal maneuvering continues.

Yasser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi captured in Afghanistan last year, has also received the enemy-combatant designation. He is being detained indefinitely at a Navy brig in Virginia.

Not all terrorism suspects are treated this way. The six Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., who were arrested in September, for example, enjoy full constitutional rights. “The president looks at the facts of each situation,” says Monica Goodling, a Justice Department spokeswoman. “The best way of dealing with one individual may be dealing with the criminal laws. For example, in other cases the individual may possess intelligence that can end the war more quickly, and in that case, the better treatment may be to detain them using military authority.”

The “enemy combatant” concept is a slippery one. To some, the government’s reasoning leans toward a legal version of creative accounting. Then again, even international human rights law is flexible in wartime. Although the Constitution is clear about fundamental rights, the president’s authority as commander in chief, particularly in times of emergency, is elastic.

Critics say the elimination of due process is unconstitutional and will lead to the jailing of innocent people. Padilla’s lawyer, Donna Newman, who is unable to communicate with her client, argues that the government’s evidence appears weak, though of course she doesn’t know much about the evidence, because much of it is classified. The government says the release of this classified information could jeopardize its intelligence-gathering activities.

“The average American has absolutely nothing to fear,” Goodling says. “Most Americans have no interest in aiding or abetting foreign terrorists. As a result, the average American is not going to be subject to this authority.” In other words: Trust us.

Thunder Run

The New York Times Magazine  |  December 14, 2003

A convention of military strategy is that you do not rush tanks into the center of a hostile city unless you wish to lose them. In 1994 the Russians learned this fatal lesson when they sent an armored column into Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and guerrillas picked the tanks off with rocket-propelled grenades.

The Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army turned convention on its head on April 7, when 88 Abrams tanks and 44 Bradley Fighting Vehicles shot their way into the heart of Baghdad, signaling to Iraqis and the world that the city was no longer under the control of Saddam Hussein. It was an audacious and ad hoc operation, planned only on the evening before its execution, and it was given, by the army colonel who commanded it, the name Thunder Run.

The commander, Col. David Perkins, gambled that if his armored column moved quickly enough and with enough firepower, they could surprise the city’s defenders and move behind their lines. “We wanted to create as much chaos as possible,” Colonel Perkins said in an interview. “It was their city, so they had the advantage—they knew the streets; they had put up defenses. But they were in rings of static defense. If you can break through and get into the center of the city and get behind them, you have the advantage.”

The Thunder Run was a vindication of the be-quicker-and-more-flexible ethos expounded by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. It demonstrated that rapid movement, combined with heavy and precise firepower, can disorient and demoralize an enemy. It also showed that letting combat leaders choose tactics, as Gen. Tommy Franks did in Iraq, rather than keeping them on a tight leash, can really pay off.

Project Eyes

The New York Times Magazine  |  December 14, 2003
New tools for an occupation.

During the invasion of Iraq, the American military displayed amazing technological superiority, firing missiles that flew nearly 1,000 miles before hitting their targets precisely, with a margin of error of just a few feet. Once the occupation of Iraq began, though, the military faced a whole new array of challenges: car bombs, donkey-drawn rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices. And what did the Pentagon pull from its shock-and-awe cupboard then?

The answer, amazingly, is nothing. The cupboard was all but bare of tools to bulletproof American troops against low-tech attacks and other perils of urban warfare. The reason is not that such technology is beyond the reach of military scientists but that development of these technologies has been a low priority. Until recently, the U.S. military was not preparing to fight a guerrilla war.

“If you wanted money, you asked for tanks, you asked for battleships, you asked for jet fighters,” said Lt. Col. Cynthia Bedell, who is in charge of an Army program for developing soldier-carried sensors. “We’ve gotten a lot of money in the past year to bring everything up to speed, but a lot of these questions”—questions about guerrilla warfare—“didn’t start getting asked until we went into Afghanistan.”

In Iraq, the questions are still being asked. Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who heads the Fourth Infantry Division, which patrols the Sunni Triangle, made an unusual plea during an October press conference in Tikrit. “I’d like a technology that allows me to jam or prematurely explode these improvised explosive devices being used against us,” he said. So far, however, the Pentagon has no ready-to-use sonar or jamming or sniffing devices to locate and neutralize I.E.D.‘s, which are some of the principal weapons of the insurgency.

Up above, in the lighter-than-air realm of spy planes and drones, the U.S. military has an astounding array of surveillance gear, but the data they collect have not been scrutinized in an organized fashion. That’s why last summer the Air Force created something called Project Eyes, run by the Checkmate Division, an elite strategy unit in the bowels of the Pentagon that is trying to find ways to better analyze the avalanche of information from existing spy devices in order to predict and pre-empt attacks against coalition forces.

Project Eyes is using one commercially available application, known as WebTAS, which stands for Web-enabled Temporal Analysis System, to scrutinize surveillance data that might otherwise be overlooked. Although details of what they’re doing with WebTAS are classified, officers at Project Eyes confirmed that some of their work uses WebTAS to compare surveillance data before and after attacks, so that patterns can be recognized in vehicle and human movements.

When an attack occurs, the system will examine the surveillance records for the site for the 24 hours before the attack took place. “You would have to do this a number of times to be able to predict” future attacks, according to the Air Force officer who is in charge of Project Eyes.

The use of surveillance devices is being ramped up, too. One program involves expanding the use of tethered blimps, known as Aerostats, which are loaded with sensors; an additional $38.3 million has been added to that program, according to a letter to Congress in October from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The Pentagon is putting $31 million into the purchase of 185 Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are far smaller and easier to operate than the well-known Predator drones. The Pentagon is also speeding up development of “pocket” U.A.V.‘s that are no larger than paper gliders and can be deployed by soldiers as they chase insurgents down a street or into a house.

This whiz-bang technology, cool though it seems, is unlikely to tip the balance in the counterinsurgency war. Even if you had aerial surveillance of every square inch of Baghdad, how would you tell the difference between a covered truck that is filled with bread and one that is filled with explosives? In the cubicles of the Checkmate Division, some of the best minds of military intelligence acknowledge that victory in a guerrilla war requires, most of all, human intelligence—tips from local residents and spies in the ranks of the enemy.

“Yes, our technology is better, and yes, we have a technological advantage over the enemy, but the technology and warfare discussion has gone on for hundreds of years, since the longbow came along,” said the commander of the Checkmate Division. “Technology initially gives you an advantage, and then the enemy adapts and figures out a way to get around it. Hearts and minds—how are you going to win that with technology? It’s back to Mao’s theory of war: if the population is willing to disperse into the hills and fight to the death, one I.E.D. at a time, there’s not a technological solution to that.”

The Last Emperor

The New York Times Magazine  |  October 19, 2003
Kim Jong Il, the world’s most dangerous dictator, has always been a figure surrounded by mystery and myth. But, from defectors and former aides, a portrait is emerging of family dysfunction, palace intrigue and imperial menace.

The Dear Leader is a workaholic. Kim Jong Il sleeps four hours a night, or if he works through the night, as he sometimes does, he sleeps four hours a day. His office is a hive of activity; reports cross his desk at all hours. Dressed as always in his signature khaki jumpsuit, he reads them all, issuing instructions to aides, dashing off handwritten notes or picking up the phone at 3 a.m. and telling subordinates what should lead the news broadcasts or whom to dispatch to a prison camp. His micromanaging style is less Caligula, with whom he has often been compared, and more Jimmy Carter on an authoritarian tear.

The Dear Leader, as the North Korean media refer to him, wishes to be viewed as a modern leader. He has boasted to visitors that he has three computers in his office, though it’s not known if he operates them himself or has aides who do so. His eldest son is reputed to be a computer whiz and, like sons the world over, is credited with bringing his father into the digital age. When Madeleine K. Albright, then the secretary of state, visited North Korea in 2000, Kim asked her, as he said farewell, to give him the State Department’s e-mail address.

Because of weakening eyesight, the Dear Leader rarely reads newspapers; for keeping abreast of world affairs, he relies on television. It is a safe bet that he is well aware of the uproar caused by his government’s confirmation, earlier this month, that it has begun making nuclear bombs from reprocessed plutonium. In a meeting a few years ago with a group of South Korean media executives, Kim explained that he began watching South Korean television in 1979. A media junkie, he also watches NHK from Japan, as well as CCTV from China and CNN. Having led his nation into chronic poverty and famine, what does he make of the enormous wealth he sees in the broadcasts and commercials?

Ordinary North Koreans would be sent to the gulag for watching Western TV, but the Dear Leader may do as he pleases, as all dictators may do as they please, and it pleases him to watch television. He especially enjoys watching tapes of the latest movies from Hollywood, some of which are believed to be sent to Pyongyang in diplomatic pouches from North Korean missions in New York and Beijing.

Kim is not known to speak Japanese or Chinese, so interpreters presumably assist him with foreign-language broadcasts; on any given evening, his interpreter might be his favorite mistress, Ko Young Hee, who was born in Japan and is assumed to speak Japanese. When Kim watches Russian television, as he says he does, he may not need an interpreter, because he spent his early years in the Soviet Union; when Russians visit, he sings them Soviet military songs. As for English, he knows at least a few words. A Japanese man who worked as Kim’s personal chef wrote in a recent memoir that the Dear Leader always asked for extra helpings of toro, his favorite cut of sushi, by saying “one more” in English.

The Dear Leader has always been a master of details. Although it was not until 1994, upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, that Kim Jong Il became the official ruler of North Korea, he was all but running the country for years before that. Appointments to any senior post were made by him, whether in the Korean Workers Party (which controls all government institutions) or the Korean People’s Army. Decisions on all manner of issues—from the gifts of food and electronic goods that party officials and commoners received on national holidays to the direction and scope of the country’s clandestine nuclear-weapons programs—were made by “the party center,” as Kim was called, in whispers, in the years before his father’s death. The choicest reward that he doled out was a Mercedes-Benz with a license plate that begins “2-16,” in reference to his birthday, Feb. 16.

The Dear Leader’s political skills, underestimated by foreign observers until recently, are beginning to register now that he has begun meeting foreigners on a regular basis and now that his regime, along with Iran, is one of two surviving members of the “axis of evil” proclaimed by President Bush. Albright’s delegation spent more than 12 hours with Kim over two days in October 2000, half of that time in negotiations and the other half at dinners and ceremonial functions. During one negotiating session, Kim was presented with a list of 14 technical questions related to his missile program; the Americans expected him to pass the list to advisers who would respond later. Instead, Kim went down the list, one question after another, and answered most of them himself.

Indeed, the Dear Leader, who turned 62 this year, knows quite a bit about the world around him. And after decades of being nearly clueless, the world around him is gradually getting to know the Dear Leader, too.

The Bush administration is trying to figure out how to end Kim’s regime, or at least to neutralize it. This is proving to be an extraordinarily difficult task, since the regime is far more resilient than anyone expected and far more dangerous.

North Korea has possessed short-range missiles for years, but was never known to have long-range missile capability. Then in 1998 North Korea stunned the intelligence community by launching a three-stage rocket bearing a satellite. The C.I.A. says that it believes these Taepodong-1 rockets could be used as missiles to reach the United States. The rocket veered off course after launch, so the North Koreans obviously have some kinks to work out. Even so, Washington is worried, not only about North Korea being able to launch an intercontinental attack but also about the North Koreans selling their missile technology to other regimes. North Korea is believed to have provided missiles to Pakistan in exchange for nuclear technology. And according to a recently released report by David Kay, the C.I.A. adviser on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, North Korea agreed in 1999 to a missile deal with Baghdad that was aborted late last year.

No one is sure of North Korea’s own nuclear intentions. In 1994, facing the threat of a pre-emptive attack by the United States, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a package of foreign aid and energy supplies. At the time, the C.I.A. publicly estimated that North Korea might already possess an atom bomb. The 1994 agreement fell apart in 2002 after North Korea kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors who were keeping watch over 8,000 plutonium rods that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade material.

During the past year, North Korea strongly hinted that the rods were being reprocessed, and on Oct. 2 the regime announced, more directly than before, that the reprocessing was under way and that its “nuclear deterrent force” was being expanded. Experts say that if all 8,000 rods are reprocessed, North Korea could make perhaps 20 nuclear bombs, but it’s not certain whether bombs have yet been made; bluffing is an integral element of Kim’s nuclear poker game.

Along with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, the United States began the first round of so-called six-party talks in Beijing with North Korea in late August, and a second round may be held in November. Whether those talks take place, and what happens if they do, depends greatly on whether the Bush administration decides to offer incentives for Kim to disarm or whether it decides to isolate him further. The underlying issues are quite stark: Can Kim be reformed? Can he be deposed? At the heart of the matter is this: Who is Kim Jong Il?

Dictators come in different strains, like poisons. Some are catastrophically toxic; others, less so. Quite often, the harm a dictator will cause is associated with an internal drive to violence or a paranoia that begets violence or a mixture of both. Saddam Hussein is a case in point; his personal viciousness is legendary. Dictators of this sort are easy to read and easy to despise because they are obvious killers.

But what is to be made of a dictator who is charming, as Kim can be, and has never been known personally to raise a weapon or even a hand against anyone? This can be a no-less-dangerous strain of dictator, and in the world today, Kim Jong Il is its most striking example. Though friendly with important visitors, Kim is vicious to his own people. An estimated two million of them died during a preventable famine in the 1990’s, and several hundred thousand are in prison and labor camps; many have been executed.

While I was a reporter in South Korea, from 1987 to 1990, it was common to view Kim as an erratic playboy; tales of his reclusiveness and tastes for women and wine were abundant. He was, it seemed, a nut job, incapable of holding North Korea together once his father died. While Kim Il Sung was alive, Kim Jong Il avoided the spotlight. North Koreans did not even hear his voice until a broadcast in 1992, when at a ceremony for the army’s 60th anniversary, he said, “Glory to the people’s heroic military!” Six words. It would be many years before he was heard from again.

Kim Jong Il has never granted an interview to a Western reporter, and visits to North Korea by Western journalists are exceedingly rare. (I visited Pyongyang in 1989 but was refused a visa this time around.) However, since 2000 a flood of information has emerged from South Koreans, Russians and Americans who have met the Dear Leader and from high-level defectors who have escaped his orbit. What emerges from these sources is a picture of a dictator who is not crazy like Idi Amin or bloodthirsty like Saddam Hussein. Kim can be courteous, he is very intelligent and he doesn’t drink nearly as much as he is rumored to. Nor is he the playboy that the popular myth makes him out to be.

Instead, his dictatorship mixes high technology with Confucian traditions: a kind of cyberfeudalism. It is an ideology that has been catastrophic for the people of North Korea.

It was the summer of 2000, and Kim Jong Il was in a sunny mood. He had just held a summit meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s president at the time. The South Koreans, in order to make the meeting happen, had provided $100 million in under-the-table payments, which meant North Korea’s usually bare treasury was temporarily not so bare. The cash had created a brief thaw in relations, and on Aug. 5 a delegation of South Korean media executives, including the heads of its television networks and newspapers, arrived at Pyongyang airport.

On their first night in North Korea’s capital, the visitors from Seoul were treated to a feast at a banquet hall. Wine from Bordeaux was served, along with multiple courses of Korean food, including kalbi-kuk, a meat stew. The guests ate with copper chopsticks, and their dinner lasted for four hours, presided over at the head table by the Dear Leader. Seated to his right was Choe Hak Rae, then publisher of Hankyoreh Shinmun, a newspaper known for its friendly coverage of North Korea.

As Choe recalls, Kim was ebullient, acting more like a Broadway producer with a smash hit on his hands than a dictator running a repressive and impoverished regime. Kim told jokes and casually conversed about everything from horses to missiles. When a fawning aide stopped by the head table and began praising his boss, Kim told him to skip the formalities—his precise words, in Korean, were “Cut it out”—and pour wine for their brothers from South Korea. He cried out “Straight!” when it came time for a toast, meaning that they should drain their glasses, but he only sipped his own wine. Kim told his guests that his doctors had suggested he cut down on liquor. Dictators can do many things, but they cannot keep their livers young forever.

The conversation turned to hobbies. Kim is an avid equestrian and told Choe that his best thoughts occur on horseback. He prefers Orlovs, a Russian breed, and likes to ride them as fast and as far as they can go.

The subject of war was raised, delicately. Why, Choe inquired, was North Korea’s government spending its scarce resources on ballistic missiles instead of education or other social programs that would directly benefit its starving citizens? The Dear Leader did not hesitate to reply. “The missiles cannot reach the United States,” he said, “and if I launch them, the U.S. would fire back thousands of missiles and we would not survive. I know that very well. But I have to let them know I have missiles. I am making them because only then will the United States talk to me.”

The North Korean leader took a liking to Choe and invited him to return with his family, offering to show them around and ride horses with them. When Choe left Pyongyang a few days later, Kim shook his hand at a farewell luncheon and said, with great emotion: “Keep your promise. Come next spring with your family.”

Choe has not returned—the North-South thaw has chilled a bit—but North Korean officials have passed on to him a stream of entreaties from the Dear Leader. The gist of the messages, according to Choe, whom I met in Seoul in August, is quite simple: “Why haven’t you come?”

According to the official version of his life story, Kim was born on Feb. 16, 1942, in a log cabin on Mount Paektu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula. When he was born, the official version goes, the sky was brightened by a star and a double rainbow.

The truth is that Kim was born a year earlier in the Soviet Union, at an army base near Khabarovsk, in the Soviet far east, not far from the short border shared by the two countries. His father was stationed there as the commander of a Korean battalion in the Soviet Army 88th Brigade, which engaged in reconnaissance missions against Japanese troops. Because it would be inconvenient, for reasons of Korean nationalism, to have Kim born on foreign soil, his place and date of birth have been fabricated in official biographies.

The biographers also make no mention of Kim’s childhood name—Yura, which is Russian and was used through his high-school years. Kim had a younger brother who also had a Russian nickname, Shura. In 1945, after Japan was defeated and the northern half of Korea occupied by Soviet troops, Kim Il Sung was taken to Pyongyang by his Soviet benefactors and installed as the leader of North Korea. (The official version has Kim Il Sung heroically leading Korean guerrillas in a rout of the Japanese.) A few months later, the boys moved to Pyongyang, where their younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was born.

Shura died in 1948 in a drowning accident while swimming in a pond with Kim Jong Il. In 1949, Kim’s mother, Kim Jong Sook, died while giving birth to a stillborn child. Though well cared for—their father, after all, was North Korea’s leader—Kim Jong Il and his little sister became de facto orphans: their mother dead, their father busy laying the groundwork for his socialist paradise. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and the children were sent to the safety of Manchuria, where they stayed until the war ended in 1953. Kim was learning to survive on his own, which meant using his wits.

Back in Pyongyang, he attended Namsan Senior High School, where the ruling elite’s children were educated; he often rode a motorcycle to class. Even then, he was a student of power. According to Hwang Jang Yop, who was a top aide to Kim Il Sung, the younger Kim showed an early interest in politics. (Hwang defected from North Korea in 1997, so his memoir, published in South Korea, is hardly an official hagiography.) In 1959 Hwang accompanied Kim Il Sung to Moscow, and although Kim Jong Il was only a senior in high school, he went along, too.

“Kim Jong Il was intelligent and full of curiosity, asking me many questions,” Hwang wrote. “Despite his young age, he already harbored political ambitions. He paid special attention to his father. . . . Every morning he would help his father to get up and put on his shoes.” In the evening, Hwang wrote, when Kim Il Sung returned from a day of official meetings, Kim Jong Il assembled his father’s staff “and had them report to him about the things that happened during the day. He then proceeded to give orders.”

In 1964, Kim graduated with a degree in political economy from Kim Il Sung University, an elite institution where, according to a South Korean biographer, he was addressed as “the premier’s son.” He went to work in the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, first as a ministerial assistant, swiftly becoming a senior official in the propaganda and agitation department, which controlled much of the party’s agenda.

Kim was working his way up the system, and working the system, but also looking over his shoulder. Nothing in his rise to power would be easy or preordained. Dynastic succession was far from inevitable, and even if there was to be a dynasty, it was not clear whether Kim would be its beneficiary. His uncle, Kim Young Ju, was a senior government official. More threatening, however, was Kim’s new stepmother: Kim Song Ae, a typist whom Kim Il Sung married in the early 1960’s.

According to accounts from defectors, as well as from Chinese and Soviet visitors to North Korea, Kim Jong Il did not get along with his stepmother. There are unconfirmed stories that he tore her face out of pictures. Kim Song Ae became a member of the central committee of the Korean Workers Party, giving her a position from which to influence succession. She had children with Kim Il Sung, and one of their sons, Kim Pyong Il, was viewed as a possible heir because of his intelligence and likeness to his father. (Famously, Kim Jong Il was several inches shorter than his father, an inconvenience that led him to wear platform shoes.)

As he moved to secure his position, Kim needed to remain in the good graces of his father while outmaneuvering his stepmother, half-brother, uncle and anyone else—particularly the country’s powerful generals—who wished to lead North Korea.

Kim Il Sung’s regime did not take long to veer from Communist orthodoxy and become a personality cult of the sort perfected by Stalin in the Soviet Union. In the early 1970’s, North Koreans began wearing lapel pins bearing the likeness of the Great Leader, as the official media described Kim Il Sung; he was portrayed as, basically, infallible. The elite was purged of anyone with wavering loyalty or anyone who might develop wavering loyalties; Kim Il Sung placed close relatives at his side.

During this period, Kim Jong Il was working hard to smooth his way to power.

“I had an impression that he was implementing his plans to get rid of even those very close to Kim Il Sung, including his uncle,” Hwang wrote. “In order to show his father that he was the most loyal, he singled out people near Kim Il Sung. Arguing that these people were not loyal and citing doubts about their ideology or competency, he would relentlessly attack and remove them.”

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that through the 70’s and 80’s Kim Jong Il filled his nights with parties and days with terrorism. In 1987, two North Korean agents placed a bomb aboard a Korean Air Lines flight, killing all 115 people on board. One agent, a young woman, was caught and said after extradition to Seoul that her controllers told her the attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il.

Whatever his role in terrorism, it has become clear that Kim Jong Il was running North Korea well before his ailing father died in 1994, at the age of 82, of an apparent heart attack. In the years before his death, according to Hwang, “Kim Il Sung was not the Kim Il Sung of years past. Most of his vitality had disappeared, and he was turning into an old man concerned only with successfully handing over power to Kim Jong Il.”

Many North Korea experts believe Kim Jong Il stayed in the background for the sake of appearances: in a Confucian society, a son must defer, publicly, to his father. If Kim Jong Il moved too rashly, he might have engendered resentment from elderly members of the military whose backing or quiescence he needed.

One way he cemented his hold on power was to do as his father did: place close relatives in influential positions. Kim’s sister, Kim Kyung Hee, became a powerful figure within the Korean Workers Party and has been referred to in the government media as “First Lady.” Her husband, Chang Song Taek, heads the party’s organizational department. His brother, Chang Song U, commands the army district that defends Pyongyang.

Kim’s control over the military and his insinuation of loyalists into key command positions are a linchpin of his hold on power. He travels often within North Korea, particularly to military bases, because, as he told the South Korean media chiefs, “my power comes from the military.” Though he has many posts, including general secretary of the Korean Workers Party, the one that truly counts is his chairmanship of the National Defense Commission, which controls the armed forces.

Kim’s regime is best understood as an imperial court, clouded in intrigue, not unlike the royal households that ruled Japan, China and, throughout most of its existence, Korea itself. Until the 20th century, Korea was led by feudal kings, notably the Yi dynasty. By creating a personal and uncaring regime, Kim Il Sung wasn’t stealing a page from only Stalin; he was also stealing it from Korean history, a fact that helps explain its durability.

“North Korea is a semifeudal society that is still based on traditional Korean values,” says Alexandre Mansourov, a scholar at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies who was a Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang in the 1980’s. “There are traces of modernity, but if you look at the structure of thinking, it is very traditional, in a medieval sense.”

A hallmark of emperors is lavish court entertainment in the face of poverty or distress in their domains. Kim Jong Il appeared to be cut from this imperial cloth. Through the 70’s and 80’s, stories emerged from North Korea of wild parties Kim Jong Il held, attended by beautiful women and drunken men. One of the finest accounts of that era comes from Choi Eun Hee, a popular South Korean actress who was kidnapped from Hong Kong in 1978 and bundled off to North Korea. Kim was disappointed with the backward state of North Korea’s film industry, so he tried to jump-start it by ordering the kidnapping of Choi and, shortly thereafter, her husband, Shin Sang Ok, a director in Seoul.

After they were taken to Pyongyang, he explained to them, in a conversation that they surreptitiously recorded, “I just said, ‘I need those two people, so bring them here,’ so my comrades just carried out the operation.” Eight years later, after making a number of films in North Korea, Choi and Shin escaped while visiting Vienna.

In a memoir she wrote with her husband, “Kidnapped to the North Korean Paradise,” which has not been published in English, Choi recalls being woken one morning at 5 at the guarded villa where Kim had placed her. Her controller told her to get dressed quickly, but wouldn’t say why. Within minutes, a Mercedes arrived at the villa and whisked her into central Pyongyang, to a building used for Kim Jong Il’s parties.

“As I entered,” Choi wrote, “I was assaulted with the pungent odor of alcohol. Farther inside, I saw quite a spectacle. Forty or 50 people apparently had partied all night. The men were drunk, and there were several women I had never seen before.”

They perked up when the actress arrived. She was prevailed upon to have a drink, then another and another. The Dear Leader was not in mint condition; his eyes were bloodshot, and his speech was slurred. He had apparently been drinking all night long.

“A band was performing in the front of the room,” Choi wrote. “All the girls were in their 20’s. Kim Jong Il, drunk, gave a string of requests. Songs changed according to his request. The girls looked tired. He asked me to conduct the band. I declined, but then the others joined in on the request: ‘Comrade Choi, our beloved leader doesn’t let just anybody conduct the band. It’s a great honor. Do it.”’

So she did it. She soon felt ill from the alcohol, and Kim Jong Il ordered one of the women to take her to a room upstairs to rest. She fell asleep on a sofa, but was soon woken by a senior party official. “I felt lips on my cheek,” she recalled. She slapped the official and told him to get lost.

Accounts of this sort gave the impression, outside North Korea, that Kim Jong Il was no more competent to take charge of his homeland than Hugh Hefner. Now, however, his bacchanalian ways are being viewed from a different, subtler perspective. As anyone who has spent time with South Korean or Japanese politicians knows, boozing and womanizing are an integral part of their political culture. Your drinking buddy is your political ally. It is the equivalent, in Tokyo and Seoul, of jogging with George W. Bush. Bonds are forged; loyalties, rewarded.

While at high school, Kim Jong Il had a close friend whose older brother was married to a particularly attractive young woman, Sung Hae Rim. At the time she was 19. Kim noticed her beauty, as teenage boys do, but nothing came of it until he graduated from college and, while working at the central committee, immersed himself in a passion that would remain with him for the rest of his life: movies. He often visited Pyongyang’s main film studio to watch movies and visit sets. He would later receive credit for producing at least a half dozen films and musicals, and he wrote two books, “On the Art of Cinema” and “Kim Jong Il on the Art of Opera” (both works are sold at

During one visit to the studio, he again noticed Sung Hae Rim, who had become an actress and was usually cast in the role of a heroine. One thing led to another, and Kim fell in love. Inconveniently, Sung Hae Rim was married and had a child, but according to her sister, Sung Hae Rang, who defected in 1996 and recently published a memoir in Korean, Kim forced Sung to leave her husband and live with him.

It was a strange and tragic situation. Kim could not marry Sung because of her previous marriage, her child and the fact that she was six years his senior; in a Confucian society, a match of that sort would be frowned upon, especially for a man who was to inherit a nation. Kim did not even feel safe telling his strait-laced father about his new love; the affair could bump him off the fast track to succession.

According to Sung Hae Rang’s memoir, which is called “Wisteria House,” her sister was moved to one of Kim’s secluded villas and rarely traveled outside of it. In 1971, she became pregnant. This posed a logistical inconvenience, because Kim could not visit the hospital where she gave birth. To do so would reveal to prying eyes that he was the father of an illegitimate child.

Sung’s sister wrote that Kim and Sung arranged a covert system to inform him of his child’s birth and its sex. Kim parked his car outside the hospital every night she was there and flicked his lights on and off to signal that it was he. Once the baby was born, Sung signaled back the birth of the child and its sex by flicking the room’s light on and off in a prearranged sequence.

The child was a boy, and he was named Kim Jong Nam. Within a few years of his birth, Sung Hae Rim began suffering insomnia and other nervous disorders. She was sent to Moscow for treatment at sanitariums and spent most of the remainder of her life there; she died in Russia in 2002. When her sister left for Moscow, Sung Hae Rang was put in charge of the boy’s upbringing. Though it became known in Pyongyang that he was Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Nam remained cloistered at different villas and was eventually sent with Song Hae Rang and her son, Lee Il Nam, to Geneva, where Kim Jong Nam was enrolled at a private school. Lee Il Nam disappeared from Geneva and emerged later in Seoul. He wrote a memoir about his life in the Dear Leader’s household, and in 1997 he was killed in what South Korean officials say was an assassination by North Korean agents.

The palace intrigue had other chapters. Kim Il Sung became aware of Kim Jong Il’s affair and disapproved of it. In the early 70’s, he ordered his son to marry Kim Young Sook, the daughter of a senior military official. Although Kim Jong Il does not spend much time with his “official” wife, she has remained loyal to him. She is not considered a power broker. She bore a daughter by Kim; the daughter has played no role in politics.

Kim soon fell for yet another woman, Ko Young Hee, a dancer who caught his eye when her troupe performed at one of his parties. A delicate beauty, she was from a family of Koreans who had lived in Japan and immigrated to North Korea in the 1960’s. Kim could not wed her—he was already married, after all—so he housed her in still another of his villas. She soon bore him two sons, and last year she was spoken of publicly—and favorably—in the North Korean media, suggesting that her sons were rising in official esteem. Early this month, however, a Japanese newspaper reported that Ko Young Hee was seriously injured in a car crash.

In 2001, Kim Jong Nam was detained at Narita airport, outside Tokyo, as he was trying to enter the country with two women and a 4-year-old boy on a fraudulent passport from the Dominican Republic. He said he just wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was expelled to China. Because, in part, of this embarrassment, Kim Jong Nam is no longer considered a front-runner for succession; two North Korea watchers in Seoul told me that he lives in China and is afraid to return to North Korea. It now appears that Kim Jong Chul, 22, the Dear Leader’s son by his mistress Ko Young Hee, is first in line for succession.

At 8 in the morning on July 26, 2001, a five-car train rolled into Khasan, which is on the Russian side of the border between Russia and North Korea. A carpeted platform was brought to the main car, and when its door opened, Kim Jong Il emerged, waving and smiling to the officials assembled at the station. Kim was embarking on the longest foreign trip in his adult life, a 24-day rail odyssey across Russia.

Journalists scrambled to various cities on the itinerary—Khabarovsk, Omsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow—hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious North Korean. Few of them succeeded, because Kim was kept far apart from inquiring eyes. He traveled in an armored rail car, with a locomotive seven minutes ahead to make sure the track was safe and another locomotive several minutes behind to make sure nobody could commandeer a train and ram it into the rear of the Dear Leader’s caravan.

For the Russians who escorted Kim, the trip offered the first prolonged encounter foreigners would have with him. The informal silence about the trip lasted for more than a year, until Konstantin Pulikovsky, a presidential envoy who headed the Russian delegation escorting Kim, published a memoir in Russian about the journey. This led other officials to discuss it, including Georgy Toloraya, a diplomat who had been based in North Korea and speaks fluent Korean.

The Dear Leader, it turns out, does not travel third class. His train was stocked with live lobster, French wine and fresh pastries, and his entourage included four young women who entertained him and his companions by singing songs in Korean and Russian. One car was a meeting room with two flat-panel screens, one for films (videos of military parades were among his favorites) and the other for a satellite-updated map of the train’s progress, much like the ones in airplane cabins.

Kim visited an array of sites, including a pig farm, a brewery, a space firm and the Hermitage Museum. He even went to a department store in Khabarovsk, where he stopped at the perfume department and asked where the scents came from. He spent a few minutes in the beauty salon and also visited the sports department, where skis and sportswear were sold; he rubbed the fabrics to assess their quality. In the men’s-wear department, he inquired why some pants had cuffs and some didn’t, and he seemed surprised at the cost of Italian shoes—about $400.

“Do people here really buy such expensive shoes?” he asked.

For the Russians, Kim’s rail odyssey confirmed what they had been thinking of the Dear Leader—that he is smart and wants to reform his country’s failed economy, but does not wish to lose power. “When I read somewhere that he is a madman who doesn’t understand what he is doing—that is laughable stuff,” said Toloraya, the Russian diplomat who was on the train and met Kim on several dozen occasions. Toloraya is now the Russian consul general in Sydney, and I interviewed him on the phone. “He is a professional in state governance. What he does is very well prepared. It would be a mistake to think of him as an impossible, unpredictable character. He is an emotional person, but he is a professional. He knows what he is doing. He plans several steps ahead.”

The Russians weren’t the only ones getting to know the charms and wishes of the Dear Leader. Kim’s coming-out to the rest of the world included, in October 2000, an unprecedented visit to North Korea by an American delegation led by Secretary of State Albright. This was in the waning days of the Clinton administration, before the 1994 nuclear agreement fell apart, and Albright wanted to sound out Kim on a plan for ending his missile-production program; Kim, in return, wanted Clinton to visit Pyongyang.

The Americans were in for some surprises.

The North Koreans had promised that Albright would see Kim, but when she arrived in Pyongyang, her schedule did not include a meeting with him. Her delegation was whisked into the city in the early morning, to the guest house where they would stay, and shortly afterward they were taken on a tour that many foreign visitors go through in Pyongyang, highlighted—that may not be the right word—by a visit to the tomb of Kim Il Sung.

At lunch, Albright was abruptly told she would meet Kim in the afternoon. The delegation was driven to his guest house, and as Albright stood in front of a huge mural depicting a storm at sea, Kim walked in, greeting her with both hands extended forward. They were about the same height, Albright in her heels and Kim in his platform shoes.

He poured on the charm. Kim asked Albright if she had seen any recent films, and when she replied “Gladiator,” Kim said he had seen “Amistad,” which he described as “very sad.” He proudly told Wendy Sherman, who was in Pyongyang as special adviser to Clinton on North Korea: “I own all the Academy Award movies. I’ve watched them all.”

Smart as he is, Kim lives in a different world and doesn’t always realize it. One evening, the Albright delegation was shepherded into a stadium in Pyongyang, where they were seated next to Kim. For the next two hours the Americans were treated to a “mass game”—a fantasia of synchronized gymnastics on the stadium floor and card-turning displays on the opposite side of the stadium. The exactitude of these “games” is terrifying. They are often staged on important national occasions; dignitaries from friendly countries were invited to a particularly spectacular display to mark Kim Jong Il’s birthday last year. I attended a mass game display in Pyongyang in 1989, and the sensation a Westerner feels is not artistic appreciation but totalitarian horror.

One card montage performed for Albright showed a North Korean missile being launched into the sky. It was an odd display for Americans who were negotiating a cessation of missile production and research. But Kim, ever the showman, turned to Albright on his right and said, “That was our first missile launch and our last.” To make sure his message got through, he turned to Sherman on his left and repeated his statement. The meaning was clear: the missile program can be stopped if you offer us a new relationship. “This was totally orchestrated, the cards and turning to us,” Sherman said when I spoke with her at the Washington office of the Albright Group, a consulting firm. “For all I know, that was the purpose of taking us to the stadium.”

Albright and Sherman returned to Washington convinced that Kim Jong Il’s stated intentions should be put to the test: he should be offered a new relationship with the U.S. government, including a visit by Clinton to North Korea, if he was willing to submit to a verifiable agreement on halting missile research, production, deployment and exports. This was a position that critics would certainly attack as appeasement, but for Albright and Sherman, it was a price worth paying to end the North Korean missile threat.

“I have no illusions about Kim,” Sherman said. “He’s charming but totally controlling. He is a leader who has left his people with no freedom, no choices, no food, no future. People are executed. There are labor camps. But the decision we have to make is whether to try to deal with him to open the country so that the people of North Korea do have freedom, do have choices, do have food. Do I think it would be preferable to not deal with him? Yes, but the consequences are horrible, so you have to deal with him.”

The clock ran out. There wasn’t enough time before Clinton left office to negotiate the agreements that would need to be in place before Air Force One could take off for North Korea. The momentum halted with the advent of the Bush administration. But now, with the second round of six-party talks nearing, the Americans are trying to figure out once again whether and how to deal with Kim.

Choe Hak Rae, the former newspaper publisher, remains hopeful. The way he sees it, Kim Jong Il knows his economy has failed and wants to reform it. Signs of change in the north are already evident: some prices have been deregulated, farmers’ markets have been established and North Korean officials have been dispatched to foreign countries to learn about business. The bear wants to get out of its cage, Choe says. “The more he is regarded as the worst person of the century, the more he will become a dangerous man,” Choe told me. “But if safety and security are guaranteed for himself and North Korea, I don’t think he will be a danger.”

Wendy Sherman is more cautious, but she and other advocates of engagement say that Kim believes, erroneously, that he can control the tempo and impact of opening up to the rest of the world. It is not clear yet whether her point of view has much traction in the Bush administration, which veers from warlike hostility to occasional murmurs of peaceful coexistence if Kim disarms.

The notion that a dictator like Kim can be coaxed to reform has no real historical precedent. The most notable totalitarian regimes of the modern era—the ones developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union and by Mao Zedong in China—were not reformed by the men who shaped them. Reform of such states requires a degree of repudiation that the authors of failure are loath to tolerate, mostly out of fear for their own survival. In essence, proponents of engagement hope Kim will begin a process that will lead to his downfall. It seems doubtful that he will be sufficiently selfless or stupid to do that.

The disarmament question is even stickier. The administration has waged two pre-emptive wars on countries it deemed to be enemies—Afghanistan and Iraq. It does not require Kissingerian smarts to calculate that a member of the axis of evil would be death-wish foolish to relinquish the weapons of mass destruction that may be the only thing, by virtue of the horrible implications of their use, that stands in the way of an American attack. The real issue isn’t whether Kim is crazy enough to amass a nuclear arsenal but whether he is crazy enough to dispossess himself of his one bargaining chip.

What is the solution? I decided to seek out a man who knows Kim Jong Il better than anyone else outside North Korea: Hwang Jang Yop. Hwang was the Karl Rove of North Korea for more than three decades, creating the ideology of Juche, or self-sufficiency, that was the bedrock of Kim Il Sung’s regime and remains in place today—though in name only, since North Korea depends on foreign aid for its survival. Working at the center of the regime, Hwang learned what Kim Jong Il wants, what he can do and what he will not do.

On a Saturday morning in August, I went with my interpreter to a private club in Seoul, where I met Cho Gab Je, a prominent conservative journalist who edits a magazine, the Monthly Chosun, that is known for its hard-hitting coverage of North Korea. We got into a sedan and drove to an office building in a suburb of the city; Cho is friendly with Hwang and arranged for me to meet him. I agreed to not provide details of the building or its location, other than to say that the anteroom is guarded by a number of armed security agents and that you must pass through a metal detector before entering Hwang’s office. Hwang’s caution is understandable: North Korea is believed to have agents in the South who would be eager to silence their homeland’s most famous traitor.

Hwang is 80 and hard of hearing; I sat in an armchair to his immediate left. He is small and thin and was dressed in a dark blue suit and blue tie. He is not particularly warm with visitors or, it would seem, with anybody. Though he lived a privileged life in North Korea—he had a phone at his home, ample food and a car, and he traveled extensively outside the country—his defection has brought doom onto his family. His wife is rumored to have committed suicide after his defection, as did his daughter, who is said to have jumped out of a bus that was taking her to a prison camp. It is assumed that his other children and grandchildren are in prison camps, if they are still alive.

He does not talk about his personal life, but he does talk about the Dear Leader.

“If I were to go into details, it would take many days,” he said. “As a politician or leader who can work for the development of the state and the happiness of the people, he is an F student, a dropout. But as a dictator he has an excellent ability. He can organize people so that they can’t move, can’t do anything, and he can keep them under his ideology. As far as I know, the present North Korean dictatorial system is the most precise and thorough in history.”

Hwang says that he believes foreign aid has helped Kim by providing the resources he needs to retain the loyalty of his core constituencies—the military and party elites. Hwang says he does not believe Kim would ever allow foreign aid and investment to benefit the people who need it; Kim has shown no interest in his people’s material well-being, and given the choice between regime survival and national prosperity, it’s pretty clear which he would prefer. A few years ago, Kim began letting South Koreans visit the north, and this was seen as a relaxation of the isolation of his information-starved subjects. But the tourists, whose visits provide much-needed hard currency to the regime, are shepherded in quarantinelike conditions that make them virtual prisoners; contact with ordinary North Koreans is nil. Hwang says outsiders are naive to believe that Kim is ready to open up his country.

“South Korea is being fooled, and the Chinese, who should know best,” he said. “A considerable number of people are being fooled, including the United States.”

Hwang’s synopsis of Kim’s dictatorship reminded me of a passage from his memoir. He wrote about a 1992 banquet that Kim presided over in Pyongyang; a dance troupe provided lavishly choreographed entertainment.

The performance “was enough to elicit disgust when seen through the eyes of people with healthy minds,” Hwang wrote, recalling that he nonetheless applauded vigorously for the entertainers. A professor who was next to him was flummoxed.

“Are you clapping because you really enjoy the performance?” the professor asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hwang replied. “Just clap like mad. It’s an order.”

Kim’s hold on power depends not only on his willingness to impose misery upon his people but also on the willingness of the North Korean elite to accept their privileges and say nothing. Many North Koreans are well aware of the repressed and backward state of their homeland and wish it were otherwise; recent visitors say North Koreans quietly express a desire for greater contact with the outside world. The problem is that none of them are prepared to force or even nudge their wishes upon Kim Jong Il. The Dear Leader understands, as smart tyrants do, that perpetual clapping is generated by terror. That is why he works 20 hours a day to make sure the applause of fear does not stop.

When his regime is brought to an end, as one day it will be, the cause will not be his napping. Kim has had plenty of time, and he has worked hard, to insulate himself from the type of events that have led to the collapse of other tyrannies and dynasties. But the downfall of dictators is unpredictable. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of its Eastern European brethren, the easing of Maoist discipline in China—these happened in ways that were not foreseen. It is very likely, too, that the unimaginable will get Kim Jong Il in the end.

The Race to Baghdad

Outside  |  July 2003
This spring, a quarter of a million Americans took a trip. It was noisy, hot, and violent. Accommodations were poor. Some of them didn’t come back.

I do not know the value of life. In every war zone that I find myself in, I routinely fail to establish a sensible line beyond which I will not take risks, just as I struggle to pass judgment on war itself. When is killing justified? When is risking my life to report on killing justified? Most of what I have seen is unacceptable, but some of it is not—a nation defending itself against genocide, or a nation liberating itself from tyranny. The parameters of war are liquid, like blood.

In the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I saw a well-traveled friend writing in his diary. He had been keeping it for nine years, writing in it every day. “When I look back on the early passages,” he told me, “I realize that I have learned nothing.” I don’t keep a diary, but his words made me wonder how much—and what—I have learned about war. I was asking these questions as I drove into Iraq on the first day of the invasion, and by the time I arrived in Baghdad, three weeks later, I had found some answers.

It was supposed to be a walkover. American troops would cross into Iraq and meet surrendering soldiers and grateful civilians, and I would write a story about the happy liberation of the southern city of Basra.

The invasion began on the night of March 19. I’d been staying with some other journalists in a house in the northern Kuwaiti desert, a few miles from the Iraqi border. Packing up that night, we could hear everything—the 2,000-pound smart bombs landing on Iraqi trenches and the waves of Apache gunships flying 50 feet overhead, eerily invisible, moving without lights.

I was on assignment for The New York Times Magazine with French photographer Laurent Van der Stockt. We made our last preparations for the 40-mile drive to Basra, bolting luggage racks onto our two rented SUVs and strapping down jerry cans filled with gasoline. We figured it would be a short trip, but in case light skirmishing delayed the city’s liberation, we packed a few other prudent items: sleeping bags, cans of tuna, chocolate bars, gallons of drinking water, body armor, Kevlar helmets, biochemical suits, U.S. military uniforms, two spare tires, a stove, satellite phones, shortwave radios, and, in Laurent’s Mitsubishi Pajero, a box of Cuban cigars.

We headed out at 4 a.m., hoping the thousands of fighting vehicles storming across the desert would create enough havoc to let us slip across the border. Laurent led the way, because his vehicle had an onboard compass and GPS system; at the wheel of my Hyundai, I followed him along one back road and then another, neither of us sure where they led, except toward the war. Shortly before dawn, we passed through a gap in the line of sand berms the Kuwaitis had created on their side of the demilitarized zone; I could see flashes of artillery and tank fire a mile or two ahead. We were close. Then I heard the shouting.

“Turn off your fucking lights! Turn them off now!”

We stopped and turned off our lights. The American soldiers who appeared out of the darkness had a Special Forces look, with black caps and assault rifles outfitted with high-tech accessories. They were not happy to see us.

“We almost lit you up,” one of them said. “What the fuck are you doing here?” They ordered us to turn around.

By daybreak we were back in Kuwait. After several more hours of driving along the desert border, trying to sneak through the breaches that U.S. and British troops had made in the defensive berms, we found an unguarded stretch and raced across it, into an empty no-man’s-land, hoping that no Apache helicopters or Abrams tanks would spot us and treat our unmarked vehicles as hostile targets.

This was madness, and I was aware of it. But I was also aware that the only way to get into Iraq was to take chances. That, or return to Kuwait City and wait for the U.S. military to give a green light to “unilateral” journalists, as those of us who were not embedded were called. We suspected the go-ahead the Pentagon had promised might be weeks away; Laurent and I hadn’t come to the Middle East to sit in hotel rooms and watch the invasion on CNN.

We made it across the no-man’s-land and reached Safwan, an Iraqi border town that had been secured by a unit of U.S. Marines. We arrived just in time to see the troops starting to pull down billboards and posters of Saddam Hussein.

Wars are like people: Each is different, each is unpredictable in ways that are not predictable. Laurent and I assumed, once we were in Iraq, that we had reached a happy war zone, that Iraqi soldiers would give up like they had in 1991 and Iraqi civilians would celebrate. I don’t know where this assumption might register on the stupidity scale, but my only comfort is that we did not have a monopoly on idiocy.

It wasn’t surprising, in Safwan, to find only a handful of SUVs containing unilateral journalists. Hundreds had tried to cross into Iraq on the first day, and most had failed; in subsequent days, they would try and fail again, because after the invasion’s chaotic first hours, U.S. and British forces clamped down on the border. We were not only unembedded; we were unwanted.

After an hour in Safwan, 11 of us decided to continue up the open road to Basra, deeper into Iraq. We asked the troops in Safwan about the situation ahead, and several assured us that coalition forces had seized advance positions on the outskirts and if we journeyed up the road we would find them.

Those of us who headed toward Basra in our six SUVs did not constitute a convoy of fools. We had decades of experience in war zones. Laurent, who is 39, had covered the war in Croatia, where he had nearly been killed by a mortar (his left shoulder is scarred and bent unnaturally), and two years ago an Israeli sniper shot him in the knee. He now has trouble running, yet remains one of the most able companions you could hope for in dire circumstances. The second vehicle was driven by a 38-year-old Brit, Gary Knight, an award-winning photographer for Newsweek who has gone into, and survived, the worst conflict zones of the past 15 years. There were no rookies among us.

We drove for about four miles, through a dusty area that had a smattering of mud houses and palm trees. It was peaceful—but too peaceful. Where were the American military vehicles? Where were the telltale signs of battle? Laurent’s SUV slowed down. A few hundred yards to his left was an Iraqi tank. To his right, about 50 yards from the road, several dozen Iraqi soldiers timidly waved a white flag. About a thousand yards ahead, through a heat mirage that distorted our vision, a line of people stretched across the road.

Laurent swerved around and headed back at full speed, and the rest of the convoy followed suit. There were, we realized, no Americans or Brits ahead; we had been driving toward an Iraqi checkpoint. The soldiers who wanted to surrender were doing so because no troops had arrived. Presumably some of them were the tank’s crew, and had they changed their minds, they could have easily turned our caravan into smoldering steel and flesh. Just as easily, the American and British tanks in Safwan could have vaporized us as we raced back toward them. Fortunately, someone recognized our returning convoy; they did not fire.

It would be nice to say that I quickly realized this war was not the walkover I expected and that it was far too dangerous to cover without being embedded in an American military unit. But I failed to come to that conclusion even the next day, when we learned that a four-man team from ITN, the British television network, had ventured up an open road not far from where we had ventured, encountered Iraqi soldiers, as we had done, and turned back, as we had done. But an Iraqi pickup truck followed the two ITN vehicles, and as they neared the checkpoint, an American tank opened fire. One journalist survived; another was killed; the third journalist and the team’s translator are still missing.

Control, or the portion of control that we truly possess, is not lost; it is surrendered, bit by bit, from one hour to the next, from one decision or nondecision to the next. I’m not saying that war is a drug—that’s too easy, a cliché—but I am saying that I cannot identify a moment when the control I had, or thought I had, was taken away from me. In fact, it was given up.

We spent our first night in Iraq under an overpass outside Safwan, with the sounds of artillery and small-arms fire in the distance, and the mosquito-like whine of Predator drones high above. Basra was not falling. Soldiers on both sides were fighting and dying.

At dawn, there was only one direction to go. The road to Umm Qasr was closed off by barbed wire. We had already tried the road to Basra. And the road back to Kuwait was a professional dead end. I told myself I would stay with this war for now, see what happened, and pull out if that became the wise thing to do. Oddly, going deeper into the war was the easy way. Deciding that the risks were too high and living with the second-guessing and feelings of cowardice that might afflict me if I retreated and my colleagues continued on—that would have required real courage.

We drove north, circling up toward Zubayr, a suburb of Basra, past a line of several hundred military vehicles going nowhere. We followed a column of about 30 Marine armored vehicles as they took a northern side road, and when they stopped at a plateau, they allowed us to park inside their perimeter. Now there was no way I could turn back: Even if I remembered the zigzagging route, I would be traveling without military cover, in a war zone of amorphous front lines surrounded by free-fire zones.

Within a few hours the Marines began moving out, heading north again.

The term “war correspondent” is used liberally these days, pasted upon anyone who has been in a conflict zone and lived to tell about it back home. Geraldo Rivera is a war correspondent, or so the teasers on Fox News tell us. So is any reporter with an exotic dateline and a flak jacket. The term has been applied to me on occasion, because I’ve covered wars in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. I’ve never felt comfortable with the label; it implies a psychological profile that I don’t believe I have. I don’t enjoy the risks you have to take in war zones. If I must go forward, I try to follow others whom I trust.

The pool of real war correspondents is very small, probably around 40 in the world, and most of them are photographers. They run terribly high risks, but the truth is that it is safer to take high risks in the company of James Nachtwey (a Time photographer) or John Burns (a New York Times reporter) than moderate risks in the company of someone with less experience. Perhaps the most important reason I went forward to Baghdad was that I was following Gary Knight and Laurent Van der Stockt.

The supporting cast was eclectic. Gary’s traveling partner was Enrico Dagnino, a 43-year-old Italian photographer who’d spent his youth being thrown out of private schools and stealing cars; along the way he’d gotten a tattoo on his forearm of a skull with a mohawk. Enrico had had the foresight to smuggle a supply of hash into the country, and when most of it had been smoked—a dark day for several members of the convoy—he probed local markets during occasional stops in small towns. While some of us waded through groups of Iraqis asking, “Cigarettes? Cigarettes?” Enrico was saying, “Hashish? Hashish?”

At 46, Laurent Rebours, a French photographer for the Associated Press, was the oldest in the group. He could be jovial one moment and furious the next. I once overheard him talking to one of his editors in New York. He was, as usual, shouting. “The good news is that my computer is now working,” he bellowed. “In a rage, I hit it and said, ‘Fuck this machine,’ and now it is working.”

The three other Frenchmen in our group were all freelance photographers, traveling together in a Honda SUV. My fellow Americans were Ellen Knickmeyer, 40, a reporter for the AP; Kit Roane, 34, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report; and Wesley Bocxe, 42, a madcap freelance photographer who reminded me of the actor Steve Buscemi. Several days into the journey, Kuni Takahashi, a 37-year-old Japanese photographer for the Boston Herald, abandoned the Marine unit he’d been embedded in and embedded himself in my Hyundai.

Driving north, making sure that the open road had Americans ahead of us, we soon reached the tail end of a Marine convoy. The sentries at the rear aimed their weapons at us, but we slowed to a crawl and stopped 150 yards from them. Gary got out and walked up, and one of their officers agreed to let us follow them for the rest of the day.

We stopped at dusk. As helicopter gunships circled overhead, scouring the desert for enemy soldiers, military culture met journalist culture.

“You’re not carrying any frigging weapons?” one incredulous Marine asked me.
Those are the rules, I explained.

“What kind of frigging rules is that?” he replied. “Not even a nine-millimeter?”

Our supplies of food and water were running low, but we soon learned to barter. The Marines had no way to contact their wives and families back home, so we swapped sat-phone access for supplies. As the Marines began surprising their loved ones by calling from the middle of the Iraqi desert, two cases of combat rations—MREs, or meals ready to eat—were speedily loaded into my SUV.

The conversations were often heartbreaking. “Don’t cry, babe, please don’t cry,” they’d say. “I love you, I love you, I can’t tell you how much I love you.” The endearments were repeated endlessly, carried away by the desert breeze.

I needed to call home, too. The incident with the ITN crew had been followed by the deaths, injuries, and capture of several other reporters. My editors instructed me to forget Basra and do whatever I thought wisest. They were worried about my safety. So was my family.

I suppose that one of the hints that you’re losing control of your life is when you start shamelessly lying about it. The alcoholic lies about how much he’s drinking; the journalist lies to his family about the risks he’s taking. I called one of my brothers and told him everything was fine. “I’m with the Marines,” I said. “Tell Mom and Dad and everyone else that I’m surrounded by Marines and I’m as safe as can be.”

Of course, I didn’t say that Marines were being ambushed up and down the road and that, in truth, I wasn’t traveling with them but behind them. I didn’t say I was scared.

Late in the afternoon on the war’s fourth day, 140 miles north of Safwan, we neared a small bridge over the Euphrates River. Nasiriyah was just east of us, and we could see a battle going on. From the BBC shortwave service we learned that a U.S. Marine and a unit of Army soldiers had been captured there. As the sun set, flares shot high over the city and tracer fire filled the air. We were within easy range of Iraqi mortar and artillery crews.

There was a tremendous traffic jam at the bridgehead. Hundreds of military vehicles—from tanks and armored fighting vehicles to Humvees and trucks carrying mobile pontoon bridges and boats and fuel and food and troops and howitzers—were backed up and waiting to cross. Understandably, the commander of the checkpoint at the bridge refused to let us pass, because he wanted to give priority to military vehicles. We waited, swallowing dust and diesel fumes, our eyes burning.

Chuck Stevenson, a producer for the CBS program 48 Hours Investigates who was embedded with one of the units preparing to cross the bridge, saw us parked at the side of the road. “These guys are not embedded,” I heard him say to an officer. “They’re not supposed to be here.” Stevenson then headed up toward the checkpoint commander and, on his way back, got into a heated discussion with my colleagues.

This was beyond annoying; it could be dangerous. The military had clarified its position on unilateral journalists, and we were allowed to stay. But the situation was fluid, and individual commanders had a lot of leeway. If we had to go back, we’d be traveling alone—there were no convoys heading all the way back to Kuwait. We huddled and agreed that Stevenson was a snitch.

Enrico was furious. “This guy is fucking us,” he said. “Let’s take care of him now.”

In view of Enrico’s previous hobbies, this was a credible threat. Wes was equally outraged.

“Let’s fuck him up right now,” Wes urged. “He’s going to get us killed.”

Enrico and Wes moved in Stevenson’s direction. Gary stepped in their way.

“Enrico, I’m getting mad,” Gary said. “And you don’t want me to get mad, because when I hit you, you stay down.”

“But this guy is an asshole,” Enrico pleaded. “He puts our lives at risk. You are too polite, Gary.”

“We have a situation that we have to deal with,” Gary replied. “Let’s not make it worse. We need to get across the bridge, and that will never happen if we deck the guy.”

Wes came around. “We’ll get him in Baghdad,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Gary said. “After you get him, I’ll finish him off.”

(Later, Stevenson acknowledged that “a hostile moment” took place, but denied that it happened at the bridgehead, or that he told any officer that our presence was unauthorized.)

Stevenson’s convoy was waved forward. We were finally allowed to move forward in darkness, without our lights, at 3 a.m.

One of the unheralded skills of working in a war zone is being a good driver. You have to be able to navigate Third World roads that are in Fourth World shape, and you might be behind the wheel of a Fifth World vehicle. Driving at night raised the dangers exponentially. The Marines had night-vision goggles; we had only two pairs, which belonged to the AP team, Ellen and Laurent. The Marines didn’t even use brake lights. We had to tape ours, leaving only a small sliver a half-inch wide to help prevent rear-end collisions. Visibility was ridiculously limited. Let more than 20 yards get between you and the car in front and you’d be lost. Less than 20 yards and if the car stopped, which was often, you’d hit them. We drove along nearly blind. One 67-ton Abrams tank after another would roar up alongside us and pass with just a foot or so between my eyes and their treads. There was no margin for error. It was terrifying.

Sunrise was a relief, but it brought a new nightmare: The paved road we had been traveling on had petered out, and we were driving into roadless desert, on sand, in rented SUVs, behind military vehicles heading to an unknown destination. Into Baghdad, into battle? We had no idea. We were low on gasoline, and because military vehicles use diesel, begging or bartering for fuel didn’t seem to be in the cards. The convoy stopped for a bit, and as we stood debating the options, the Marines suddenly rushed out of their vehicles and dropped, spread-eagle, on the ground, their weapons pointed beyond our heads. Piles of sand for highway construction lined our eastern flank, and the Marines feared an Iraqi ambush. We quickly moved out of the line of fire.

This was unlike any war any of us had covered. There were no front lines behind which we were safe or bases where we could shelter. The Marines were rushing north to Baghdad in unconnected convoys, not bothering to secure their flanks or even the rear. Their defensive tactic was simple: Treat anything that moves as hostile. The desert, the Marines, the Iraqis, land mines, night driving, chemical weapons—any of them could be our undoing.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ll tell you guys, this is one of the most fucked-up situations I’ve been in,” Gary said. “No joking. It’s time to go home or go forward. Everybody has to make important decisions. I’m not going to make them for you. Right now I’m only thinking of myself, what’s right for me. You have to make your own decisions.”

“This is a real war,” Enrico said. “Let’s cover it. Or try to cover it.”
Everyone wanted to go forward. I followed.

There were no houses and no landmarks; we were surrounded by flatness and sand and, above us, the sun. Every mile or so we passed Iraqi men or women who were doing one of three things: rubbing their stomachs, because they wanted food; tilting back their heads, because they were thirsty; or waving Iraqi bank notes that bore the image of Saddam Hussein. If pity was not enough to persuade us to part with our riches of food and water, perhaps a war souvenir would seal the deal.

We drove about 25 miles that day and stopped at a plateau where the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, had pulled up for the evening. The battalion, which is based in Twentynine Palms, California, had deployed more than a thousand Marines and more than 75 armored fighting vehicles, including tanks. One of the reporters embedded with the unit told us that the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy, was a friendly guy, and when we asked an officer if we could spend the night inside their perimeter, he agreed.

As dusk fell, McCoy came out of his command tent to meet us. A 40-year-old Oklahoman, he is linebacker-tall, with an authoritative bearing that suggests leadership without a word or gesture. McCoy is a combat veteran, having served as a company commander in the Gulf War. Kit was surfing the Web and let the colonel read the latest stories about the soldiers captured in Nasiriyah. McCoy clicked his way through the stories, saying nothing. Then he told us how he was going to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to his boys.

“There are two kinds of people on this battlefield,” he said. “Predators and prey. Don’t be prey. Don’t be an easy target. We’ll do the ambushing; we’ll do the killing; we’ll take the fight to the enemy and not be passive about it. The best medicine is aggression and violent supremacy. After contact, they will fear us more than they hate us.” McCoy was blunt as a howitzer.

McCoy mentioned that his men had spearheaded the attack on Basra’s airport a few days earlier, and showed us an Iraqi flag he had taken as a souvenir. When Laurent offered him a cigar, his eyes sparkled. McCoy lit the Cohiba and invited us to join his march on Baghdad. The Third Battalion was the foothold we needed to survive.

The next morning, March 25, a strong wind was blowing, but the skies were clear. Soon, however, the wind grew fiercer and picked up the sand. It became a gale that lashed the car; we used the windshield wipers to clear the bone-dry wash of dusty grains.

My Hyundai, rented from Hertz in Kuwait City, had not been made for a military march through the trackless desert. It began making a throbbing noise from the engine, as if it were in pain. The spasms began to come quicker, but there was nothing to be done. We drove on.

Kuni, the photographer for the Boston Herald, took over driving, and I dozed off. I was jolted awake by a crash. Kuni had rear-ended Laurent’s Pajero.
“Sorry, I lost attention,” Kuni said sheepishly. We jumped out to inspect the damage. Laurent’s SUV was fine. Our hood was crumpled and the fender was dented, but the engine continued to run. And the throbbing noise was gone, never to return.

At noon the sky turned hepatitis yellow, as though it were sick. It seemed that entire deserts of sand were being scooped up and blown around us. By 2 p.m. the sky had turned Martian red. Heavy, isolated raindrops began to fall, followed abruptly by a frenetic downpour. The rain stopped as quickly as it had started. The wind and sand were worse than ever.

At three o’clock the Marine Corps surrendered to reality. The convoy halted. A Marine stumbled over to us with the sort of drunken walk that you see in news footage of people trying to move through hurricane winds. He knocked on the window. I rolled it down. I hadn’t realized how deafening the wind was. “We can’t go forward,” he shouted. “Do not use sat phones. We can’t see our flanks, and the Iraqis can use com signals to pinpoint our position.”

The convoy was like a submarine sitting silent at the bottom of the ocean. The sand seemed alive, hitting the car furiously, trying to get at us. Even with the doors and windows shut, the air was filled with the stuff, and though I put a bandanna across my face, I was still breathing it. When I ground my teeth, I felt and heard the crackling of sand. The temperature rose inside the car, and kept rising. Or maybe I had a fever. I asked Kuni how he felt. Feverish, he said.

I drank liters of water and then had to relieve myself—a new problem. I put on my desert goggles and shoved the door open—the wind, pressing against it, fought back hard—and the sandstorm entered the vehicle, like atom-size bees swarming to a hive. The scarf I had wrapped around my face was torn off and blown away. I leaned against the car, held on to the buckled hood with one hand, and took care of business, rocked by the wind. When I got back inside, absolutely every part of me was covered in sand.

After midnight the storm finally blew itself out, and the lightless convoy moved out.

The cliché about a battle plan not surviving its first contact with the enemy happens to be true. Improvisation is required in warfare, though improvising is a way of acknowledging that the chaos is stronger than your ability to master it. The battles that the battalion would fight on its way to Baghdad, the resistance they would meet, how they would defeat that resistance—these things were, for the most part, figured out on the fly. I got a taste of this one night after I rode with the battalion’s intelligence officer, Captain Bryan Mangan, to a briefing at regimental headquarters, five miles south of the battalion’s camp. Mangan was supposed to lead a psychological operations team from HQ back to camp, but as we got ready to drive back, he saw that the psy-ops Humvees were already leaving.

“Where are those idiots going?” he asked his driver.

“They’re following you.”

“But I’m here,” Mangan said.

“They think they’re following you.”


“Because you’re driving in a Humvee, and that’s a Humvee they’re following.”
“There are 4,000 motherfucking Humvees in this fucking country.”


“Do they have a radio?” Mangan asked.

“Yes,” the driver replied.

“Can we call them on it and tell them to get their asses back here?”

“Let me check.”

The driver ran to the com tent. He returned in a minute.

“No, sir,” he said.

The unlikeliness of all this was heightened by the fact that Mangan was a yuppie. About 30 years old, he’d grown up in New York City’s wealthy Westchester County suburbs and graduated from Fordham Prep, the kind of private school that sends its graduates to Harvard and Yale and on to banking and politics. He enlisted in the Marine Corps instead. He’d considered leaving the military shortly before the war began but decided to stay with it. Iraq would be his way of doing something about 9/11.

This was Mangan’s first war. Like many Marines, he had mixed feelings about the sort of killing that occurs in the sort of war he was fighting, where enemy soldiers were dressing as civilians, and where many Iraqi combatants were being forced to fight. “We’re going to have to do things that are potentially ugly,” he told me. “We are killing. There’s no other way around it. In order for us to do what we have to do, we kill people.”

I was surprised at how much the Marines would reveal to us. Since the Vietnam War, there has been a chilliness between the military and the press, but there was none with the Third Battalion. By embedding hundreds of journalists, the brass had sent the unstated message that it was OK to be honest.

“Why do you think you’re here?” I asked Mangan’s driver.

“We’re here to liberate these fucking Eye-rackis,” he replied.

The psychology of killing is driven not just by a sense of mission or hatred, but by fear. Despite their bravado, these guys were scared—scared of being killed, scared of being captured. This is one of the reasons why traveling with them was almost as dangerous as not traveling with them. Anytime you weren’t right next to a Marine, you became a potential target. Marines were even scared of other Marines. “There are a lot of trigger-happy guys out here,” one told me.

One morning I walked 25 yards from the spot where we had stationed our cars and found a discreet place to serve as a desert latrine. Gary happened to be 200 yards away, standing next to a command vehicle and listening to its military radio. Suddenly the routine chatter turned urgent: “Potential unfriendly in the perimeter. We’ve got him sighted. He’s got a black shirt on; he’s crouching down. Looks like a fedayeen.”

Because lots of Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen irregulars wore dark civilian clothes—the better to fade into the shadows—a black T-shirt was potential enemy garb. At least one Marine, perhaps more, had lined me up in his crosshairs. Colonel McCoy happened to be listening and gave an order that the guy in the black shirt might be one of the media guys, so nobody should fire.

I wore light-colored shirts until the war was over.

By now we’d been traveling with McCoy for more than a week, but despite frequent Third Battalion skirmishes, we hadn’t seen any fighting. Now, halfway to Baghdad, more battles were in the offing. We realized that the colonel, who already had three journalists embedded in his unit—two from Time magazine and one from the San Francisco Chronicle—was not about to allow our six vehicles to drive into combat.

The convoy’s tanks and armored vehicles peeled off for two days and moved northeast, attacking Afak and two smaller towns. A day after we arrived at the outskirts of the town of Diwaniya, the combat team left on another incursion—or, as McCoy called it, a “tune-up” for Baghdad. Again we were left behind. Finally, before the division attacked the city of Al Kut, McCoy agreed to start taking a few unilaterals, but we’d have to choose who.

Gary proposed drawing lots. It seemed fair to everyone except Laurent Rebours.

“Non, non,” he said. “I am the Associated Press. Non.”

There was a roar of disapproval. Gary picked up a stick and drew ap in the dust. He then erased it with his foot, angrily.

“Fuck the companies,” he said. “It’s not about them.”

He then wrote Rebours’s name in the dust, and did not erase it.

“The ap, I don’t give a shit about. But you, Laurent, I care about. It’s about us. Twelve people who have risked their lives to get here. Nothing else.”

“Non,” Rebours said. “I go on all missions. I work for the AP.”

Albert, one of the quiet French photographers, was ready to punch him.

Ne me fait pas chier,” he said. “Tu as une attitude de merde.” He added, in English, “You will never borrow my sleeping bag again.”

Rebours backed down. In the end, when McCoy called for two vehicles to accompany him into battle at Al Kut, we simply threw everything out of the two largest SUVs, and six of us piled into each, like flak-jacketed clowns in a circus act.

At Al Kut, we stayed at the rear of the combat train, about a mile and a half from the front line. Sporadic fire was directed at our location, but most of it came from us: The Marines shot at anything they thought had moved. Meanwhile, a sniper hit by Iraqi fire was rushed back to the medic station; shortly after he was carried into a Chinook helicopter, he died of shock. Corporal Mark Evnin was the battalion’s first Marine killed in action.

A few nights later, we were, unbelievably, nine miles from the center of Baghdad, at a factory near a bridge that led into the city. Earlier in the day, we had passed through an abandoned military base. Along with the usual assortment of portraits of Saddam Hussein and outdated computers, Ellen discovered a shower with running water. I grabbed a bar of soap, raced inside, and stripped. Just then a Marine shouted down the hallway, “The building is rigged with C4! Get out!”

I got out.

The factory was a mile and a half down the road from the Diyala Bridge, which crosses a tributary that flows into the Tigris. It was the Third Battalion’s mission to seize the bridge and march into the Iraqi capital. The battalion was on edge; the previous day, a tank from a sister battalion had been destroyed by a suicide bomber. Everyone was exhausted.

On the first morning of the two-day battle, April 6, I stayed back at the factory, sitting in the passenger seat of my car, writing. After a few hours I heard the sounds of battle and saw huge plumes of smoke ahead. I put on my flak jacket and helmet and walked up the road, which was jammed with tanks and armored fighting vehicles waiting to cross the bridge. A Marine commanding a six-man mortar crew in an open-backed Humvee stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift.

“You’re not going all the way, are you?” I asked.

“No, we’ll be a few hundred meters back.”

I hopped into the back and the driver continued on. Less than a minute later the Humvee came under fire. I dived to the floor, attempting to become one with it as the Marines around me opened up with their M-16s.

“I shot him!” one of them shouted. “I shot him!”

The driver went nuts. He veered over the center median, knocking everyone from whatever position they happened to be firing from. Then he veered back, jolting us again.

“Who the fuck is driving?” someone yelled.

I knew who was driving: a Marine trying to dodge bullets.

“You’re never going to drive this fucking Humvee again,” a Marine next to me shouted, between shots.

The Humvee made a hard right and jerked to a halt. The Marines jumped out, and so did I.

“How’d you like the ride?” one of them asked me.

“Where are we?” I replied.

“The bridge,” he said.

The colonel’s Humvee was a few yards away.

“How are you doing, Peter?” McCoy asked as I scrambled over.

“Fine, colonel.”

His Marines were firing every kind of ordnance they had across the river, and shots were coming back, and there we were, in it.

A few yards away, a terrified Iraqi woman came running out of a building in a black cloak with a white scarf across her forehead. “Is that a frigging nun?” McCoy said.

I listened as he talked on the radio with his commanders and his other officers. In between radio squawks, McCoy chatted as though we were hanging out in a park, watching the neighborhood kids play in a sandbox.

“They’re doing a poor job of Chechen tactics,” he explained, referring to the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics the Iraqis were using. “We trained on that. We’re getting them with snipers. Coughlin’s already got six to eight kills today.”

His attention returned to the radio phone. He listened, then he gave an order.
“We just got a SIGINT hit that the enemy has requested arty,” he said. In other words, the signals intelligence unit had intercepted a radio conversation in which the Republican Guard unit on the other side of the bridge was calling in artillery fire on our positions.

“We’ve got to get our guys down,” McCoy continued. “We’ve got guys in the open here.”

I was one of those guys.

I used to smoke when I was in college, then quit, but in the past two weeks I had started again. I was nearing a pack a day.

The battalion’s combat troops dug themselves in to the south side of the bridge for the night. I went back to the factory and tried to sleep; the heat was oppressive, the mosquitoes worse.

The Marines planned to take the bridge the next day. Because a pylon was damaged, no vehicles could move over it; the assault would be on foot, World War II style.

At about 10 a.m., word reached the rear that one of the battalion’s armored vehicles had been hit by an artillery shell; two Marines were killed, several injured. The first wave of troops crossed the bridge, and soon the air on the far side was thick with ordnance—artillery shells, mortars, bullets. Two more columns of Marines ran forward, toward the bridge and over it.

I fell into one of the lines, telling myself, I am a journalist. This is a war. I must cover it. We passed the armored fighting vehicle that had been shelled; it was a smoking mess of twisted metal.

“Holy shit,” one of the Marines said.

“Don’t look, don’t look,” said another.

We ran over the bridge, jumping over a bullet-riddled Iraqi corpse, and as soon as I got over, I noticed Colonel McCoy, standing by a house with his radioman.

“How are you doing, Peter?” he asked, again.

“Just fine, colonel.” It was fucking Groundhog Day. I lit a cigarette.

What happened that day was the subject of a story I wrote for The New York Times Magazine. The battle raged around us. Marines were fanning out in all directions, firing their weapons at unseen enemy troops that retreated from building to building as the troops advanced. Fearful of suicide bombers, the Marines fired warning shots at approaching vehicles, and then opened fire. Most of the vehicles, as it turned out, carried confused civilians trying to get out of Baghdad. The day after the battle was over, I counted nearly a dozen bodies; all of them appeared to have been civilians. When I asked one of the Marines what he thought, he said, “That’s war.”

Just as things that should have disturbed the Marines didn’t, things that should have disturbed me didn’t. After the fight, I sat in my car, writing, not 20 yards away from a partly crushed corpse sprawled in the road. I’d gotten used to it.

It was April 8. On the BBC, we heard that Baghdad was beginning to fall; the Americans had taken the main presidential palace. With the other journalists, I drove farther into the city. There were Marines everywhere. We parked next to two of their fighting vehicles at an abandoned house, but when a U.S. fighter jet swooped in and dropped an errant bomb 400 yards away, we got out fast.

Not long after, we encountered a group of Marines who had just shot a young boy and girl. They were jittery and didn’t know what to do; they asked us to take the injured children to a medic station in the rear. Laurent Van der Stockt bundled them into his car, and Enrico held the girl in his arms as the father held his son, who had been shot in the chest and was losing consciousness. “Why? Why?” the father asked as we raced back toward the bridge.

The city came unglued. On the road there was only theft, looters carrying and pushing or pulling whatever they could: air conditioners, water fountains, carpets, lightbulbs. “It’s like Wal-Mart out there,” a Marine told me. Outside a technical college, a group of Iraqis pleaded with Marine sentries for permission to come inside and take what they could. “I am working on my Ph.D.,” one of them said, in excellent English. “I need a computer.”

The next day, April 9, the Third Battalion met no further resistance, though others did. Laurent and I crept ahead once we realized that the final miles would be the easy ones. We were standing at a square in the heart of Baghdad, marveling at it all, when Colonel McCoy roared up in his Humvee. “I’m going to the Palestine Hotel!” he shouted, so we jumped into our vehicles and followed him.

Within a few minutes, we pulled up in front of the Palestine, which housed most of the international press corps in Baghdad and which, the day before, had been shelled by U.S. Army soldiers who believed they were being fired upon, killing two cameramen, one Spanish and one Ukrainian. As we watched, McCoy’s Marines rolled their largest armored vehicle up to the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, put a metal chain around it, and began pulling it down. The symbolic liberation of Baghdad was being carried out by Colonel McCoy and his men, live on CNN.

“How do you feel?” I asked McCoy.

“Speechless,” he replied, though he soon found the politically appropriate words about liberation.

I asked him about the Marines I knew his battalion had lost—Evnin, the two men at the bridge, another killed in a Humvee accident at night. What did McCoy think, now that his mission had been accomplished, about the men who had lost their lives?

This time, McCoy truly was speechless. He looked at the ground, held back tears, and finally said, very quietly, “God bless them.”

I had thought I had little interest in reporting on wars again. After I covered Bosnia and wrote a book about it, I was satisfied with what I had written and wanted to move on to other subjects. Still, I continued to venture into zones of conflict, though I did so with caution. The circumstances in Iraq did not allow for caution. I like to be in control of my life, and I learned that in war, the notion of control reveals itself as a hoax.

I saw, again, the killing of civilians and soldiers. I experienced, again, the strange mix of humor and friendship that is created when stress and absurdity and terror come together. On the first day I met Colonel McCoy, he’d said that at the start of his march on Baghdad, he told his men that they would undergo a great experience they would hope to never have again. He was right; he studied and knew war. It has been going on for quite some time, after all. The tools of warfare have changed over the millennia, but its nature has not. Terms like “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage” distort a vital truth. War is killing.

Meet the New Boss

The New York Times Magazine  |  June 8, 2003
Dathar Khashab had what it took to maneuver his way up through the ranks in Saddam Hussein’s oil bureaucracy. When his new managers showed up wearing U.S.-issue fatigues, he didn’t miss a step.

There are two types of people who do well in dictatorships: those who make themselves politically indispensable, doing whatever bit of wickedness the dictatorship requires, and those who make themselves economically indispensable, keeping the trains and refineries running smoothly. Dathar Khashab, the chain-smoking, overalls-wearing 58-year-old director general of the Daura oil refinery near Baghdad, falls into the latter category.

Under Saddam Hussein, Khashab rose through the ranks of the oil industry, excelling at a series of jobs. He first started working at Daura in 1968 as a junior engineer in the maintenance department. After it was bombed by American planes during the first gulf war, he oversaw its reconstruction. In March, he became the refinery’s director general.

Despite the political crudity of Saddam Hussein’s government, its oil industry had a reputation for being stocked with well-educated professionals who were able to maintain a constant flow of oil despite international sanctions and nearly constant warfare. Of course, top managers were also members of the Baath Party, the political instrument that Hussein used to pull Iraq into tyranny.

This is not a good time to be a Baathist. L. Paul Bremer III, who oversees the American occupation, recently told reporters in Baghdad that he was taking measures “to extirpate Baathists and Baathism from Iraq forever,” declaring, “We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office.”

But the only way an engineer or doctor or professor under Hussein’s government was able to rise in the system was to join the Baath Party. Khashab, for example, claims to have joined when he became the refinery’s assistant director general last year; his promotion, he says, required it. This may be true, though it may not; Iraq is filled with Baathists who say now that they never wanted to be Baathists.

These people present a thorny problem for Bremer and other leaders of the American occupation. During the war, American soldiers tried to kill Baathists wherever possible, or at least to detain them. But now, throughout broken-down Iraq, the American soldiers are discovering that many of the people who know how to make the trains run on time, or run at all, are, like Khashab, Baathists. What should be done with them?

This question is acutely felt at Iraq’s refineries, because postwar social stability depends to a large degree on reliable supplies of gasoline and propane. And in May, social stability, like gasoline and propane, were in considerably short supply. The situation at the Daura refinery was particularly worrisome, because it supplies the capital with most of its gas. If Daura falters, Baghdad falters; they are conjoined twins, needing each other to survive. Once the U.S. military realized this, the protection of Daura became a priority. In early May, the job of protecting and overseeing Daura was handed to Tom Hough, a 28-year-old captain in the 82nd Airborne Division whose principal occupations are bass fishing, deer hunting and, he says, “jumping out of planes and killing people.”

Hough knew nothing about oil, gas or how to run a refinery, yet this was not unusual. The occupation of Iraq was turning into the military equivalent of improvisational theater. According to the plan drawn up in Washington before the invasion, the postwar administration of installations like Daura was supposed to fall to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, run by Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general, but in the looting-filled aftermath of the invasion, ORHA emerged as a case study in haplessness.

When Hough arrived, Daura was limping along at about 30 percent capacity. Its workers were being paid little, and only sporadically, and there was the risk of a riot if that didn’t change soon. S.U.V.‘s and tankers belonging to the refinery were regularly being hijacked or simply disappearing. (Crooked managers drove off with a showroom’s worth of vehicles.) And that was the least bad news. The worst bad news was that the refinery’s postwar management was the same as its prewar management—and that meant Baathists. Hough’s first task was to figure out what to do with Khashab.

“Dathar’s got a nice thing going here,” Hough told me in early May, sitting in a cluttered room in a two-story building inside the refinery compound that was serving as his command post and living quarters. Hough knew the refinery was receiving cash for the small shipments of gas that it was able to move out, but with banks closed and with the Ministry of Oil in semiparalysis, he had no idea where that cash was disappearing to.

“Where is that money?” Hough asked. “A lot of people are getting rich off this chaos. Somebody in ORHA is supposed to take charge, but I have never talked to anyone in ORHA or seen them here. I don’t even know what ORHA stands for.”

What Hough said he was hearing, from members of the Special Forces detachment based near the refinery, was that Khashab was corrupt. “I think we’ll have to get rid of him,” Hough said. The room was filled with flak jackets and M-16’s; in one window there was an air-conditioner that functioned only occasionally. “I’m working with him now because I can’t find anyone better,” he continued. “But I think we’ve got to find someone better. I think he is operating like a Baath Party guy, taking all the money and screwing everyone.”

My own impression, when I first met Dathar Khashab, was that he operated out of an intense loyalty not to the Baath Party or to Saddam Hussein, but to the interests of Dathar Khashab. Because his superiors were now Americans and not Baathists, he was happily touting a book about W. Edwards Deming, the American management guru who is widely credited with restructuring Japan’s industrial base after World War II. “He is a fantastic man,” Khashab told me, speaking in fluent English. “His book is, for me, like a god.”

We were driving in his Nissan S.U.V. to his first meeting with Captain Hough, and when I fired up a cigarette, he told me to put it out. “American safety standards,” he laughed.

Khashab grew up in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and was just 3 years old when his father died after being bitten by a scorpion. The family scraped by; his eldest brother became the family patriarch. When Khashab was 11, that brother, then a policeman, was killed by Communists, and Khashab moved to Baghdad with another of his brothers. Because he was an excellent student, he earned a rare prize: a foreign scholarship from the Ministry of Oil, which recruited the best and the brightest from the country’s secondary schools. Khashab arrived at Heathrow Airport on Sept. 19, 1961, just 17 years old, barely able to speak English. Five years later, he had earned an engineering degree from the University of Sheffield, graduating with honors.

The reason Daura was not stripped bare in the looting that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall can be summed up in two words: Dathar Khashab. As things began to crumble into chaos, he decided to fight for it. He organized the work force into a militia, handing out AK-47 assault rifles along with orders to shoot at anyone who tried to enter the sprawling compound. He oversaw the refinery’s defense for nearly a week, going virtually without sleep, and just as his side was about to be overwhelmed, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division finally showed up.

Even after the Americans arrived, thieves continued to attack the refinery, and there were so many that the soldiers could not detain them all; most were placed in flexicuffs and told to leave, their hands bound behind their backs. The youngest looters—12 or 13 years old—were not cuffed, because that seemed a harsh thing to do to kids; they were required to do push-ups until they could push no longer, and then they were told to go home.

A few weeks later, the 101st Airborne detachment at the refinery was replaced by Hough and his company of 140 soldiers.

Hough was raised on a farm in Illinois. His childhood was almost as difficult as Khashab’s, bouncing from one foster home to another. At 17, without any close family members to rely on, he enlisted in the Army, though he got a degree from Eastern Illinois University before starting his military service. Hough, who completed the Army’s rigorous Ranger course, is the sort of officer who knows that his backwoods demeanor suggests a lack of sophistication; he plays the shucks-I’m-just-a-dumb-farm-boy routine with a con man’s skill. As his commander, Lt. Col. David Haight, told me, Hough is “as dumb as a fox.”

That is fortunate, because as soon as Hough took control of Daura, he found he needed mental agility rather than marksmanship or night-vision goggles to deal with the problems that piled up like the boxes of M.R.E.‘s in the hallway leading to his office. Workers who hadn’t been paid were demanding money that wasn’t there; banners appeared at the refinery urging a struggle against “the infidels,” which Hough knew meant him and his men; families with domestic disputes demanded arbitration from Hough, because the police and courts had disappeared; workers were trying to find and beat up the corrupt managers who had made them miserable and were suspected of stealing their wages; an Iraqi who was suspected of cooperating with the Americans was found dead, near an American checkpoint, with a bullet in the back of his head and a note on his body that said, “This is what we do to traitors.” And then there was the question of Khashab.

Hough’s first meeting with Khashab took place around a conference table in one of the refinery’s office buildings. Hough and several other soldiers were studying military maps of Baghdad. In their fatigues and flak jackets, they looked as if they were planning an attack, though their mission this time was simply to get more fuel into nearby gas stations. Khashab and his top aides offered advice and small glasses of sweet tea. They were in the odd position of rubbing elbows, literally, with members of the army that had just destroyed the regime they had worked for, yet their adjustment to their new situation appeared so quick and sure that Karl Rove, if he had been there, would have recognized his political equals. The walls bore no decorations, just nails from which portraits of Saddam Hussein and other Baathist memorabilia had been hastily removed. In the reception room outside Khashab’s office, a framed photo of the entrance of the refinery had been doctored—the portrait of Hussein that used to stand atop the gates was covered with a piece of white paper, on top of which was written, in Arabic, the name of the refinery.

Khashab excused himself to a corner of the room to make a call on a Thuraya satellite phone given to him a few days earlier by the U.S. Army. He shouted in Arabic because the connection was poor.

“Yes, there’s a mess about me,” Khashab said to the friend on the other end of the line. Some workers were agitating for his ouster. But Khashab was defiant. “They can say whatever they want,” he shouted. “This is the new democracy. But I’m not leaving.” Hough, without an interpreter, didn’t catch a word.

Khashab received another call, and after a brief discussion, he told the caller to buy a satellite phone for himself. “I’ll pay for it,” Khashab yelled. “I have enough money.”

The source of Khashab’s money was an interesting topic. Hough would have liked someone to clarify for him how a man who claims to earn just $250 a month could seem to be smoking that much in imported Gauloise cigarettes.

But as Hough learned during the war, when Iraqi fighters mixed with civilians, clarity is not a feature you can count on in wartime or the murkiness that follows it. Whether or not Khashab was adding to whatever riches he may or may not have accumulated before the Americans arrived, his own hands did not appear to bear any bloodstains, and he was providing a useful service by keeping the refinery running. Baghdad, and the American occupation of Iraq, needed Daura, and it was not unimaginable that Daura needed Dathar Khashab.

A few days after their first meeting, Hough and Khashab met again, this time in Khashab’s office, where a white construction hat from KBR, the American engineering firm that is part of Halliburton, was placed prominently behind his desk; an oil painting of the refinery was on the wall. Although Khashab had not wished for his country to be invaded by Americans, he accepted the fait accompli and urged the Americans to do the job properly. If he was to throw in his lot with them, he wanted to be sure that his new allies came out on top.

“All our work, all of your efforts, will go down the drain if we don’t do anything about security in general,” Khashab said to Hough. “We are just going around in a vicious circle. I mean, you’re occupying the country—secure it! Get 20,000 or 30,000 more troops.”

“I know we’re not doing a good job,” Hough replied. He had taken off his flak jacket but was still wearing black kneepads.

“You are losing,” Khashab said. He offered his American visitor a plate of apricots.

“I know we are losing. Everybody is turning against us.”

“A lot of people welcomed you for what you’ve done, but believe me, a lot of people, because of the insecurity, are turning against you, and not only that, they are turning back to Saddam.”

“Two days ago,” Hough responded, “an intelligent Iraqi who I meet with every day and have tea with said: ‘I welcome you. I like you. But if this insecurity continues, if I have a harder time feeding my children and protecting them in a month than I do now, I will be killing you.’ It’s embarrassing to me. I don’t know how to rebuild countries. But I’m wondering, Where are the people who rebuild countries?”

The two men also had to deal with a family dispute. A local girls’ school had reopened, but not the local boys’ school, and so the boys, being boys, pelted the girls with tomatoes as they walked to class. The principal caught one of the boys as he was harassing the girls and did what principals had often done to trouble-makers—he spanked the boy. Soon after, the boy’s father showed up at the school with two of his older and beefier sons and beat up the principal, sending him to the hospital. This is the new Iraq.

“I need you to make gas, not solve family disputes,” Hough said, and promised to arrest the father if he got within 500 yards of the school.

“If I don’t intervene and you don’t intervene, we will have problems,” Khashab noted.

“Yes,” Hough said, becoming aware of the common ground they had begun to share. “I think you and I are paddling the same boat.”

It was 11 on a Wednesday morning in mid-May, and most of the refinery’s workers were crammed into a conference hall that was too small and too hot for such a crowd; it was a sauna inside, filled with hard men wearing oil-stained overalls and grim expressions. A table was at the front of the room, and behind it sat Thamir Ghadhban, who was appointed by the Americans as the interim chief executive of the Ministry of Oil. On Ghadhban’s left was Khashab, inhaling one Gauloise after another. The shouts began within seconds of them sitting down.

“We want new leaders!” yelled one of the workers.

Another worker took a seat on Ghadhban’s right and spoke into the microphone. “We want to have clean leaders, not corrupt ones,” he said, and the crowd applauded loudly. “We should change our managers.” There was more applause.

An older worker, with a white scarf covering his head, began speaking. “We don’t want people from the Baath Party anymore.” The applause, this time, was deafening. “We hate these people.”

Khashab remained tranquil. He applauded speakers who were condemning Baathists and corrupt managers. He took notes. He was getting ready to speak, but not quite yet.

A manager who was particularly hated by the workers tried to address the crowd. “Shut up!” they yelled. “Go home!”

Ghadhban interceded. “It is clear you hate this man and you don’t want to hear him speak, but let him finish.”

The man finished, and as he left the table, a worker shouted, “You are evil.”

Another manager, also hated by the workers, tried to speak; he, too, was shouted down, and as he left the table, he made some rude gestures at the crowd, which responded with more shouts and rude gestures; yet somehow punches were avoided. The refinery’s first experience with democracy was not a polite affair, but neither was it violent.

It was time for Khashab to speak. The room turned silent.

“You people, all of you, protected the refinery,” he began. “Everyone sitting here protected the refinery, even your sons and your daughters. I want to thank you all for this.”

There was a small amount of applause and nods of approval from some workers.

“I have put aside the salaries for people who left before the war, and I will give them their money. I have not forgotten them. Everyone will get their money. I have heard your demands, and I think they are fair. We can do it.”

Nobody tried to shout him down. Khashab played the room masterfully; he was humble, not claiming credit for saving the refinery, simply drawing attention to the fact that the refinery, remarkably, had been saved. By letting several thoroughly hated managers speak before he did, he had allowed the workers’ venom to be released at targets other than himself. Also, most of the workers knew that Khashab was different from the men they had shouted down; he might possess wealth beyond his salary, but he did risk his life to save the refinery, and this saved their livelihoods. After he spoke, several workers took the microphone and said Khashab should not be fired.

The meeting, which lasted an hour, was adjourned. Khashab was surrounded by workers reminding him that they needed to get paid or that the hated managers needed to be dismissed, and he promised to do it. As he stepped outside and walked back to his office a few hundred yards away, under the harsh noon sun, a remarkable thing occurred—workers shook his hand, slapped him on the back, joked with him. Khashab could hardly move forward, so some of his assistants had to shout, “Let him through, let him through, for God’s sake, let him through.”

Baathist or not, corrupt or not, Khashab had become their savior.

At the same time as Khashab was earning credibility with his workers, he was earning it with Hough. Khashab had agreed to mediate a meeting at a mosque on the refinery premises between the principal’s family and the misbehaving boy’s family. The principal had agreed to accept a million dinars (about $700) in compensation for his beating, and that was supposed to be the end of it. The meeting was scheduled for the early evening, and when Khashab arrived, the principal was inside the mosque with other members of his family. The principal, in his 30’s, wanted the feud to be finished, but the principal’s brother, in his 20’s, approached Khashab and said that no matter what his brother agreed to, he wanted revenge against the boy’s family.

Khashab told him to be calm. “Respect me like your father,” he said and kissed him on his cheeks, a gesture of friendship in Iraqi culture. They waited for a half-hour; the boy’s family was late. When they finally arrived, elder members of the boy’s clan entered the mosque and shook hands with the principal; the healing had begun, it seemed. However, younger members of the boy’s family remained outside, as did the principal’s brother and other hotheads from his side, and the result was violence.

Khashab recalled the uproar as we sat in his office a day later. He seemed to enjoy recounting it.

“I heard shots,” he said. “Everything was aflame. Pistols were shot; AK-47’s and knives were used.”

He remained inside the mosque and used his mobile phone to call Hough, the only man who could save his life. Hough, back at his command post, could not understand what Khashab was saying, but as he recalled later, he could hear shots being fired and people shouting.

“Where are you?” Hough yelled.

“The mosque,” Khashab yelled back.

Hough grabbed his assault rifle and jumped into a white S.U.V. that his unit had been using; his quick-reaction force, about 30 soldiers, followed behind in Humvees and a gun truck. As they rushed to the mosque, the fighting cascaded inside. A man carrying a sword rushed up to Khashab and demanded to speak to the director of the refinery. Khashab did not flinch.

“I said, ‘Why do you want the director general?”’ Khashab recalled. “He said, ‘He is the problem.”’

Several more men entered the mosque with knives. Before any of them could figure out that the man they wanted to kill was standing right in front of them, several friends of Khashab’s hustled him out to a nearby house. Most of the gunmen and swordsmen, realizing the cavalry was on its way, hopped into their cars and sped away.

Hough found Khashab in the nearby house. A small mob remained outside, demanding to be allowed inside so that they could finish their lethal business. Hough and his soldiers chased them away. Inside the house, Hough recalled, Khashab was shaking. When I asked Khashab afterward, he said he was not afraid.

“I was angry,” he explained. “When I am angry, I shake. This silly thing—it could stop the refinery from working.”

Hough posted several soldiers around the house and went to the house of the boy’s family; the men had disappeared, but a number of women were inside. Hough escorted them to the refinery gates, put them in a taxi and told them to never come back. This was as much for their own safety—the principal’s family would certainly try to kill them—as for punishment.

The Americans had risked their lives to protect Khashab and restore order. Hough now had more than Khashab’s gratitude; he had his respect too. They were becoming a team.

Hough is known by his men as an expert at spades, the card game. Spades turns not on luck but strategy; the winner is usually the player who knows which cards to throw and which cards his partner and rival players need. Picking the right partner is crucial; you must know what he is thinking and what he needs, even though he cannot, according to the rules, tell you any of this. You must sense it. Spades turned out to be the best preparation Hough had for his work at the refinery.

“The most important thing I’m doing here is picking Dathar,” Hough told me after the riot. “At the mosque, I got to see the emotional side of him, the way he was shaken up after the incident. He really cares about this refinery and the people. I share this. There are some crooked things Dathar might have done in his life, but everything I’ve done isn’t roses, either. He’s my ace in the hole here. He works 20 hours a day, and so do I. I feel a responsibility to these people. We destroyed their government. I want to feel that when I walk out of here I tried just as hard to help them as I did to kill them.”

During the war, Hough’s battalion carefully planned each battle, and they had trained for years. There is no plan for the refinery or, it would appear, for Iraq. For now, the country’s future is in the hands of young soldiers like Hough, who are improvising their way through the reconstruction.

“I don’t have any idea what the Bush policy is,” he said in one of our final conversations. “I don’t know what they are planning for the future of Iraq. No idea. I am just trying to get things done here. We are making it up as we go along, because I sure didn’t read the latest State Department policy paper.”

Khashab’s life, meanwhile, remains in danger. One of his friends has already been killed by carjackers, and he knows the same thing could happen to him. Hough will leave Daura sometime, rotated out, as all G.I.‘s are. Whether he is replaced by a captain as sharp as he or whether he is replaced at all—who knows?

The tumult at the refinery, and in Iraq, does not swing as wildly now as it did in the early days of the postinvasion chaos. The Ministry of Oil is even predicting the resumption of exports by the middle of June. That may be optimistic. Daura’s production is creeping upward, but it remains far below normal levels, and some days little crude oil is delivered and production slumps.

Violence continues as well, even at the refinery gates. On my last visit to the refinery, on May 25, when I stopped by to say goodbye to Hough, his first words were: “You should have been here last night. We had a firefight.”

Khashab soon arrived, and he was almost giddy. “Did you hear what happened?” he said, smiling. At midnight, Khashab heard shooting behind the refinery. He called Hough, and both men went, with American soldiers and armed refinery workers, to confront the would-be thieves; at least one of the intruders was shot. Khashab was buoyant because he had once again protected his refinery; for him, the refinery is everything.

Wary of each other a few weeks earlier, Hough and Khashab had now gone into battle together, the G.I. and the Baathist, and survived. They may not be so fortunate next time.

Salam Pax Is Real

Slate  |  June 2, 2003
How do I know Baghdad’s famous blogger exists? He worked for me.

Baghdad was hectic when two blogging friends e-mailed me to suggest that I track down “Salam Pax.” I had no idea who or what they were talking about. I could have handed over the job of sorting out this Salam Pax thing to my interpreter—he was a clever and funny Iraqi who never failed to provide what I needed, whether it was interviews or pizza—but I let it pass. I thought I had better things to do.

“Salam Pax” was the nom de blog of someone, apparently an Iraqi, who was writing from Baghdad before, during, and after the American invasion. His lively and acerbic blog was far better than the stuff pumped out by the army of foreign correspondents in the country. It became so popular that servers hosting it were overwhelmed. The vitality and fearlessness of Salam Pax’s writing, as well as the mystery of who he was—Iraqi? CIA? Mukhabarat? Jayson Blair?—led to stories by CNN, The New Yorker, and the Village Voice, among others, as well as a virtual felled forest of postings on war blogs and other sites: Instapundit mentioned him on two dozen occasions. Salam Pax was the Anne Frank of the war—I borrow that phrase from Nick Denton—and its Elvis.

While I was in Iraq, I was unaware of this. My slow-speed satellite phone all but precluded Web browsing, which meant the only non-Arabic media I was exposed to, from mid-March until just a few days ago, consisted of snatches of the BBC. The fascination and controversy over Salam Pax—when he stopped posting for a brief period, his Web fans worried he might have been arrested or gone into hiding—completely escaped me.

The day after I returned to New York, reunited with my cable modem, I checked out a friend’s blog that linked to an Austrian interview with Salam Pax. I clicked to it. Salam Pax mentioned an NGO he had worked for, CIVIC, and this caught my attention. I knew the woman who was in charge of CIVIC; she stayed at my Baghdad hotel, the Hamra. Salam Pax mentioned that he had done some work for foreign journalists. We traveled in the same circles, apparently. He also mentioned that he had studied in Vienna. This really caught my attention, because I knew an Iraqi who had worked for CIVIC, hung out with foreign journalists, and studied in Vienna. I clicked over to his blog.

His latest post mentioned an afternoon he spent at the Hamra Hotel pool, reading a borrowed copy of The New Yorker. I laughed out loud. He then mentioned an escapade in which he helped deliver 24 pizzas to American soldiers. I howled. Salam Pax, the most famous and most mysterious blogger in the world, was my interpreter. The New Yorker he had been reading—mine. Poolside at the Hamra—with me. The 24 pizzas—we had taken them to a unit of 82nd Airborne soldiers I was writing about.

My inner journalist tells me to draw back at this moment and write about the larger significance of my encounter with Salam Pax. That working alongside—no, employing—a star of the World Wide Web and being blissfully unaware of it is a lesson about the murkiness of today’s Iraq, a netherland of obscurity in which you cannot know who was a Baathist and who was not, or whether the man in the middle of the street with a gun is going to shoot you or not, or whether the country is spiraling out of control or just having teething problems before becoming a normal nation. My inner blogger, however, tells me to skip the What This Means stuff and write about my life with Salam Pax.

So let me tell you about my life with Salam Pax.

In early May, I agreed to hand over a fantastic interpreter I had been working with to a colleague who could offer him long-term employment, as I would be leaving the country at the end of the month. I needed a new interpreter to fill the gap for two weeks or so, and the colleague mentioned that he had just met a smart and friendly guy named Salam. I quickly traced Salam to the Sheraton Hotel. Salam—this is his real first name—was sitting in a chair in the lobby, reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I knew, at that moment, that I would hire him.

Salam, who is chubby and cherubic and hip and speaks beautiful English, and often says “thingy,” had everything you would want in an interpreter, save one trait. When I asked about his road skills, he blushed slightly and said, “To be honest, I am not much of a driver.” A few days later, as we headed out from the Hamra, I suggested that he drive, so that in an emergency he would be somewhat familiar with the workings of my vehicle, a Hyundai SUV. He got behind the wheel. There was just a foot or so between the Hyundai and the cars in front and back. Salam grimaced. “I don’t think I can do this without causing damage,” he said. We switched seats. Salam was my interpreter, but I was his driver.

He never mentioned his blogging, though if I had paid more attention I might have figured out he was up to something. I was spending a lot of time writing my final story from Iraq, so there were occasions when I stayed in my room and let Salam loose for several hours. He usually drifted off to one of the few Internet cafes in town. I assumed he was just writing e-mails to friends, though he often complained about the high cost of downloading and uploading. This struck me as odd, because sending and receiving e-mail shouldn’t require a lot of bandwidth—unless, of course, you are posting photos to your blog and receiving more e-mail than Bill Gates.

His discretion was understandable. Although Saddam Hussein and the thugs of the Mukhabarat are gone in theory, in reality they are still around, somewhere, along with many other weaponized people who might not appreciate the iconoclastic observations of a 29-year old who skewers not only the old Baath regime but the new American one, too. His blog’s epigram is a quote from Samuel P. Huntington: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”

There was a kerfuffle when The New Yorker published a “Talk of the Town” story about Salam Pax (both words mean “peace” in, respectively, Arabic and Latin), because it included a number of personal details that the anonymous Baghdad blogger might not appreciate being published in a magazine with a circulation of 900,000. Because of the continuing sensitivity, I won’t mention Salam’s last name, his e-mail address, or any information that might get him into trouble.

I don’t know what Salam thought about The New Yorker story, but he likes The New Yorker. I happened to have two issues of the magazine, and he was mesmerized by them, especially a story about the selection of Daniel Libeskind’s design for the WTC site. Salam is trained as an architect and is a fan of Libeskind’s work. He was amazed at the length of the stories. “They go on and on,” he remarked. “They start in one place, go somewhere else, then to another place. They are, like, endless.”

His cultural inclinations are impeccable. As we were spending a lot of time in my car, we stopped at several music stores to find acceptable road music; the offerings were meager, but he unearthed an excellent Cranberries cassette at one shop and brought an Oasis CD from his own collection, as well as the soundtrack from Pulp Fiction—the best music imaginable for driving around anarchic Baghdad. And when, in my final days, I wanted to buy a Persian rug or two, his advice was crucial. My living room now owes much to his fabulous taste.

I tried to reach Salam today to tell him that I figured out who he was, so we could laugh about it, but I couldn’t get through to either his father’s sat phone or his home phone (he lives in a neighborhood that has an occasionally functioning telephone exchange). I’ll be in touch with him this week, however, and we’ll all be hearing more from Salam: He has signed up to write a fortnightly column for the Guardian, and he continues to blog. He also continues to be surprised by the reaction to his work. When he was told by the Austrian interviewer that his fans had begun making “Salam Pax” T-shirts and coffee mugs, his response was frank—“Are you kidding?” Nobody is kidding. The coffee mugs are for real, and Salam Pax is for real.

Trying to Rebuild Iraq, While Watching Their Backs

The New York Times  |  May 11, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The news conference was held in splendid isolation. Splendid, that is, if you enjoy being walled off from the rest of Baghdad by tanks, armored Humvees, barbed wire and a small army of soldiers bearing M-16 assault rifles and .50-caliber machine guns.

The splendor of this barricaded variety was increased by the requisite identity checks, friskings and other searches at the multiple checkpoints on the way to the cavernous conference center in which Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of allied ground forces in Iraq, and Jay Garner, the retired American lieutenant general who heads the Pentagon-led reconstruction team, answered questions from reporters.

Security was required because Baghdad, like the rest of Iraq, remains an unsteady place without a functioning police force and without enough American troops to keep the streets safe. General McKiernan admitted, in one of the frankest comments yet by a senior American in Baghdad, that he did not have enough soldiers to secure the entire country. Fewer than 150,000 troops are in Iraq, which, he noted, is the size of California.

“Ask yourself if you could secure all of California with 150,000 troops,” he said. “The answer is no. The ultimate answer rests with Iraqis being in control of their country.”

Last week, much of the debate over building postwar Iraq focused on who would lead the effort. Would it be the Pentagon’s man, General Garner, or the State Department’s man, L. Paul Bremer? The answer, it emerged, is Mr. Bremer, a former counterterrorism official, who was named as a presidential envoy, a peg higher than General Garner. Connoisseurs of Washington infighting concluded that the State Department had triumphed.

But the effort to rebuild Iraq does not entirely pivot on whether a soldier or civilian is in charge. The first step toward putting Iraq back together is building stability, and that begins with bringing law and order, or in diplo-speak, peacekeeping. What matters more now is the number of boots on the ground—civilian as well as military—and the resources that they are given. But the Bush administration is planning to withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months, and it wants to establish a new military structure in which American troops would continue to secure Baghdad while a majority of the forces in Iraq would be from other nations.

The only institution on this planet with any recent experience in peacekeeping is the United Nations, and it has failed more often than it has succeeded. From Somalia to Rwanda to Bosnia to Sierra Leone, United Nations efforts to hold splintering nations together, or piece them together once they have fallen apart, have not achieved their noble goals, and sometimes the price of failure has been immense bloodshed.

If peacekeeping is to have a reasonable prospect of success, it needs to be guided by people who know what is happening on the ground. But without enough troops, how much on-the-ground work can be done? At the news conference, General McKiernan said that 45 percent of the police force had returned to work. Was he talking about Baghdad?

Some traffic cops are back at work—largely ineffectually, because traffic jams are large, especially at gas stations with lines measured in kilometers and days—but policemen are virtually absent. The statement was made by a man who appears to be ill-acquainted with the facts on the ground or, at the least, much too optimistic about them.

One underlying problem for the Americans, aside from the fact that there aren’t many of them here, is that the instability keeps them incredibly isolated. I was at the Oil Ministry on Thursday and noticed a convoy of a Bradley fighting vehicle and several armored Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns. They were escorting an S.U.V. with two civilians who work for KBR, an American oil-services company.

That’s how the Americans who are supposed to fix Iraq travel around—in cumbersome convoys insulating them from the people they are supposed to help. Yes, those civilians and troops working in Iraq need security to do their work. But the trade-off is that these security requirements keep them from having the close contact they need to succeed, especially because there are so few of them.

Nor is the situation an inducement to attract qualified people required for the job. Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon is awash in Arabic speakers. How many of them would wish to leave their suburban homes and families in the United States for a six-month or yearlong stint in such conditions? How many non-Arabic speakers who have useful skills would wish to to ply those skills in Iraq? It is quandary that the United Nations is familiar with—its field offices, though staffed by some well-qualified individuals, infrequently rise above mediocrity.

As I sat down to write this article, I heard a commotion outside. From the hotel balcony I noticed that a convoy had just parked on the street below me; there were two Army Humvees, two S.U.V.‘s with bodyguards in civilian clothes and a black armored Mercedes-Benz. The occupants had come to my hotel for dinner. One of them was Barbara K. Modine, a top assistant to General Garner.

There was gunfire nearby; this is normal for my neighborhood, as it is for all neighborhoods. Perhaps someone is testing a new weapon acquired from a looted storehouse, perhaps someone is shooting at a looter, perhaps a looter is shooting a shop owner. The soldiers and bodyguards crouched into defensive positions but they didn’t investigate, because their job is to provide security for Ms. Modine, not for the people of Baghdad.

General McKiernan was right about the ultimate answer to Iraq’s woes: it will be up to the Iraqis to rebuild their nation or destroy it further. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, a little more security and a little more contact with the Iraqis would go a long way.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)

Back-Room Theocrat

The New York Times Magazine  |  May 11, 2003
Moqtadah al-Sadr wants an Iraq run by God’s laws. But first he has to outsmart his rivals, outmaneuver the Americans and get Iraq’s millions of Shiites behind him.

Najaf is one of the great spiritual centers of the world’s 120 million Shiites because it is home to the tomb of Imam Ali, founder of the Shiite faith and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. But the true heart of Najaf today, and the place where the political future of Iraq may be decided, is not Ali’s tomb; it is a ramshackle building on an alley across the street from the ornate shrine.

Every day, a crowd gathers at the building, trying to talk its way past the locked doors, making faint pleas and waving pieces of paper—petitions, requests, questions—in front of the guards. The people want to see Moqtadah al-Sadr, who, although he is only 30, has emerged, since the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government, as the most powerful Shiite leader in Iraq, a man who is adored by his followers and feared by his adversaries. Many of those at the doors want only to pay homage, to touch his hand or to kiss his turban.

Inside the building, Sadr’s de facto headquarters, there is a small atrium that most days is crowded with dozens of his aides—clerics in turbans and cloaks who spend much of their time milling around, smoking cheap cigarettes. Sadr’s office is nearby, through a set of wood doors. It is a small room with whitewashed walls and thin cushions on the ground. When I was led inside on a recent morning, Sadr sat in a corner. Right next to him, propped up against the wall, was a large framed portrait of his father, Muhammad al-Sadr, the grand ayatollah of the Shiite community in Iraq who was assassinated by agents of Hussein’s government in 1999.

Moqtadah al-Sadr’s followers were assembled in a thick line that snaked out the office door and through the atrium. One after another they stepped forward and knelt before him. Their first gesture was a handshake, followed in most cases by an attempt to kiss Sadr’s hand, something he always recoiled from, sometimes sharply; Sadr regards such acts of fealty as excessively subservient. Kissing of his cheeks was permitted, and of his black turban.

The petitioners whispered their requests into his ear, and he listened, his expression unchanging. It was the expression I saw on his face the day before, during a sermon he delivered at the Kufa mosque, on the outskirts of Najaf, to tens of thousands of followers: a look of grave determination.

“You should say something about the cleaning of Najaf,” one man suggested.

Sadr nodded his head. Among the other duties he bears, he is the waste-disposal chief of Najaf. “There are heaps of garbage in the streets,” he replied. “Groups of people should be formed, and they should use loudspeakers to encourage people to cooperate with each other to make the city cleaner. We will arrange some vehicles and volunteers for this job.”

“Thank you,” the petitioner said.

“I am your servant,” Sadr replied.

Sadr was being humble. He is a servant only to forces that might be stronger than he, as flesh is a servant to bullets. He is the focal point of the guessing game over who will run Iraq and what direction the country will take: about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites. The choices he makes—cooperating with the occupying Americans or opposing them, cooperating with his Shiite rivals or opposing them—will determine not only his own future, but also Iraq’s. Sadr’s seriousness is understandable; the pressures that bear upon him are enormous, and if he makes a single mistake, he might be crushed.

Another man approached and explained that he found a house that had been left by its owner, probably a member of the Baath Party who fled Najaf when Saddam Hussein fell. The man asked Sadr for permission to move into it.

Sadr answered: “As long as you have your own house, even if it is small, it would be haram”—he used the Arabic word to denote something that is religiously forbidden—“to take it. Haram.”

Sadr is also Najaf’s housing chief.

“May Allah bless you,” the man said, then crept away.

Another man came forward.

“Well, what is it that you would like from me?” Sadr asked.

“I would like 250,” he said, meaning 250,000 Iraqi dinars, about $150.

Sadr is also Najaf’s financial chief.

“O.K., I am at your service,” Sadr replied, and signed a piece of paper that was placed in front of him.

Mudher al-Husseini, a youthful follower of Sadr’s, approached his leader and asked permission to read a new poem. Sadr agreed. The poem, written by a well-known local Shiite poet named Majid al-Auqabi, was titled, “Let Allah Forgive the Past.” Its rhyme is lost in translation, but not its meaning.

“Saddam forced us to eat cattle feed,” Husseini began. “But today is the day to shout. The dollar is seducing us, but it is better to be a martyr than to take the dollar. Coalition treads have trampled the people. We don’t want a ruler from them; we want our own ruler. We don’t want to be cheated again.”

Husseini spoke loudly and emotionally; the hand with which he held the poem shook, and his other hand, wrapped in a fist, punched the warm air. An elderly man sitting next to him began to weep; so did others.

“We don’t want to be cheated again,” Husseini continued. “Brother Iraqis, give us your hand, and our quarrels will be removed. You people who looted, how can you feed your children with haram money? Everything that has been looted must be returned to Islamic houses. Say no to bullets that cause death. All Iraqis are wounded, and their wounds need to be healed.”

When he finished, a shout went up in the room.

“We will follow Sadr!”

Sadr’s grim countenance did not change.

Najaf is home not only to the tomb of Imam Ali, but also to another historical landmark that in contemporary political terms is more important: the Hawza. The Hawza is a loose-knit religious seminary that dates back a thousand years. It is the oldest Shiite seminary in the world, and its clerics have played pivotal roles in Middle Eastern history. Senior clerics from Najaf encouraged the 1920 revolution against British rule in Iraq, and they played a similar role in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which like Iraq is predominantly Shiite.

But the Iranian revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, signaled a shift in the Hawza’s importance. At roughly the same time as Khomeini’s accession to power in Iran, Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government increased its repression of Shiites, using its trademark tools of murder and torture. Najaf’s clerics—the ones who weren’t killed or imprisoned or forced to flee to Iran—were severely restricted. Beginning in the 1980’s, the seminary in the holy Iranian city of Qum became the locus of Shiite activism.

That is likely to change now that the clerics in Najaf can speak their minds, and that’s why Sadr is so crucial. He is too young to be a senior cleric—he is still a religious student—but he heads the most powerful faction at the Hawza, and his faction has most clearly indicated a desire to play a political role in determining the country’s future. The Sadr movement, as it is often called, already dominates the sprawling Baghdad slum that was known as Saddam City until a few weeks ago, when it was renamed, unofficially, Sadr City. The movement also has backing in Karbala, another holy city, and in Nasiriya. In socioeconomic terms, its support is strongest among the poor; middle-class Shiites are wary of its fundamentalist leanings. In geographic terms, its following is stronger in central Iraq than in southern Iraq. (The north is dominated by Kurds.)

When I presented myself at Sadr’s headquarters, I was led to a room on the second floor and told to wait. After a few minutes, Sadr walked into the room along with several aides, many of them as young as he is or younger. They, too, were unsmiling. Perhaps what their faces portrayed is the fatal determination of youth, youth who are convinced that right and resolve are the spears behind which their goals will be reached.

Sadr did not reveal his plans in detail, perhaps because he is improvising them; it is impossible to control a situation with so many variables. What he does, and what he becomes, depend not just on his own intentions but also on those of the Americans, whose plans are unknown and perhaps undecided, and those too of his rivals—other Shiite leaders, as well as Sunni leaders and Kurds. Will Sadr become a political leader or a religious leader or a corpse? The answer is unknown to him; he says he believes it will be decided by Allah.

“I think it will be very hard to make a completely Islamic state in the near future, but hopefully in the distant future,” he said, through the interpreter who accompanied me. Sadr speaks in a strong voice, absent of doubt. “Our government should be led by religious men, but they should be very good in science too. Religion is with politics and politics is with religion. They are as one.”

He had mentioned, in his sermon at the Kufa mosque, that “enemies” would try to stand in the way of Iraq’s Shiites. He did not name the enemies, so I asked whether it was the Americans whom he had in mind.

He didn’t hesitate. “Everyone knows that America is not looking for reforms to unify the country,” he said. “They will be an enemy to us, or shall we say they will not be a friend to us. We are looking for a unified Islamic nation, so we think our aim is different than their aim.”

For policy makers in Washington, there are two nightmare scenarios for Iraq. The first is that Iraq becomes an Islamic state led by Shiite clerics from Najaf. The second is that Iraq becomes an Islamic state led by Shiite clerics from Najaf who are, in turn, led by fundamentalists in Iran. The latter possibility was bolstered on April 8, when Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric living in Qum, Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious order, that urged clerics in neighboring Iraq to “seize the first possible opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the administration of Iraqi cities.” Using phrases and ideas common among fundamentalists in Iran, the fatwa also said, “People have to be taught not to collapse morally before the means used by the Great Satan”—the United States—“if it stays in Iraq. It will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people’s faith.”

I asked Sadr to describe his relationship with Haeri. “My father said that the most respected man after himself is Kadhem al-Haeri, and so we follow him, for he touches reality,” Sadr replied.

The Iranian connection is evident in Najaf. At the gates to Imam Ali’s tomb and in the alley leading to Sadr’s headquarters, merchants have set up card tables from which they sell pictures of Sadr, his father and Khomeini. But Iran’s influence may decline in importance as Iraq’s Shiites flex their rediscovered muscles. They were weak and vulnerable during Hussein’s rule, but not anymore.

Even middle-class Shiites who dislike fundamentalism revered Muhammad al-Sadr. In 1992, with the approval of the government, he became grand ayatollah of Iraq’s Shiite community. His six-year tenure as grand ayatollah was marked by two trends: he was a man of peace who urged Shiites and Sunnis to drop their differences and live together as brothers, and he also became increasingly vocal in his criticism of Hussein’s rule. It was this second action that apparently led to his killing in an ambush on Feb. 19, 1999.

On that day, Sadr was driving from his office, on the outskirts of Najaf, to his home. At a roundabout, his vehicle was riddled with machine-gun fire by assailants believed to have been agents of the Mukhabarat, Hussein’s secret police. Sadr was killed in the fusillade, along with his driver and two of his sons, Mustafa and Muamal. The killings sparked violent protests, the most severe of which occurred in Saddam City; there was violence around Nasiriya, too.

Moqtadah al-Sadr’s older brothers were their father’s chief aides, and they were being groomed for leadership roles. The assassinations left Moqtadah as the heir apparent of the family. Afterward, his movements were strictly controlled and monitored by the Mukhabarat, until just weeks ago, when the Mukhabarat, along with the rest of Hussein’s apparatus of oppression, was vanquished by American forces. Moqtadah al-Sadr not only outlasted Saddam Hussein; he also outsmarted him. He knew to wait for the right moment to carry on the mission of his martyred family. He also knows now that he may, in the end, share their fate.

The Hawza is deeply divided, and its division is manifested in its physical structure: it has none. The Hawza consists of mosques, houses and rooms scattered around impoverished Najaf, where different factions oversee instruction. The two most important factions are led by Sadr and by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, the official religious leader of Iraq’s Shiites. Through his son, who acts as his spokesman, Sestani has made it clear that he believes politics to be beneath the calling of religious figures. A few days after the collapse of Hussein’s government, his house was surrounded by men said to be followers of Sadr’s, and they demanded that he leave the country because he had been insufficiently active against Hussein. The standoff was defused, but Sestani and Sadr still do not speak with each other.

Sestani’s office is located 150 yards from Sadr’s, up another alley. When I went to Sestani’s office, I was told by one of his assistants, standing at the entrance, that I could not speak with Sestani or his son, but that I could leave written questions, and a written response would be provided on the following day. My interpreter wrote down my questions, one of which asked why Sestani and Sadr were not on speaking terms.

The assistant objected to that one.

“There is no comparison!” he said, angrily. He meant that Sestani is the highest religious authority among Iraq’s Shiites and that Sadr is just an upstart who does not merit a comparison with the grand ayatollah.

Still, the assistant agreed to deliver the questions to Sestani’s son, and told us to return at 10 the next morning. We did, and received a list of terse, handwritten replies.

To my question about the rivalry, the answer was, “The position of Moqtadah al-Sadr and the religious leadership is well known by the people. His excellency”—a reference to Sestani—“is not a party in any kind of dispute. He is above all disputes and is responsible for all people.”

I had also asked whether Sestani had had or wanted any contact with the Americans occupying Iraq. The answer was concise: No.

What’s dangerous about the divisions in the Hawza is that such disputes have a history of being settled violently. Just a few days after the fall of Hussein, a prominent Shiite, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, returned to Najaf from exile in London. Khoei was the son of a previous grand ayatollah, and his return, arranged and financed by the American government, appeared to be a bid by Washington to insert into Najaf a moderate, pro-Western figure.

It didn’t work. On the evening of April 9, Khoei entered the shrine of Imam Ali to meet with a group of religious leaders, including the shrine’s caretaker, Haider al-Rafaei, who had cooperated with Hussein’s government. The meeting was an apparent attempt at reconciliation. According to a reporter for the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service, who was in Najaf that day, Khoei was accompanied by an American who identified himself as “Dave, an employee of the U.S. government.” Khoei had reportedly been staying at a university complex with Special Operations soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.

What happened next is unclear, but most reports say that once Khoei entered the shrine and met with Rafaei, several hundred people gathered around them, chanting the name of Muhammad al-Sadr. The crowd regarded Rafaei as a Hussein loyalist and was skeptical of Khoei’s motives. Violence broke out, and in the melee Khoei and Rafaei were beaten, shot and hacked to death.

The killings raised tensions in Najaf, with Sadr’s followers accused of inciting and carrying out the violence. The killings also appear to have led the Americans to abandon, for now, their attempt to play a role in Najaf; during the three days I was there, I never saw American troops patrolling the streets or even driving through them. The town appears to be a no-go area for them, just as Saddam City, now Sadr City, in Baghdad, is devoid of any significant American presence. The Americans would appear to have no idea what is happening in these places, and no control over them.

I asked Sadr whether his movement was behind the killings of Khoei and Rafaei.

“I would like to draw your attention to the kind of wars our enemies fight against us,” he said. “They can’t fight directly, so they fight by spreading rumors in order to bring about the downfall of great leaders who can rule this society correctly. They fabricate rumors and accusations of being a murderer or being against religious scholars. All of these are lies.”

I stopped by Sadr’s office again the following day. He was not there, but one of his aides, at the entrance, offered me a statement that Sadr had just issued. According to the statement, several followers of Sadr’s had been detained by Iraqis belonging to a new political party. The statement demanded their release and warned that if anti-Sadr forces continued such activities, they would be dealt with like “qirada khusran”—defeated monkeys, which is one of the lowest insults in Arabic.

The wording was harsh and at odds with other statements by Sadr, in which he counseled followers to avoid violence. During his sermon at Kufa, he urged everyone to organize protests against the American occupation of Iraq, but he also said, “I ask you kindly not to shed a drop of blood.”

Even if Sadr genuinely wants a peaceful solution, can violence be avoided? There are the Americans to deal with, and the Sunnis, as well as his rivals at the Hawza, not to mention the Communists and Kurds and Christians and Turkomans. Profound political change in Iraq rarely occurs in a peaceful manner; it rarely occurs in a peaceful manner anywhere.


The New Republic  |  May 3, 2003
Dispatch from Baghdad

A few days after American troops entered Baghdad, I went to Saddam City, a sprawling slum inhabited almost exclusively by Shia Muslims. But, by the time I got there, Saddam City was gone. Yes, the people were still there, as was the poverty—the kids playing barefoot soccer on dirt lots and the young men carrying AK-47 assault rifles. But it was Saddam City no longer. “This is Sadr City,” announced a spray-painted sign as I drove into the slum, renamed for Sheik Mohammed Sadek Al Sadr, who was killed along with two of his sons in 1999 for speaking out against Saddam Hussein. Another sign welcomed me to “Revolution City.”

My first stop was the local hospital, which was surrounded by gunmen and presided over by an imam who refused entry to my colleagues and me. Our next stop was a nearby mosque, but the gunman at the entrance told us we could not speak to the imam and told my interpreter that Western journalists only tell lies. We then went to El Hekmah, the main mosque in the slum. The gunmen there were not warm, either, though a mid-level cleric agreed to speak with me outside the mosque for a few minutes. He told me they were under orders not to talk to journalists. As we chatted, a stream of stern-faced imams came and went, all of them surrounded by the sort of no-nonsense gunmen with whom you do not mess unless you have a death wish.

Although Iraqi police and American troops had begun foot patrols in other parts of Baghdad, they were nowhere to be seen in Saddam/Sadr/Revolution City. That’s true throughout Shia population centers in Iraq. In Karbala, which contains the holiest Shia shrines, and Najaf, home to the main Shia seminary, the imams are in control. The gunmen are theirs, the hospitals are theirs, the banks are theirs, the streets are theirs. They have filled a vacuum, and they have lost no time in letting their long-repressed followers know that there is no reason to thank the American invaders and that the time has come to build an Islamic republic. This is one of the ironies of post-Saddam Iraq: The people who are happiest that Saddam is gone are eager to see the departure of the American troops who got rid of him. While the invasion of Iraq has accomplished many good things, it has also let loose the genie of Shia fundamentalism, the same strain that swept through Iran when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power there. In the coming months, we’ll probably find out if secular Shia can stand up to the fundamentalists. But, for now, the fundamentalists are in charge—in Sadr City and beyond.

A day after I was turned away from the El Hekmah Mosque, one of Iraq’s most powerful and radical Shia imams, Muhammed Fartousi, spoke at a prayer meeting there. He warned Iraqis to no longer indulge in the bad Western habits they acquired in recent decades, such as drinking, going to discos, singing, and dancing. Throughout Iraq, radical Shia clerics are delivering similar messages. These have been a long time coming. Although more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population is Shia, Saddam is Sunni, and his regime was dominated by Sunnis. The Shia were horribly repressed, and more so following their failed uprising in southern Iraq after the Gulf war twelve years ago. That failure, and Saddam’s subsequent crackdown that killed tens of thousands of Shia, not only deepened Shia discontent, it embittered them toward the United States, which was seen as having encouraged the rebellion and then doing nothing to help it succeed.

From the perspective of Iraqi secularists, the only thing worse than Shia clerics taking power is a struggle for power among them. The other day, I had lunch at a Baghdad restaurant with a prosperous Shia businessman, and, when I asked, over kebabs, hummus, and mint salad, what most worried him, he replied with two words: civil war. Not between Sunnis and Shia, but among Shia. After telling me that he listens to the Doors and the Moody Blues and then reciting some of their lyrics, he said he would not stick around if the clerics begin fighting among themselves. “I will leave the country,” he said. “I will go to England. I can sell carpets there.”

The businessman used the word “fanatics” to describe the fundamentalist imams. But, right now, there is no one he trusts. The U.S. government, or at least the Pentagon, appears to want the political vacuum filled by Ahmed Chalabi, the opposition leader who has lived in exile for the past 45 years. Chalabi was flown into Baghdad on a U.S. military plane just a few days ago but appears to have little support here because many Iraqis see him as an interloper in the pocket of the U.S. government. When I asked what he thought of Chalabi, the businessman just laughed.

Generally speaking, two movements are emerging among Shia fundamentalists, who represent the only organized force among the Shia and whose religious celebrations this week have pulled in large crowds. The more radical one is known as the Sadr movement, named after Al Sadr, the upstart sheik killed on Saddam’s orders whose followers have renamed Saddam City in his honor. One of his surviving sons, Sayyid Muqtada Sadr, who is 30 years old, has taken up his mantle and is urging his followers to delve into politics to achieve their goal of an Islamic state. The other faction, considered more moderate, is led by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani shies away from political action, viewing it as beneath his religious status. His son, however, acting as his spokesman, has said that American troops are not welcome in Iraq and should leave. That’s not good enough for Sadr’s followers: A group of them surrounded Sistani’s home shortly after the regime collapsed and demanded that he leave the country because he had been insufficiently active in the struggle against Saddam. The standoff was defused, but the split remains, and it is an uneasy time for many clerics. In Najaf, two moderate imams were killed by a mob shortly after Baghdad fell. Sistani has been in hiding, as has Sadr.

In the best of scenarios, there will be no civil war and the clerics will stay in their mosques or, if they venture into politics, will share power with secularists and representatives of Iraq’s other religious and ethnic groups. The slogans I saw in Saddam/Sadr/Revolution City included this hopeful one: “Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, We Are United. We Are All Iraqis.” The problem is that revolutions, like invasions, often begin with good words and fine intentions and then move in other directions.

“Good Kills”

The New York Times Magazine  |  April 20, 2003
To get to Baghdad, the marines of the Third Battalion fought the old-fashioned way—by shooting as many of the enemy as they could. Their victims weren’t all soldiers.

As the war in Iraq is debated and turned into history, the emphasis will be on the role of technology—precision bombing, cruise missiles, decapitation strikes. That was what was new. But there was another side to the war, and it was the one that most of the fighting men and women in Iraq experienced, even if it wasn’t what Americans watching at home saw: raw military might, humans killing humans. The Third Battalion, Fourth Marines was one of the rawest expressions of that might. Based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., it specializes in desert warfare, and its forces number about 1,500 troops, equipped during the war in Iraq with about 30 Abrams tanks and 60 armored assault vehicles, backed up with whatever artillery and aircraft were required for its missions, like 155-millimeter howitzers and Cobra gunships and fighter jets. The battalion made the ground shake, quite literally, as it rumbled north from Kuwait through Iraq, beginning its march by seizing the Basra airport, continuing on past Nasiriya, into the desert and through a sandstorm that turned the sky red and became, at its worst moments, a hurricane of sand that rocked armored vehicles like plastic toys nudged by a child’s finger. On the way to Baghdad, the battalion also fought fierce but limited battles in Afaq and Diwaniya, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, and in Al Kut, about 100 miles from the Iraqi capital.

On April 6, three days before the fall of Baghdad, the battalion arrived at the Diyala bridge, a major gateway into the southeastern sector of the city. The bridge crosses the Diyala River, which flows into the Tigris. Once across its 150-yard span, the Third Battalion would be only nine miles from the center of Baghdad. The bridge was heavily defended on the north side by both Republican Guard and irregular forces, and the battle to seize and cross it took two days. It was, in retrospect, a signal event in the war, a vivid example of the kind of brutal, up-close fighting that didn’t get shown on cable TV.

The Third Battalion had a consistent strategy as it moved toward Baghdad: kill every fighter who refused to surrender. It was extremely effective. It allowed the battalion to move quickly. It minimized American casualties. But it was a strategy that came with a price, and that price was paid in blood on the far side of the Diyala bridge.

The unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy, had a calm bearing that never seemed to waver as he and his troops made their way through Iraq. His mood stayed the same, whether he was in battle or drinking his morning coffee or smoking a cigar; neither the tone nor the pace of his voice strayed from its steady-as-she-goes manner. Perhaps his calm came from experience. His father was an Army officer in Vietnam, serving two combat tours there. McCoy was born into the military and has lived in it for his entire life. This wasn’t the first time he fought against Iraqi soldiers; he was a company commander during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

When I spoke to him on the southern side of the Diyala bridge soon after the battalion arrived there on the morning of April 6, he was in a serene mood. “Things are going well,” he said. “Really well.”

When Colonel McCoy told you that things were going well, it meant his marines were killing Iraqi fighters. That’s what was happening as we exchanged pleasantries at the bridge. His armored Humvee was parked 30 yards from the bridge. If one of the Republican Guard soldiers on the other side of the bridge had wanted to shout an insult across the river, he would have been heard—were it not for the fact that Colonel McCoy’s battalion was at that moment lobbing so many bullets and mortars and artillery shells across the waterway that a shout could never have been heard, and in any event the Iraqis had no time for insults before dying. The only sound was the roar of death.

“Lordy,” McCoy said. “Heck of a day. Good kills.”

McCoy’s immediate objective was to kill or drive away enough of the forces on the north side of the river to let him move his men and equipment across. He had no doubt that he would succeed. He was sitting in the front seat of his Humvee, with an encrypted radio phone to his left ear. He had the sort of done-it-again pride in his voice that you hear from a business executive who is kicking back at the clubhouse as he tells you he beat par again. Two Abrams tanks lumbered past us—vehicles that weigh 67 tons apiece do not move softly—and the earth shook, though not as much as it was shaking on the other side of the river, where American mortars were exploding, 150 yards away. The dark plumes of smoke that created a twilight effect at noon, the broken glass and crumpled metal on the road, the flak-jacketed marines crouching and firing their weapons—it was a day for connoisseurs of close combat, like the colonel.

“We’re moving those tanks back a bit to take care of them over there,” he explained, nodding to his right, where hit-and-run Iraqi fighters were shooting rocket-propelled grenades at his men, without success. Colonel McCoy’s assessment was Marine blunt: “We’re killing ‘em.”

He turned his attention to the radio phone, updating his regiment commander. His voice remained calm.

“Dark Side Six, Ripper Six,” he said, using his call sign and his commander’s. “We’re killing them like it’s going out of style. They keep reinforcing, these Republican Guards, and we’re killing them as they show up. We’re running out of ammo.”

McCoy, whose marines refer to him as, simply, “the colonel,” was not succumbing, in his plain talk of slaughter, to the military equivalent of exuberance, irrational or otherwise. For him, as for other officers who won the prize of front-line commands, this war was not about hearts and minds or even liberation. Those are amorphous concepts, not rock-hard missions. For Colonel McCoy and the other officers who inflicted heavy casualties on Iraqis and suffered few of their own, this war was about one thing: killing anyone who wished to take up a weapon in defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime, even if they were running away. Colonel McCoy refers to it as establishing “violent supremacy.”

“We’re here until Saddam and his henchmen are dead,” he told me at one point during his march on Baghdad. “It’s over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam has flies crawling across his eyeballs. Then we go home. It’s smashmouth tactics. Sherman said that war is cruelty. There’s no sense in trying to refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over.”

When I suggested to Colonel McCoy one morning that Iraqi civilians might not appreciate the manner in which his marines tended to say hello to the locals with the barrels of their guns raised, he did not make any excuses.

“They don’t have to like us,” he said. “Liking has nothing to do with it. You’ll never make them like you. I can’t make them like me. All we can do is make them respect us and then make sure that they know we’re here on their behalf. Making them like us—Yanks always want to be liked, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Though the fighting was lopsided, the marines did not get to the Diyala bridge unscathed. On April 3, three days before the battle for the bridge, the Third Battalion entered the town of Al Kut. It was an incursion intended to convey the point that, as Colonel McCoy described it, there were new “alpha males” in the country.

The attack began at dawn with an artillery barrage that had excited marines next to my vehicle. They yelled “Bam! Bam!” as each shell was fired into the air. Tanks led the way into town, and as I stayed a kilometer behind at a medic station, the sounds of battle commenced, mortars and machine-gun fire that were accompanied, as ever, by the visuals of war—smoke plumes that were an arsonist’s dream.

A half-hour into the battle, a Humvee raced out of the city and stopped at the medic station. A marine, whose body was rag-doll floppy, was pulled out and put on a stretcher. A marine doctor and medics surrounded him. His clothes were stripped off and needles and monitors placed on and into his body, and the dialogue of battlefield medicine began among the team, all of whom had slung their M-16’s over their backs as they tried to save their comrade’s life.

“Left lower abdomen.”

“He’s in urgent surgical.”

“Wriggle your toes for me.”

“Ow, ow.”

“He needs medevac, now.”


“My arms are numb.”

“Keep talking, Evnin.”

His name was Mark Evnin. He was a corporal, a sniper who was in one of the lead vehicles going into Al Kut. Iraqi fighters were waiting in ambush and had fired the first shots; one of them got him.

“Keep talking to us. Where are you from?”

“Remon,” he mumbled.

“Where? Where are you from?”


Evnin was not doing well. The battalion chaplain, Bob Grove, leaned over him, and because the chaplain knew Evnin was Jewish, he pulled out of his pocket a sheet with instructions for “emergency Jewish ministration.” Grove read the Sh’ma, which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God.” Then he began reading the 23rd Psalm, at which point Evnin said, “Chaplain, I’m not going to die.”

A Chinook landed 50 yards away. Evnin’s stretcher was lifted from the asphalt and rushed to the chopper. Shortly after he was airborne, he went into shock and died.

Colonel McCoy was just a few feet from where Corporal Evnin was mortally wounded. “I saw him go down,” he said afterward. “That fight lasted about nine seconds. We had about 15 human-wave guys attack the tanks. They were mowed down. They drew first blood. They got one of us, but we got all of them.”

Corporal Evnin was the battalion’s first K.I.A., but he was certainly not the only marine to die in Iraq. The men of the Third Battalion paid close attention to news of marine battle deaths. The day before they arrived at the Diyala bridge, a Marine tank was blown up by an explosives-laden truck that drove alongside it and was detonated by its driver. It was the realization of one of the marines’ worst fears: suicide bombers.

McCoy remained focused; he told me that his mission, to kill Iraqi fighters, had not changed. “I’m not allowed to have the luxury of emotions to guide my decisions,” he said. “It’ll cloud my decisions, and I’ll make a bad one if I submit to that. I have to look at everything very clinically.” He reacted to the suicide bombing tactically: a new danger had emerged, and his troops would have to be on increased alert to the threat posed by civilian vehicles.

But the deaths of their comrades deeply affected the grunts, and when the battalion got to Diyala bridge, every man was primed to kill.

“There’s an unspoken change in attitude,” McCoy told me a few days before we reached the bridge. “Their blood is up.”

The battle for the Diyala bridge lasted for two days. One of the bridge’s main pylons had been badly damaged, and armored vehicles could not move over it. So after the first day of fighting on April 6, the battalion dug itself into the southern side for the night, giving itself time to plan an infantry assault over the span the next morning.

In the morning, the battalion released another round of heavy artillery barrages to soften up the opposition on the northern side of the river. In the fighting, two more marines were killed when an artillery shell hit their armored vehicle on the southern side of the bridge. Eventually, the battalion killed most of the Republican Guard fighters, or at least pushed them back from their dug-in positions on the northern side, and McCoy decided that it was time to try a crossing.

The men of the Third Battalion moved across the Diyala bridge “dismounted,” that is, on foot. It was a tableau from Vietnam, or even World War II; grunts running and firing their weapons in front of them. This was, as McCoy described it, “blue-collar warfare.”

When the marines crossed to the northern side, they found themselves in a semi-urban neighborhood of one-story shops and two-story houses, a few dozen palm trees and lots of dust. A narrow highway led away from the bridge, toward Baghdad. Immediately, they were met with incoming fire—occasional bullets and the odd rocket-propelled grenade, fired mostly from a palm grove on the eastern side of the road to Baghdad. Colonel McCoy set up his command position—basically, himself and his radioman—adjacent to a house by the bridge. Marines fanned out into the palm grove, while others moved north up the road, going house to house. Advance units set up sniper positions and machine-gun positions a few hundred yards farther up the road; beyond them, American mortars and bombs, fired by units near and behind Colonel McCoy’s position, were loudly raining down.

One of Colonel McCoy’s sergeants ran up to him and told him that Iraqi reinforcements had just arrived.

“A technical vehicle dropped off some [expletives] over there,” he said, pointing up the road.

“Did you get it?” Colonel McCoy asked.


“The [expletives]?”

“Some of them. Some ran away.”

“Boys are doing good,” the colonel said moments later. “Brute force is going to prevail today.”

He listened to his radio.

“Suicide bombers headed for the bridge?” he said. “We’ll drill them.”

Then, one by one, about a half-dozen vehicles came up the road, separately, and the marines got ready to drill them.

Battle is confusion. If a military unit is well trained and well led, the confusion can be minimized, but it can never be eliminated. Split-second decisions—whether to fire or not fire, whether to go left or right, whether to seek cover behind a house or in a ditch, whether the enemy is 200 yards ahead or 400 yards ahead—these kinds of decisions are often made on the basis of fragmentary and contradictory information by men who are sleep-deprived or operating on adrenaline; by men who fear for their lives or for the lives of civilians around them or both; by men who rely on instincts they hope will keep them alive and not lead them into actions they will regret to their graves. When soldiers make their split-second decisions, they do not know the outcome.

The situation was further complicated on the north side of the Diyala bridge, because what was left of the Iraqi resistance had resorted to guerrilla tactics. The Iraqis still firing on the marines were not wearing uniforms. They would fire a few shots from a window, drop their weapons, run away as though they were civilians, then go to another location where they had hidden other weapons and fire those.

Amid the chaos of battle McCoy was, as usual, placid yet focused. Black smoke blew overhead and through the streets; hundreds of marines crept forward on their bellies or in low runs, darting, as fast as they could with their combat gear, from palm tree to palm tree or from house to house. On all sides, there was the sound of gunfire, an orchestra of sounds—the pop-pop of assault weapons, the boom-boom of heavy machine guns, the thump of mortars. Harmony was taking a day off. There would be a sudden burst of a few shots, then a crescendo in which, it seemed, every marine in the vicinity was firing his weapon at an enemy who was, for the most part, unseen; and then it would stop, briefly.

The bulk of the fire emanated from McCoy’s forces, not the Iraqis. Some marines branched farther out to the east, beyond the palm grove. Others moved forward, straight down the road, trying to “go firm” on a front line there, to establish a defensive perimeter into which Iraqi fighters could not penetrate.

The plan was for marine snipers along the road to fire warning shots several hundred yards up the road at any approaching vehicles. As the half-dozen vehicles approached, some shots were fired at the ground in front of the cars; others were fired, with great precision, at their tires or their engine blocks. Marine snipers can snipe. The warning shots were intended either to simply disable a vehicle—wrecking the engine or the tires—or to send the message that the cars should stop or turn around, or that passengers should get out and head away from the marines.

But some of the vehicles weren’t fully disabled by the snipers, and they continued to move forward. When that happened, the marines riddled the vehicles with bullets until they ground to a halt. There would be no car bombs taking out members of the Third Battalion.

The vehicles, it only later became clear, were full of Iraqi civilians. These Iraqis were apparently trying to escape the American bombs that were landing behind them, farther down the road, and to escape Baghdad itself; the road they were on is a key route out of the city. The civilians probably couldn’t see the marines, who were wearing camouflage fatigues and had taken up ground and rooftop positions that were intended to be difficult for approaching fighters to spot. What the civilians probably saw in front of them was an open road; no American military vehicles had yet been able to cross the disabled bridge. In the chaos, the civilians were driving toward a battalion of marines who had just lost two of their own in battle that morning and had been told that suicide bombers were heading their way.

One by one, civilians were killed. Several hundred yards from the forward marine positions, a blue minivan was fired on; three people were killed. An old man, walking with a cane on the side of the road, was shot and killed. It is unclear what he was doing there; perhaps he was confused and scared and just trying to get away from the city. Several other vehicles were fired on; over a stretch of about 600 yards nearly a half dozen vehicles were stopped by gunfire. When the firing stopped, there were nearly a dozen corpses, all but two of which had no apparent military clothing or weapons.

Two journalists who were ahead of me, farther up the road, said that a company commander told his men to hold their fire until the snipers had taken a few shots, to try to disable the vehicles without killing the passengers. “Let the snipers deal with civilian vehicles,” the commander had said. But as soon as the nearest sniper fired his first warning shots, other marines apparently opened fire with M-16’s or machine guns.

Two more journalists were with another group of marines along the road that was also involved in the shooting. Both journalists said that a squad leader, after the shooting stopped, shouted: “My men showed no mercy. Outstanding.”

The battle lasted until the afternoon, and the battalion camped for the night on the north side of the bridge. The next morning, April 8, I walked down the road. I counted at least six vehicles that had been shot at. Most of them contained corpses or had corpses near them. The blue van, a Kia, had more than 20 bullet holes in its windshield. Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too. There was no visible cargo in the van—no suitcases, no bombs.

Two of the van’s passengers had survived the shooting; one of them, Eman Alshamnery, had been shot in the toe. She had passed out and spent the night in the vehicle. When she woke in the morning she was taken by marines for treatment by their medical team.

Alshamnery told me that her home in Baghdad had been bombed and that she was trying to flee the city with her sister, who was the dead woman I had seen in the back seat of the van. Alshamnery said she had not heard a warning shot—which doesn’t mean that one wasn’t fired. In fact, it would have been difficult, particularly for civilians unaccustomed to the sounds of war, to know a warning shot when they heard it, or to know where it came from, or how to react appropriately.

Alshamnery, who spoke to me through a Marine interpreter, was sitting next to another woman, who gave her name as Bakis Obeid and said she had been in one of the other passenger vehicles that was hit. She said her son and husband had been killed.

There were other survivors. A few yards down the road from the Kia van, three men were digging a grave. One gravedigger gave his name as Sabah Hassan and said he was a chef at the Al Rashid hotel, which is in the center of Baghdad and, in more peaceful times, was where foreign journalists stayed. Hassan said he was fleeing the city and was in a sedan with three other men on the road when they came under fire, apparently from the marines. A passenger in his car was killed. I asked him what he felt.

“What can I say?” he replied. “I am afraid to say anything. I don’t know what comes in the future. Please.” He plunged his shovel back into the earth and continued his funereal chores.

Not far from the gravediggers, I came across the body of the old man with the cane. He had a massive wound in the back of his head. He died on his back, looking at the sky, and his body was covered with flies. His cane, made of aluminum, lay by his right hand.

Just a few yards away, a Toyota pickup truck was by the side of the road, with more than 30 bullet holes in its windshield. The driver, who was wearing a green military tunic, was dead, his head thrown back, slightly to the left. Nearby, the body of another man lay on the ground, on his stomach; attached to the back of his belt was a holster for a pistol. An AK-47 assault rifle was in the sand nearby. These were the only fighters, or apparent fighters, that I saw on the road or in adjacent buildings.

As I took notes, several marines came by and peeked inside the blue van.

“I wish I had been here,” one of them said. In other words, he wished he had participated in the combat.

“The marines just opened up,” another said. “Better safe than sorry.”

A journalist came up and said the civilians should not have been shot. There was a silence, and after the journalist walked away, a third marine, Lance Cpl. Santiago Ventura, began talking, angrily.

“How can you tell who’s who?” said Corporal Ventura. He spoke sharply, as though trying to contain his fury. “You get a soldier in a car with an AK-47 and civilians in the next car. How can you tell? You can’t tell.”

He paused. Then he continued, still upset at the suggestion that the killings were not correct.

“One of these vans took out our tank. Car bomb. When we tell them they have to stop, they have to stop,” he said, referring to civilians. “We’ve got to be concerned about our safety. We dropped pamphlets over these people weeks and weeks ago and told them to leave the city. You can’t blame marines for what happened. It’s bull. What are you doing getting in a taxi in the middle of a war zone?

“Half of them look like civilians,” he continued. He was referring to irregular forces. “I mean, I have sympathy, and this breaks my heart, but you can’t tell who’s who. We’ve done more than enough to help these people. I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn’t die. Innocent people die. There’s nothing we can do.”

Two days later, the Third Battalion arrived at the Palestine Hotel in the center of Baghdad, the first marines to reach the heart of the city. They had made it from the Kuwaiti border in 22 days. As the marines were taking up defensive positions around the hotel, I noticed a sniper I had become acquainted with during the past weeks. (Because he has children who do not know precisely what he does in the Marines, he had asked me not to name him.) He was squatting on the ground in Firdos Square, in front of the hotel, scanning nearby buildings through the scope on his rifle, looking for enemy snipers. About 150 yards away, at the other end of the square, one of the battalion’s armored vehicles was in the process of wrapping a metal chain around the statue of Saddam Hussein, preparing to pull it down.

Although this was a moment of triumph, I was still thinking about the civilians killed at Diyala bridge, and I said to the sniper that I had heard that he was one of the men who had fired shots there. He nodded his head, and I didn’t need to ask anything more, because he began to talk about it. It was clear the bridge was weighing on his mind, too. He said that during the battle, he fired a shot at the engine block of a vehicle and that it kept moving forward. For him, this had been evidence that the person behind the wheel was determined to push ahead, and to do harm.

I said that a civilian driver might not know what to do when a bullet hits his vehicle, and might press ahead out of fear or confusion.

“It’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback on Monday morning,” he replied. “But we did everything we could to avoid civilian casualties.”

When I visited the kill box down the road from Diyala bridge the morning after the battle, I noticed that the destroyed cars were several hundred yards from the marine positions that fired on them. The marines could have waited a bit longer before firing, and if they had, perhaps the cars would have stopped, or perhaps the marines would have figured out that the cars contained confused civilians. The sniper knew this. He knew that something tragic had happened at the bridge. And so, as we spoke in Baghdad, he stopped defending the marines’ actions and started talking about their intent. He and his fellow marines, he said, had not come to Iraq to drill bullets into women and old men who were just trying to find a safe place.

Collateral damage is far easier to bear for those who are responsible for it from afar—from the cockpit of a B-1 bomber, from the command center of a Navy destroyer, from the rear positions of artillery crews. These warriors do not see the faces of the mothers and fathers they have killed. They do not see the blood and hear the screams and live with those memories for the rest of their lives. The grunts suffer this. The Third Battalion accomplished its mission of bringing military calamity upon the regime of Saddam Hussein; the statue of Saddam fell just a few minutes after the sniper and I spoke. But the sniper, and many other marines of the Third Battalion, could not feel as joyous as the officers in the rear, the generals in Qatar and the politicians in Washington.

The civilians who were killed—a precise number is not and probably never will be available for the toll at Diyala bridge, or in the rest of Iraq—paid the ultimate price. But a price was paid, too, by the men who were responsible for killing them. For these men, this was not a clean war of smart bombs and surgical strikes. It was war as it has always been, war at close range, war as Sherman described it, bloody and cruel.

Soldier of Misfortune

The New York Times Magazine  |  April 13, 2003

The following is an interview I conducted with Lance Corporal Derrick Jensen, published in the April 13 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

First off I want people to understand that there is more than just combat. We’re not seeing fighting at all times. Sometimes accidents happen. The other night, a good friend of mine, Lance Corporal William White, and I were driving along in a Humvee. We were setting up communication because we were both com guys. It was night. I was driving. I had my night-vision goggles on. You know N.V.G.‘s aren’t the best; they’re good, but your perception is not the greatest with them. When I came up on the hole, I didn’t see it. The Humvee pretty much slipped into a canal and tipped upside down into the water. The cab we were in, me and him, completely flooded. Of course, I panicked. We were underwater. It definitely was a scary situation. You’ve got to stop and think, but you don’t really have time to stop and think. You’ve got to be quick about it and decide, What do I need to do here, where do I need to go?

The whole cab was submerged except for a tiny little area. I made it to the air pocket. I kept trying to go down and get White, but he kept pushing me away. I wasn’t even saying anything because he wouldn’t have heard me. But I tried grabbing him, pulling him up, trying to guide him, and he just wouldn’t do it. All at once, I was talking to God at the same time and screaming for White when he was still underwater. I was praying out loud, just hoping to God that I could get out of there. I was screaming his name, “White, oh, White, please no.” I kept trying to get him out, but he wouldn’t let me.

Finally I pretty much just bent the door down. By then, when I got him out, he wasn’t moving or breathing. I gave him mouth to mouth. He coughed up some water. He was breathing, he was conscious, he understood what I was saying because he was squeezing my hand but couldn’t talk. I pretty much told him, “I can’t drag you up this hill because every time I make a step the mud is making us slide down.” It was too steep. So I said: “I’m going to have to hold you, and we’re going to have to swim down until we find flatter ground. You’re going to have to hold on.” He understood, so he squeezed me and held on. Probably swam down a football field and a half until I found flatter ground. He was freezing, so I took off his jacket and took mine off and kind of bear-hugged him and held him for a while.

It was nighttime, and I couldn’t see without N.V.G.‘s. I realized that we couldn’t find any help because I didn’t know where we were at. So I said, “I’m going to have to leave you here.” He understood. I went to find help. I was shouting and yelling. We’ve always been taught that you’re never supposed to shout because you’ll give away your position or people will think, Oh, that’s not anybody out there, they aren’t friendlies. But I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t have a whistle. It was submerged; there was no way I would be able to find it.

I just pretty much went the opposite direction I had been driving in the Humvee, hoping I would find somebody, somebody on the way. I had no idea where I was going. I ran over a couple of hills and had some dogs chasing after me. I was just shouting, “Help, somebody help me.” I was probably cursing a little bit. I was drenched. I was naked other than the fact that I had my pants and my boots on. Nothing else. My weapon was submerged. I had no idea where I was. It was all going through my mind: fear, no sense of direction. No one to help, no one to look for. I was pretty much on my own trying to figure out what to do with my friend and find help at the same time. I didn’t know whether I was going to run into the enemy. I was hoping and praying for the best—that we could have found somebody.

I found help finally. I had probably covered about one-half to three-quarters of a mile, at least. I came back with one of the sergeants in the platoon, two corporals and the doctor, on foot. I went back with them to show them where he was at. He was making a noise. The whole time when I was swimming with him he would make a wheezing noise. It was just a God-awful noise, wheezing just as loud as he could do it. I would stop the guys, the marines, every now and then and say, “Shhh, listen.” I could hear the noise as we got closer and closer.

We got him out of there, but the next day he died of hypothermia and drowning. He had water in his lungs. I did everything I could. But I didn’t get it all out. It’s a shock. The situation was combat—we’re definitely in combat right now—but we weren’t under fire or anything like that. It was a complete accident. You don’t expect something like that to happen. It’s not something you deal with everyday. You also don’t expect to save someone’s life, but when it comes down to that you give it your best and hope it works. In my case, it didn’t. I wish it had. You’ve got to be careful; you’ve got to keep your eyes open. You don’t just die in combat. There’s more things to it. But we know we’re here for a reason. We’re definitely here for a reason. This isn’t going to keep me out of the fight.

Hungry Road

The New York Times  |  April 6, 2003
Food, Too, Can Be a Weapon of the War In Iraq.

AL KUT, Iraq—A few days ago I drove with a Marine convoy into the desert north of Nasiriya, heading toward Baghdad. The landscape was as unforgiving as it comes—parched and barren, like the moon with an atmosphere of dusty oxygen. As we moved forward, mostly through sand but occasionally on an unfinished road that was half-gravel, Iraqis appeared at the convoy’s flanks, doing what comes naturally to destitute civilians when well-provisioned men and machines of war rumble by: they were begging.

Every half-mile or so, a few Iraqis appeared like ghosts in the wasteland. Some put their thumbs and forefingers together and brought them to their mouths, the third-world sign language for please-give-me-food. Some rubbed their stomachs. Others tilted their heads back and cupped their hands, as though drinking one of the plastic bottles of Oasis mineral water that are stacked like howitzer shells in the backs of Humvees; they were thirsty, too. The smartest ones waved Iraqi dinars bearing images of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the marines would extend charity in exchange for a war souvenir.

Many Iraqis were in need of decent food and clean water long before the first cruise missile was fired at Baghdad. But there were many more of them once the war began. Cities and villages have been cut off from fresh supplies, electricity and water pumps. Civilians are suffering, and a debate has begun about who should control relief efforts. The Pentagon has said it wants to keep control over all humanitarian aid. But relief agencies, like Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam-America, have said they don’t want to be part of a military effort, because they must be independent to do their jobs.

But staying independent is a challenge. In war zones, especially, the distribution of aid is an intensely political act, no matter how neutral a group tries to be. In 1994, humanitarian agencies in eastern Zaire found themselves helping not only women and children, but many Hutu men and boys who had participated in the genocide of more than 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis. In 1993 in Somalia, the warlords were able to convince their militias that the American military operation there was not a humanitarian intervention to combat famine but a military invasion; 18 American marines and at least 12 humanitarian workers were killed.

In the early 1990’s in Bosnia, I first learned the rub-the-stomach language of want. Food is a military necessity; armies need it, and always get a slice of it, no matter the intentions of the donors. And if civilians can be fed by international aid agencies, well, that’s one task a besieged government does not have to handle, and one more reason for it not to be concerned about hungry or thirsty people.

The angels of charity are only human, too. The invasion of Iraq had little support, and outright opposition, from some relief groups. They might not wish to engage in activities that strengthen the American occupation of Iraq; if providing food to areas no longer under Mr. Hussein’s control is seen as part of that effort, or helps it by encouraging defections, the angels of mercy might be less aggressive in providing their mercy. But far more important for relief groups is the political bind they are in if they operate under, or are thought to operate under, military control: they may not be allowed to deliver aid to the people they wish to deliver it to, and they may become fair military targets for the other side. Last month, for example, a Red Cross worker in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was shot dead by a suspected group of Taliban.

Violence was a constant hazard for relief workers in Bosnia. Though officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees tried to retain their independence, traveling only with escorts from the United Nations peacekeeping force, their convoys were frequently shot at or looted, mostly by Serbs trying to starve Muslims (and occasionally Croats) into submission; drivers and other relief personnel were killed and injured.

In Iraq, Pentagon officials and Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, a retired army officer who is designated to take charge of the postwar reconstruction, do not wish, as the war still rages, to relinquish control of humanitarian operations. But the military, despite what officials in Washington might say, is not configured for or adept at distributing aid.

A few days ago, I rode in the back of a Marine Humvee as it passed through several small towns near the city of Kut, 170 miles south of Baghdad. Civilians along the road were holding out packs of cigarettes, hoping to sell them to nicotine-deprived G.I.‘s. The captain in the Humvee explained that his marines were under orders not to engage in commerce with civilians, nor toss them cast-offs from their M.R.E.‘s, no matter how friendly the civilians might seem. Doing so would mean civilians would get close to their vehicles, and it’s impossible to know the difference between a commerce-savvy civilian and a suicide bomber.

The battalion I have been traveling behind does distribute some humanitarian aid, largely through its civil affairs unit. Often it is given to civilians who have been inconvenienced by tanks and assault vehicles parking in their fields. On Thursday, as I waited on the outskirts of Kut during a battle there, several Iraqi men walked out of the city with yellow humanitarian packets—M.R.E.‘s for civilians—under their arms.

The art of humanitarianism is to provide aid to the people who genuinely need it, and that’s usually women, children and the elderly. The Iraqis with the yellow rations were fighting-age men; it’s a good bet they were deserters who were given a thank you meal from the civil affairs contingent at the front, just up the road.

The battalion commander stopped by my S.U.V. recently, and I asked about his unit’s humanitarian work. The commander, who is a smart and focused lieutenant colonel, was dispatched to Iraq to kill the bad guys, and he doesn’t mind doing so. That’s his mission. “Yes, we’re giving out humanitarian rations,” he told me. “It’s kind of the carrot-and-stick approach. No better friend, no better enemy.” He does not want to do humanitarian work, he continued. “It’s not our job, but we do what is humane and what we can to relieve suffering,” he said. “The aid we give out is more of a gesture.”

I asked whether he had talked with Iraqis and perhaps shared a meal to find out their needs. He said his civil affairs unit handles those things. He doesn’t have time for kebabs. “I don’t like eating goat,” he said and smiled.

His version of humanitarianism is marching to Baghdad as quickly as possible to get rid of Mr. Hussein. Despite the language in Washington, that’s probably the Pentagon’s version of humanitarianism, too. And that’s why, as the march on Baghdad goes forward, I expect to see more Iraqis begging for water.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)


The New Republic  |  March 31, 2003
Dispatch from Kuwait

Last week, I watched nearly a dozen British tanks and armored vehicles storm across the Kuwaiti desert on cue—literally. The British military had arranged a “press facility,” as they call such affairs, and, although the men and women of the media had been delayed for 90 minutes at a police checkpoint on the highway leading to the border with Iraq, there was no danger of missing the maneuvers. Staged with the panache of a Broadway play, the spectacle would commence at whatever hour the audience arrived with its cameras and notepads.

After the press convoy showed up at a British desert base 20 miles south of the Iraqi border, an officer from the 1st Royal Fusiliers of the 7th Armored Brigade gave us a quick security briefing—so we could “leave with the same number of body parts” with which we arrived—and instructed us to stand behind a length of white ribbon placed about 20 yards from a serpentine trench. He pointed to the horizon, where the silhouettes of Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles were visible. In one minute, he said, they would arrive at the trench.

Smack on time, the metal monsters ground to a halt in clouds of dust and disgorged a squad of combat soldiers who rushed forward, bayonets drawn, to attack imaginary Iraqis who lacked the wisdom to surrender. One of the Brits lost a boot as he lunged forward. (The humiliation of having it returned to him by a journalist would come later.) After the mock assault, an officer stood in front of us—there were nearly 100 journalists on the scene—and said he’d heard that some cameramen wanted to get shots of the now-idling tanks moving directly at them in a “V” formation. The money shot was duly stage-managed. Afterward, we were invited to interview the victorious soldiers and inspect their imposing weaponry.

This is old-fashioned war propaganda. The images of hardworking grunts bravely preparing for battle are intended to bolster support back home and, if the enemy happens to be watching or listening or reading, to convey the message that resistance will be futile and, in all likelihood, fatal. With more than 600 journalists “embedded” with military units in the desert and field trips offered every day for “unilateral” journalists (as we, the un-embedded, are branded on our orange press cards), a lot of canned journalism has been occurring in Kuwait. Until a few days ago, this propaganda war seemed different from previous ones only in its breadth, rather than in its content or effect. But things have taken a startling turn, as I learned from Colonel Chris Vernon, the congenitally blunt and jovially boastful spokesman for the British military. “We’re showing what we’ve got, and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq,” said Vernon, whose broad shoulders and chin-back, chest-forward posture make him a casting director’s dream of a British officer. “We would wish to translate success into a message. Therefore, if we were to have success in some part of Iraq, we would like that success to be seen by elements of the leadership and the population.”

A few days before the press facility, I had chatted with Vernon at the Hilton Hotel and Resort (where the United States and the United Kingdom have set up their military press center) about Basra, the southern Iraqi city less than 50 miles from Kuwait that is expected to be the first target of the invasion; the Brits are to take Basra while the Americans move north to seize Baghdad. Vernon, who in the 1990s was a spokesman in Bosnia for the U.N. peacekeeping force, went out of his way to say the Brits would likely provide a military escort to carefully selected members of the international media so that news of the liberation of Basra might ignite an uprising in Baghdad and the collapse of the regime. “If I bring Christiane Amanpour into Basra to broadcast from the roof of the Sheraton, it’s not because I want her to earn another one hundred thousand pounds in salary,” Vernon told me. “It’s because I have a military objective that is served by broadcasting the liberation of a city to the rest of Iraq that has not been liberated. We want the regime and the people to know it and feel it.” Vernon made the same point during the press facility in the desert and apparently has been making it to my colleagues. A March 13 story by Newsday’s Edward Gargan quoted “a senior British officer”—no prizes for guessing who that might be—as saying, “I’m not doing this so that the CNN correspondent gets another £100,000 in their salary. I’m doing it because the regime watches CNN. I want them to see what is happening. ... Yes, we are using them. We use everything we have.” And, while those few lucky correspondents are being “used” in Basra, the rest of us will presumably have to settle for watching them on television: Word is that the U.S. and British military will try to deny access to Basra to journalists who are traveling on their own.

If his scenario plays out—and, by the time you read this story, it may already have—the coup de grâce against Saddam Hussein will be delivered not by Delta Force and the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad but by Christiane Amanpour and CNN in Basra. Regardless of what happens in Iraq in these crucial days, a strategic Rubicon has been crossed by the Pentagon: When the occasion arises, the press will be used, and will likely permit itself to be used, as an offensive military weapon.

The war in Bosnia gave rise to a catchphrase, “the CNN effect.” It meant that television in general, and CNN in particular, possessed the power to force governments, and especially the U.S. government, to pay attention to particular issues or crises; priorities and even policy could be set by klieg lights. And, while this was true to an extent, it was nonetheless exaggerated. Tenacious reporting from Bosnia by Amanpour (and many other correspondents who did not work for CNN) certainly kept Bosnia at center stage even though the Clinton administration would have preferred to see it disappear. Yet military intervention occurred only after four long years of warfare, and, when it came, it stopped far short of reversing the ethnic cleansing that journalists had struggled to bring to light and in some cases died for.

Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was an avid viewer of CNN and the BBC, he had nothing to fear from them. Thanks to his darkly brilliant manipulation of the domestic media in Serbia, all but a handful of Serbs were so sure they were doing no wrong in Bosnia (and, later, in Kosovo) that they didn’t believe a word of what they heard on CNN and the BBC. To them, it was just anti-Serb propaganda.

The situation is far different in Iraq, where—unlike in Serbia—the domestic press is widely disbelieved, and CNN and the BBC (especially its short-wave Arabic service) are closely followed. The regime in Baghdad is brittle and weak; Colonel Vernon and his superiors know quite well that the violent house of cards that is the Baath regime could be toppled by irrefutable proof that Basra is free and that Saddam’s days are numbered. Hence the prospect of CNN being shuttled to Basra by Blackhawk helicopter. Or, as Vernon explained to me, “War is not just tanks and armor. It’s also psychological. Hearts and minds. The other guy’s move is affected by what he sees happening or thinks is happening. I think the American defense secretary has a very good understanding of it. He has read the books. He said warfare is psychological. Spot on. Not many politicians get that.”

The last decade has not been kind to journalists covering wars; from Bosnia to Rwanda to East Timor, they have been targeted for death. One of the reasons this seemed unfair, and broke a moral code, is that journalists were not supposed to be treated as partisans of one government or another. In Bosnia, we did our jobs with what now seems, nostalgically, minimal cooperation from the military authorities on either side. But today, with American journalists going through widely publicized survival courses run by the U.S. Army, with so many of us embedded with GIs, and—the coup de grâce to our withering claim of neutrality—with the prospect of selected outlets being given privileged and controlled access so they can participate in a deadly game of psychological warfare aimed at toppling an enemy regime, the case for journalistic independence is becoming awfully difficult to sustain.

The fall of Basra would be a big story that, it goes without saying, should not be ignored because one side or another might benefit from its coverage. But the only reason CNN or the BBC would need a Blackhawk to Basra is because access may be denied to journalists traveling without a military escort. The roads, we have been told by Vernon and other military spokespeople in Kuwait, will likely be blocked until the situation is “benign”—a determination that will be made, of course, by the U.S. and British military. Some journalists will doubtless slip through, as a few did during the first Gulf war. But the surest way to the roof of the Basra Sheraton will likely be with a military escort, at a time of the military’s choosing, broadcasting a message the military desires, for a duration the military wishes. After all, the generator that powers the transmission gear will probably belong to the military, as will, in all likelihood, the food and water that sustains the journalists.

Their story will be a great scoop. It may also be a great shame.

If a Terror Suspect Won’t Talk, Should He Be Made To?

The New York Times  |  March 8, 2003
Security and retribution in a murky world.

KUWAIT — The Philippine police knew they had an unusual case when they arrested Abdul Hakim Murad on Jan. 6, 1995. After Mr. Murad accidentally set a small fire in his Manila apartment, the police reportedly found gallons of sulfuric acid and nitric acid, as well as beakers, filters, funnels and fuses. A week before Pope John Paul II was to visit Manila, they had uncovered a bomb-making factory.

In many countries, terrorism suspects like Mr. Murad rarely receive the local equivalent of the Miranda rights; instead, they are tortured. Perhaps the authorities are trying to get sensitive information, perhaps they are trying to dispense extra-legal punishment. The methods vary, from gentler tactics, occasionally referred to as “torture lite,” like sleep deprivation, to hard torture, like the administration of electric shocks. If a prisoner happens to die, this can be explained away as a suicide or “a sharp drop in blood pressure,” as the Egyptian authorities have described the demise of prisoners who were brutalized to death.

Mr. Murad, a Pakistani, was not a talker. Although a computer in his apartment contained information about his plans, he resisted requests to give details of what he was doing. His interrogators reportedly beat him so badly that most of his ribs were broken; they extinguished cigarettes on his genitals; they made him sit on ice cubes; they forced water down his throat so that he nearly drowned.

This went on for several weeks. In the end, he provided names, dates and places behind a Qaeda plan to blow up 11 commercial airliners and fly another one into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also confessed to a plot to assassinate the pope.

Mr. Murad’s case has been used, in some quarters, to justify torture. Without violent pressure, terrorists might never talk, and then their plans will proceed and civilians will die. This thinking is receiving renewed attention after the arrest, in Pakistan, of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s chief of operations and the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

After his capture last week, Mr. Mohammed was handed to the United States and taken out of Pakistan, though it is not known where he is being held or how he is being interrogated. United States officials have said that Mr. Mohammed, or any other terrorist suspect, would not be tortured. But if he prefers not to talk, should he be made to?

The easy answer, in these times of war and fear, is yes. But relieving a suspect of his fingernails is not always the best way to get him to talk, and if he does talk, he may not tell the truth. A suspect who wants to avoid the unkindness of having his teeth extracted with a set of dirty pliers may say whatever he thinks his torturers want to hear.

Beyond that, many terrorism experts believe that in the long run torture is a losing strategy. Pain and humiliation will turn some innocent suspects into real terrorists and turn real terrorists into more-determined monsters.

James Ron, a professor of conflict studies at McGill University in Canada, is the author of a lengthy report on torture in Israel. He met with Israeli officials and soldiers, as well as Palestinian detainees who said their interrogators made it known that they had detailed information about terrorist groups. Mr. Ron believes this intelligence was gathered largely by the use of physical and economic coercion, but at a significant and counterproductive cost.

“Most studies show that torture is hugely degrading and humiliating, in addition to being painful,” Mr. Ron said. “Some people get destroyed in the process and curl up in a ball and go away, but some people fight back. If you’re doing this to just 10 people it’s perhaps not a security threat, but if it’s the F.B.I. and all its allies across the world, then it’s a big deal. A large chunk of the people who are being interrogated aren’t militants, they just might know someone who is. If they weren’t committed anti-Americans now, they would be after this process.”

Another reason brute force may not work well is simple: many terrorists have been through it before. No small number of Al Qaeda members have done jail time in Middle Eastern countries that practice torture. And most terrorists are steeped in cultures of deception; they know how to divulge bad information in a manner that might seem convincing.

In fact, in its apparent success, Mr. Murad’s interrogation shows torture’s limitations. Mr. Murad may have nearly died, but he didn’t crack until a new team of interrogators told him falsely that they were from the Mossad and would be taking him to Israel. Mr. Murad, who feared Jews as much as he hated them, quickly spilled the beans.

Thus, the real lesson. Prospects for gaining useful information are enhanced when interrogators apply psychological pressure, which includes lies, false promises and threats. “It is not the violence that is the core solution but the psychological techniques,” said a prominent terrorism expert. “You’ve got to engage in this psychological game. Not just pain but wearing him down physically and spiritually.”

For example, Mr. Mohammed’s two sons, 7 and 9, are reported to be in custody in Pakistan; threats against them, serious or not, might be far more persuasive than threats against Mr. Mohammed himself.

Although it may be less offensive to our moral sensitivities, “torture lite” may be no less illegal than its harder cousin. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”

But what qualifies as severe pain or suffering? A hood over the head? Putting a suspect in an uncomfortable position for a long time?

It depends on whom you ask. After it was reported in December that prisoners in American custody in Afghanistan were exposed to “stress and duress” interrogation techniques, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, sent a letter to President Bush. “Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or of war,” Mr. Roth wrote.

His letter also noted that news reports have said the United States is handing over some suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan, where torture is routine and brutal.

Human rights advocates are not the only ones disturbed by this strategy. “Such a practice of vicarious torture is imbued with an obvious hypocrisy that prevents the sending state — such as the United States — from having clean hands,” said an article in the summer edition of Parameters, a respected quarterly published by the United States Army War College. “Moreover, obtaining human intelligence from foreign governments is fraught with its own downside risk: such intelligence, filtered through a foreign government, may contain information tainted by that governments biases or hidden policy objectives.”

The White House has not officially said whether it hands over terrorist suspects to other countries for questioning, nor does it detail the techniques used by American interrogators, though it says all international laws are followed. In a sign of unease, the Pentagon now refers to its interrogators as “human intelligence collectors.”

The line between legitimate interrogation and outlawed torture is ill defined, and the reluctance of governments to disclose what they are doing intensifies this murkiness. It is nearly impossible to know whether, in a fetid basement cell in Cairo or Amman or Islamabad or Kabul, a suspected terrorist is having his limbs broken to safeguard against terrorism. And it is just as hard to know whether such deeds, if they are occurring, will enhance long-term national security or fuel a desire for retribution against America.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)

When Al Qaeda Calls

The New York Times Magazine  |  February 2, 2003
An Arab journalist’s close encounter with terrorists.

On an April day in London last year, Yosri Fouda’s cellphone rang, and a stranger introduced himself by saying, “I’m a viewer of your show.” He claimed to be in a position to “provide something top secret” and asked for Fouda’s fax number. Then he hung up.

Fouda is a star reporter for Al Jazeera, which functions something like CNN for the Arab world. His monthly program, “Top Secret,” features reports that range from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the exploitation of young camel jockeys in Qatar. He gets a stream of have-I-got-a-scoop-for-you offers, and most of them lead nowhere. But when he received, several days after the cellphone call, an anonymous three-page fax proposing a documentary for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he sensed that the call and the fax had come from Al Qaeda.

What do you do when Al Qaeda beckons? Fouda quietly asked his colleagues at Al Jazeera for advice, because if Al Qaeda was interested in talking with him, he was interested in talking with Al Qaeda, though he also wanted to stay alive.

Several days later the stranger called again.

“Are you ready to go to Islamabad?” he asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Fouda replied.

He flew to Pakistan and was passed, secretly, from one Qaeda operative to another. It was the sort of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that led, months earlier, to the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Fouda fared immeasurably better—he was trundled to a safe house, where he met Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief of Al Qaeda’s military committee, who confirmed that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Also present was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was introduced as the coordinator of the attacks and who had lived in Hamburg with Mohamed Atta, leader of the hijackers. Fouda’s hosts were among the most-wanted terrorists in the world. Mohammed alone was worth $25 million in bounty money from the U.S. government.

If you want to explore the intricate dance that takes place between a journalist trying to get a story and a terrorist trying to disseminate a message, and if you want to delve into the unusual relationship between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda, you can do no better than examining Fouda’s odyssey to Karachi. I visited Fouda in London, where he has lived for the last 12 years and where he works from Al Jazeera’s bureau on the bank of the Thames opposite Parliament. Although he is just a face in the crowd as he walks to the tube station next to Big Ben, he is rock-star famous in London’s Arab neighborhoods. Throughout the Arab world, in fact, he carries the celebrity of Geraldo Rivera and the cachet of Bob Woodward.

Fouda is a chameleon. He wears a banker’s suit on important occasions but otherwise prefers a leather jacket; in Karachi, he wore a shalwar kameez, the pajamalike outfit favored by Pakistanis. He mixes easily at both mosques and pubs. He is, in this way, an excellent journalist, because he can pretend to be all things to all people, including a friend to terrorists.

“If you want to keep your access, if you want to remain useful, you have to keep your impartiality,” Fouda told me. “It’s no use if I came on my program and said, ‘The bastard sat in front of me and said this and that.’ Then you have blown every chance you may have to talk with them again and with other groups. Yes, put things in context, but keep yourself on the fence.”

The mysterious caller told Fouda to fly from Islamabad to Karachi and check into a $30-a-night hotel there. The caller, who appeared to be an Arab, furtively visited Fouda at the Karachi hotel and told him to leave by a back door and take a taxi to another part of the sprawling city. There, Fouda met another Qaeda contact, exchanged a password and drove with him to a crowded square, where the contact told him to take a motorized rickshaw to an address where another operative was waiting. After giving a different password—it was “Lahore” (another city in Pakistan)—Fouda was driven out of the city, and eventually his contact pulled up to a car parked by the side of the road.

Fouda was transferred to the other car, where two Qaeda escorts taped cotton patches over his eyes. He was not searched, nor was he asked if he had a weapon. The trust worked both ways. As the car drove aimlessly outside Karachi, so that Fouda would lose his bearings, he sat in the back seat and told his escorts that he would have shut his eyes even if he hadn’t been blindfolded; he did not want them to think he might be interested in knowing the whereabouts of the “brothers” he was being taken to interview.

“I would be considered, as far as they were concerned, more on their side,” Fouda noted as we ate breakfast at a hotel. He was dressed in a conservative blue suit, smoking one Marlboro after another and sipping a cup of coffee. He spoke precisely, as though narrating someone else’s journey. “I had a strong feeling that they would actually care about my safety so that I would come back and do the program that they wanted. I made sure that I gave them the feeling that I am all theirs.”

This is standard operating procedure for many journalists—make your sources think you are on their side. Smile sympathetically. Nod approvingly. Laugh at their jokes. Sometimes this behavior is genuine, sometimes contrived. It is one of the oddities of journalism that although reporters are always trying to convey the full truth in what they report, with some sources they may not convey the full truth of their opinions and feelings.

After half an hour or so, the car stopped, and Fouda was led into a building and up four flights of stairs. He was pulled into an apartment, and when his blindfold was removed, Fouda heard someone say: “It is O.K. You can open your eyes now.” He did, and standing in front of him and saying hello with a smile was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who addressed him as “Brother Yosri.” Moments later, as he walked deeper into the apartment, Fouda was greeted, warmly, by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was sitting amid several laptops and cellphones.

“Recognize us yet?” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed asked.

The atmosphere was friendly. Fouda placed his hand on a Koran and swore not to divulge information that would help anyone catch his most-wanted hosts. For 48 hours, Fouda lived with Mohammed and bin al-Shibh, sharing tea and takeout meals with them and listening as they explained how they plotted the 9/11 attacks. They said that they had decided that the time had come to take responsibility for a day of mayhem that they were quite proud to have organized. The decision to select Fouda as the messenger was made, they said, by bin Laden himself, apparently a fan of “Top Secret.”

The apartment had scarcely any furnishings. They sat and slept on the floors. There was no television, and the windows had metal bars. Mohammed had several cellphones he constantly used for text messaging—he was as dexterous as a Japanese teenager. Bin al-Shibh was frequently working at his laptops and copying data onto disks. When he wasn’t talking with them, Fouda behaved as nonchalantly as possible, not wanting to appear too interested in their secretive work. Fouda and the two Qaeda men prayed together, five times a day, which is not Fouda’s habit.

At one point, bin al-Shibh brought a gray suitcase into the room. Handing a cup of tea to Fouda, he said, nodding to the suitcase, “Yes, it is my Hamburg souvenirs, and you are the first outsider to have a look.” He placed his “souvenirs” on the floor, including a “how to fly” textbook and flight-simulator CD’s that had been used by Atta. Bin al-Shibh showed Fouda, on one of his computers, his last e-mail exchange with Atta; to evade detection, Atta had pretended to be a young man in America chatting online with his girlfriend in Germany, using code words—two high schools and two universities”—for the targets of the coming attacks. (The fourth target, Fouda was told, was the Capitol Building.)

Fouda’s desire not to offend his fundamentalist hosts ran into a stumbling block: he is a heavy smoker, but smoking is viewed as un-Islamic. He meekly asked permission to light up, and this prompted bin al-Shibh to deliver the sort of anticigarette lecture that teenagers get from parents. Fouda readily agreed it was a horrible habit that he should not indulge in, but until he gathered the strength to quit, might he have a smoke? Because the authors of 9/11 had an interest in not alienating their chosen messenger—the confidence game works both ways—they granted his wish. Fouda shifted to a spot closer to a balcony and savored his Marlboro.

Yosri Fouda was born 38 years ago in an Egyptian village, the son of a doctor. He earned a master’s in television journalism from the American University in Cairo and won a scholarship to work on a Ph.D. in Britain, but he left school to take a producing job at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic-language television service, reporting from the Balkans alongside veteran BBC journalists. After the Arabic service collapsed in 1996, Fouda agreed to work for Al Jazeera in London. “He has an image as the Arab world’s leading investigative journalist, not that there’s a lot of competition for the title,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Fouda’s program about his Karachi journey, broadcast for the anniversary of the attacks, ran nearly two hours. It began with Mohamed Atta’s father saying, agitatedly, that his son had not taken part in the attacks on Sept. 11, and that he was either in jail somewhere in America or had been killed to keep him silent. Atta’s father was expressing a viewpoint that remains widespread in the Arab world—that Israel and perhaps America were behind the whole thing, and that Al Qaeda and 19 Arab men were not involved.

Fouda demolished that notion. He laid out, in careful and well-produced detail, the preparations by Atta and other hijackers from Al Qaeda, drawing on the information provided in Karachi by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who was arrested in Karachi, apparently coincidentally, soon after the broadcast).

But something funny happened on the way to the full truth. Fouda told his viewers about the whistle-blowing memo from the F.B.I. Agent Coleen Rowley, who exposed grievous lapses in the handling of the terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, and a memo from an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix, who pointed out, before Sept. 11, that a suspicious number of Arabs were learning to fly planes in America. Fouda then asked, “Was Al Qaeda simply the knife edge in the grip of someone somewhere?” He cut to a follower of Lyndon Larouche who speculated that the attacks were engineered by “intellectuals in the Brzezinski crowd and ... the special warfare crowd in the Pentagon,” with Al Qaeda being used to do the dirty work.

Fouda ended his program by speaking directly to the camera from a street in New York. “Through this investigation, we were able to dispel doubt and ascertain the truth about those who wanted, who planned and who succeeded in delivering a severe slap to the U.S. administration,” he said. But then he raised the possibility that officials in the United States “did not actually object to receiving such a slap, in the hope they can push and bully anyone, anywhere with impunity.”

It seemed odd to conclude the program by shifting attention toward a supposed American role—especially since there is not a single mention in the documentary of the notion that the Muslim world needs to examine what went wrong and take responsibility for the mass murderers it nurtured. Was Fouda pulling his punches? Although he agrees, as most Arabs do, with Al Qaeda’s political complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and America’s support for corrupt Arab regimes, he did not cheer the destruction of the World Trade Center or the bombing of a tourist-packed disco in Bali. He describes himself as a secular journalist and says he prefers living in London over Cairo; he seems to believe that fundamentalism is a problem, not an answer.

But the fact is that if you wish to remain popular in the mainstream media, you invite trouble by deviating too far from the views of your sources and audience. Harping on an unpopular truth is rarely a career-advancing or an audience-building move. Fouda delivered a bitter pill to his Arab audience simply by reporting that Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks; delivering another unpopular message, by focusing on what has gone wrong in the Arab world, might have been too much, particularly for his fundamentalist sources. It’s easier to blame America.

Fouda practices the journalism of access, which is a widespread practice, but a journalist in need of access must remain in the good graces of the giver of access. And that sometimes leads to dangerous trade-offs. There is a price for playing the game, and Al Qaeda plays it well. Two months after Fouda’s 9/11 report, Al Qaeda faxed him a six-page communique, announcing that it would devote more attention to fighting Israel. (This was just weeks before the attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa.) He had another global scoop, though he wasn’t the only one to gain from it. By tossing occasional exclusives to Yosri Fouda, Osama bin Laden helps ensure that one of the most influential voices in the Arab media stays on the fence.

Remember Sarajevo

The Digital Journalist  |  January 2003
A photographic reminder of evil.

Do we need to remember Sarajevo? The war in Bosnia ended in 1995, and much has happened since then, not only in Bosnia, but in the rest of the world. We have lived through the events of 9/11, we have engaged in war in Afghanistan, and we are on the verge of another war in Iraq. We are being told that America’s survival is at stake, and though we may doubt the severity of the threat, or the wisdom of the government’s response to it, there are people who wish fatal harm to America.

Sarajevo, and the agony it suffered in the 1990s, would seem to carry little importance today. It is just a scarred Balkan city filled with aid workers, peacekeepers and a population that sadly remembers its history even as others forget it. Bosnia is not in material breach of anything today. Sarajevo is fading away, filed in the recesses of our historical memory between the tragedies of Somalia and Rwanda, which briefly grabbed our attention before they faded away, too.

Yet Sarajevo was besieged not just by men with weapons but by evil. It was a multicultural city set upon by nationalists who engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. In the past year or two, the phrase “ethnic cleansing” has retreated from the lexicon of national discourse, replaced by the new catchphrases of our fears, such as Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden. Even so, the evil of ethnic cleansing must be recalled, alongside the shameful fact that America and its allies tolerated mass murder because it did not seem to threaten us. When, finally, it did menace our interests—the NATO alliance was beginning to unravel over the morass of Bosnia—a U.S.-led bombing campaign began, and the Serb nationalists who started the war were forced to end it, but awarded nearly half the country as a sweetener.

Sarajevo teaches us that we must be prepared to act even if a force of evil does not directly threaten our homeland. It is possible for genocide to occur almost anywhere on Earth and for life to continue in New York and Washington without a ruffle of concern or dislocation. Sarajevo is proof that our indifference can kill. It doesn’t kill us, but those upon whom we allow evil to have its way. Even if it doesn’t imperil our territory or the price of gasoline, we are diminished by its triumph, and a world in which such triumphs occur is not a safe world.

Roger Richards was among the many journalists who worked in Bosnia during the war, and he continued to work there after the country was carved up under the Dayton peace treaty. His evocative photographs—click here to see them—take us back to that time, as do the accompanying remembrances from Sarajevans who provide a pitch-perfect narrative to his stark and damning pictures. This combination of pictures and words is powerful. “Remember Sarajevo” makes us do just that, and for that reason, it merits a wide audience.

“These photographs were made with the intent of making the world look at an evil that was taking place before their eyes, and to force it to face unpleasant truths,” Richards says. “We journalists kept doing our jobs, to the point where we became resented by the citizens of Sarajevo as voyeurs. But the fact that we kept on making these images of horror eventually led to a time when the world could avert its eyes no longer. I consider myself to be a caretaker of historical documents and with it comes the responsibility to remind my fellow humans of what can happen when evil is allowed to flourish without challenge from the good.”

Evil recedes rather than dies. It is persistent. We must not avert our gaze when it begins to draw the blood of innocent people stricken by the machetes and bullets of genocide. The photos and text in this exhibition explain, elegantly and painfully, why that is so.

Sarajevo. Remember.

A Bulletproof Mind

The New York Times Magazine  |  November 10, 2002
The Special Forces are being engineered not only for the traumas of battle but also for its aftermath.

Major Christopher Miller lay awake on a cot in a filthy room, no larger than a prison cell and cluttered with weapons and ammunition. He couldn’t sleep. It was a cold January night at the Special Forces base in Kandahar, and Miller was on the verge of commanding an assault against six Qaeda fighters barricaded inside a nearby Afghan hospital. So many things could go wrong, Miller realized, and it could be disastrous if any of them did. For the first time in his life, Miller would be engaging in C.Q.B.—a military abbreviation for “close-quarters battle.” After years of training, he would finally become, as he told me recently, a “manager of violence.” An eight-year veteran of the Special Forces, he had never killed before, had never given an order to kill, had not even seen a dead soldier. All that would change at dawn, because men would surely die in an attack he would initiate with a one-word command: execute.

“That was the first time when I really thought of the human dimension of it,” Miller recalled. “At first, it’s an intellectual challenge. Then you go, ‘We’re really going to do this.’ All of a sudden it dawned on me, Those bastards are in there right now and they don’t have a clue what’s fixing to come their way. It was the oddest damn thing.”

I first met Miller last December in Kandahar. We had several conversations, but he was under strict orders not to discuss his job. Yet his job—that of a new kind of soldier—interested me. The Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan looked different, with their thick beards, fleece jackets, wraparound sunglasses and high-tech weaponry. Did they think and feel differently than the traditional foot soldier? Earlier this fall, I caught up with Miller at Fort Campbell, Ky., where the Special Forces Fifth Group is based. Safely back from battle, Miller was allowed to discuss his brand of warfare—and how he was built to carry it out.

Miller’s dawn assault on the Qaeda fighters in Kandahar, I learned, was but one step away from hand-to-hand combat. It involved grenade exchanges from a distance of just a few feet, and it finished with Miller and his men standing amid their dead and bloodied foes. “They fought to the last minute,” he recalled. “For these guys, surrender was not an option.” He later added, “It was amazing to see the carnage.”

The attack was the kind of urban warfare American soldiers will be engaged in should the United States have to shoot its way into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. When the Cold War ended, many thought that C.Q.B. would become a thing of the past. Conflicts would be fewer, and any interventions undertaken would rely on overwhelming force and precision munitions, not house-to-house fighting. Yet since 9/11 we have begun a war that may draw our soldiers into many battles involving intimate killing. What will that mean for Miller and his men?

The last time this kind of fighting occurred on a grand scale, in Vietnam, 50,000 Americans died, and many survivors had injuries that were not just physical but emotional. The clunky phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” entered the national lexicon. Today, the military believes, the United States is fighting an intimate war in the right way, because soldiers have been prepared and equipped in a manner that increases the prospect of their victory and decreases the prospect of their injury—whether physical or psychological. Just as smart bombs are less likely to go astray, 21st-century warriors are more lethal than before, yet less likely to suffer P.T.S.D., according to military instructors and psychologists. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and West Point professor of psychology, refers to this phenomenon as “the bulletproof mind.”

Such confident assertions may seem surprising, considering what happened this summer at Fort Bragg, N.C. Four soldiers there murdered their wives; three of the soldiers had Special Forces training and had served in Afghanistan. The news media rushed to link the murders to post-combat stress, although there is little proof and investigations continue. Military officers, not surprisingly, doubt the idea that P.T.S.D. played a significant role, and they may have a point. Fatal spouse abuse, sadly, plagues the military even in peacetime. As they see it, the furor over this incident has obscured a broader truth. Today’s Special Forces soldiers, they claim, have been unusually well trained to succeed not only at war—but also after war.

Chris Miller, the son of an Iowa cop, joined the Army Reserve after high school in 1983. He attended George Washington University on an R.O.T.C. scholarship and became, after graduation, an infantry officer. But it wasn’t long before Miller became bored with his life in the Army.

“All you have to be is physically strong,” Miller, who is the size of a linebacker, told me, sitting in his ramshackle Fort Campbell office. “Infantry’s brain-dead. It has nothing to do with mental agility. I wanted to try the Special Forces because I was driven by the challenge, man.”

The Special Forces are a highly trained elite within the Army, specializing in unconventional warfare, which is anything from operating behind enemy lines to fighting with guerrillas in the jungle. There are about 10,000 soldiers in the Special Forces, who are also known as Green Berets. They are the core of the military’s Special Operations community, which includes what are believed to be hundreds in Delta Force, a secretive unit that performs classified counterterrorism missions, as well as Navy Seals and Special Operations units in the Air Force.

Special Forces soldiers are trained principally in North Carolina, at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. Known informally as the Schoolhouse, it’s the nerve center for an arduous two- to three-year training course. Skills taught to Special Forces soldiers include how to survive in jungles and deserts, how to leap from a plane in the jet stream and wait until the last second to open your parachute, how to stage ambushes behind enemy lines, how to escape a P.O.W. camp, how to speak foreign languages and how to kill with rifles, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired rockets and your bare hands.

When I stopped by the Schoolhouse in September, about 200 soldiers were starting their third day of training. In a dirt pit, they were hoisting logs over their heads, then shifting the logs from one shoulder to the other, then crawling through the dirt, then carrying one another on their shoulders, then doing push-ups and cartwheels, then hoisting the logs again—over and over, until some began weeping.

It was boot-camp misery multiplied by 10. Yet there was a twist, because physical misery was not the end point, as it might be in the infantry, but the starting point. I realized this as I talked beside the pit with Captain Smith, who assesses aspiring Special Forces soldiers (and insisted that I not use his first name). Smith wants to find out who can endure pain and sleep deprivation and situational uncertainty—and still make the right choices. “We never inform them what they’re going to do, how long it’s going to go on,” he said. “We set the conditions for ambiguity from the start. A lot of these guys are not comfortable not knowing what they’re going to do next. But a lot of times on our operations, there’s no way that you can know exactly what you’ll be doing. Strength must be combined with intelligence.”

Miller recalls his experience at the Schoolhouse vividly. “It was the most outrageous thing,” he said, laughing loudly. “You’re smoked, you’re physically and mentally drained, and then, boom, there’s a decision you have to make. Do I go left or right? And there’s only one right answer.”

Because Special Forces work requires nerves of steel, training never really ends. After graduating from the Schoolhouse, active soldiers on operational teams train regularly in urban environments. Every 18 months they must complete a course established at Fort Bragg called Advanced Urban Combat—that is, the storming of buildings. Of course, all Army units train for battle, but the Special Forces say they do it with far greater frequency and under conditions that are a good deal more realistic. They use live ammunition much more often. And instead of being shown once or twice how to, say, clear a room without firing guns, the Special Forces do it again and again and again, firing real bullets, until every move they might need to make in a Baghdad-type scenario becomes a reflex.

“It’s so instantaneous,” explained Master Sgt. Danny Leonard, who joined the Special Forces in 1989 and engaged in urban warfare in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan. “You don’t even realize you did it.”

American soldiers have not always pulled the trigger with such reliability. During World War II, according to the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, as many as 80 percent of the American infantrymen he interviewed failed to fire their weapons in combat. Marshall attributed the low “fire ratio” to a mixture of poor training and a natural reluctance to kill. Even though his methodology has come under attack—critics say his numbers are exaggerated—his premise is generally accepted, and his book, “Men Against Fire,” is read throughout the military establishment. After it was published in 1947, the military revamped its training to make G.I.‘s more comfortable firing at humans; soldiers shot at targets shaped like people rather than at bull’s-eyes, for example. Today, Special Forces units make their training as realistic as possible, using pop-up targets with human faces, and setting off smoke bombs and small explosions to simulate the battlefield experience.

Dave Grossman, who spoke to me about “the bulletproof mind,” has written about the hidden logic behind military training. In his controversial book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” he writes: “It is entirely possible that no one intentionally sat down to use operant conditioning or behavior modification techniques to train soldiers in this area. But from the standpoint of a psychologist who is also a historian and a career soldier, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is exactly what has been achieved.” Grossman interprets the process of a target popping up, a soldier’s shooting the target and the soldier being praised or criticized for accuracy, as a classic conditioning model. “What makes this training process work is the same thing that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate and B. F. Skinner’s rats push their bars,” he writes. “What makes it work is the single most powerful and reliable behavior modification process yet discovered by the field of psychology, and now applied to the field of warfare: operant conditioning.”

Indeed, Special Forces officers openly discuss the use of “stress inoculation”—in which they are exposed to heartbeat-racing drills that raise their threshold for staying calm. It doesn’t mean Special Forces soldiers are immune to stress or the mistakes that stress causes, but it takes a lot more to rattle one of them than an old-time draftee.

An important dose of stress inoculation occurs during a three-week training nightmare that comes at the end of the Schoolhouse course. It goes by the acronym SERE, which stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. SERE teaches Special Forces soldiers how to avoid and endure capture by the enemy. The exercise places them in a “resistance-training laboratory” that is, essentially, a prisoner-of-war camp, with guard towers, barbed-wire fences, blindfolds, putrid food, irregular sleep intervals, abusive guards and brutal interrogations. Details about SERE, such as the types of punishment inflicted on the “prisoners,” are classified; Special Forces officers told me that torture is not practiced, though they did not deny that physical pressure is applied. The unpleasantness apparently includes being buried in wood barrels. When I asked Miller about SERE, he shook his head and said, “It is imprinted on my brain.”

Making a soldier stronger and better through stress inoculation and operant conditioning seems a bit Kubrickian—and unsettling. I wasn’t sure what to think when Col. Charles King, who commands the First Special Warfare Training Group at Fort Bragg, told me that he trains his soldiers in negotiation and combat—and that they can turn from one to the other in a split second. “These guys have got to be able not only to work with you but to shoot you, if necessary,” he said. We laughed awkwardly, and he quickly added that Special Forces soldiers would never shoot a journalist. We laughed again, awkwardly, and I chose not to mention that a U.S. military commander had threatened to shoot a Washington Post journalist who was trying to visit a site in Afghanistan where an American airstrike appeared to have killed civilians.

Of course, the commander hadn’t actually fired his weapon. Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill. Targets that pop up during shooting drills include women and children who are not supposed to be shot. Being able to remain steady in combat doesn’t just mean you will be a quick draw; it also means that you will do a better job of deciding when to hold your fire. As Grossman writes of the calibration of aggression: “This is a delicate and dangerous process. Too much, and you end up with a My Lai…. Too little, and your soldiers will be defeated and killed by someone who is more aggressively disposed.” Colonel King put it like this: “Our guys have got to be confident in their ability to use lethal force. But they’ve got to be principled enough to know when not to use it. We’re not training pirates.”

In Kandahar last January, the Special Forces tried to avoid a head-on clash with the Qaeda holdouts at Mirwais Hospital. A small group of Qaeda soldiers, wounded before the city fell to American-backed forces, were left behind when their fellow fighters headed for the hills. The men barricaded themselves inside a wing of the hospital and vowed a fight to the death if challenged. For more than a month, the Special Forces detachment, of which Miller was third in command, patiently waited for them to surrender.

Then one night in mid-January, one of the Qaeda fighters slipped out of the hospital, only to be surrounded by Afghan guards. He blew himself up with a grenade. Soon after, senior officers decided that any members of Al Qaeda who were in Kandahar should be in custody or dead. The Special Forces contingent was ordered to attack the six men who remained.

The Americans didn’t consider an airstrike on the building or using rocket-propelled grenades; those would have been loud and messy solutions, which the Special Forces, who refer to themselves as “the quiet professionals,” disdain. Miller, who has a master’s degree in national security studies from the Naval War College, relishes devising fresh solutions.

During a meeting at their base in Kandahar, the Special Forces brain trust, which was led by Lt. Col. Dave Fox and included Miller and several other officers, didn’t consider a brute American assault on an Afghan hospital. Instead, the decision was made to train a squad of local Afghan soldiers to do the job, backed by the Special Forces. Miller would be the “ground tactical commander”—that is, the manager of violence.

On the outskirts of Kandahar, at the former residence of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, an “A team”—a 12-man group that is the core fighting unit of the Special Forces—began training 25 Afghan soldiers in the finer points of storming a hostile building. A mock-up of the hospital wing was built, and the Afghans were taught to rush through the hole—the “fatal funnel”—that would be blasted through a wall. They were taught to stay away from doors and windows, to clear rooms one by one before moving down a corridor and so on. Language was a problem, but translators were used and the Americans picked up essential Pashto words, such as “shoot,” “stop shooting” and “grenade.”

Just before dawn on Jan. 28, everything was set. Capt. Matthew Peaks, leader of the A team that trained the Afghans, was ready. Using his code name, Python 33, he got on the radio to Miller, code-named Rambo 70, who was at a command post 150 feet away. Miller gave the order to execute the assault. The explosives blasted a hole in the wall, and a wave of Afghan soldiers rushed inside, tossing grenades down a corridor leading to the Qaeda room. The Afghans were promptly halted by an explosion, most likely of their own doing; in their eagerness to attack, they had run over their own grenades. The injured men were dragged out.

“We’ve got a bit of a problem,” Peaks radioed to Miller. “We’ve got six guys down. The assault has stalled.”

One of Miller’s favorite words is “knucklehead,” which he applies to most anyone he is talking about—the Taliban, his commanders, himself. When the assault stalled, Miller said he felt like the knucklehead of the moment.

A military axiom says a plan of attack rarely survives its first contact with the enemy, and it is particularly true for unconventional warfare. This is what the Special Forces are taught to expect, as I learned from Colonel King. “You can sit people down and teach them that in situation A you do B, but what do you do when you get into a situation you never anticipated?” he said. That pretty much describes the predicament Miller was in. The first assault had failed. The Qaeda soldiers were riled up. Moreover, the grenade explosions had inadvertently started a fire inside the building. This was a problem because a building that was torched courtesy of the Special Forces would not look good on CNN.

Then something unexpected happened. Smoke prompted two Qaeda fighters to stand next to a window for fresh air. Miller had placed snipers at nearby vantage points, and one of them, just a few feet away from him, leaned over and said, “Sir, I’ve got a guy who keeps poking his head up.”

Miller immediately told him to fire. He got on the radio and told the other sniper to shoot. One Qaeda soldier was dropped, then another. Miller gave the order for smoke grenades to be thrown inside the building, to encourage window visits by the others. But the remaining Qaeda men realized the cost of fresh air and stayed put.

They were given a final warning. “We can end this right now!” a Special Forces soldier shouted to them in Arabic. “We promise you won’t be mistreated.” Arabic curses were shouted back.

Miller ordered another Afghan assault. A squad of Afghans rushed inside the building but rushed out after a small explosion was heard. Peaks, who enjoys an absurd moment as much as Miller, told me, with a good laugh, what happened: “These Afghan guys come running back to us with big wide eyes going, ‘They got grenades!’ We said, ‘Well, yes.’ ”

That’s when the decision was made for the Special Forces to go inside. This would be the real thing, C.Q.B., against an enemy eager to kill Americans. Three Special Forces fighters moved down the main corridor with three Afghans, closing in on the room where the Qaeda fighters were barricaded. The Special Forces tossed several grenades into the room, but the Qaeda men scooped them up and tossed them back. It was a lethal game of hot potato. The American team dove for cover. Staff Sgt. Joe Haralson was one of the grenade dodgers. I met him at Fort Campbell, and we talked under a gazebo as he calmly cleaned an M-4 assault rifle. He explained that before throwing the next grenade, he held onto it after releasing the pin, so that the enemy wouldn’t have time to toss it back.

“We started cookin’ them off,” Haralson said. “Pop the pin, wait a second or two, then throw them in.”

I asked, “The delay is how long on the grenade?”

“About three or four seconds.”

“Not much margin for error.”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Haralson’s training—or, as Grossman might describe it, his operant conditioning—helps explain why he had the presence of mind to instantly fling himself to the ground when his grenades were thrown back at him. Ordinary soldiers might freeze for a split second, and this could cost them their lives. Then Haralson, amid the violence, was able to calmly figure out, as though fine-tuning a tennis stroke, that he needed to hold a live grenade in his hand for a couple of seconds before throwing it, and then do just that.

The battle was won and months later I asked Haralson how he felt about the mission. “Nobody is acting out of anger,” he said. “He’s the bad guy, we’re the good guy. It’s just the way it is.”

As Sergeant Leonard told me, “We understand the importance of what we’re doing, so if we’ve got to cap a guy, we’ll do it.” He continued: “You’re in a zone. You’re trying to keep your people safe. So there’s a sense of elation: ‘I got him before he got me.’ I never felt sad for any of those guys. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”

It’s possible that these men were more disturbed by the killing than they let on; then again, if they were haunted by what they did, they probably would not have talked so openly about the violence they engaged in. And in general, the soldiers did not hide the after-effects of spending time in combat zones. Leonard told me that upon returning from the Gulf War, he woke up one night and noticed a red beam; thinking it was a laser, he rolled out of bed and reached for a weapon. The beam was his stereo’s power light.

The issue of post-combat stress was widely discussed after the three Special Operations soldiers returned from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg and killed their wives last summer. Those killings, and our military’s latest involvement in C.Q.B., have resurrected an old debate: is it possible to be an efficient killer one day and a good citizen the next?

“The theory that interspecies homicide is unnatural—go watch ‘Animal Planet’ for a while,” said Maj. Gary Hazlett, a psychologist at Fort Bragg. “It’s common. We sent millions of people into combat situations in World War II and we didn’t have busloads of Charlie Mansons coming back. We had people who had gone out and done this grisly job, done it extremely well and then came back and now we’re calling them the greatest generation.” That may be true, but Vietnam veterans are a different story. It was a nastier conflict than World War II or Afghanistan: G.I.‘s were killed in grisly ways by men, women and even children who did not wear uniforms, and at the same time, many Vietnamese who didn’t wear uniforms were killed. Psychologists believe that the likelihood of being haunted by killing is greatly increased when the carnage a soldier sees or engages in is hard to justify.

A recent article in Military Review, a magazine published every other month by the Army, warned that reflex-quick killing can be a psychological time bomb. “Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield,” wrote Maj. Peter Kilner, who teaches philosophy at West Point. “However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful…. When soldiers kill reflexively—when military training has effectively undermined their moral autonomy—they morally deliberate their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.”

Miller says his sleepless night before the assault in Kandahar was his way of confronting the ethics of his actions. He zeroed in on two things—the targets were terrorists, and they had been given ample opportunity to surrender. Killing them, if it came to that, was justified. “I needed to go through the moral calculus,” he told me. “Once I did, I was steeled for combat. But I felt I owed it to myself to consider the implications of what was about to happen.”

Miller let out a knucklehead laugh as he said this; for him, it was a foolishly obvious point. Indeed, when the Kandahar assault was completed and he left his command post to survey the carnage he had managed, he said he did not feel horror or regret—just a grim awareness that there will be a lot more C.Q.B. for American soldiers in coming years. “We’re going to have to hunt ‘em down,” Miller said.

Miller remained in Afghanistan for almost four months and did everything he trained for: combat, patrols, surveillance, negotiations. For several crucial days, he was even in charge of security for the new leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He completed his duties and returned home in March to his wife and three children.

That said, the experience has left its marks on Miller. North of Kandahar, before the Taliban fled, a Special Forces team was hit accidentally by a misguided smart bomb. Three men were killed, and two of them were good friends of his. “If I could have those guys back, I would gladly give it all up,” Miller said as we sat in a planning room at his battalion headquarters, which is a surprisingly unimpressive place, with leaking pipes and mold growing on the ceiling tiles. The United States military is a $355-billion-a-year outfit, but few of those dollars are lavished on the aged cinder block buildings housing the Fifth Group. Miller continued: “There’s probably a little guilt, like, Jesus, I wanted to see action so bad…. ”

Suddenly he stopped talking. He took several deep breaths, looking down at the floor. Then he hurriedly got up and headed for the bathroom. Through tears, he said, “I promised I wasn’t going to do this.”

Several minutes elapsed. I poured myself some coffee as I waited for him to return. I was not terribly surprised by his lapse into sadness. I spent three days with him at Fort Campbell, grabbing meals with him and his Special Forces colleagues, going on a five-mile run with him in the Kentucky backwoods. I heard him laugh at himself and his commanders and the absurdity of the world around him. But I also heard him turn cold serious when the phone rang in his office and he answered with his usual greeting, “Hello, this is not a secure line.” His temperament was adaptive, exquisitely calibrated to the moment. And here was a moment where Miller was allowing himself to be reflective.

In Special Forces training, flexibility is sought out and reinforced in recruits. Respond to the situation, they are taught; don’t be rigid, stay aware of your environment. In the model Special Forces soldier—and not all of them are, not by a long shot—those maxims apply to emotions too. Block them out in combat, but don’t ignore them afterward.

Miller emerged from the bathroom and said: “I don’t feel guilty for wanting to do something. We wanted to go, hell, yeah. Everybody wanted to. The big lesson I took was, Be careful what you ask for, because it’s a horribly costly business. I don’t have any doubt about the value of the sacrifice. I’m not sitting here gnashing my teeth like Vietnam or something, going, ‘God, it’s such a waste, the flower of our youth.’ I mean, it was necessary. A friendly-fire accident—that happens. It’s the nature of war.” Miller had a logical argument, but emotions don’t always respond to logic.

Miller talked about other difficulties he had faced in Afghanistan. In January, Special Forces soldiers discovered a series of Taliban ammunition depots. The decision was made to blow up the dumps so that fugitive Taliban or Qaeda fighters could not sneak back and re-arm. Two ordnance experts and a medic were assigned to the job. They were all blown up doing it; either they mishandled the explosives or were killed by a booby trap.

“The most wonderful guys in the world,” Miller told me. “We could have waited and handed it off to an engineer unit and said, ‘It’s your problem.’ We made the decision to do it ourselves right away. It was the wrong thing to do. We should have just left it. Two guys I knew really well. It shows the seriousness of the business, which I had never fully internalized. I would just laugh when my bosses would say, ‘This is a serious business.’ Well, guess what? Now I’m the moron going, ‘This is serious business.’ ”

The Special Forces are well trained, but that does not mean they will come back alive or sound, especially if they fight a war that should not be fought or embark on missions that are poorly planned. Their bodies are not bulletproof, nor are their minds. The discipline that is driven into them in training and at their bases can wear down if a war is long enough or murky enough or if they see too many of their comrades killed or injured. The ousting of the Taliban (though not what followed it) had the merit of being well executed and mercifully brief, yet still there was a price to pay.

I stayed in touch with Miller after my visit to Fort Campbell. We had developed a running joke, because he couldn’t talk to me about his next mission, which I knew was Iraq, and which he knew I knew was Iraq. The soldiers of the Fifth Group specialize in the Middle East, and they wear desert fatigues even at Fort Campbell, with their names printed above their breast pockets in Arabic. I would ask, when I called Miller, how things were going, and as September became October and Congress passed a resolution authorizing war, his responses went from “not doing much” to “it’s getting busier” to “real busy.”

“If there’s going to be a fight, we want to be in it,” he said last month. “But it’s more deliberate this time. Last time, it really was naivete.” He mentioned that the widows and children of his fallen friends still live in his close community; he is reminded of their sacrifice every day. “The cost is huge and it requires serious deliberation. I’m privileged and truly want to be a part of it, but it’s not cheap. It’s not a big laugh.”

Dirty War

The New Republic  |  November 2002
How America’s friends really fight terrorism.

If you happen to believe the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist, you are quite possibly a member of the U.S. government. I realized this while visiting the home of a U.S. official in Pakistan one Sunday afternoon. Security guards are always stationed outside his residence. When he ventures beyond his front door he does so in an armored car, with bodyguards at his side, and another vehicle follows his—lest he end up like Laurence Foley, the American diplomat who was killed outside his home in Amman, Jordan, on October 28.

We drank coffee and nibbled biscuits in his living room and chatted about the best place to buy handwoven carpets, which are plentiful in Pakistan, at prices that coincide with the sum the salesman believes he can extract from your American wallet. Our conversation then moved to the crackdown on religious extremists by Pakistan’s military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. I assumed the official wanted every actual or potential terrorist thrown in jail. He shook his head; I didn’t get it at all.

“We don’t want them arrested,” the official said. “We want them e—.”

He interrupted himself. He was reconsidering his choice of words.

“Were you going to say, ‘exterminated’?” I asked.

He smiled uncomfortably.

“No. I was going to say, ‘eliminated.’”

I cannot disclose his name or the city where we met, but I can add one detail about my host: He was telling the truth. It is impolitic for U.S. officials to give their blessing on the record to regimes that skip judicial niceties and go directly to the gallows, but that is the reality of America’s war on terrorism. Due process is a rarity in most Muslim nations; police and courts are rotten with ineptness, corruption, torture, and meddling by political and religious authorities. When the White House urges a crackdown, as it frequently does in public statements and private meetings, it knows—and does not mind—that terrorism suspects are far more likely to face summary executions than fair trials.

Publicly, the administration pretends this isn’t true. “In the context of our counterterrorism efforts,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said after meeting his Asian and Pacific Rim counterparts at the end of July, “I made the point to all my interlocutors that we still believe strongly in human rights and that in everything we do we have to be consistent with the universal standards of human rights.” The next day Powell added, “The United States feels strongly about these sorts of issues and believes that if we are really going to prevail over this plague on the face of mankind, then we have to do it in a way that respects human dignity.”

Powell, who is a smart man, knows this is nonsense. Earlier this year, in a report titled “Rights at Risk,” Amnesty International warned that “the `war on terror’ may be degenerating into a global `dirty war’ of torture, detentions, and executions.” In a statement accompanying the report, which cited a pattern of abuses in Egypt, China, Malaysia, Turkey, and elsewhere, Amnesty International said, “A number of states have introduced new laws that violate human rights standards while others have used existing measures to crack down on opposition.” Says Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, “The U.S. is facilitating these countries in committing torture to further its aims in the war on terror.”

Take Egypt, which is second only to Israel in the amount of aid it receives from the United States. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is a brutocracy in which Islamic fundamentalists have in recent years been snuffed out in ways so unkind that even the State Department feels obliged, in its annual human rights reports, to criticize it. Mubarak’s regime has jailed several thousand Islamists without trial—some held for more than a decade—while hundreds of others have been convicted by military courts in which defendants’ rights are few. Since September 11, 2001, arrests and sham trials have been ramped up, according to human rights groups. This is not good news for the alleged perps because, as a 1996 U.N. report has noted, “torture is systematically practiced by the security forces in Egypt, in particular by State Security Intelligence.” Their preferred methods include electric shocks, whipping, suspension by the wrists or ankles, death threats, and threats of rape against male prisoners. Detainees occasionally die in custody due, as the authorities put it, to “a sharp drop in blood pressure.”

This is the environment into which, according to newspaper reports, the United States is discreetly transporting some of the terrorist suspects for interrogation. (Others have been transferred to Jordan and elsewhere.) “After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time,” a U.S. diplomat told The Washington Post on March 11. “It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can’t do on U.S. soil.” As Powell put it in a remarkable statement on September 26, 2001, during the hot aftermath of the September 11 attacks: “Egypt, as all of us know, is really ahead of us on this issue. They have had to deal with acts of terrorism in recent years in the course of their history. And we have much to learn from them and there is much we can do together.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Mubarak is bubbling with satisfaction over the go-for-it signals he has received from Washington. “[W]e were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials,” he said in a December interview with Al Gomhuriya, a state-owned newspaper in Cairo. “There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual.”

Many Americans might agree (with apologies to Barry Goldwater) that Egyptian-style extremism in the name of anti-terrorism is no vice. They would be wrong. Not only for moral reasons but for pragmatic ones as well: Arbitrary arrests and executions, carried out by unloved governments at the bidding of the unloved United States, can lead to those governments being replaced by ones that support terrorists instead. The election in Pakistan in early October was a warning sign: A coalition of religious parties, which had never before fared well at the voting box, won a shocking 45 out of 272 available seats, making them the third-largest group in the National Assembly. Their campaign was based on explicit opposition to Musharraf’s support for America’s war on terrorism, almost every component of which—from ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan to rounding up Islamists in Karachi—has led the public to view their government as a puppet of Uncle Sam. It would not be terribly surprising if the October 12 terrorist bombing in Bali sparks a similar process in Indonesia, in which an abuse-laden crackdown by a moderate and inept government leads to a surge in support for Islamists. The United States cannot afford another round of blowback. If history teaches us anything—our support for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan begat the post-Soviet chaos that led to the Taliban, which hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, spawning Mohammed Atta and September 11—it is that unintended consequences matter.

Pakistan’s criminal justice system does not operate in a way that William Rehnquist or even Johnnie Cochran would recognize. If police cannot find a suspect—a common occurrence—they often lock up his family and wait for him to turn himself in. The police are, with the exception of elite units, ill-paid and corrupt. You can pay a police officer not to arrest you, or you can pay him to arrest someone else; you can pay him not to torture you or to torture someone else; if you offer suitable incentives, you can involve a police officer in a crime that you wish to commit; and if you wish to escape from jail, that can be arranged for a price, too. A police officer’s typical official salary is the equivalent of $30 per month—not enough, as Karachi’s police chief told me, to survive on.

Judges are generally made of the same gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight fiber as the police. When a judge in the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder case was asked to subpoena Yahoo for information—the kidnappers issued their demands through e-mail—he suggested the police just arrest “Mr. Yahoo.” In addition to ignorance, judges are vulnerable to intimidation. Since the police cannot assure anyone’s security, even their own, criminals know that a whispered threat will silence most witnesses and persuade most judges to modify their decisions. It is a vicious circle because police have little incentive to arrest criminals, or let them survive until trial, if they know a conviction is unlikely.

Pakistan has special anti-terrorism courts that were set up in 1997 and—in contrast to regular courts—are supposed to dispense swift and fair justice in cases that involve major crimes, especially sectarian murders and kidnappings. That’s the theory, at least. The trial of four of Pearl’s murderers was intended to showcase the system. But the case was transferred from one anti-terrorism judge to another and then another; and it involved a change of locale, from Karachi to Hyderabad, because of security concerns of every sort—for the defendants, the lawyers, the witnesses, the judge. The trial was finally held in a jail with no reporters present, and—although the defendants were convicted in July—the verdicts may be overturned on appeal due to evidence that emerged after the trial that indicated the men were not the principal killers.

Whether or not the kidnappers are released on appeal, the men who testified against them are in jeopardy. Jameel Yusuf, director of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a private-sector crime-fighting group, now travels with an armed guard and varies the cars he drives so that colleagues of the men he helped to convict will have a harder time assassinating him. Yusuf met with Pearl just before he was kidnapped and later testified at the trial, prompting one of the defendants to call him a “Jewish agent”—tantamount to a death threat in Pakistan. “In this country you can be bumped off very easily,” he told me as we were driven to lunch at a private club. There was a police guard in the front seat of our car, and an unmarked car with more bodyguards followed us.

The upshot is that police in Pakistan, as in other judicially deficient nations, take shortcuts to what they consider justice. These days Pakistan faces enormous U.S. pressure for action against suspected terrorists because it has been a breeding ground for extremism for more than two decades, since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Many Al Qaeda members have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s fall and have linked up with local militants who wish to destabilize Musharraf’s pro-U.S. regime. Since May, car bombs outside the Sheraton Hotel and the U.S. consulate in Karachi have killed more than two dozen foreigners and Pakistanis, and in August a school for the children of Christian missionaries was attacked outside of Islamabad.

In response to this escalation and to American pressure, Musharraf’s government has arrested some of the perpetrators, including key figures in Al Qaeda. It has also, according to Amnesty International, arrested hundreds of Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis without just cause. “The rule of law has been swept aside,” the group said in a June report. “Detainees are not treated in accordance with either Pakistani or international law. ... Who is being held where is unknown. Detainees are cut off from family and lawyers, and there are no official notices.”

If you want to know why these excesses occur, a look at Yusuf’s work is instructive. When he co-founded the CPLC in 1989, Karachi—a city with a population of approximately 12 million—was known as the “City of Death.” Every morning a few dozen corpses would be scattered around its streets, often with fatal wounds caused by unconventional instruments of torture, such as power drills. The city was a free-fire zone in which violent turf battles were fought among political parties, criminal gangs, and the police; the streets would empty at dusk, like Dodge City at the worst of times.

The police were worse than useless. They were such notorious shakedown artists that citizens were afraid to enter a precinct station to report a crime because they might be arrested or tortured by police trying to extort money from them. Kidnappings by criminal gangs seeking to gain lucrative ransoms from businessmen and their relatives reached epidemic levels because the police were incapable of catching the perpetrators and not terribly interested in doing so; families didn’t report abductions until after they paid the demanded ransom, fearing the police would botch any raids they attempted. Of course this fed the epidemic; kidnapping became an industry.

Enter Yusuf and the CPLC.

Under Yusuf’s direction, the CPLC adopted a ruthlessly efficient strategy of investigation, intimidation, and elimination. The CPLC was set up as a semi-official agency by the provincial government; its headquarters is located on prime government property in the city center. Yusuf—who owns a successful textile business and accepted the unpaid CPLC job because he is essentially a good Samaritan with the righteous anger of a vigilante—worked with army commandos and elite police officers, becoming, in effect, their unofficial leader. He is a short man with the don’t-mess-with-me mannerisms of a lion-tamer. His style of speech is not unlike the rhythm of a machine gun—there are short bursts and long bursts that stop as suddenly as they start, and just as you duck when bullets are flying, you listen when Yusuf is speaking.

During a lull in one of our chats, Yusuf pointed to my digital recorder, which was on his desk. He said that he has a digital recorder that looks like a pen. I asked to see it.

“I keep it here,” he said, tapping a pen/recorder on his desk.

“A spy device?” I asked.

“This is the type I want,” he replied. “You ask permission [to record]. We don’t ask permission. No laws to prevent us.”

“There are some,” I noted delicately.

“We misuse them,” he smiled. “That’s how we get a lower crime rate.”

In the early days of his work, when he wasn’t sure whom he could trust, Yusuf deployed his wife and teenage daughters on stakeouts; because Pakistan is a male-dominated society, kidnappers did not imagine that women would be used against them. Yusuf’s daughters, wearing scarves over their faces, would stand near drop-off points for ransom payments and provide descriptions of the kidnappers. At times his wife trailed the kidnappers in a car.

The core of Yusuf’s strategy was, as the euphemism goes, extra-legal. And it worked. According to CPLC figures, the number of abductions has dropped from 79 in 1990 to 13 in 2001. The reasons why this happened became clear as Yusuf described a case that occurred in October 2001, when two kidnappers were caught by police teams led by Yusuf and other CPLC members (most of whom are, like Yusuf, businessmen donating their time and risking their lives). A third member of their gang remained at large, along with the hostage, who was a businessman’s wife.

“When we get two guys, it is very nice, very easy,” Yusuf said, sitting in his modern office at the CPLC headquarters in downtown Karachi. Across the hallway were several rooms with modern computers and neatly dressed workers who would not have looked out of place in an American crime lab. (In most police stations in Pakistan, by contrast, you rarely see a computer.) Yusuf recalled that the kidnappers were taken to a nearby police station where he interrogated them. “One guy was weaker so he broke really fast. I told him, `Look, I am going to torture you so much that you might die. We don’t bother about that because we have two of you. Whether a man in custody dies or not, who cares? You better save your life. The earlier you speak up the better; otherwise let’s see how much torture you can take. If you die we will throw you out. Who cares?’”

Yusuf began chuckling, because, as he has been delighted to discover over the years, terrorists themselves can be terrorized quite easily.

“And then of course we promise him, `Look, we’ll feed you. Don’t do it again, alright? We’ll spare you if you promise on the Koran you won’t do anything after this.’ Oh, he is most happy. He thinks he’s going to be left [alone]. He says, `Alright, alright.’ We get some hot tea for him. So from the hard treatment you come to this state.”

The kidnappers were told to give a precise description of the house where their hostage was being held; not just its location but what it looked like, the number of entrances, the room in which the abductee was held, and so on. The kidnappers were then taken to the site with Yusuf, on the excuse that further help might be required. As it turned out, the third kidnapper left the house moments before Yusuf and his squad of police officers arrived, so the hostage was freed unhurt.

But the work was not finished. Karachi’s newspapers often report in crime stories that a suspected robber, kidnapper, or murderer was “killed in an encounter with police.” This tends to be shorthand for saying that the police dealt with the suspect in a summary manner, though as a courtesy they might permit the victim or a relative to deliver the coup de grace. “Encounters in our country have never been a problem, you know,” Yusuf said. “When a judiciary fails, extra-judicial systems take their place. It’s a very natural phenomenon, however bad you may feel about it. Everybody wants to protect their people.”

So what happened to the captured kidnappers? “Wiped out in the encounter, sadly,” Yusuf smiled. “That’s how it is. Look, in America you used to hang horse thieves.”

That’s true, but if you want to understand the downside of “justice” of that sort, all you need to do is go to the nearest video store and rent The Ox-Bow Incident, a classic western starring Henry Fonda in which three men accused of murder and cattle-rustling are captured by a lynch mob. As one of the posse members says in the film, “‘Cause the law’s slow and careless around here sometimes, we’re here to see it speeded up.” Fonda, who opposes the hanging, tells the posse leader, “All you know is you’ve lost something, and somebody’s got to be punished.” The three men are hanged, and, as it turns out, they were innocent.

But in today’s world, might not this unhappy trade-off be an acceptable price for security? I mentioned to Human Rights Watch’s Bouckaert that the unkind methods of justice, such as those used by Yusuf in his anti-kidnapping campaign, can work.

“I’m willing to take those arguments into account, but I don’t think we should accept their validity at face value,” he replied. “I can just as well say that it’s been proven time and time again that torture is not useful in interrogation, that it doesn’t lead to reliable information. Look at the Algerian civil war—[torture] led to an escalation of the conflict. The same thing for Zimbabwe’s civil war. Israel has been using these techniques for decades, and they certainly haven’t stopped terror attacks against Israel.

“I think that’s a fundamental error in the war on terrorism. The U.S. could take the moral high ground to distinguish its actions from the actions of the Russian government and Egyptian government, who have committed serious abuses that serve as prime recruiting propaganda for Osama bin Laden. His websites are filled with information about abuses by Russians in Chechnya and the Egyptians and Saudis. It would benefit the U.S. if it clearly distinguished itself from those abusive campaigns and said there is no need to commit torture and kill civilians.”

In fact, however, the Bush administration has yet to break a sweat promoting democracy in any country that is not spelled I-r-a-q or C-u-b-a. When Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, staged a crooked referendum in May that extended his rule by five years (one woman said she voted for him 60 times), the State Department had little to say. It has been almost as muffled about Mubarak’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists. (The United States decided not to increase aid in protest of Egypt’s imprisonment of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, but Cairo’s $2 billion in annual aid was never in jeopardy.) And you will need to be infinitely patient if you wish to hear a word of serious criticism from President Bush about the Russian army’s continuing violations in Chechnya. The White House has even refused to criticize Russian authorities for using chemical gas to end the siege of a Moscow theater by Chechen terrorists, which killed more than 100 hostages, including one American. “Given the fact that the terrorists were clearly serious and had already killed people, and apparently had the theater booby-trapped so all would die, it’s important to know what the full circumstances are before venturing further,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Sunday.

All is not totally bleak, though. The FBI is increasing its presence in Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world, working with local police departments and security agencies as much as its hosts permit. This can improve the efficacy and fairness of faulty criminal justice systems. In Karachi, terrorist attacks have led to close cooperation between the FBI and the police department’s Criminal Investigation Division, an elite unit that focuses on terrorism, and that cooperation has helped produce some of the recent arrests of Al Qaeda members. The FBI has also agreed to train members of the Pakistani police department in the United States and to provide crime-fighting equipment, such as computer and telecommunications gear. Much more of this is needed throughout the Muslim world.

Senior police officials in Pakistan welcome their contacts with the G-men. I had lengthy conversations with Karachi’s top anti-terrorist investigator, who, it turned out, is a fan not only of the FBI but of movies about the FBI. When I happened to mention In the Line of Fire, which stars Clint Eastwood, the investigator corrected me, noting that the film is about a Secret Service agent. But the world of the FBI, and the world of due process, is far away from his; on his wall is a framed slogan that sums up the quandary of a good cop in a dysfunctional system: “We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

For the foreseeable future the war on terror in foreign lands will be waged by the faulty criminal justice systems that do exist, rather than the ones Powell wishes us to believe exist. The United States needs to be more honest about what our allies are doing, and we must do more to ensure that the eliminations we have urged upon them do not backfire. We have already seen, after all, where that leads.

Journalists and Justice at The Hague

The New York Times  |  July 5, 2002

The war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is supposed to put the bad guys behind bars. I never thought it would go after an American journalist. But last month the tribunal upheld a subpoena against Jonathan Randal, requiring him to testify about events he covered in Bosnia for The Washington Post. If the tribunal has any sense, it will rescind the subpoena and the threat of penalties that it implies.

Mr. Randal had spoken with Hague prosecutors and provided a written statement before they issued the subpoena. Such cooperation from reporters is unlikely to last if the tribunal turns to issuing unwarranted threats. When the tribunal contacted me to testify in another case, in 1997, I agreed to give evidence. This week a representative of the tribunal asked me to testify in an upcoming case, but I am hesitant to do so, mainly because of Mr. Randal’s experience.

The Randal subpoena is the latest example of journalists’ being drawn into legal efforts to punish war criminals as the Balkan and Rwanda tribunals quicken their pace. On Monday the statute establishing the International Criminal Court, which may also draw journalists into its proceedings, entered into force.

The attempts to offer justice to victims of genocide are one of the bright spots of our age. Most journalists — who are the people most likely to witness war crimes, other than the perpetrators and their victims — support war crimes investigations. I don’t believe journalists should be exempt from subpoenas. But in most cases the decision to testify should be the journalist’s, with exceptions made only in very rare circumstances that fall within published guidelines. Even The Washington Post’s lawyers, in trying to quash the Randal subpoena, acknowledged that in particular situations subpoenas might be warranted: for example, if a journalist’s testimony is absolutely vital and cooperation would not imperil him or his family and colleagues. The Post lawyers argued, unsuccessfully, that under those criteria the Randal subpoena should be withdrawn. Their request for an appeal hearing has been granted.

In 1997, prosecutors contacted me because five years earlier, as a reporter for The Washington Post, I had met with Milan Kovacevic, a warlord in Prijedor, a Serb-held town in Bosnia. Mr. Kovacevic had reluctantly agreed to let me and several other journalists visit the prison camps he presided over at Omarska and Trnopolje.

Mr. Kovacevic became the first war-crimes suspect arrested by Western peacekeepers in Bosnia and dispatched to the Hague. The prosecuting team said my testimony would be vital to showing his command over the camps. Because he had not killed or tortured with his own hands, demonstrating his overall command was the only way to convict him of crimes against humanity.

The tribunal’s request confronted me with an increasingly common set of quandaries. The main problem is that testifying at a war crimes tribunal could imperil a journalist’s safety or make it difficult to uncover future misdeeds. This is not a hypothetical debate. A friend of mine who reported extensively on the Balkan wars and continues to produce award-winning investigative stories from the region has been asked to testify in an ongoing case. If he testifies, he is likely to be in physical jeopardy on his next reporting trip to Serbia or Montenegro; alternatively, he will have to choose never to return there. Local journalists would have still fewer choices, since leaving is not always an option.

“On the one hand it’s our job to go to dangerous places to get the truth out,” my friend told me the other day. “We meet with unsavory characters, gain their trust and risk our lives to expose these things. So we’re sympathetic to anyone who’s trying to get at the truth and punish the guilty parties. On the other hand, the minute we are forced to submit to the court in a genocide prosecution, our independence and survival, professional or otherwise, could be at stake.”

Under what circumstances might a subpoena be warranted? Here’s a personal example: the journalists I was with in Prijedor included an American network television crew that filmed part of the meeting with Mr. Kovacevic. I was told by the prosecutors that the network did not wish to share its raw footage. Let’s suppose the tape was decisive evidence of genocide. If sharing it would not put anyone’s neck on the line, and if the network refused to cooperate, a subpoena might be acceptable.

In my case, if I had testified against Mr. Kovacevic, I would have been ill-advised to return to Prijedor and perhaps anywhere in Serb-held parts of Bosnia. But I could live with those restrictions; only a small portion of my current professional life is spent in the former Yugoslavia, and if it were reduced further, I wouldn’t suffer or mind that much.

I was not swayed by the argument, made by maximalists in the press-freedom camp, that any cooperation would degrade my profession’s independence and make it harder for journalists to gain access to war zones. In truth, warlords already regard foreign journalists as agents of their governments. The prospect of a war-crimes indictment several years down the road is very low on the list of concerns for such people.

In the end, I agreed to testify. Three weeks into the trial, and before I was scheduled to enter the witness box, Mr. Kovacevic died of a massive heart attack. Now I am faced with a second request, in a new case, but this time from a tribunal that has shown its willingness to intimidate a journalist into testifying. I hope that the appellate panel will decide that issuing the subpoena to Mr. Randal was an error. In the meantime, I’ll keep my distance.

Climbing Lessons from the School of Tomaz Humar

Outside  |  June 2002
#1 You must merge with the energy of the mountain. #2 That nagging headache may be an avalanche that crushed your tent. #3 You will ascend the most harrowing face in the Himalayas, alone. #4 Go home, break both legs, and start over again.

My chakras are shot. I know because Tomaz Humar has just checked them.

We’re getting ready for a hike in Slovenia’s Kamnik-Savinja Alps, sitting in Tomaz’s Volkswagen Golf in a patch of forest below the limestone face of 6,014-foot Mount Rzenik, where Tomaz first learned to climb. He pulls a tear-shaped pendant from his pocket and swings it over a small, colorful chart shaped like a dartboard and overlaid with numbers. When he checks my chakras, the pendant hovers at the low thirties. Tomaz checks his own: sixties. He considers the results.

“We don’t have much time,” he says, “but I’ll cleanse you.”

Before embarking on any venture with Tomaz Humar, your chakras should be in overdrive. With more than 1,200 ascents to his credit and 60 solos of new routes, the 33-year-old Slovenian has earned a reputation as the best-or maybe just the craziest-high-altitude climber in the world. Tomaz takes risks no other climber would consider; he endures suffering best classified as biblical. At mountaineering conferences where he gives his slide show and lecture, you can hear the collective gasp of the world’s top alpinists when they look at what he’s done in the planet’s toughest ranges, particularly the Himalayas.

Here’s Tomaz on 26,504-foot Annapurna I in Nepal in 1995, summiting alone in a blizzard as his expedition leader yells over the radio for him to turn back. Here he is in 1997, downclimbing the west face of another Nepalese peak, 25,770-foot Nuptse, in the dark, after his partner was blown off the summit (and before Tomaz accidentally set his own tent on fire). Here he is on his American vacation in 1998, scaling Reticent Wall, one of El Capitan’s hardest routes, on his first big-wall climb. Here is the suicidal route he took up Dhaulagiri’s south face in 1999-equipped with just three camming devices, four ice screws, five pitons, and a single 148-foot rope. Here he is midclimb on Dhaulagiri, prying the filling out of an infected tooth with his Swiss Army knife.

The south face of Nepal’s 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri is among the longest and highest faces in the world, a concave nightmare of loose granite and overhanging seracs that starts at 13,123 feet and rises another 13,000 terrifying feet to the summit. Two Eastern European teams had made ascents of the face: a Yugoslavian group in 1981 and a Polish expedition in 1986. Tomaz soloed it, on a new route, climbing long stretches without any protection at all. The mountaineering world was stunned. A Slovenian kid on his eighth Himalayan expedition had pulled off the most audacious achievement in a decade.

In Slovenia, a tiny Eastern European nation whose two million citizens love adventure sports, Tomaz became a god. He wrote a popular coffee-table memoir, No Impossible Ways; was named 1999 athlete of the year; and received the Honorary Emblem of Freedom from President Milan Kucan. Today, if you send a postcard to “Tomaz Humar, Slovenia,” he’ll receive it.

Nearly a year after Dhaulagiri, however, Tomaz suffered an accident that almost killed him. On the evening of October 30, 2000, less than two weeks before he was due to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Alpine Club in Denver, the man who’d just established climbing’s new benchmark stumbled into a ten-foot construction pit.

Tomaz was building a house in Kamnik for his family-his wife, Sergeja, their ten-year-old daughter, Ursa, and six-year-old son, Tomaz. In the early-evening darkness, Tomaz was taking care of last-minute chores with the construction foreman and didn’t notice his future basement until he fell into it. When he came to, at the bottom of the pit, he felt something heavy lying on him. It was his own right leg. His left heel and right femur were shattered. He almost died from blood loss. The surgeons who operated on him thought he might never walk again. As for climbing-forget it.

Now, a year and six operations later, Tomaz stands at the base of Rzenik, his shattered bones fused by titanium rods and plates, looking not at all like a great climber. His face is not weatherbeaten; he is neither lanky nor muscular. What he mostly looks like is a Wal-Mart assistant manager. Still, there’s no mistaking his drive. He only recently traded his wheelchair for crutches, but their rubber tips are already worn down from manic and punishing use; Humar’s crutches need crutches. It is with these that he intends to hobble up the rockfall below Reznik’s face.

But first there’s my chakra problem.

“Don’t move,” Tomaz says.

He traces his right hand over my body, an inch or two above my flesh. He flicks his hand, as though shaking water from it. Then he repeats the routine with his left hand-without the flicking, because this time he’s putting good mojo in. His mojo.

He measures me again: My chakras are in the forties. “That’s better,” he says. “If we had more time I could do more, but it takes a lot of energy from me, and we should get going.”

We head through the forest, Tomaz leading. His lurching gait is painful to watch, a cross between Frankenstein and a penguin. This is his first walk in the mountains since his fall. He has not told his doctors or his wife, because if he slips he goes straight back into the wheelchair.

“Look,” Tomaz says. “Look at that rock!”

He points a crutch at a chunk of quartz jutting out of the ground. He bends down and places a hand on the stone.

“It has a lot of energy,” he says. “I can feel it.”

EVEN AMONG RISK-LOVING mountaineers, there are insane levels of danger that 99.9 percent of climbers won’t accept. The other 0.1 percent tend to come from Eastern Europe. They have names like Kukuczka, Wielicki, Groselj, Jeglic, or Belak. They share a fanatical and almost comical embrace of suffering.

“A huge chunk of the sickest climbers in the Himalayas are Polish, Russian, Czech, or Slovenian,” says American big-wall climber Mark Synnott, 32. “They’re hard-core. Everyone knows that. You can tell when you meet them.”

This toughness is rooted in history, of course. Eighty years of Lenin, Stalin, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, regional conflicts, and ethnic cleansing have produced durable people. For the survivors who emerged from the rubble of communism, a long and happy life is not an entitlement, but an exception. The prospect of getting killed in the mountains is simply not as tragic for a climber from Minsk as it is for a climber from Boulder.

“In the West, the art of rock climbing is growing because it has to do with less risk, good muscles,” says Reinhold Messner, 57, the first man to climb (and then to solo) 29,028-foot Mount Everest without oxygen and to summit the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. “But the people seeking high goals in high places are in Eastern Europe, and they reach their goals because they are willing to suffer more.”

And willing to do more to escape. During the Cold War, Eastern Bloc climbers were on the same short leash as everybody else. They couldn’t travel without government permission, and so, when state-sponsored clubs mounted expeditions to the Himalayas, competition was fierce. “If you’re in a club and your ticket to an annual trip to Tian Shan is by staying on that team, you’re going to do far more to stay on that team,” notes American alpinist Carlos Buhler, 47. “In our system, anybody can go to Tian Shan who wants to bang nails for a month to earn enough money to go there.”

Some of the greatest modern climbers have come from the former Soviet Union and Poland-Russian Anatoli Boukreev and Pole Jerzy Kukuczka, both killed in the Himalayas-but starting in 1991, when Slovenia won its independence from Yugoslavia, Slovenian mountaineers came on strong, with fast-and-light ascents up dangerous faces that have astonished even the Great One himself. “The Slovenians are the very best climbers in the world,” Messner says matter-of-factly. “They are young, and they are hungry for difficult things. I like them.”

Slovenian achievements in Nepal alone include new routes up the west ridge of Everest and the south face of 27,824-foot Makalu, solo ascents of the south face of 27,923-foot Lhotse and the west face of Annapurna, and the first complete ski descents of both Annapurna and Mount Everest. Slovenian casualties have piled up as well. Among those who’ve died in the past seven years are Slavc Sveticic, who soloed Annapurna’s west face; Stane Belak, Tomaz’s first mentor; Vanja Furlan, who climbed Nepal’s Ama Dablam with Tomaz; and Janez Jeglic, Tomaz’s partner on Nuptse-until he was blown off the summit.

Tomaz, however, has managed to live through some of the riskiest climbs ever attempted. “At the moment, Humar is the greatest high-altitude climber of the world,” Messner says. “His power is in surviving in very difficult situations on huge walls. What he has done is special. I know these walls, and they are very difficult, especially Dhaulagiri.” When Tomaz flew home from Dhaulagiri, Messner was among the throng of admirers at the Ljubljana airport. He’d come to Slovenia to congratulate the young man who was leading climbing back to its essence.

“The climbs Tomaz has done in the Himalayas in the last five years have set an entirely new standard for danger combined with difficulty-and probably danger before the difficulty,” echoes Ed Webster, 46, whose 1988 four-man ascent of Everest’s east face was as audacious in its day as Dhaulagiri.

“It’s almost a shame when one person alone raises the bar so high, because people might classify him in the freaky, sci-fi category,” says American climber Mark Twight, 40, who specializes in extreme alpine ascents. “Dhaulagiri-I don’t think anyone considered going up it by himself. Climbers are not prepared for that kind of difficulty, in that length of time, in those conditions. The great evolutionary steps in climbing take place because of people expanding their psychological capacity. We can improve our gear and our training, but it doesn’t matter unless you can see with enough clarity what is possible. The rest of us just aren’t seeing what he is.”

So what exactly does Tomaz see? That’s a mystery to everyone. “I’ve climbed Dhaulagiri,” says Buhler. “I know the energy it takes to go up the northeast ridge. The south face-I’ve never been on it. I’ve looked down on it. I’ve climbed with people who have attempted it. My reaction is-OK, you’re standing at the bottom, and you launch yourself up that route. Where did that energy come from? Where did he get that push?”

THE ANSWER STARTS IN KAMNIK. One day Tomaz and I drive into the countryside in his Golf, a gift from a local car dealership. The car’s sides are plastered with his name and likeness, which would be like Madonna tooling around Beverly Hills with her naked body painted on a Porsche. People stare in shock as we pass.

We pull up to a house under construction. An old couple, dressed in neat, well-worn clothes, are puttering around the site-Tomaz’s mother and father, Rozalija and Max.

His father shakes my hand with an unusually strong grip for a short, wiry man in his seventies. I already know the feeling: When Tomaz shakes your hand, your knuckles crack.

The house is being built for one of Tomaz’s younger brothers (he has two, Marjan and Mataj), and the construction crew stands before us: their parents. Trained as a shoemaker, Max Humar has worked construction his entire life, and though he is retired, you wouldn’t know it. I ask him if he has trouble hoisting the 60-pound cinder blocks that the house is being built with.

“No, why would I?” the old man replies. “I get more pleasure from working than lying on a beach. I never sit around the house. That’s for people who are sick.”

Max Humar knew hunger and misery during World War II. In 1967, before he was married, he escaped the Iron Curtain by fleeing over the rugged Kamnik Alps to Austria, but changed his mind once he arrived, turned himself in to the Austrian police, and was sent home. Humar has always expected his children to work hard. When houses were built for family or friends, the boys pitched in, lugging 100-pound sacks of cement.

I’m shown photos of a boy on a scaffold.

“I was seven years old,” Tomaz says.

“You were six,” his father replies, sternly.

“Was he a good worker?” I ask.

“He never complained,” his father says.

I ask if it was odd for six-year-olds to work construction.

“It was normal,” Max says. “We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t pay for workers. That’s what children are for.”

He turns to Tomaz. “What kind of question was that?”

Tomaz shrugs.

Tomaz and his brothers slept in an unheated attic room, sharing a pull-out sofa. Their mother tells me that her sons could sleep in the living room only if the outside temperature fell below 14 degrees. “So what if they were cold?” his dad says.

These days Tomaz admires his father, but they used to be at war. “He wanted me to be a normal guy, and I wanted to be free,” Tomaz tells me later. “We didn’t talk. He would work, and when he wasn’t working we would fight. So better not to talk.”

Fury has its uses. Tomaz blew off steam in the Kamnik Alps. The angry young man joined the Kamnik Alpine Club in 1987, climbing under Bojan Pollak, a legendary instructor and a stickler for detail. In his first year, Tomaz was not permitted to wear climbing shoes; he graduated from sneakers to clunky boots weighing several pounds apiece. Pollak sent him on overnight climbs without a sleeping bag, without enough water or food, and insisted he bivouac on the most exposed ledge.

In 1989, when Tomaz was 20, his apprenticeship was interrupted by the Yugoslav National Army, which sent him to Kosovo. At the time, the province was under Serb control, though 90 percent of its inhabitants were ethnic Albanians who despised Serb rule. Tomaz served a brutal and rotten enterprise that he knew was brutal and rotten, and he tried to desert many times.

His description of those thwarted escapes is convoluted, because Tomaz is not a linear individual; he jumps back and forth from one idea to another, one time to another. He spoke of hiding in a ditch and being found out, of hiding in a latrine, of being stuck in a trench with a chronic masturbator, of threatening an officer, of his commander telling him, “You’re never going home, coward, you’re mine for the rest of your life.”

But after a year, Tomaz was given permission to go. He walked to a Kosovo train station in moldy, maggot-ridden combat gear and begged a ticket out. “When I came home I was a real animal,” he told me. “OK, I was not normal before, but after Kosovo I was a total fool.”

“What do you mean?”

“Before army, I was an unusual guy,” he said. “The army made me more unusual.”

This time, when Tomaz escaped to the hills, he climbed alone, at a blistering pace, opening new routes, stealing his father’s hammer to pound pitons. He climbed beyond the supervising gaze of wiser alpinists like Pollak.

“I did some crazy things in those times,” Tomaz says. “Crazier than Dhaulagiri.”

TOMAZ GOT HIS FIRST SHOT at the Himalayas in 1994. He was 25, and had been married since 1991 to Sergeja Jersin, whom he’d met after Kosovo. Their daughter, Ursa, was two years old.
The expedition was to Ganesh V, a technically difficult 22,920-foot peak in Nepal, and was led by Slovenian legend Stane Belak. Only two climbers summited: Belak and Tomaz. Belak became Tomaz’s first Himalayan mentor-until the next year, when he died in an avalanche in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.

It was Tomaz’s next expedition, to Annapurna I in 1995, that made his name. He reached Camp 3, at 21,325 feet, with Mexican climber Carlos Carsolio and Davo and Drejc Karnicar, Slovenian brothers making a first descent on skis. But there wasn’t enough food for everyone, and the Karnicars, with greater seniority, preferred to summit with Carsolio. Tomaz was disgusted but followed orders and went down.

At base camp he fumed and gained permission from the expedition leader, Slovenian Tone Skarja, to make another summit bid. His climbing partner fell ill and turned around, but just before nightfall, in whiteout conditions, Tomaz and Arjun Sherpa found Camp 4 at 24,000 feet. Then a storm nearly swept the tent away. Forget about the summit, Skarja ordered. Get down.

Tomaz switched off the radio. The next morning he headed for the top. After 100 yards, Arjun turned back-another storm was bearing down. Tomaz continued, alone, plowing through waist-high snowdrifts, to the 26,504-foot summit.

The Slovenian climbing world realized a prodigy was born-a kid who could keep up with Belak on Ganesh and who could summit Annapurna on his own. But the kid had a problem. You don’t disobey Tone Skarja. Bolting for the top was like a rookie quarterback telling Vince Lombardi to go to hell.

Tomaz knew he wasn’t a team player, and he wasn’t especially worried about it. The next year, 1996, he and another Slovenian upstart, Vanja Furlan, decided to try a first ascent of the 5,400-foot northwest face of 22,493-foot Ama Dablam. Their ascent, says Ed Webster, was “outlandish.” At one point Furlan fell, but after 15 feet was saved by Tomaz’s belay. The next day the bag that held their ice gear fell away-gone. Now the only way was up. The radio didn’t work well enough for them to understand directions from base camp, so they climbed blind. Tomaz climbed without gloves; the holds were too fine to do otherwise. The two climbed much of the way unroped, because roping would have slowed them down. They made it in five days.

Tomaz had joined the elite of a very elite world, and both the risks and potential costs had escalated. While Tomaz was climbing Ama Dablam, Sergeja gave birth to a boy, on April 26. When Tomaz junior was just a few months old, Tomaz received word that Vanja Furlan had fallen to his death in the Julian Alps.
TOMAZ’S CLIMBS are so stunning that it’s hard to find a logical explanation for them. He says it’s simple-his spirituality makes the difference. “Every rock face breathes life with its lungs and emanates an energy that is proper only to itself,” he writes in No Impossible Ways. “You feel this energy in particular when you climb the face.” On Dhaulagiri, he says, he talked to the mountain and the mountain talked to him. When he put his hand on its flank he felt a pulse, and he knew, even before a serac fell, that it was going to fall. The mountain warned him.

Tomaz’s first true spiritual test came on the Nepalese peak Nuptse. After Ama Dablam, Tomaz soloed the northwest face of Nepal’s 22,336-foot Bobaye and then climbed two more Nepalese peaks: 20,075-foot Lobuche East with Carlos Carsolio, by now his favorite partner, and 23,494-foot Pumori, with Carsolio and Slovenians Marjan Kovac and Janez Jeglic. Jeglic was considered the country’s best climber, and he and Tomaz cooked up an ambitious plan to establish a new route up 25,770-foot Nuptse, straight up the 8,200-foot west face.

They left base camp on October 27, 1997, and after two days were within 3,200 feet of the summit. They hacked out a tiny ledge and pitched their tent in a storm. That night, Tomaz woke up with a headache that felt like an anvil had landed on his forehead, which was strange. He never got altitude headaches. He turned on his headlamp and discovered that the tent had collapsed under avalanched snow; his head was being crushed.

Tomaz and Jeglic also made the unfortunate discovery that their stove had a gas leak. With that vital piece of equipment falling apart, they decided to make a lunge for the summit-3,200 feet up the wall, 3,200 feet down, in one quick push. They began their assault at four in the morning, climbing unroped on separate paths-simultaneous solos. By mid-morning, at 24,600 feet, they were together again. Base camp radioed that storm clouds were approaching from Everest in the west; a strong gale was already flailing the ridge.

“Let’s climb until two,” Tomaz told Jeglic. “If we make it to the top, we take pictures and then step on it and get down.”

Jeglic reached the summit first and waved his ice ax. Thirty minutes later, Tomaz arrived. The winds were huge, and Jeglic (whom Humar often referred to by his nickname, Johan) was nowhere in sight.

“I’m met by the gale and footprints leading toward the south side of the ridge,” Tomaz recalled, “but no Johan. Maybe he’s gone to have a look around. I follow his tracks, cursing and grumbling: Where does he think he’s going in this weather? The gale is blowing in gusts when I reach the last footprints. I collapse on the ground. No trace of him anywhere. He just disappeared. I start bellowing into the hurricane force wind: Johan! Johan!”

There was no answer: Jeglic had been blown off the top.

Tomaz was distraught and disoriented. His mates in base camp pleaded with him to get off the summit. But he’d lost his goggles. The cold had destroyed the batteries in his headlamp. He was alone, in the dark, without his partner, lost in a maze of ice and rocks. His throat filled with phlegm and blood.

Base camp blared music over the radio-anything to keep Tomaz awake as he hacked blindly down the 3,000 vertical feet with ice ax and crampons, craning into the void for the tiny spot that might be his tent. Eleven hours later, he found it and collapsed. He tried to light the stove, but couldn’t. He dozed off, and woke surrounded by flames-the stove had worked after all. His tent and sleeping bag were half gone.

Two days later, Tomaz struggled off the face. But the ordeal wasn’t over. In Slovenia, he was seen as a villain in the eyes of many climbers, who blamed him for Jeglic’s death. The beloved hero had died; the dangerous upstart had lived.

Tomaz is still controversial among many of Slovenia’s climbing elite, who regard him as too interested in publicity and not as skilled as he would have people believe. He does not attend meetings at the Kamnik Alpine Club, nor does he sit on its governing board.

“Tomaz presents himself like a kind of god, or a person who has personal contact with some spirits who are preserving him,” says Marko Prezelj, 36, a top Slovenian climber who heads the club. “If you think like that and climb like that, either you really have contact with ghosts or you have a lot of luck.”

Beyond a curt hello, Tomaz is not on speaking terms with Prezelj. He thinks the falling-out he’s had with other Slovenian climbers began the moment Jeglic was swept off Nuptse.
“His death was like cutting off my arm,” Tomaz told me. “We talked a lot about our climb. We knew how dangerous it was. I said, ‘Janez, if I die on Nuptse don’t think about being guilty for me, and I will do the same.’”

Tomaz pauses.

“Janez was the god of climbing.”

Another pause.

“They think the wrong man came back from Nuptse.”

I’VE BEEN HANGING OUT with Tomaz for nearly two weeks, and he has not stopped talking. He talks about his father, Kamnik, George Bush, environmentalism, abortion, Dhaulagiri, meditation, war, food, wine, Yosemite, hang-gliding, paragliding, Slobodan Milosevic, country music, the Internet, pitons, and prosciutto. If we are in the car and I happen to fall asleep, he nudges me awake to tell me more.

I’ve come to realize that being with Tomaz is not unlike hanging out with a hyperactive child. One day we watch an unemployed electrician demonstrate a new sport he has created-“stone skiing”-on a slope of cast-off pebbles from a cement factory. Another afternoon we set off on a bike ride and end up at the home of Tomaz’s reflexologist, Jana Prezelj, a plump and jolly woman he calls his “spiritual mother.” The evening that ensues involves prodigious quantities of wine and schnapps, a guy singing and playing a tuba, the reflexologist standing on her head and clapping with her feet, and her husband playing a didgeridoo, the wooden horn used by the Australian aborigines, as Tomaz throws open his arms, tilts his head back, and lets the vibes seep into his heart chakra.

But there are times when the solitary Tomaz emerges. One afternoon he leads me to a lookout tower in the Kamnik Alps. It’s a rickety wooden thing, but it soars above the trees and gives us a clear, 360-degree view of the rock faces around us. Wind shakes the tower, but Tomaz stands with his hands on his hips, like a commander in a barrage.

“The higher I am, the more comfortable I feel,” he says, his voice echoing. “I don’t really start breathing until 5,000 meters. I need the air. I’m an Aquarius-a man who needs to be free.”

On the way home, Tomaz and I stop off at a nearby pub, where we find two of his climbing buddies, Robert Policnik and Damjan Kochar, both in their midtwenties. Beers are ordered, and after a few rounds Tomaz and Damjan drift off to the men’s room and I hear loud voices. Damjan is one of the best sport climbers in Kamnik-better than Tomaz, though he doesn’t have Tomaz’s intensity or his spirituality. Apparently that’s what they’re discussing in the men’s room-more precisely, it’s what Tomaz is lecturing loudly about while Damjan listens.

Damjan’s flaw, if it can be described that way, is that he prefers to be attached to a rope and to climb with a partner. Policnik-Poli, as he’s known-has the long arms of a spider, and it’s easy to imagine him scaling a Himalayan face. I ask why Tomaz climbed Dhaulagiri and he didn’t.

Poli stares at his beer for a long time.

“Tomaz is…” He stares deeper at his beer.

“I can’t find the word.” He smiles. “Tomaz is vicious.”

“Aren’t you vicious?” I ask.

“Small vicious,” he replies.

“Would you like to be vicious like Tomaz?”

The beer stare again. “It’s suicide, almost.”

When Tomaz decided to solo the south face of Dhaulagiri, even Bojan Pollak worried. One afternoon, Tomaz and I idle away a few hours with his old instructor, drinking homemade blueberry schnapps outside a mountaintop cabin. A bee has just dive-bombed into Tomaz’s glass, and he downs the contents in a single gulp, leaving the drunken bee. It’s classic Tomaz-pulling off something only he could do, and finishing with a loud laugh, as if to say, “And you doubted me?”

Tomaz reveres Pollak’s judgment, because Pollak, now 58, is steady and thoughtful. “Tomaz knows himself better than we do,” Pollak says. “We can’t tell him not to go. If we told him not to go, he might lose confidence, and that could be dangerous.”

He looks at Tomaz and smiles.

“But Tomaz did not ask if we thought he should go. He said he would go. We gave him only a 50-50 chance to survive Dhaulagiri. We trusted him, but not nature.”

Later, I ask Tomaz if he was surprised by Pollak’s odds.

“I think it was less,” he replies. “Maybe 20 percent.”

And once more, the laugh.

THE CALL FROM DHAULAGIRI came in spring 1999. Tomaz was hanging around Kamnik, enjoying his life, and then it hit him.
“I could not believe it at first, but the call grew stronger with every passing day,” he recalls in No Impossible Ways. “It was at the same time the most terrifying and the most blissful moment of my mountaineering career, a moment I had been waiting for these last five years. Dhaula had finally called, and I knew I had to mount the expedition that same fall.”

For Tomaz, it would be a one-way ticket: He’d either make it to the top and down an easier route, or perish. It would be impossible to downclimb over the face’s ice seracs. Three doctors refused to join his support team; they didn’t want to watch a suicide by climbing. Tomaz himself cried as he left his kids.

The trip seemed more farce than expedition. A feud with the Alpine Association of Slovenia had frozen Tomaz out of funding, so his main sponsor, the Slovenian cell-phone company Mobitel, picked up the tab. Most of his gear got stuck in the Vienna airport; when he got to Dhaulagiri to begin his acclimatization on September 26, he realized he had not brought enough food. The weather was atrocious; storm after storm hit the area, costing two of the world’s best climbers their lives-Alex Lowe, on 26,291-foot Shishapangma on October 5, and Briton Ginette Harrison on Dhaulagiri itself on October 24.

Tomaz started climbing on October 25. He went to a shrine to pray, then walked to the bottom of the south face with his old friend Stipe Bozic, 51, Croatia’s top climber, who would stay at base camp to film the ascent. As the two parted ways, an avalanche roared down the main couloir of the face.

His pack weighed more than 110 pounds-food, stove, fuel, pitons, carabiners, sleeping bag, slings, and a five-millimeter rope, just 148 feet long, which would be used not for self-belay but to move his gear. The only luxury he allowed himself was one of his son’s sneakers, clipped with a carabiner to his pack.

Progress was slow the first 24 hours, despite a full moon. Icicles broke from seracs, pummeling him; cold water flowed down cracks, soaking him; avalanches forced him to squeeze against the face. He named the seracs that hung like daggers above him-Guillotine, Praying Mantis. On the second day he heard Guillotine crack and flattened himself on the wall as niagaras of ice, rock, and snow hurtled past.

“How are you? Are you OK?” Bozic yelled over the radio.

“You need some adrenaline?” Tomaz replied. “I’ve got a serious surplus here.”

Tomaz’s back and arms became covered in welts and bruises. An ice block crashed into his leg, and he thought it was broken. Blood soaked through his gloves, staining the snow.

On the fifth night, after covering two vertical miles, Tomaz got a toothache. He lay awake most of the night. In the morning, he went to work with his Swiss Army knife, prying a filling from the infected tooth-this, after some minutes spent laboring on the wrong one.

Things became, if possible, worse. A shelf at 23,000 feet forced him to traverse 3,200 feet to the Japanese Ridge (the southeast ridge); he spent a night there at 24,000 feet and in the morning left most of his gear behind and traversed back. At 25,400 feet he actually dry-tooled, unroped, up 600 feet of loose granite, using his ice-ax and crampons to climb the bare rock. He was now within a few hundred meters of the summit. He bivouacked in the open, exposed, at 25,600 feet, on a ledge cut from the ice. For the second night his stove didn’t work; he had no water, little food. He had been on the face for eight days.

Try to imagine that bivouac. You are alone, breathing air so thin that it’s slowly killing you; you’re without tent or stove; your body is a frostbitten and dehydrated bruise; you’re beyond rescue. How do you survive, not just physically, but mentally?

Tomaz’s answer: “We can control our heartbeat, which in cold, drawn-out bivouacs is preferably as slow as possible,” he writes in his book. “It is necessary to disconnect the arms and the legs and draw most of one’s blood into the core of the body and the head. We switch to other dimensions. We become insensitive to pain, cold, wind, homesickness, thirst, hunger. Instead of having dinner we separate from the physical world. But the further you go into the world where there are no reasons or consequences, points of the compass, time points like yesterday or today, where you only are-the harder it is to return. The reentry into the body is usually accompanied by pain.”

On the ninth day, November 2, waking up at 25,600 feet, he struggled toward the summit. He took off his pack and filled his pockets with essentials-radio, camera, energy bars, one ice screw, one sling, the map of his descent route, family photos, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and his son’s little shoe.

The weather worsened. Over the radio, base camp read messages of encouragement that Slovenians were sending to his Web site,, which was getting nearly two million hits a day. But then Bozic, who knew that even Tomaz has limits, got on the radio. “No one has ever done that before,” he said, referring to Tomaz’s solo route. “It’s time to start thinking about descending.”

Tomaz looked up at the summit, where a gale was gathering force. He took out a photograph of his son and, in his exhausted, depleted state, clearly saw young Tomaz crooking his finger out of the picture, saying, “Come home, Daddy.”

“At that moment,” he writes, “I realize in a flash: You’re going to die! If you go on, you’re going to die.” He turned around.

“For the first time in my life, I realize that if I’m pig-headed, the end is waiting for me at the top,” Tomaz recalls in his book. “Dhaula had let me have the face but not the summit.”

TOMAZ’S ASCENT OF DHAULAGIRI WAS, as mountaineers say, not a climb for a married man. One day I sat with Tomaz and Sergeja in the family living room, surrounded by the spiritual tokens of their lives-crystals, Buddhist sculptures, figurines of the Virgin Mary, a picture of Indian guru Sai Baba. Tomaz interpreted when Sergeja had trouble finding the right word in English, and, being Tomaz, he jumped in with questions of his own.

Sergeja is, if anything, more spiritual than Tomaz. She has walked on burning coals, which Tomaz won’t do. She speaks in a dreamy, Sissy Spacek way, and when I asked what seemed a natural question-isn’t it rather difficult to be married to Tomaz?-she replied that it was hard in the first few years but now it’s different.

“I need this,” she said. “He’s my therapy. Hard therapy. I chose him as Jesus chose the cross. By carrying this cross, I grow spiritually. I can’t grow without it.”

Surely life would be easier with a normal guy?

“I would die,” she replied. “I would rather not be married.”

Sergeja sees things before Tomaz does. She knew, after Dhaulagiri, that a disaster was in the offing. Tomaz was a hero: The phone rang constantly, and Tomaz, who sees life as a big candy store, could never say no. Everyone wanted to know what he would climb next. Sergeja feared for his life, knowing he would push harder on the next climb. There is a law of nature in the climbing world-no individual or nation can remain the best forever, because the more you try to accomplish, the more likely it is that you will die. Sergeja knows this. The man she lived with before Tomaz, Danilo Golob, was killed climbing.

When Tomaz fell into the construction pit, he didn’t imagine any good would come of it. Sergeja knew better. It forced him to stop and think. Among the surprising things that have happened, his bond with his father has changed from spite to admiration, because Tomaz realized that the salt-of-the-earth stubbornness he despised in his father is the same thing that gets him up a mountain face.

“The fall was a gift for Tomaz,” Sergeja said. “On the third day when he was in the hospital, I told him that it was a gift. He didn’t understand. But we both knew it would happen. He had to fall into darkness to see the light again.”

“Yes, yes,” Tomaz said.

He turned to her.

“What do you think? Will I climb again?”

“Certainly,” Sergeja replied.

She looked at me.

“He must go. He must live for this. If you really love something, you must be ready to die for it.”

WE ARE A FEW HUNDRED YARDS from the base of Rzenik. Tomaz turns left, off the rockfall, and crutches up a small hill. The last 50 yards is steep and covered with loose grass, and the crutches are useless, so Tomaz throws them aside. He pulls himself forward, crawling now.

He is grunting like an angry bull. As clods of earth dislodge in his hands, he throws them away, wildly; one hits me in the face. I don’t know what’s fueling him, whether it’s the pain in his legs or the frustration of being reduced to crawling up a little hill, but the mental switch has been flipped.

We reach the top, which offers a clear view of Rzenik. It is not a classically beautiful mountain, with a well-defined peak, but it has a multitude of cracks and crevasses and ledges, a lifetime of problems for a young climber.

Tomaz is quiet. The silence lasts ten minutes, an eternity.

“This is my starting point, my meditation place,” he finally says. “Here I get all the answers. Here the Himalayan voices called me. Here I taught myself everything. And when I come back here after the Himalayas, I see nothing has changed. I am still like this”-he places his forefinger next to his thumb-“small. And this place is still huge. When you ask where I get my power, that’s it.” He points at the mountain.

He talks a bit more, but the day is ending and the wind is picking up. It is time to head down. Tomaz grimaces as he stands, and he is unsteady. Everyone wants to know if he will climb again. At the moment, he is learning to walk.

The lure of the Himalayas is still with Tomaz Humar. There are so many faces out there, and who knows which one will call out to him at night. Two months after our Rzenik climb, Tomaz headlined at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, North America’s premiere showcase of adventure documentaries. He’d thrown away his crutches, defying doctor’s orders, and was hobbling around with his old friend Carlos Carsolio. Ed Webster was there, too; it was the first time he’d met Tomaz, and so he showed him his Everest memoir, Snow in the Kingdom, which included pictures of the north face of Lhotse, a 10,000-foot vertical that’s never been climbed, never even been attempted. Tomaz called Carsolio over. “Carlos, look at this,” he said. “I told you this would go, I told you this could be climbed.”

Webster was amazed. “Tomaz immediately began picking out the weaknesses of the route and the exact time of day that you’d need to go through each area,” Webster says. “He was ecstatic that here was one of the great walls that hadn’t been climbed and that he could do it. I was just shaking my head that here was a climber who had a scary combination of the vision and the technical ability to pull it off. That was when he looked over at me and gave me one of those piercing looks and said, ‘This is a one-way-ticket climb.’”

For now, one-way-tickets are a long way off. This spring I caught up with Tomaz on the phone, and he was with his best childhood friend, Tomo Drolec. They had just finished a climb and were laughing about it, and Tomaz said that it was time for a beer or two. He had started ice climbing a few months earlier, he explained, and now he was rock climbing, too. He said that he would climb a 1,000-foot wall in a few days.

“It’s great,” he said. “Nobody expected that I would recover so quickly…and I am surprised, honestly I am. I was really scared, especially with ice, about what would happen. The first few times when I tried climbing it was quite painful for me, in the bones and tendons. But after a few times the progress was really quick. Now it’s perfect.”

So Tomaz is back. Not back where he was after Dhaulagiri, but back where he started-climbing outside Kamnik with his best friend, having fun, drinking beer, the future unknown. Will he become strong enough to climb in the Himalayas? Will he want to? Should he want to? Should we want him to?

“Actually,” Tomaz says, “I am preparing for something, but even my wife, she doesn’t know. Right now I am in very good shape. On ice I feel great, and once again on rock.” Soon he and Bozic would be heading to Mexico to visit Carsolio.

“That will be a new beginning,” he says. “We’ll drink tequila and wear sombreros. We will take some shots for a movie and climb, and we will talk about the future. I’m alive again.”

Gul Agha Gets His Province Back

The New York Times Magazine  |  January 6, 2002
It’s kissing the ring, cash stuffed in envelopes and bloody lawlessness again in Kandahar. The warlord has returned.

Gul Agha Shirzai was the governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990’s, an infamous period filled with anarchy that was shocking even by Afghan standards. Gul Agha was personally acquainted with the ethos of those times. In 1989, his father, who had joined the jihad after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and became a respected commander and Pashtun tribal leader, was murdered by a cook who slipped arsenic into his lunch. Avenging the crime, Gul Agha tied the cook to a tree, shot him with a Kalashnikov and hung his shredded corpse from a branch for a week.

When the United States government went shopping last fall for someone to lead an army into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Gul Agha re-emerged as America’s go-to warlord. He had spent seven years in luxurious exile in Pakistan, waiting for a chance to get rid of the black-turbaned Taliban mullahs who’d gotten rid of him. In early November, he slipped into Afghanistan with a ragtag army of 1,500 Afghan fighters and joined up in the border village of Shinarai with a honed unit of a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers who arrived in helicopters at night. In the days that followed, weapons arrived after dark, too, falling to earth in wood crates shoved from the bellies of American military aircraft. The crates, attached to parachutes, contained Kalashnikov assault rifles, serrated steel bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades, and they were collected outside Shinarai by the Special Forces troops who gave them to Gul Agha.

A day before his march on Kandahar began, Gul Agha assembled his newly weaponized fighters by a stream outside Shinarai. The first speeches were delivered by local mullahs who urged a just war that would bring freedom to the Pashtun-dominated southern chunk of Afghanistan still held by the Taliban. Gul Agha, the last to speak, ordered his men not to take revenge on Taliban soldiers who surrendered—they were mostly Pashtuns, too, after all. But Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda should receive no mercy, he said, because they brought ruin to the nation.

He wasn’t finished.

“If I find somebody who takes revenge on Afghans, or who indulges in looting or something illegal,” he added, “I promise you that in times of war I get very excited, and I will shoot you.”

He turned to the mullahs at his side.

“If I shoot soldiers violating my rules, would that be sinful?”

The mullahs could not respond quick enough.

“Shoot them, shoot them on sight,” they advised.

It is unwise to believe everything, or anything, a warlord tells you in Afghanistan, but when Gul Agha threatens violence, he is a man of his word. One of his commanders recited for me a variety of insults Gul Agha shouts at soldiers who do not please him, but the curses are just a warmup.

“When he’s really angry,” the commander smiled, “he doesn’t say much. He just punches.”

This is a key difference between Gul Agha and Hamid Karzai, the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. The United States government, seeking a Westernized Pashtun to boot the Taliban from Kandahar, assigned a larger number of Special Forces soldiers to Karzai, and far earlier, than to Gul Agha; Karzai was even whisked into the country in an American helicopter, whisked out again when he got into trouble, then whisked back in. But Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who speaks fluent English, had never commanded anything grander than a government driver, and he rarely visited the front lines. His troops, based north of Kandahar, never reached the city.

Today it may appear, from titles alone, that Hamid Karzai is the leader of Afghanistan. Actually, he is a figurehead, chosen at the behest of United States officials. Afghan delegates at the conference in Bonn that selected the government have told reporters they voted for Karzai only because American officials instructed them to. Karzai’s largest following is in Washington, not Afghanistan.

That’s why, after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is in the callused hands of men like Gul Agha—veteran warlords who know and care more about power and money than about human rights or civil society. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who switched sides so many times in the past decades that he gave betrayal a bad name, is back in power in Mazar-i-Sharif and has shown little regard for Karzai. Ismail Khan, another pre-Taliban leader, has returned to Herat and does not wake up in the morning waiting for orders from Kabul. Other regions are divvied up among smaller warlords, and most are doing what Gul Agha is doing—mouthing politically correct words of fealty to Karzai but treating him as little more than a delivery boy for aid checks the United States and its allies have pledged to write.

“Is lunch ready?”

Gul Agha is hungry. After a monthlong march on Kandahar, he has captured the Taliban’s spiritual capital, and now, a few days after he entered the city in a Toyota Land Cruiser, it is time for his midday meal.

“Not yet,” replies a bodyguard in military fatigues.

“Then go and prepare it,” Gul Agha orders. “We must have lunch.”

The new governor of Kandahar Province is a large man of large appetites, not just for food, but for battle and laughter and power. He speaks in a rough growl, as if his mouth is full, which it often is, but even when it isn’t, his words are slurred, like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” The absence of a front tooth or two only partly explains matters.

He sits cross-legged on a patio at a military barracks opposite the governor’s office building that people call the “palace”—a palace he has vacated for the day because several hundred anti-tank mines and tank shells are being removed from its roof. The fleeing Taliban planned to detonate the munitions once he moved in, but an informer blew up the plot to blow up the new governor.

Today’s luncheon involves 20-odd merchants and elders, gathered alongside and opposite Gul Agha. I am seated on his left. We are soon served chicken in mustard sauce, as well as rice and nan, the oblong Afghan bread, all of which we eat with our fingers, as is customary. Hefty and ravenous, Gul Agha does not cut a pretty sight while feeding.

A man walks up, looking for a spot on the floor. Gul Agha eyes him and says, “Take off your shoes,” and addresses him with an insult to him and his mother.

The shoes vanish in a split-second shuffle, and everyone laughs, including Gul Agha, who uses profanity as a way of saying hello. With his audience assembled and warmed up, it is time to talk about his favorite subject: war.

“When the enemy attacks,” Gul Agha begins, “I fight them face to face. I do not hide behind my soldiers. When I came into the Kandahar airport, we were in four cars, and I was in the first car. The Arabs came at us. I told my soldiers that anyone who runs is a [see insult above]. I took out my Kalashnikov and killed three Arabs. When my soldiers saw that I killed three Arabs, they were encouraged and jumped from their cars and ran at the Arabs. We killed 18 Arabs at the gate of the airport.”

His version of events may not be precisely true; perhaps he killed only one Arab, perhaps none. But the essence of what he says is correct. I talked with dozens of his commanders and soldiers, and all said admiringly that Gul Agha leads from the front, not the rear. They also spoke admiringly of his bullying; Afghan fighters may have a tough reputation, but in truth they are not reliable and are prone to fighting among themselves or preying upon civilians, especially if they are thrown together as hastily as Gul Agha’s army. Without a commander willing to kill his own men, battles cannot be won in Afghanistan.

Khalid Pashtun, who lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is Gul Agha’s chief adviser, says he believes that the man he serves is a great warrior and that perhaps the man Gul Agha is supposed to serve is not. “Mr. Karzai was in Uruzgan Province for two months,” Pashtun explained to me. Uruzgan Province lies just north of Kandahar Province. “But he didn’t have the guts to get close to Kandahar.”

So in Kandahar, as in the rest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone and the warlords are back, and the last time they were in charge the country slipped into a horrid civil war to which the hand-chopping, head-chopping Taliban were the puritanical solution. And right now the biggest warlord of them all is sitting at my side, blowing his nose into the tail of his turban. Gul Agha is ready to tell another story.

“Mullah Omar said, ‘I want to fight Gul Agha once because I have heard about him a lot, and I want to see if he is a good fighter.’ I said, ‘I will give you a knife, and I will have a knife, and we will be alone, face to face, and we’ll see which [that expletive, again] will shout first”—and once more, the insult involving one’s mother.

The Special Forces soldiers who were with Gul Agha had two tasks: coordinate airdrops of supplies and coordinate airstrikes. The second task was more crucial, because without the firepower of the United States Air Force, Gul Agha and his soldiers would not have gotten out of Shinarai.

The Americans lived and worked closely with Gul Agha, according to several senior commanders of his who used, in separate interviews, the same phrase—“shoulder to shoulder.” The soldiers pitched their tents next to Gul Agha’s tent, or shared rooms in the same compound, and frequently ate with him. The campaign’s military strategy was dictated by the Americans—Gul Agha’s troops would probe forward, drawing Taliban fire, then retreat so that American fighter jets could attack the newly revealed Taliban positions.

Initially, Gul Agha was nervous about the Americans—how would his troops react to foreigners in their midst? Might that cause trouble? As things turned out, according to Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to Gul Agha, the opposite was true—whenever the Americans slipped from view, as happened when they went to the front lines or met a helicopter bringing supplies or new personnel, the rank-and-file would get nervous that the Americans were abandoning the fight.

“Our soldiers became so enthusiastic about the Americans, they would say, when they weren’t around, ‘Where are the Americans?”’ Pashtun explained. “We told them they were resting, that it was not fighting time.”

There were three key battles—at the Kandahar airport, at the strategic town of Takhteh Pol and at a village called Potaki. The battle at Potaki was the first, and it occurred because Gul Agha was double-crossed.

It is acceptable in Afghan warfare for commanders to switch sides for the right price, and after an appropriate payment was made to secure the loyalty of several hundred Taliban troops near Potaki, they fell in line behind Gul Agha’s men—and promptly opened fire on them.

Gul Agha, along with his Special Forces friends, was encircled: mountains on either side, Taliban in front and back. The terrain was typical of southern Afghanistan—dusty, arid, nothing for an army to hide behind. But the Special Forces team knew what to do: they quickly called in airstrikes on the Taliban positions, which were shredded by American fighter jets.

The precision and devastation of the attack was magic to Daro Khan, another of Gul Agha’s commanders. (In Gul Agha’s army, there are only the ranks of commander and soldier.) I met Khan at a Kandahar medical school where his 100 soldiers were billeted; judging from the distinct aroma in the room, some of his men had been smoking hashish, which is the equivalent, among Gul Agha’s fighters, to G.I.‘s downing a beer at the end of the day.

“Without the bombing we would have been finished,” Khan recalled. “But when the Americans bombed we were able to counterattack and break free. We killed many Arabs and Talibs.”

Khan, who has a full beard and a bald head and a loose tongue (he talked about killing captured Arabs), evoked the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy when he described looking through night-vision goggles for the first time; an American soldier had asked him to figure out whether a vehicle in the distance was friendly. (It was.) “I didn’t know these things existed,” Khan said.

As much as he admires Gul Agha, he credits the fall of Kandahar to a greater power.

“Give me 50 soldiers, and with the help of American bombing I could capture all of Afghanistan in a week,” he said.

But in Afghanistan you need more than smart bombs to win a war; you need cash. You need to pay fighters so they won’t loot, you need to buy food so they won’t steal it and you need to purchase gas for their 4-by-4’s. Most crucially, you need cash to entice enemy commanders and soldiers to switch sides, as Gul Agha thought he had done at Potaki.

The going rate last fall was several thousand dollars for a midlevel commander and as little as $30 a head for soldiers, in Pakistani rupees. Also, Gul Agha did not imprison surrendering Afghans; he gave them pocket money and told them to go home.

Muhammad Anwar seemed a good bet to know where the money was coming from. Anwar is a commander in Gul Agha’s army and one of his best friends; in calm moments during the march on Kandahar, the two men indulged in their favorite form of tension reduction—wrestling each other.

I met Anwar at his headquarters in Kandahar—a two-story building without windows, carpets, chairs, lights or decorations of any sort, except for mold on the walls and crates of grenades on the floor. He would not tell me how much cash Gul Agha spent, or who supplied it—no prizes for guessing that one—but he said Gul Agha had the foresight to bring rupees rather than dollars, the currency with which the hapless Hamid Karzai paid his inch-a-day men, even though merchants in rural Uruzgan Province would not accept greenbacks.

“We brought a car of cash with us,” Anwar said. “It was a Land Cruiser, full of money. I think it was resupplied too.”

During the march on Kandahar, Gul Agha’s wallet was a Toyota.

After the battle of Takhteh Pol, which cut a crucial road between Kandahar and Pakistan, Gul Agha moved on Kandahar’s airport; capture that, and you have the city in your hands. The airport, however, was defended by several hundred Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda who could not be seduced by Toyota money.

The battle was fierce and involved heavy American airstrikes that were coordinated by the Special Forces troops. When journalists first asked questions, Gul Agha’s commanders confirmed that they were under orders from Gul Agha to execute Al Qaeda fighters who surrendered at the airport, and had done so. Once they realized it is not acceptable for soldiers who are fighting alongside the Special Forces to engage in such behavior or, at least, to tell journalists about it, the commanders and Gul Agha insisted they didn’t harm P.O.W.‘s at the airport.

It was at the airport that Gul Agha had his Hollywood moment. The fighting was nearly finished; just a few pops of gunfire here and there, a whoosh or two of rocket-propelled grenades in the distance. Gul Agha, as usual, had been at the front line all the time, rushing from commander to commander, making sure everyone was doing his job, which was killing. As the battle died down, he stood near the battered terminal building, surrounded by more than 20 Arab corpses heaped on the ground like bloody rag dolls, and, according to several commanders, savored his success.

“Look!” he shouted happily to his fighters, like a real-estate agent drawing attention to a great view. “Look at the Arabs now. They controlled our country but now they are destroyed. Look at them!” It was like Robert Duvall, in “Apocalypse Now,” loving the smell of napalm in the morning.

With the airport in Gul Agha’s hands, the Taliban needed to flee Kandahar. They made a hasty deal to surrender the city to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a onetime commander who was on friendly terms with them. Mullah Naqib Ullah, in turn, would support Karzai. It’s not clear whether Gul Agha was part of the deal or whether he was being cut out, or what role the United States might have played, but Gul Agha’s forces rushed from the airport to the dusty city and captured it without firing a shot on Dec. 7. The Taliban were finished; Gul Agha was the victor.

A few days later, Gul Agha was in sultan mode, enthroned on a plastic chair in the reception hall of the governor’s office building, which is in the center of a city built, principally, of mud. Above him, there were vaulted ceilings and murals that had been whitewashed by the Taliban because they portrayed famous Afghan leaders of the past; Gul Agha’s men had un-whitewashed the murals. The floor was covered by new carpets (the old ones vanished with the Taliban) upon which legions of supplicants inched forward, waiting to pay their respects to the man who booted Mullah Muhammad Omar out of town. Gul Agha sat behind a knee-high table that held an assortment of nuts, raisins and cookies, and behind him were two bodyguards in military fatigues; at least a dozen more wandered through the crowd.

Gul Agha was multitasking, shaking one man’s hand as his other hand was being kissed by someone else, and during this he spoke to a third man and might have embraced a fourth. Everyone wanted to see him, touch him, hear him, but most of all, I suspect, they wanted the cash that was inside the envelopes he was handing out. At times, a warlord must be an A.T.M.

“You are all like thieves,” he growled, warmly. “You always want something from me.”

A man came along, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “I have some special news,” and Gul Agha walked off to a corner of the room with him. He returned and pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges for a cigarette break. The commotion continued. An old man approached and leaned forward to hug him; a soldier marched forward in large goose steps and saluted him; a man in a wheelchair rolled front and center. The healthy, the lame, the young, the old—the gathering was biblical in its scope, and in the end, it was too much for Gul Agha, who began sobbing.

“This is my happiest day,” he said between tears that were wiped away with a handkerchief. “I am with my people. I will never have such a day again. For seven years I was in Pakistan. I could not come to my country. Now I will do everything for the nation. I will work for the people.”

It is impossible to enter into another person’s mind, especially if that person is an Afghan warlord, but I think Gul Agha meant what he said—or at the least, he meant it at the moment he said it. His emotions are as large as his girth, and sadness and generosity are not foreign lands to him. But how long will his determination to do good last?

If he becomes a decent leader, it would be a surprising twist in a life full of surprises. He was born into poverty, like most Afghans; his father, who ran a restaurant outside Kandahar, named him Shafeeq. He was not a good student, though he did show an early aptitude for violence. He always carried a knife, according to one of his classmates.

When Gul Agha began fighting under his father he took on his current name, which means “flower.” When his father was poisoned, Gul Agha took on greater responsibilities and added a new name—Shirzai, which means “son of lion.”

But what is on the mind of the lion’s offspring? The United States military would seem to be interested in that question. Special Forces soldiers are never far from Gul Agha’s side—you glimpse them, from time to time, meeting him in back rooms of the palace. And he appears to enjoy their proximity, because America is all-powerful in Afghanistan, at least for now.

Following the American line, Gul Agha says he favors a United Nations peacekeeping force and supports the notion of disarmament, though it is clear he would prefer that weapons be seized from soldiers who are not his own. He knows that there are too many armed men in Afghanistan and that something needs to be done, soon, to prevent a return of pre-Taliban chaos.

That night at the palace, after the tears and the crowd had subsided, I asked Gul Agha why anyone should believe that his new rule will be any less bloody and corrupt than it was the last time, between 1992 and 1994.

“It will never happen again,” he said. “The people of Afghanistan need to reconstruct their country for the future. We will never do what we did in 1992. All my commanders have promised me on the Holy Koran that they will never do evil again. They will work together.”

But the country is already falling apart. The roads between Kandahar and Kabul and Herat are dangerous once again; there are robberies and killings that, under the Taliban, had ceased. Discipline among soldiers is eroding; when I visited a small unit of Gul Agha’s fighters one day, and their commander was away, the fighters demanded money, and I sensed violence in their illiterate minds. I made a quick retreat. Across Afghanistan, bored fighters are a payday away from pillaging.

The destruction of the Taliban has made the United States a safer country, but the same cannot be said for Afghanistan.

Paying for the Powell Doctrine

Dissent  |  January 2002
The illusions and delusions behind 200,000 deaths in Bosnia.

In the early days of the Bosnian War, Colin Powell, who at the time chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the conclusion that stopping the fighting would require the use of 250,000 troops. Then-President George Bush took his advice to heart and, fearing another Vietnam, opted to keep U.S. troops at home, safe and sound. Powell’s estimate seemed reasonable because the fighting in Bosnia was vicious, and under the Powell Doctrine, the U.S. government, when intervening abroad, would rely on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel. You can’t miss with a sledgehammer, Powell believed.

In Washington, few politicians challenged Powell’s judgment. The headlines from Bosnia told stark tales of torture, executions, concentration camps, and sieges. Bosnia was in the grip of genocide, and genocide, as everyone knows, is a massive and infernal machine-Evil and Apocalypse entwined-and it cannot be defeated on the cheap. Americans tend to equate the face of genocide with Adolf Hitler, not Radovan Karadzic. If you want to defeat Hitlerian evil, you must, it follows, amass the forces of D-Day and have a great generation on hand to storm the beaches (or mountains or deserts or jungles, as the case may be). Understandably, few politicians wished to send untold numbers of GIs to an obscure and violent country where it was hard to figure out who was committing genocide against whom and where American blood would seep into soil that contained no oil.

If you were in Bosnia at the time, as I was, the situation would not have appeared so fuzzy. You might have wondered, as I did, where Powell was planning to put all those troops, and what they would do. Genocide is a strange animal; it is monstrous, but not a monster. I met and occasionally shared a glass of brandy with more than a few war criminals in Bosnia, and I learned that these were not brave men and women, and that their numbers were not so immense. Many of the atrocities in the war were committed by paramilitary squads drawn heavily from Serbia’s underworld; these soldiers-I use the word with great caution-were excellent killers of civilians and takers of whatever loot they could find, but they would not have fared well against an army, which, at the beginning of the war, the newly independent Bosnian government did not have. That is why the Serbs were able to seize so much territory at the start-they faced no organized opposition. Once it took shape, Bosnia’s army found itself fighting an uphill battle and suffering from an international arms embargo that starved it of the weapons it needed to mount offensives (or defensives).

The siege of Sarajevo was maintained by heavy weapons and lazy soldiers like Dragisa, who made a point of not volunteering his last name when I visited him in the fall of 1992 at his place of work, a fortified machine-gun nest in the hills above the Bosnian capital. His job, and the job of the three soldiers he worked with, was to fire occasionally at the Sarajevans below them. Their aim was to terrify as much as kill. Return fire was infrequent, more a nuisance than a threat. Dragisa, who had a middle-aged paunch, possessed the high ground as well as a big gun and was surrounded by folded coils of ammunition that evoked the image of a pit of lazy snakes. He made himself comfortable in a cozy bunker with a stove. He was a bully, not a fighter. A few miles up the road from his lair, I visited one of his leaders, Biljana Plavsic. Plavsic is now on trial at The Hague as an architect of Bosnia’s genocide, but in 1992 she operated out of a hotel at the Jahorina ski resort, which was closed for business because of the war. After walking down a maze of empty corridors, I found her alone in a small office, shivering in a winter jacket. There was no heat, no electricity. This was no Berchtesgaden.

That is what Bosnia’s genocide looked like from the inside-cowardly and pathetic. This truth had the misfortune of going against conventional wisdom and political convenience, and so it was ignored or disbelieved for far too long. “The Serbs are not ten-foot-tall headhunters who would fight to the last drop of blood,” an American diplomat in Zagreb told me one day. “Why don’t we bomb targets in Bosnia and Serbia? My God, what are we paying $200 billion a year for-what is our military for? If you define our army as a force that won’t risk taking casualties, then we don’t have an army. We have Boy Scouts.” A few hours later, the diplomat called and asked that I not use the quote, even though, as he knew, I would not cite his name. He was afraid that Powell would figure out who was behind the swipe and exact some form of bureaucratic revenge. It was dangerous for American officials in the Balkans to bring inconvenient facts to the attention of their superiors back home.

Genocide is a fearsome word, evoking a phenomenon nearly biblical in its fury; we should not be surprised that politicians retreat in its presence. How can a few thousand GIs defeat it? Would not their weapons be like spears against a tidal wave? But we should not feel helpless in the search for the DNA of genocide and ways to defeat it. Genocide is a policy, not a monster. It is implemented, often imperfectly, by men and women, not Goliaths. With skill and luck, it can be defeated by military intervention. Not always, but sometimes. The genocides of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda succeeded not because they were unstoppable, but because international opposition was almost nonexistent. In Washington, defeating genocide was less important than getting it off the front page, even if that meant letting genocide succeed.

There was another route. The conflict in Afghanistan presented American policymakers with all of the obstacles that stopped them in their tracks in Bosnia: an apparently fearsome opponent (the Taliban, which wasn’t so fearsome once the fighting began); a potentially slippery slope beginning with limited intervention (which wasn’t so slippery in Afghanistan, because, as of this writing, there appears little prospect of long-term military action); and geographical terrain that was unfavorable to the weapons and warriors of a superpower (yet the rugged Afghan mountains did not protect the Taliban from destruction). If we could crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, we could have crushed the Serbs in Bosnia. The missing factor, in the Balkans, was quite simply the desire to fight that war.

Among soldiers, defeat lingers longer than victory because it involves a loss of pride and a loss of lives on a mission that failed. These failures stain the mind forever, like dye on a shroud. That has been the case with the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam and who decided that the next time they were called upon to do violence in a distant land, they would make sure they had all the resources needed to win. Colin Powell, an Army major in Vietnam during the heaviest fighting there, turned those sentiments into national policy when, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, he formulated his eponymous doctrine. Distilled to its essence, the Powell Doctrine calls on civilian leaders to do two things in considering war-provide the military with a clear mission and give the military whatever resources it deems necessary to carry it out. Here is how, in a PBS interview that aired in January 1996, Powell described his preference for “decisive force” in a foreign engagement: “If this is important enough to go to war for, we’re going to do it in a way that there’s no question what the outcome will be, and we’re going to do it by [using] the force necessary to take the initiative away from [the] enemy and impose [our] will upon him. If you’re not serious enough to do that, then you ought to think twice about going to war.”

In the winter of 1992, as he fended off demands for U.S. military action in Bosnia, Powell described the flip side of his doctrine. “If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse,” he wrote in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead.” “We should always be skeptical,” he continued, “when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the ‘surgery’ is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation-more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making. In fact, this approach has been tragic.”

In the war on Iraq, Bush the Elder’s administration provided a clear mission-liberate Kuwait-and authorized the decisive force requested by the Pentagon. Powell was thus able to stand before journalists on January 23, 1991, and announce with the confidence of a general who had a half-million troops preparing to attack, “Here’s our plan for the Iraqi Army: We’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.” When the dust settled after the hundred-hour ground war, the Iraqi Army had not been killed. Enough of it remained to keep Saddam Hussein in power. But the Iraqi Army had been forced from Kuwait, and the loss of American life was slight. Powell was a hero, hailed as a visionary who knew when and how to fight.

Bosnia was everything Iraq was not, or so it seemed. The threat to U.S. security was not apparent. How could a country that most Americans had never heard of become, all of a sudden, so important that we should shed blood for it? In Washington, Slobodan Milosevic was not viewed as a Balkan Saddam or even a Balkan Mussolini. In fact, there was no shortage of American officials treating him as a respectable statesman. Even if Milosevic was guilty of war crimes that threatened our national interest-a big “if” at the time-what should our intervention seek to achieve: a cessation of fighting, a withdrawal of Serb forces from Bosnia, or the downfall of Milosevic? Powell sensed a quagmire. In an October 8, 1992 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why Generals Get Nervous,” he did not hide his disdain for reporters whose dispatches indicated a need for American action. “We have learned the lessons of history,” he wrote, “even if some journalists have not.”

But journalists were not the only ones who failed to genuflect before the lessons of history that Powell worshipped. In the crucial first year of the Bosnian War, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was the principal advocate for intervention within the Clinton administration. She was not afraid to speak her mind to Powell, asking him, during one contentious meeting, “What’s the point in having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” This was an accusation, and as Powell recalled in his 1995 autobiography, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”

Powell cherished the warning from George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But Powell turned the warning into dogma, failing to realize that the future may not resemble the past, and yesterday’s lessons may not solve tomorrow’s problems. Albright realized this. The daughter of a Czech diplomat who fled to America as the Second World War began, she knew a genocide when she saw it, and she knew the genocide in Bosnia could be stopped, if only the men with stars on their shoulders could look at Bosnia without seeing Vietnam.

The Bosnian Serb Army consisted of approximately fifty thousand soldiers, according to most estimates. They were a less-than-awesome force, not for any lack of armaments-they had adequate stocks of small weapons, mortars, artillery and tanks-but for their training and morale. The army was an ad hoc collection of new conscripts and veterans of the Yugoslav National Army. For the most part, they had not fought to capture the territory they held in Bosnia. They pretty much took what they wanted in the first weeks of the war, when there was no organized opposition to the paramilitary death squads that were the shock troops of genocide. Until the final months of the war, little territory changed hands. Serbs held about 70 percent of the country almost from start to finish. Their principal strategy was not to attack, but to bomb and besiege and wait for the other side to surrender. It was an effective strategy.

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader who has since been indicted for war crimes, had a sufficient number of loyalists to lead his troops, but the troops themselves were reluctant to stick their necks out. Except for the early days of the war, there were no queues at recruiting outposts in Serb-held territory; instead, there were roadside checkpoints to prevent fighting-age males from escaping to Serbia. Although the vast majority of Serbs in Bosnia supported the war, few wanted to die for the cause; they had no stomach for close combat against people who could defend themselves.

I learned this lesson in Banja Luka, the largest city under Serb control. On a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, I came across a teenager named Boris. His blond hair was tied into a ponytail and he wore the sort of small-lensed glasses worn by John Lennon; for all I knew, Boris was a Beatles fan, too. The war was not six months old, but already Boris had no appetite for it. “The Serb people are being seduced,” he told me. “They don’t know what is happening. They see what they want to see, or what others want them to see.”

But Boris was no dissident. He would turn eighteen soon, draft age, and when I asked what he would do he didn’t need to think about it. “I will go to the army,” he replied. “It’s better than jail.” I don’t know what happened to Boris, but it seems unlikely that he would have stepped forward when a call went out in his unit for volunteers for dangerous missions. He was not unusual. There were kids like Boris throughout the Bosnian Serb Army, kids who would much rather watch MTV than risk their lives in a war that was destroying a way of life that had been quite agreeable to them.

There was a Wizard-of-Oz quality to the Serb military machine-look behind the curtain and you will not find the ten-foot tall monsters you expect. This state of affairs was illustrated, vividly, in the winter of 1992, when I visited the town of Rogatica, a choke point of the four-year Serb siege of Gorazde, where thousands were killed by the shells or the cold or the lack of food. Gorazde suffered a shortage of everything but ways to die. I was traveling with two British colleagues, and because we didn’t have passes to be in the area, the commander at Rogatica greeted us by threatening to shoot us. We received the usual anti-NATO, anti-Muslim spiel, then were invited to his office, where the ashtray consisted of a spent artillery shell. One of us said something that enraged the commander and he proceeded to blow up again, grabbing my notebook and ripping pages from it.

After threatening, again, to kill us, he quieted down and apologized for his behavior. He returned my notebook. We talked some more and then accepted his invitation for a meal in his canteen. Over bowls of bean soup, he complained about his hard life on the frontline, telling me that his unit seemed to be forgotten by higher-ups, that he was bored, and that he hadn’t had sex for ages. He asked when we had last had sex. An uncomfortable silence prevailed. When schmoozing with frontline soldiers, I prefer to offer appropriate answers rather than accurate ones, if the two happen to vary. But I did not know the appropriate answer in this case, and neither did my colleagues. Our interpreter volunteered that he had had sex with his girlfriend a few days earlier. This revelation cheered the commander. He liked being in the presence of someone who had carnal knowledge that was not months old.

I mention this incident only because the commander was a losing figure. Yes, he would not hesitate to order another round of shelling of Gorazde, but he seemed more interested in his own well-being and self-pity than anything else. Ho Chi Minh would have booted his fat ass out of the army. If Powell imagined Vietcong-like resistance and fortitude in the hills of Bosnia, I wish he could have been with me in Rogatica. Defeating these bullies would not have required massive intervention; in reality, the military equivalent of a nudge would have done the job, and eventually did.

Bosnia’s government did not need foreign troops to fight its war; it had plenty of troops of its own, more than 100,000. It needed weapons. As the wars began in the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations imposed a weapons embargo on all sides in the disintegrating country, and this strategy played into Bosnian Serb hands, because they had ample stockpiles of armaments and a vibrant weapons industry in Serbia to resupply them. The newly formed Bosnian Army, however, had few weapons and no factories. It was surrounded by Serbia and Croatia (a part-time ally, part-time enemy) and resorted, in dire moments, to handmade mortars.

How could the UN refuse to protect the Bosnians and prohibit them from purchasing weapons to protect themselves? The rationale for arms embargoes is that if you starve a conflict of weapons, the fighting will stop or slow down, even if there is leakage due to black-market deals. In Bosnia, the rationale did not hold, because one side, which started the war, had plenty of weapons, and the other side, which had few weapons and did not want or expect a war, was being slaughtered. (About two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the war, according to an estimate used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.) The embargo was immoral because it abetted genocide. It nonetheless suited the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council because they wished for the fighting to cease as soon as possible, and the embargo meant the Bosnians had to accept whatever terms the stronger Serbs demanded. The Bosnians needed to realize they could not win the war, and the best way to make them realize that was to make sure they could not acquire weapons that might enable them to win. It was the kind of realpolitik that brings great satisfaction to the Henry Kissingers of our world, and to the Colin Powells.

To better understand the unfortunate logic of the situation, imagine a lopsided boxing match in which the losing boxer has one hand tied behind his back and pleads with a spectator to free the tied hand. The spectator, who just wants the bloody spectacle to end, balks at the request and urges the boxer to take a fall.

The metaphor is a simplification but useful to keep in mind. Different experts provide different opinions on the effect of arming the Bosnians. My view, which is not a minority one, is that lifting the embargo-and, going a step further, providing the Bosnians with weapons-would have stopped the genocide and enabled the Bosnians to retake territory seized by Serbs in the first weeks of the war. After all, the Serbs were not great or even good fighters. When Croatia re-armed and, in 1995, retook a swath of territory that had been held by ethnic Serbs since 1991, the Serbs hardly bothered to fight. They ran. When NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, they caved in after two weeks. In the following years, when troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made occasional arrests of Bosnian Serb war criminals, there were no revenge killings of NATO personnel. Notice a pattern?

It’s important to remember, too, that the provision of weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by Russia and the United States, played a key role-along with the U.S. bombing campaign-in giving Northern Alliance fighters the edge they needed to roll over the Taliban.

But what if the Bosnians committed atrocities with the weapons we supplied or allowed them to be supplied with? Would we have then become accomplices to their revenge killings? This was a frequently heard objection, and it had some validity. In 1995, when Croatia reconquered the Krajina region, the scene was not pretty; ethnic Serbs who had lived there for centuries were so terrified that they fled to Serbia, and many who stayed behind were brutalized or killed by vengeful Croats. In 1999, when NATO’s bombing campaign led to the withdrawal of Serb military forces from Kosovo, ethnic Albanians celebrated by “cleansing” Serb civilians who had not retreated; this retaliation was an embarrassment for the Western countries that had ended Serb barbarism, only to see it replaced by an Albanian variant.

Would the same pattern have occurred in Bosnia? I strongly doubt it. The Croatian troops who attacked in 1995 were fighting on behalf of a government that was every bit as nationalist and thuggish as the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milosevic. The Kosovo Liberation Army, responsible for the killings of Serbs, was a generally disreputable assemblage of young men who wanted to purge every Serb from Kosovo; most Albanians in Kosovo shared their goal.

Bosnia was different. The Bosnian Army, despite the cruelties inflicted on civilians it was trying to protect, did not engage in systematic killing sprees when it managed to retake slivers of territory. Did atrocities occur? Yes. Were they widespread? No. The majority of Bosnia’s Muslims did not wish to live in an ethnically pure state. To be sure, revenge killings would have occurred if their army had retaken Serb-held territory, but not, I believe, on a significant level. If we demand that an army be atrocity-free to merit international support, then no army including, our own, could ever meet that criterion. In Afghanistan, we have had no trouble looking the other way as Northern Alliance soldiers executed Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.

Skeptics also argued that lifting the embargo would not have been enough. The United States, they said, would have needed to train the Bosnians to use the new weapons, and as everyone knows, military trainers are the first step on the slippery slope to full-scale intervention. This argument is no sturdier than a two-legged table. The warfare in Bosnia was primitive. The Bosnian Army needed simple materiel, such as anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery pieces, as well as ammunition. Little training or assembly would have been required by outsiders. The Bosnians were not in the market for smart bombs.
Pentagon and administration officials talked up a geopolitical doomsday in which lifting the embargo would spark a much broader conflict, because Milosevic might send the Yugoslav National Army into Bosnia to defend Serbs, or perhaps the Russians would become involved, leading to a U.S.-Russia face-off in the Balkans. This scenario was paraded around like a strategic missing link, and it, too, was lacking in reality. As subsequent events showed in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic did not send in his troops to defend Serbs once they were attacked by stronger forces. And in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia, the Russians stood aside, grumbling.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that maintaining the embargo was a wise policy. What other options were available, short of dispatching 250,000 troops? For three years, the Clinton administration and its European allies insisted that bombing could not end the war. David Owen, lead negotiator for the European Union, memorably accused pro-intervention editorialists of being “laptop bombardiers.” But by the summer of 1995, Serb behavior in Bosnia became too odious for Western leaders to overlook any longer-the “safe haven” of Srebrenica had been stormed by Serb troops, who massacred thousands of prisoners and took UN peacekeepers hostage. Shortly after, a Serb mortar attack killed thirty-eight people in Sarajevo. A NATO bombing campaign was begun. It was a limited affair, with just thirty-five hundred sorties on Serb targets in Bosnia over eleven days; when compared to NATO’s seventy-eight-day bombing of Serbia in 1999 with more than thirty-eight thousand sorties, the campaign in Bosnia is revealed as a mild slap. Even so, it worked, with no lives lost by the Western alliance. The Serbs swiftly agreed to a peace conference, held in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war, although on terms that, it turned out, were unduly generous to the architects of the genocide.

To this day, many opponents of bombing insist they were right. The bombing worked in 1995, they say, because the Serbs were weaker, militarily, than they had been in previous years. This is true, but that only means the mild campaign in 1995 would have needed to be a bit stronger if it had taken place in earlier years. How much stronger? Impossible to say, of course, but the degradation of the Bosnian Serb Army was a slow-moving affair; the army that crumbled under NATO’s bombs in 1995 wasn’t that different from the army that existed in the first year or two of the war. Dragisa, the Serb with the big gun in the hills above Sarajevo, was not much of a warrior in 1992, nor was the commander in Rogatica.

Opponents of bombing also note that NATO’s attack coincided with a summer offensive by Croatian and Bosnian troops that swept through northwestern Bosnia, threatening to overrun Banja Luka. Would the bombing have succeeded without that ground threat? The ground offensive certainly helped drive the Serbs to Dayton, but again, in its absence NATO had much more to throw at the Serbs from the air. In any event, once the Serbs became pinned down by NATO’s warplanes, a ground offensive against them could have begun at any time during the war. From the first day, an aerial blitz by NATO would have tipped the conflict in favor of the Bosnian side, forcing the Serbs to retreat, militarily and diplomatically. The crucial role of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan is a perfect illustration of the extent to which our Air Force can turn the tide of a foreign conflict.

The United States did not need to use its ground troops to stop the genocide. But what if it had? Our GIs would not have objected. Many foreign soldiers in Bosnia were dismayed because they had to stand aside as genocide unfolded before them. For all but the final stage of the war, the feeble UN peacekeeping force had strict orders to use its weapons only in self-defense; its mission was restricted to helping deliver relief supplies.

In the first winter of the four-year siege of Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, I met Richard Roth, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and a farm boy from Maquoketa, Iowa. The Clinton administration opted, in the early years of the Bosnian war, to limit to a handful the number of U.S. soldiers in the United Nations Protection Force, and as far as I could tell, Roth was the only uniformed GI in Bosnia’s capital, where he worked as a communications specialist at the residence of the UN commander. I sensed, as we talked in a reception room at the commander’s villa, that Roth’s bosses at the Pentagon would not have been satisfied with what he was saying.

“Everybody but the Serbs hopes the Americans will get involved,” Roth said as we sipped tea from porcelain cups, which rattled on their saucers when a shell landed nearby. “I think the Serbs are the bad guys, but that’s not the UN’s position. I know we shouldn’t go sticking our noses everywhere, but this is too close to our NATO allies to sit back and do nothing.” Because there were no other American soldiers based in Sarajevo at the time, Sergeant Roth got a lot of attention when he walked around the city in his uniform, with an American flag on his sleeve. Everyone wanted to know, why doesn’t America do something? I think he knew the sad answer but he shrugged it off, telling me, in the caustic way that grunts in Vietnam handled queries about the morass they knew they were in, “I’m not paid to think.” Our cups rattled as another shell hit its target nearby.

Most men and women don’t join the armed forces because the pay is good or the food delicious. They join for other reasons, including a dose of altruism. They believe that maybe they will have the opportunity to represent their country on a just mission that will save lives. They are not afraid to put their lives on the line. They are not Boy Scouts, although their timid leaders treated them as such in the Balkans.

Why are America’s leaders reluctant to intervene except in the most obvious, national-security-threatening situations, as in the Gulf War? The Vietnam precedent plays a paramount role, of course. So, too, does the story of American intervention in Lebanon, where, in 1983, 241 U.S. soldiers who had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers were killed in a suicide-bomb attack. More recently, the killing in 1993 of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia pretty much eliminated any appetite Bill Clinton might have had for using the world’s strongest military for anything beyond oil-protection duty.

The lessons of Vietnam should not be forgotten, nor should those of Lebanon and Somalia. But one of the lessons politicians and generals drew from those debacles-that the American public has no tolerance for sacrificing GIs overseas-is wrong. Those missions were a political mess, and the deaths were close to pointless. Americans understood that. If a mission is honorable or if Americans believe it is honorable, they will support it. That was the case in the Gulf War, as it was when NATO finally bombed Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995, and four years later, when NATO bombed Serbia. And that was rousingly the case when the Bush administration started its war on the Taliban.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide requires signatories to punish genocide when it occurs. This convention puts a special burden on the United States, the world’s “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright liked to say in her secretary of state days. Of course not every genocide can be stopped with a modest dose of military intervention, and it would be unfair to demand that the United States sacrifice as many lives as it takes to stop mass murder in country X or Y. There are limits to what the United States can do, and limits to what the United States should be expected to do.
What are those limits?

In the spring of 1994, as the genocide in Bosnia progressed like a plow digging into the earth, and as a new and worse genocide began in Rwanda, President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who had the most famous conscience in an administration famous for its famous consciences, explained that the U.S. government was not, unfortunately, in a position to stop the bloodbaths that were staining our television screens.

“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict,” he said. “I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems.”

Lake’s heart may have been in the right place, but his mind was not. The cowardice of other nations should not be an excuse for our own. As Lake was murderously slow in realizing, the U.S. government could have solved the problems in Bosnia and Rwanda at acceptable rather than extravagant costs, in political and military terms. Regarding Rwanda, just ask Romeo Dallaire.

In October 1993, Dallaire, a lieutenant general in the Canadian Army, was sent to Kigali, Rwanda, to command a lightly armed UN peacekeeping force of twenty-five hundred soldiers that was overseeing a fragile peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and the rebel Tutsi army. General Dallaire sensed, early on, that Rwanda was slouching toward genocide. In fact, he had hard information from a senior official inside the Hutu Power movement that a mass extermination was being planned. The informant told Dallaire that lists of human targets were being drawn up, death squads were being trained and deployed, and provocations to start the killing were imminent. On January 11, 1994, three months before the genocide began, Dallaire sent a coded cable to his superior at the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of peacekeeping, and now is secretary general.

The cable outlined the informant’s story and requested permission, as a first step, to raid a Hutu arms cache. Dallaire also asked permission to provide protection to the informant. The response from Annan came quickly: The UN forces in Kigali were to do nothing more than oversee the disintegrating peace accord. Raiding arms caches and protecting informers was out of the question. “We wish to stress,” Annan’s cable concluded, “that the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions.”

It is understandable that Annan, or anyone, would hesitate to intervene before genocide occurs. Perhaps Dallaire was over-reacting, as commanders in the field might do. Perhaps the Hutus would pull back from the brink on their own accord, without the UN’s firing a shot (which, who knows, could make matters worse, not better). It is difficult to sift the false alarms from the real ones. But the UN, like the Security Council members that decide its policies, has what seems to be a standing rule (or should we say a sitting rule?) to dither until blood begins to stain the carpets along the East River and at Foggy Bottom. Often the best and only chance to stop genocide is before the violence becomes widespread; we must be ready to act early and quickly, especially, as was the case in Rwanda, when the required acts are modest.

But Annan and the Security Council did worse than that. Once ten Belgian peacekeepers were massacred by Hutu extremists on the first day of the genocide, April 7, the Security Council decided to withdraw its force from the country, even though Dallaire urged the opposite course, insisting that with more troops, and a mandate to use them in combat, the violence could be stopped. The U.S. government played a key role in keeping the UN out of Rwanda’s genocide. Dallaire has said, on many occasions, that he would have needed just three battalions to “break the embryo of genocide.” In 1998, the Carnegie Commission assembled a blue-ribbon military panel to examine his claim. The panel consisted of more than a dozen senior military officials, including a half dozen U.S. generals.

“The hypothetical force described by General Dallaire-at least five thousand strong-could have made a significant difference in Rwanda,” the report concluded. “A window of opportunity for employment of such a force extended roughly from about April 7 to April 21, 1994, when the political leaders of the violence were still susceptible to international influence. The rapid introduction of robust combat forces, authorized to seize at one time critical points throughout the country, would have changed the political calculations of the participants. The opportunity existed to prevent the killing-and to put the negotiations back on track.”

It would be wrong, however, to condemn the U.S. government for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the one in Bosnia. The situation was more shameful than that. The government failed to attempt to stop the genocides. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that President Clinton wished the killings would finish as quickly as possible, on any terms. For hardly the first time, the quick solution was preferred to the just solution, even though the just solution could be reached at an acceptable cost.

The blind spot at the Pentagon was exceptionally broad. In his occasionally candid memoir, Waging Modern War, published in 2001, General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, recalled that once he got involved in Bosnian issues in the summer of 1994, “I became increasingly concerned about our staff’s lack of experience with the situation on the ground. No one had been there personally.” The Pentagon brass received CIA reports and diplomatic cables, Clark wrote, and perused CNN and the Washington Post, but had not bothered to send anyone of importance to Bosnia to figure out, from a military perspective, what was happening there and what could be done.

In this way, the lesson of the genocides of the 1990s are not much different from the lesson of Vietnam: our political and military leaders can be so out of touch with on-the-ground reality-even if, as was the case in Vietnam, they have plenty of people on the ground-that they are 100 percent wrong in their analysis of what can be done. The delusions are visceral. In Vietnam, the White House wanted to defeat a communist insurrection and persuaded itself that this was possible to do, even though, in reality, it wasn’t. In Bosnia, the White House and Pentagon feared that stopping genocide might become a quagmire involving massive intervention, and persuaded itself that this was the case.

It is not surprising that General Powell, long before he became Secretary of State Powell, threw around inflated force estimates in the early 1990s. He understood less about Bosnia, and what was needed to stop genocide there, than Sergeant Roth from Maquoketa, Iowa. Powell made the mistake of treating a genocidal policy as an unbeatable monster.

Special Operations

The New Republic Online  |  December 15, 2001
How to change a tire in Kandahar.

The United States Special Forces have had many fine days in Afghanistan of late, but yesterday was not one of their best, at least not in Kandahar.

The Taliban surrendered their spiritual capital a week ago, and now the city’s dusty streets have become an occasional parade ground for an impressive-looking assortment of broad-shouldered, tight-lipped American soldiers who zoom around in Toyota 4x4s—which, until recently, were the preferred mode of transport for Taliban soldiers. Unfortunately, these men from America (I haven’t spotted any women) are reluctant to tell you what military unit they are from, or what they are doing here, or much at all, except a pleasantry or two through gritted teeth. They live in odd places here. For the first few days they were based at a compound that housed Mullah Mohammed Omar until he fled, and now the shy GIs are living in a courtyard behind the headquarters of Gul Agha, the new warlord—excuse me, governor—of Kandahar province.

You never know what might turn up on the streets here, so I paid attention when, driving down one of the main arteries today, past donkey carts and beggars and audio shops doing booming business in music tapes, I noticed a convoy of nearly a half-dozen serious-looking vehicles heading toward me; as they raced by, I realized that the heavily armed men in the back of a jeep and two 4x4s were not Afghan military rabble, nor the usual Special Forces fellows in desert fatigues; these guys wore rugby shirts and black fleece jackets and had bandanas over their faces, like bandits, and they had enough high-tech firepower to capture Fort Knox. As it turned out, the guys in the Toyotas were American, and those in the jeep were British.

I ordered my driver to make a u-turn, and although the commandos had a jump on me, I was able to catch up because, as I neared them, they happened to swipe an Afghan on a motorcycle, sending him spinning onto the dirt shoulder. To their credit, the oddly clad Special Forces guys pulled over while their Afghan escorts sorted things out. Several cars of journalists also pulled up, and this made the men with M-16s, sniper scopes, and pistols strapped to their legs and under their arms somewhat uncomfortable because we milled about asking polite questions, and they stared back at us in silence. Accustomed to stealth, they were stranded like turtles on their backs.

The U.S. soldiers here—no more than 50 in the city itself, though a huge contingent of marines has just arrived on its outskirts—are under orders not to give any interviews, which is unfortunate because they are taking part in a mission that has been, from a military perspective, an astounding success; in less than two months the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been crushed. These men would be written up as heroes if only they would open their mouths and tell us a bit of what they’ve been up to; we of course have other ways of finding out, but it would be so much better if we didn’t have to rely on Afghan soldiers and commanders and civilians whose economy with the truth is exceedingly economical.

As it is, the most you get out of these guys is a polite “No photos, please,” followed, if the photos continue, by a less polite, “I told you, no photos.” They don’t have to warn you a third time. This makes for an upside-down situation, because most Afghans are now delighted to talk, and happy enough to have their pictures taken. In a way, the photo-shy, press-shy Americans are picking up where the photo-shy, press-shy Taliban left off.

After matters were straightened out with the stunned motorcyclist—his brush with the Special Forces yielded only scrapes and bruises—the nearly silent men from America and Britain roared off again, heading out of town. After a few miles, their second encounter with indignity struck: One of the 4x4s got a flat tire. They pulled into a two-pump gas station and performed a task they likely had not been trained for by the Pentagon. They changed the tire. Several journalists gathered around, keeping a respectful distance, along with a crowd of Afghans who took it in stride; they have seen much in their aggrieved lifetimes, so the sight of a half-dozen real-life Rambos performing the work of grease monkeys did not seem to faze them.

The silence was awkward, but what do you say to a Special Forces or Delta Force soldier as he undergoes the humiliation of changing a tire under the gaze of a dozen journalists and Afghan peasants? I thought I had the right question, which I asked to a commando who was standing guard over his colleague who was squatting on the ground, jacking up the Toyota.

“Do you see any humor in this situation?”

“Not really,” he replied.

I’m pretty sure I saw a smile under his bandana.

After ten minutes the tire was changed and the vehicles roared off. I followed for about ten more miles, wondering where they might be going—they were heading west, in the direction of Mullah Omar’s hometown—but the sun was setting and if I went any further I might have had to return to Kandahar in the dark, which would be unwise, as the country is not secure after dusk. So I turned around as the mysterious Americans and Brits sped deeper into the desert, toward the obscurity of an Afghan night.

Camp Taliban

Slate  |  November 20, 2001
The strange last days of the mullahs in black turbans.

It was, I suppose, just a matter of time until the Taliban imported a media circus.

About nine days ago the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was his regime’s principal spokesman to the outside world, was instructed by Islamabad to cease his well-attended, anti-American press conferences, held in the yard of his embassy. Losing not only the ground war but the public relations war, the Taliban’s leaders are fighting back on at least the latter front, which is why I now find myself camping out among more than 100 reporters who were just granted, almost overnight, an honor that, for now, may be more sought-after in the world of journalism than a Pulitzer Prize—a visa to enter the decreasing portion of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that is controlled by the men in black turbans.

For the moment we have been allowed no further than Spin Boldak, a surprisingly bustling town that is about five miles from the Pakistani border and 60 miles from Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual homeland that could soon pass into anti-Taliban hands. There are no proper hotels in Spin Boldak, or, I suppose, improper ones, so the authorities have herded the pack into a brick-walled compound run by the Foreign Ministry. It has a small, single-story building with a few offices, plus an unfinished brick building and a yard and lots of dust. It is upon this unpromising earth that Camp Taliban has come to life.

The best plots have been taken by CNN and the BBC, because they arrived yesterday, a day ahead of everyone else, thanks to their connections. CNN has the best setup, attracting admiring remarks even from a BBC correspondent, who nodded toward his rival’s yellow-and-white walk-in tent, which has enough electronic gear and workspace to run a spaceshot, and said, “My God, those people have an Internet cafe.” The BBC are no slouches, though—their corner of the yard looks like an Everest base camp, with pods of spiffy tents circled around shiny new cooking gear. The Beeb will not go hungry tonight.

Everyone else lives more humbly, some in tents, many sleeping under the stars. It’s quite crowded; you can’t take more than a few steps without tripping over a working or napping journalist, or a satellite dish, or Taliban soldier. They are a friendly lot, the Taliban, at least for now; they pose for pictures with their weapons when asked, and they lend a hand if you’re having trouble starting up your generator, and they gawk like kids at your telecommunications gizmos.

They want to please. When it emerged that my tent was being pitched in their prayer area, the Talibs quickly agreed to pray elsewhere. We’re quite a show, and I mean that literally, because scores of youths hang over the wall staring at us, and some are perched in nearby trees for unobstructed vantage points, like Afghan owls.

The circus exists for a purpose, though—to spread the views of a regime that refuses to go gently into the Central Asian night. This became clear when I interviewed a Taliban official in the compound. We went through the usual questions and answers about the declining health of his regime—he insisted that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated—and I asked about the calendar on his wall. The calendar featured a colorful picture of the giant Buddha at Bamian being blown up. “We can’t make an image of God with our own hands,” he explained. “So we destroyed it. This is the order of Allah.” The caption over the picture declared, “This is an historic picture.”

And you need only walk a few hundred yards from Camp Taliban to realize, if you need a reminder, that the circus in Spin Boldak is a small sideshow. Spread over the desert plain, and whipped by sandstorms that occasionally yield small twisters of dust, is a sprawling refugee camp that grows every day, like an animal that feeds on desperation. The refugees—who have fled the American-led bombing campaign—live in pitiful conditions, with little water, few toilets, miserable food, and paltry help from the Taliban regime or the international community. Local officials aren’t sure of the number of refugees at this camp, which is so new it does not have a name; there appear to be tens of thousands, living in makeshift tents as far as the eye can see on the desert horizon.

Taliban officials quickly arranged a visit to the camp today and let us loose; we were quite free to talk with whom we wanted, about what we wanted. The stories were tragically similar—innocent people forced to flee their homes because of bombs being dropped in a war they did not wish for. The dissemination of this message would appear to be one of the reasons the Taliban invited us into their tottering realm. There was supposed to be a press conference today by a senior official from Kandahar, but that didn’t materialize. Nobody minded, because the Talibs might ask us to clear out once the press conference is held, and we would like to stay as long as possible. Camp Taliban and the country around it are intriguing and unique entities, and our visas are good for a week. They might outlive the Taliban.

How a Camp Becomes a City

The New York Times Magazine  |  November 18, 2001
Every refugee camp has its own social hierarchy. In Shamshatoo, on the Pakistani border, it all begins with a man named Nusrat.

Nusrat motions for me to follow him through the crowd. The situation is hectic, and I hesitate, even though Nusrat was a guerrilla commander in Afghanistan who fought the Red Army for a decade, facing far worse than the assemblage of widows and orphans before us.

We are at Shamshatoo, located on a series of dusty, rolling hills in northern Pakistan. Shamshatoo looks like an ancient city; aside from the Toyota pickups and colorful burkas worn by women, everything is a biblical brown, the shade of baked earth older than life. But looks deceive. The houses and walls are made of dried mud, and none are more than two years old. More than 55,000 souls live at Shamshatoo, though in official terms they are not residents but refugees, the homeless of the world for whom we are supposed to care in our caring moments.

Nusrat, who like many Afghans uses only one name, is chatting with me in an unfinished school building when a subordinate arrives with alarming news—a Malaysian relief group is distributing aid nearby. Nusrat is a malek, one of the leaders of the Shamshatoo refugee camp, and he had not been told of the distribution. It is an affront to his prestige as well as a threat to security; the surest way to create a riot among refugees is to hand out food.

The relief group is operating from the courtyard of a house that is enclosed by an eight-foot mud wall, and for the lucky few who shove their way inside, the prize is a slip of green paper that entitles them, at a future date, to a package of food to celebrate Ramadan, the holy month.

The recipients are supposed to be the camp’s neediest, which is why hundreds of women and children and old men mob the house, waving their ration cards like traders in a commodity pit. A man who works for the relief group sits on the wall, above the entrance, and he has a stick with which he whacks the heads of refugees he finds annoying; his stick connects with a turban, from which a puff of dust rises.

“What is happening here?” an old man asks Nusrat, who stands to the side like a scout reconnoitering his target. Nusrat’s life in the camp is an extension of his life in Afghanistan. As before, he faces hard odds in a war to ensure the survival of his people. This is another skirmish.

“Please, be calm, and trust in Allah,” he says.

“Nusrat,” the old man pleads, “please help me.”

“Don’t worry, I am with you.”

He moves in. Refugees have begun thrusting their ration cards at me because I am a foreigner and foreigners provide aid. It seems wise, after a moment’s reflection, to stay close to the former guerrilla leader who overcame the mines and missiles of a superpower. The crowd parts, and the man with the stick checks his swing as we squeeze inside.

“You are not doing this the right way,” Nusrat tells Mateen, a relief official presiding over the bedlam. “You can’t come into the camp, take over a house and start this work without informing us. There is chaos here.”

“It’s not compulsory to inform everyone,” Mateen replies.

Nusrat’s glare could melt a machine gun. He is handsome and fierce in a central-casting way, and you know, without his having to tell you, that your life will be easier if he is not your enemy.

“Open the door,” he orders a man at the gate. “These are widows outside, and you must respect them.”

Refugees have begun scaling the walls. Instead of helping the needy, relief workers grab shanks of firewood and hit the gate-crashers who are not obviously feeble; the truly feeble are merely threatened. A dog in the courtyard howls fearfully, hens squawk and scramble underfoot, a boy serves tea to the V.I.P.‘s, dust rises from the trampled ground and Nusrat shouts angrily, “Don’t beat the widows!”

Shamshatoo is a strange beast. It has a corruptible police force headed by a Pakistani administrator who leaves day-to-day affairs to Nusrat and three other maleks (the term dates from the colonial era, when the British used it for local administrators). Each malek presides over a section of the camp, though Nusrat is first among equals. They rose to their positions through an informal process that involved gaining the respect of fellow refugees, Pakistani administrators and foreign relief agencies. They are stronger than the earth, which is necessary in their unforgiving job because there are not enough resources for everyone and the maleks are presumed by many to be stealing the bounty of aid that the world is presumed to be supplying to Shamshatoo.

Nusrat is half deity, half scapegoat.

“When these people go back to their homes, they will blame me,” he says as we walk away, our path occasionally blocked by the neediest of the needy, begging for help. “Maybe they will pray for my destruction.”

Actually, not everyone will ask Allah to smite Nusrat. Scarcity is a dominant feature of refugee camps, but the scarcity is not shared equally; the camps are not classless societies. They have an economic hierarchy, as in a city or prison or any place where a clot of people live and die together. The best way to understand their social metaphysics is to imagine a real-life mixture of “Lord of the Flies” and “Atlas Shrugged,” with a few themes from “The Grapes of Wrath” thrown in.

Throughout the world, more than 20 million people live in refugee camps, and few of them are going home anytime soon. For example, more than two million Afghans live in Pakistan, some for more than 20 years. They arrived in generations of exodus: fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, fleeing civil war after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, fleeing the 1996 Taliban takeover, fleeing the drought since 1998 and, now, fleeing the United States attack.

In the social structures of the camps, the rules of the outside world are not suspended, just adapted. If you were a village elder back home, you will likely fulfill the same role in a camp, because villagers often flee together. Even if they don’t, they tend to reassemble, over time, in the camps. For an individual or family, the tribe is security, and security is sustenance.

The notion that refugee camps are complex societies becomes clear when I meet Jacques Franquin, emergency coordinator in Peshawar for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Franquin, who is setting up 15 new refugee camps, is surrounded by the accouterments of life in the field, U.N.-style: the driveway outside his office is packed with white S.U.V.‘s, and his desks are laden with enough computers and phones to run a war. But the most intriguing item I notice is a blueprint.

The blueprint, for a new camp close to the Afghan border, does not show row after row of tents ringed by fences. Rather, the camp is divided into sections in which refugees will pitch their tents in whatever configuration they wish: close together, with space for a communal garden, or evenly apart, with a bit of private space for each family. If it appears that they will be staying for a long time, they will be encouraged to build mud huts.

“We are planning a marketplace here,” Franquin says, putting his finger in the center of the map. “We know it is necessary. These people are not in a jail. We are trying to create the social fabric of a society, as in a town, by planning schools and bakeries and more. Here we will have a community of 10,000 people. We know we will need at least four mosques.”

The popular image of refugee camps is simplistic—rows of white tents filled with miserable, helpless people waiting to be fed by American or European relief workers. That is often the case at camps hurriedly assembled in emergencies, though in truth most relief workers are drawn from the local population. When the Western media rush off to a fresh disaster, the refugees usually remain behind, and once the shock of dislocation passes, the camps begin a metamorphosis.

There are more than 100 camps in Pakistan, though U.N. officials often refer to them as villages. Most camps have been around for more than a year or two, so only a few, like Shamshatoo, still distribute free food. Distributions of food are like training wheels for a camp: after a while, as refugees find jobs inside or outside the camps, the donated sacks of wheat and tins of cooking oil disappear. Other subsidized services, like health and education, continue indefinitely. The U.N.H.C.R. budget for Pakistan for 2001 is $18.4 million, but that covers only part of the costs; the U.N. World Food Program pays for food distributions; and private relief groups offer a variety of supplies and services, like building materials, well digging and job training.

That is why Shamshatoo is beginning to look like an established refugee community, like the one a few miles away known as “old Shamshatoo,” which has existed for 15 years. Shamshatoo—the new one—already has 41 secular and religious schools, four health clinics, more than a dozen bakeries, a number of mosques and more than 200 wells.

The camp, which began in December 1999 with 156 families, includes virtually every ethnic group of Afghanistan, with the largest at the camp being Tajiks, followed by Pashtuns. Most are from the drought exodus, so they are not deeply politicized. Still, the ethnic tensions that existed back home are carried into exile; disputes over access to wells is a constant sore spot; and it is the job of Nusrat, who is Pashtun, and his fellow maleks and sub-maleks to smooth things over. They usually succeed, because life does go on; there is a birth or wedding almost every day, as well as funerals.

“When people are put in a survival situation, they become imaginative,” Franquin says. “Refugees need to find solutions in order to survive. But especially with Afghans, they react quite quickly. So if you plan a camp well, you will see a quick development, and it’s fascinating.”

Franquin has an unusual ability to detect, and become enthusiastic about, a camp that moves from abject misery to ordinary misery. In this way, he is not unlike a neurologist who draws satisfaction when a stroke victim recovers some of his faculties. Shamshatoo would fit into the category of ordinary misery. It is not nearly as hellish as Jalozai, a nearby camp where Afghans live under tents made of plastic sheets and in sanitary conditions below appalling. Shamshatoo is home not only to wretchedness but also to hope, as I learned in its bazaar.

The heart of Shamshatoo is a nameless crossroads of nameless roads. More than a hundred merchants have opened shops along the dirt intersection, though none of the shops have signs because signs are luxuries. Several open-air restaurants serve spicy rice and beef kebabs, and stores offer lanterns and vegetables and soft drinks and lumber and bolts of cloth. Until recently, there was an embroidery shop that also sold cosmetics. That shop closed not because business was bad—it was quite good—but because it was looted when its owner went home for an evening meal.

A foreigner stands out in the bazaar, which is why Amin Ullah approaches me in the shade of a vegetable stand. He says his family makes carpets and offers to show me their loom. We walk down a dusty street, then into a narrow alley, then through the gate of a walled-in home that has, in its courtyard, flowers growing from plastic buckets that hang from beams over a patio. Pathways in the courtyard are lined with bricks, and I notice several young trees—pleasant status symbols in a camp with little greenery.

The loom is in the shade, and sitting before it are four of Amin’s siblings, weaving with their nimble hands. There are Samim, 15, and Mubaraz, 14, Shabistan, 9, and Tamim, 8. Amin, 18, no longer works the loom because his hands have become too large. Although his younger siblings work 12 hours a day (except on the days when they go to school), two months of communal labor is required for a rug that fetches 6,000 rupees, about $95.

The loom is an altar of child labor, and the family is lucky to have it. Notions that prevail in the developed world—that 8-year-olds should not work, especially not in conditions that can damage their eyes and lungs—are reversed in a camp. A child who is not working is a mouth to feed, and although aid groups distribute food at Shamshatoo, it is not enough. Young children are economic assets that wise families seek to maximize.

The Ullahs are the flip side of the widows and orphans and disabled who make it impossible for Nusrat to walk through the bazaar without being harangued. The carpet business has enabled the family to diversify and open a vegetable stand run by Amin and his older brother, Humayun. Thanks to their carpet income, they could spare 5,000 rupees to buy the lumber and bricks to build a shop.

Of course, 5,000 rupees may not seem like much—it is barely $80—but within the camp it is a fortune. The Ullahs are, socially speaking, camp millionaires. Their modest but steady income allows them to eat well, sleep with a roof over their heads, have shade in their backyard and hope for their future. They are better off, even, than a merchant I met who sells cloth in the bazaar and earns about $1 a day. He is able to buy meat every week or two for his family (aid agencies do not distribute meat), and thanks to the occasional kebabs, his family is far likelier to remain healthy than families without meat.

These apparently small distinctions mean the difference between life and death. A family that can build a mud hut is a rung above a family that lives in a tent. The family with two goats is better off than the family with two hens, and that family is better off than the one with no hens at all. The pecking order is influenced by the length of time a family has lived in the camp. Basically, the more recently you have arrived, the harder your life is. The best-located tents or huts are already taken, as are the jobs. And because your exodus has likely drained your finances, you have not had a chance to accumulate funds to buy a goat or start a business. You are at rock bottom.

The situation for new arrivals is especially pitiful these days because the Pakistani government is reluctant to let the U.N.H.C.R. register and distribute food to them. The government fears that tales of relative plenty will only encourage more refugees to come. Washington, itself worried about the public-relations disaster of a huge influx of desperate refugees, has not pushed particularly hard for Pakistan to change its policy.

It is difficult to say how many newly arrived refugees there are at Shamshatoo. There appear to be many, but because they could be deported if they are found, they keep a low profile, staying with friends or relatives or strangers who are poor themselves but help out nonetheless. U.N. officials in Peshawar call them the invisibles, though it is not hard to find them because the U.N. estimates their size at 130,000 and growing every minute.

A group of them lives in the courtyard of a mud compound just around the corner from the Ullahs. The group consists of four families that fled Kabul after selling all their belongings to finance their exodus—principally, bus fares, bribes for border guards and fees for the smugglers who led them across. By the time the group of 24 arrived at Shamshatoo, they had nothing left, and their hardened elder, Sadiq Ghulam, wanted to strangle the world.

“How are we going to live here?” he asks as we speak in the only shaded space available in the courtyard—behind an outhouse. “We have no money, no food. Where are we going to stay? There is no bombing here, but we will starve. If I had known that I would be humiliated in this way, I would have chosen to die in Kabul. We are not responsible for the acts committed in America. We are ordinary people; we are not terrorists. Why are we being treated like this?”

As bleak as things may look to Sadiq Ghulam, his situation is no more than typical and for many refugees, like the Ullahs, purely temporary. Amin explains that his family arrived in Pakistan more than a year ago after fleeing their hometown north of Kabul. Because they knew how to make rugs, they struck a deal with a merchant who lent them a loom and yarn in exchange for the right to purchase their carpets at a discount. “Other people here waste time,” he says, “but we have a plan.”

And they live well, relatively speaking. They have electricity, which is a luxury that the family must pay for, and their dwelling consists of several tidy rooms. The main room, where the family takes its meals and receives visitors, is covered with Afghan carpets and pillows and has a cozy feel. When I stop by the house on my last day in the camp, Amin and his industrious brothers are at work again—building a new room.

Another emergency walks into Nusrat’s life. This time it is a dispute between an old man and his nephew, who happens to be married to the old man’s daughter. (This occurs among Afghans.) The nephew/son-in-law is beating his wife, and for Afghans this is not a matter to be handled by the police but by a Solomon figure. That would be Nusrat.

“My son-in-law is mad,” Aman Ullah explains. (Ullah is a common name in these parts.) “Every day he is fighting with his wife, and I am worried about her, so please convince him to leave our house because if not, maybe he will kill me or I will kill him.”

Aman sits on a mat with Nusrat in the unfinished school, which is serving, until it opens, as Nusrat’s office. The old man is about 55, but that counts as aged among a people with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Nusrat calls him baba, the Pashto term for a respected elder.

“Don’t worry, baba,” he begins. “We have suffered for the last 30 years. That’s why your nephew has mental problems.”

There is no mention of punishing the nephew, Wase Ullah; this isn’t done in Afghan culture. But Wase is refusing to leave Aman’s house. Nusrat’s solution is simple: Wase should move into a room that will be built onto the back of the house with a separate entrance.

It is a wise idea, but it must be sold to a violent and psychologically unstable man. Nusrat walks with Aman to the house, which is like many others in the camp—surrounded by mud walls, with two rooms and two U.N.-issued tents in the backyard. The house has the good fortune of being located downhill from a well, so the runoff flows through a channel into the yard, which is filled with rows of corn and other vegetables.

Aman loses no time in taking the high ground.

“Why are you beating your wife?” he asks Wase. “Yesterday when you started beating her, she fainted, and when you left the house, we were left to take care of her.”

Wase, a tall and lean man with a look in his eyes that tells you to stay away, loses no time in taking the low ground. “She is my wife, and that is my own business. If I want to kill her, if I want to beat her, that is my affair.”

Nusrat’s offer will not suffice.

“I need two rooms,” Wase says. “One is not enough.”

The guy is trying everyone’s patience, but Nusrat does not lose his cool. He has a way with people that is unrelenting yet soothing. He lectures Wase while holding his hand. He makes threats and quotes the Koran, but Wase continues to resist.

“If you don’t accept this offer, we will try something else that you won’t like,” Nusrat warns.

This is his way of saying, “I’m making an offer you can’t refuse.” Wase catches on.

“I’ll agree with you because you are a respected man in this camp. I accept your decision.”

And then, suddenly, Wase and Aman are hugging.

For Nusrat, a small disaster has been avoided for people who live amid a large disaster with no apparent end.

“Wase has a mental problem, but everyone suffers from such problems,” he says afterward. “If I became angry with them, who would take care of them? There is no one who isn’t injured by the war. Some have injuries you can see; others have injuries you can’t see, that are inside. If their problems don’t get solved, they will fight and get hurt. So I must look after them. That’s my duty.”

Bashir Ahmed Zai’s life was ruined, like so many others, by an artillery shell. It fell on a Kabul marketplace in 1997. Bashir heard the explosion, and because he is a doctor, he rushed to the scene. He was surprised to find his girlfriend’s mother and brother among the panicked crowd.

“What’s happened?” he asked.

He saw his girlfriend lying on the bloodied ground. He knelt and shouted her name. No response. He shouted again. No response. He wiped away the blood on her face and shouted her name once more. Nothing. He pulled off the scarf that was around his neck and covered her with it. The woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with was dead.

It hadn’t mattered that Bashir and his girlfriend despised the Taliban, which had recently seized Kabul. The shell that killed her was fired by soldiers led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, whose anti-Taliban forces had no concern whether their random ordnance killed civilians. Mayhem they wanted; mayhem they caused.

This was the last straw for Bashir. He had already quit the hospital where he had worked, because the Taliban fired the women who worked alongside him, including his girlfriend, who was also a doctor, and they had ordered him to grow a beard. Bashir is a good Muslim, but he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to be a good Muslim.

Bashir’s life now revolves around Shamshatoo, where he manages a small pharmacy that has a tiny examination room in the back. It is a rudimentary setup. When a man was rushed into the pharmacy with a high fever, the initial treatment consisted of pouring water on his chest and pointing a fan at him. If the patients can pay, and not all can, they offer rupee notes that have passed through so many soiled hands they feel like wastepaper, slippery to the touch.

In a way, Bashir’s lot is worse than that of most refugees at Shamshatoo because he has fallen further. Bashir was born into the bourgeoisie. His father was a successful businessman who loved to entertain foreigners at his home. They had a big house in Kabul, where they lived during the warm months, and another in Jalalabad, where they lived in the winter.

But refugee life is a leveler. Cultural sophistication and higher education reap few benefits. Indeed, if you are a successful professional, you will most likely become an unsuccessful refugee. For example, Pakistan does not recognize Afghan medical degrees. Outside of the camps, Bashir has no marketable skill, and inside the camps, his skills yield only a small income because the most valuable medical commodity at Shamshatoo is not a doctor’s advice—aid groups run four health clinics - but drugs.

Worse, the political rivalries of Kabul followed Bashir into the refugee world. Because of his family’s prominence, gunmen tried to kill him on two occasions, so he moved with his family into a rented home outside Shamshatoo. There are 40 members of the family living in the home—13 adults and 27 children—and they have less than $100 in pooled income each month.

Bashir is unfailingly kind, but his smile is unsteady, as if it were rusty from lack of use. I ask what makes him happy.

“The only thing that gives me pleasure is the thought of leaving this place,” he says.

Nusrat does not want to leave, not yet. he was born and raised near Jalalabad, in a village where his father and grandfather were the equivalent of local aristocracy. Leading his people is a right and, Nusrat maintains, an obligation. That is why, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he headed for the mountains and took command of more than a thousand mujahedeen.

Once the Soviets withdrew, mujahedeen groups began fighting among themselves and then with the Taliban, and Nusrat wanted no part of it. But a commander of his stature could not fade away.

“I didn’t leave Afghanistan out of fear,” he tells me one day over a lunch of meat in oily water, accompanied by a limp tomato salad and yogurt. “I wasn’t afraid of the Taliban. But I wanted to be neutral, and that was impossible. The fighting was not a holy war. It was a war between commanders, and they were fighting over stones. So I left the country.”

Nusrat has four young children and would like the eldest to become a doctor, but he says this is just a dream. He could probably make it come true, however, because there are better camps than Shamshatoo, and with his intelligence and stature, he might be able to live in Peshawar itself, as the most successful refugees do. These are the merchants and smugglers and warlords-turned-smugglers, some quite wealthy, who have graduated from the camps and live in mansions with marble floors and immaculate S.U.V.‘s parked in front.

But that isn’t Nusrat’s way. “These people want me to help them,” he says. “If life is hard for me, it is Allah’s will. I like my people, so I feel good doing this work. You ask if I would feel better quitting this job. The answer is no.”

I ask how old he is. This can be a tricky question for Afghans, partly because a large portion of them are illiterate, partly because they have had more important things to keep track of. Nusrat is not illiterate, but he can only guess at his age, which he estimates as 40.

“For the last 20 years, we haven’t been able to celebrate our birthdays,” he explains. “We have seen only bombing. If you ask about guns and mines and jets and missiles, we can tell you a lot. But our birthdays we don’t remember.”

And where might he be in five years?

“If there is peace, we will be in Afghanistan,” he says. “If there is war, we will be here.”

Emroz Khan Is Having a Bad Day

The New York Times Magazine  |  October 21, 2001
Which is not unusual, and helps explain why Peshawar’s youth are tinder for Islamic extremism.

Emroz Khan destroys for a living. He dismantles car engines, slicing them open with a sledgehammer and a crooked chisel, prying apart the cylinders, tearing out pistons, dislodging screws and bolts and throwing the metal entrails into a pile that will be sold for scrap. He is 21 and has been doing this sort of work for 10 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, earning $1.25 a day.

His hands and arms are gnarled works of body art, stained a rich black like fresh asphalt and ribboned with scars. As dusk falls on Cinema Road, where Emroz works in a shop that is so poor it has no name or sign, he rolls up his sleeve and asks me to put my finger along a bulge on his forearm; it feels as hard as iron. It is iron, a stretch of pipe he drove into his body by mistake. He cannot afford to pay a doctor to take it out.

“I’ve had it for three years,” he says.

He opens his left palm and places two fingers alongside what looks like a crease, then pulls apart the crease to reveal a two-inch gash that runs an inch deep. I hadn’t noticed it because the raw flesh was covered with grease, like the rest of his palm and arm. The wound is two years old.

“We work like donkeys,” Emroz says. “That’s what our life is like. It is the life of animals.”

Javaid Khan watched with apprehension. Javaid, who is 17, began chopping up engines three months ago, when he dropped out of school because he could no longer pay the fees. He is new at this work, so he earns just $2.50 a week. His hands and arms have not yet been mauled, but it will happen. A hospital is nearby, and Javaid wishes he could be one of the clean-cut medical sales reps he sees in the neighborhood. “I do not have the education,” he acknowledges. “It makes me sad to think about it.”

There is much sadness on Cinema Road, so named because of the movie theaters at the bottom of the street. A few feet from the shop where Javaid works, children who don’t know their ages (they look 5 or 6) sift through the scraps of the scrap merchants; one of them squats on the ground and pounds the remains of a light socket, hoping to find a morsel of tin or copper. A few dozen yards farther down the road, boys who might be 10 or 11 clean out goat intestines that have been discarded by a slaughterhouse; the intestines, once dried, can be turned into ersatz leather. The boys reek of offal.

If you want to understand why the world no longer feels terribly safe, you would do well to stroll down Cinema Road. You would hear the chants of the muezzin, the shouts of peddlers selling bruised bananas, the heavings of buses so overloaded that passengers ride on roofs and the cries of mutilated beggars pleading for a few rupees. You would taste curry and dust on your tongue at the same moment, and you would feel heat and energy in the air; at night, you would hear gunfire. The sights and sounds would make you think you had walked into a third-world “Blade Runner,” exhilarating and grotesque. And all around, you would notice young men for whom life is abuse. The population of Peshawar reflects the population of Pakistan as a whole—63 percent are under the age of 25. To varying degrees, that holds true for the Middle East, too; everywhere you look in Cairo or Amman or Gaza or Baghdad or Damascus or Tehran, you see young men. You need not visit these cities to know this; just look closely at the crowds in a protest or funeral; the faces are young, very young. And they are very angry.

Television often distorts matters, and that’s the case with the crowd scenes. Most young men in Pakistan are not burning effigies of President Bush or fighting riot police. Their anger is only loosely articulated, often because they are struggling to survive and cannot afford the luxury of taking an afternoon off to join a demonstration. But the young men you see on television and the ones you don’t see belong to the same deprived generation.

They live where globalization is not working or not working well enough. They believe, or can be led to believe, that America—or their pro-America government, if they live under one—is to blame for their misery. Many are adrift, cut off from their social foundations. Perhaps they moved into the city from dying villages, or were driven there by war or famine. There is no going back for them, yet in the city there is not much going forward; the movement tends to be downward. As they fall, they grab hold of whatever they can, and sometimes it is the violent ideas of religious extremists.

Peshawar, one of the oldest cities in Asia, was conquered by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and the Sikhs and the Afghans, and, in the 19th century, the British. The conquering ceased when Pakistan was born in 1947, but the city remained the gateway to the Khyber Pass and to Afghanistan. That was a curse, because 22 years ago Afghanistan entered an era of warfare that has yet to end. Nearly half of Peshawar’s two million inhabitants are refugees, most of them living in camps that are several degrees below squalid. The local economy revolves around smuggling—of guns and ammunition, of VCR’s and televisions, of heroin and hashish.

Aziz ul Rahman is a product of Peshawar. He is 18, a vocational-school dropout. He has a job at a tire shop, where he works in the mornings. In the afternoons he studies the Koran at a madrassah, or religious school. The one he attends is of the extreme variety, as most are these days. I meet him at a protest, in the Khyber Bazaar, that was organized by a pro-Taliban religious party.

“The American leaders are very cruel to Muslims, so that is why I am taking part in the demonstration today,” he says, politely, as we stand in a shaded alley to get out of the noise and heat. “I hear that the Americans are not doing anything good in Palestine or Bosnia or Chechnya. They are being cruel to Muslims.”

In the background, the speaker of the moment is inciting the crowd against Pakistan’s military regime, which is backing Washington’s anti-terror campaign. “The generals are stupid,” he shouts. Then, like a rock star inviting crowd participation, he calls out, “Generals!” and the crowd roars back, “Stupid!” They are quick learners.

Aziz wants to get back to the demo, so we part ways after a half-hour. He did not fall into religious extremism by choice; his preferred path, of becoming an engineer, was closed off by poverty. This is common in Pakistan. Poor families do their best to send a son to school, but in the end they cannot manage. The son will get a backbreaking job of some sort or, in some cases, keep the donkey’s life at bay by enrolling at a madrassah, most of which offer free tuition, room and board. And that’s where they learn that it is honorable to blow yourself up amid a crowd of infidels and that the greatest glory in life is to die in a jihad.

Politically-engaged youths are a minority, the tip of the iceberg. They are the ones whose anger you see, whose danger you sense. But the upset of Peshawar’s youth is manifested in many ways; in, for example, visits to graveyards, where, among the newly dead and the long-dead, they sit on bamboo mats and sing about their despair as they smoke hashish.

The Pinza Piran cemetery is a shrine of sorts, holding the remains of five famous elders. If you wish to pay your respects, you take off your shoes and walk into a tiled yard, where tinsel hangs from trees and incense burns next to the burial mounds. You say a prayer, give a few rupees to beggars as you leave and walk across the dirt road to a large yard from which musky smoke is issuing.

Nearly 100 men lounge around, most of them in their late teens or 20’s, though some are in their 40’s and 50’s. They sit in groups of four or five, passing around cigarettes spiked with Afghan hash. Some share pipes, known as chilum, which resemble small hookahs, and their bowls are filled with chunks of hash that throw off smoke and flames like a campfire. A man sitting near me says, “You have your bars, we have ours.”

Unless someone is singing, there is little noise. Some of the youths are too drugged to do more than slump against a tree. Others, emaciated looking, are lying down, glassy-eyed; these are the heroin addicts, wasting toward death. There is a man with a tame bird on his shoulder and another with dreadlocks, which are rare in Pakistan.

The best hash, known as tirra, costs about 35 cents for 10 grams. Smoking hashish is against the law, but because Islam does not condemn hash as strongly and explicitly as alcohol, it has become the drug of choice. There is nothing secretive about the activities at Pinza Piran; the police ignore it, especially if 50 rupees (about 80 cents) are slipped into their palms when they nose around.

I sit next to a youth, Malik, who says he is a student at a technical college. He also says that he is forming his own political party, that he has 450 followers across the country and that he is in discussions with Saudis who might provide financial support. He pulls a two-inch thick set of worn business cards from his pocket; evidence, he says, of his network of contacts. He is stoned and perhaps mad, but he echoes public opinion when I ask why he wants to become a politician: “Because all of our leaders are corrupt, and we have to get rid of them.”

Usually someone is playing the rabab, a traditional stringed instrument, and someone is singing, usually a plaintive song about an aching love. There are no women at these gatherings, as the women of Peshawar tend to spend their lives at home, donning a burqa if they venture outside. That is why posters of the uncovered faces of Indian starlets draw eager stares from men as they pass by on the street. The segregation of the sexes is deeply ingrained, but it’s not easy to live with, as the lyrics of one love song I heard indicated:

“Show me your face/Show me your face/Where are you?/Where are you?”

In the many circles of hell that exist for young men in Pakistan, the lowest is found at Dabaray Ghara, on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is an expanse of pits, dug out of the sunbaked earth, in which several thousand men, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, make bricks. It is the hardest of labor because it takes place outdoors, no matter how hot or cold, pays next to nothing and is, literally, backbreaking.

You see children as young as 4 or 5 in the pits, except they are not playing. They are making bricks. There are few men beyond the age of 30 or so. Horses carry bricks from one pit to another, and they do so without being led; they walk back and forth on dusty paths, too tired or too hopeless to imagine trotting away to freedom.

It is the humans, though, who suffer the most. Bakhtiar Khan began working in the pits when he was 10. He is now 25 or 26. He isn’t sure, because nobody keeps close track; time passes, that is all. He works from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, making 1,000 bricks a day, six days a week, earning a few dollars a week. He is thin, he wears no shirt or shoes and he cannot believe a foreigner is asking about his life.

“Life is cruel,” he says. “You can see for yourself. You wear nice clothes and are healthy. But look at us. We have no clothes to wear and we are not healthy. Your question is amazing.”

The situation is worse than it appears, because the youths at Dabaray Ghara carry an invisible burden. They don’t earn enough to live on, so they must borrow, especially when there is a wedding or funeral. They borrow from the men who own the pits, but the interest rates are so high, and their wages so low, that they have no hope of paying back the loans. Bakhtiar and his friends are only vaguely aware that they are indentured slaves.

They are illiterate, and the world of politics is beyond their grasp. In a sense, this is encouraging, because they have no time for polemics or protests. Yet it is discouraging too, because they can be led to rally behind any person or idea that promises to improve their lot.

“I don’t have the knowledge to blame a government,” Bakhtiar says, as a dozen work mates gather around, squatting in the bottom of a pit. “I don’t know about politics, but for our problems, I blame the world community. All humans should be equal, but we are not. You ask me who is to blame. You find out who is to blame.”

He is not without hunches.

“We arrived from Afghanistan 15 years ago. Since then I blame America, because it used to support us, but now it leaves us in a place like this. So if someone is fighting a jihad against America, I would support them. But if America is willing to help us, we support that, too.”

In Peshawar, even the lucky are damned. Ihsan u-Din is enrolled at a civil engineering college. Before that, he attended a private school. His brothers and sisters are enrolled in school, too, thanks to their father’s steady income. Ihsan speaks good English, and he has the ultimate luxury in Pakistan—pocket money, which is why I ran into him at a video parlor.

Ihsan is in the first year of a five-year engineering program. Compared with Emroz and the brick makers, and most youths here, Ihsan has it good. But there’s a catch. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even with a degree, it’s very hard to get an engineering job. You need connections and money. Ihsan’s family doesn’t have enough of either.

“It is a game of money,” he explains. “Even if you are a good engineer, you will not get a positive response when you apply, unless you pay. This has been the truth for 20 years. It hasn’t changed.”

Did I say there was a catch to his life? Actually, there are two. The second one is this: Ihsan’s father is in the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a taxi driver earning infinitely more than he could in Pakistan. He sends money to his family so that his children can eat well and go to school. But Ihsan’s father does not earn enough money to buy a plane ticket home once a year, or once every two years—or hardly ever.

“I have not seen my father for eight years,” Ihsan said. “Is that right? He sends pictures and calls. But we don’t want calls. We want to see him. That is the problem of my country. My father is far from me.”

They might not be separated for long. Ihsan is thinking of leaving school and joining his father in the U.A.E., where he can drive a taxi, if he’s lucky. That’s the best he can hope for—not to work in his country as an engineer but to drive a cab in a foreign land. It may not be the U.A.E.

“America is such a fine place,” Ihsan says.

Haroon Bilour has the answers. a lawyer who serves on the town council, Bilour reels off statistics like a computer spitting out mathematical equations. Nearly half of the city is without running water. Away from the main roads, which are in horrible shape, there are few paved roads. The majority of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty level. They have run their miserable infrastructure right into the ground.

“Peshawar has suffered rather than benefited from globalization,” Bilour says, sitting on a couch in his office. He has bolted the door, because the flow of assistants and colleagues and needy citizens cannot be halted otherwise. “No aid package or special package of any kind has been provided by the world at large, or by the government of Pakistan. This is a very sorry state.”

For Bilour, the answer to Peshawar’s problems comes down to one issue: schools. Building them and ensuring that parents can afford to enroll their children. Not counting refugees, only 52 percent of the city’s school-age children attend school, and of those, nearly one-third attend madrassahs. If the city had the infrastructure to encourage investment and create jobs, and if it had more schools to neutralize the madrassahs, youths might not be tempted to spend their days chanting “Death to America.”

But Bilour is a realist. He knows how reluctant politicians in the West are to lower tariffs, ease quotas or raise foreign aid, even though, currently, foreign aid accounts for only a tiny fraction of government spending. He also knows that the government in Islamabad is unlikely to be much help; corruption is endemic, and a large portion of state revenues go into military spending. So as the United States begins fighting a war that has Afghanistan as its target, Bilour, whose city is the traditional gateway to Afghanistan, is not in a joyous mood.

“We are not against our territory being used for the war against terrorism,” he says. “We fear only that Peshawar will be ignored again. We are petrified that we will have to shelter more refugees, that there will be more bomb blasts here and that we will have no help from the world community. If we are again asked to make sacrifices for the West, we must be able to show our young generation that we can get schools and hospitals and a properly developed city.”


“I am not hopeful.”

The Volunteer

The New York Times Magazine  |  October 7, 2001
Finding love on the battlefield.

A commander in the Hezbul Mujahadeen, a band of Islamic militants, Kiramat Ullah loves to fight, loves to watch videos of fighting, loves to listen to songs about fighting and would be honored to die in battle against American soldiers. When I visited his militia’s provincial headquarters outside Peshawar, a battered stereo was playing a tune that included these lines: “The way of jihad/Is the way of success/The way of jihad/Is the way of the Koran.”

Military training is not conducted at the compound; that happens at secret installations. But reminders of what these men do are quite public. Outside the militia’s office, walls are painted with a two-story list of fighters killed in action in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Inside, I sat on the floor with Kiramat in a spartan room, across from a locker with a sticker that said “Fighting is the way of Allah.”

The atmosphere seemed a bit heavy, so I asked about his hobbies. Did he enjoy cricket, a national sport in Pakistan?

“No,” he said in English. “Jihad.”

There is no shortage of Afghans or Pakistanis who say they are willing to fight American soldiers, and perhaps they all mean it, but Kiramat is the genuine jihad article. For the past 15 years, he has been a holy warrior, first in Afghanistan, against the Soviets, and then in Kashmir, against the Indians. As we sipped green tea, he was awaiting his marching orders, hoping to be dispatched to Afghanistan.

“We would be very happy if America would attack Afghanistan,” he said, “because now all Muslims are divided. If America attacked, it would unite the Muslim world.”

Kiramat is a short man with a thick beard and the physique of an oak tree: it does not matter how big or strong you are; you would not want to mess with him. The fact that he is alive and well after so many years of guerrilla warfare tells you what you need to know. The man knows his business.

Still in search of soft details, I asked what he most enjoyed doing. I thought he might mention spending time with his two children.

“I like jihad the most, when it’s at its peak,” he replied.


“When we start fighting and bullets are flying and we are firing at the enemy and they are crying out and in trouble, and when some of my men are being injured and becoming martyrs. That is the peak. We don’t enjoy sitting around.”

Swimmers love to swim, actors love to act, and as Kiramat reminded me, fighters love to fight. If his actions were not so deadly, it might be tempting to describe his devotion to jihad as childlike in its intensity. This thought occurred to me after the militia’s head of religious instruction, Inayat Ullah, gently tugged my sleeve.

“Excuse me,” he said in good English. “Can you arrange for me to meet your President Bush? Only five minutes needed.”

He was not joking. I said I was not in a position to make such arrangements. He pressed ahead. Might I have Bush’s phone number or e-mail address? He assured me his intentions were not ill. He had a dream the night before in which Allah told him to persuade Bush to embrace Islam. “That would solve the problem,” Inayat explained.

Our discussion moved to other subjects, and several young men came along who wanted to talk with the foreign visitor. Although the militia’s fighters are revved up to fight American soldiers, they are thoroughly civil with noncombatants.

When it was time to leave, Inayat returned to my side. “Excuse me,” he said. “But where does Mr. Clinton live now?”

The following day, when the photographer I am working with returned to the Hezbul Mujahadeen compound, he was told that Kiramat had departed. The reason was simple.


Do You Know the Way to Paradise?

Slate  |  October 4, 2001
Terrorism, suicide and the Quran.

Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a letter that outlined last-minute things he should do and think about, such as not forgetting his passport and ensuring he was not being followed. The letter, according to the FBI, also included these lines: “Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.”

It has become unfortunately common for suicide bombers to state, in eerie before-death videos that are released after an explosion kills dozens on an Israeli street, that they are looking forward to their fatal missions because they know they will reach paradise. That is questionable. The Quran forbids suicide and the killing of innocent people, so it’s more than likely that the 19 men who murdered more than 6,000 civilians last month will wake up in the last place they expected to be—hell.

But the question remains—why do Islamic suicide bombers believe they will go to paradise, and why are they so eager to go there? These questions are easy to explore in Peshawar, where it is hard to say a prayer without being overheard by a mullah. Peshawar, a conservative city in Muslim Pakistan, is near the Afghan border and gave birth to the Taliban’s ideas. Many Taliban leaders were trained at local madrasahs, or religious schools.

My exploration began by driving onto the manicured grounds of Peshawar University, which was built by the British during the days of the raj and still has a colonial feel. Students were playing cricket at dusk, and the campus atmosphere was more Oxford than Pakistan. I stopped at the white-washed residence of professor Qibla Ayaz, a leading Islamic scholar, and we were soon joined by professor Maraj ul Islam, whose expertise involves the interpretation of paradise.

Over tea and sweets, the Quranic discussion began. Paradise is explained quite vividly in suras (or chapters) 55 and 56 of the Quran, which note that those who enter paradise will enjoy “abundant fruits, unforbidden, never-ending.” There will be “gushing fountains” and everyone “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine.”

Wine? Islam forbids alcohol, but only in the earthly life. In paradise, alcohol is no problem at all. It is available not simply for the asking, but for the mere thinking. If you think you want a glass of wine, or anything at all, you shall have it. And that is not the only item forbidden in this life yet plentiful in paradise.

“Therein are bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before ... virgins as fair as corals and rubies,” states sura 55. A few lines later, we are reminded of “virgins chaste and fair ... they shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets.”

When I asked professor ul Islam, who has a doctorate from Leeds University, what the usefulness of these virgins might be for a male resident of paradise, he patted my forearm in a friendly way and said, “You will know when you get there.” His laughter was abundant; I got the joke.

But why does Allah offer luxuries in paradise that are sinful on earth? Free sex, alcohol, bejeweled furniture—paradise would seem a strangely un-Islamic place.

“You are put to the test in this world,” professor Ayaz explained. “If you pass, there are no bans in the next world. It is free.” He went on: “What is the meaning of life? Is life a big house, a good job, a comfortable bank balance? Muslims who believe in their faith are not trying to have a comfortable life here. They are trying to please Allah.” An eternally comfortable life will come in paradise, which is the payoff for the hard times required by Allah on this side of the great divide.

Professor Ayaz raised, without prompting, the question of a typical suicide bomber.

“What is the force that leads him to this act, leaving his family and friends? It is because he is convinced he is going to paradise.”

Professor Ayaz does not believe suicide bombers, such as those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, will wake up in a roomful of virgins. Because those men committed suicide and killed innocents, they are going to hell. Professor ul Islam agreed but downplayed paradise as a motivating factor. He noted the presence in our world of suicide attackers who aren’t paradise-besotted Muslims—the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, as well as the fanatics who shoot up post offices or fast-food restaurants in the United States. “They don’t do it for wine,” Professor ul Islam said. That’s certainly true, but the allure of paradise cannot be ignored. If it’s not important, why would bombers mention it?

In search of more answers, I drove a few miles down the road from professor Ayaz’s house, which is surrounded by a tranquil garden, to another universe, filled with tumult, smog, poverty, laughter, and anger. This is the main bazaar of Peshawar, where beggars and peddlers and cars and donkeys are in a war of noises. I visited a mosque presided over by Movlana Fazle Ahad, a mullah who is also a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a political party that strongly supports the Taliban. The mullah sat on a rug in a sparse room of the mosque, which doubles as a madrasah, and explained the most important aspect of paradise.

“Jihad”—holy war—“is the way of Allah, fighting against people who are harming Muslims,” he said. “In the Quran, Allah says that jihad is the best way for entering paradise.” There are many ways of doing a jihad, he noted, such as donating money to the cause, but the best method, he said, is to risk and lose your life in battle.

“The West is very materialistic, and people believe only in this world, with all its luxuries,” Fazle Ahad continued. “They have no faith in the next life. But my students are very aware and confident of the next life. Because they are my students, they know about the reward of paradise in a jihad. They are not afraid.”

Fazle Ahad noted the injunction against killing innocents and condemned the World Trade Center attacks as atrocities. But in his view, suicide bombing, if committed properly, is Islamic. For example, he believes the suicide bombers in Israel aim to kill soldiers and that civilian casualties are collateral damage of an unfortunate nature, but not paradise-nullifying.

“It is my hope that [the Palestinian bombers] are going to paradise because they are on a jihad, working for Allah,” he said. “They are defending Islam and Muslims, so they must go to paradise.”

Nearly 50 boys attend Fazle Ahad’s madrasah, all of them from Afghanistan, and a dozen of them were sitting outside the room where the mullah and I were meeting. They were studying the Quran, which is, typically, the only subject at madrasahs. No social studies, no foreign languages or current events, just the Quran, constantly. The mullah’s interpretation prevails.

Just as life is not easy for most people in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, life is not easy for Fazle Ahad’s students. They sleep on a hard floor in a room that is unheated in winter and without air conditioning in the summer. They have no contact with females. The food they eat is not in paradise-like proportions. There are no chubby students at the madrasah, and their clothes are a few threads from threadbare.

I sat down with the pupils. Atta Ullah, who is 19 and was born in a village near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered me what he believes to be the most important bit of information about paradise: “It is for those who go on a jihad, and if they are killed, they will go to paradise.” And what happens up there? “Life in paradise is whatever you want it to be—you can have all the fruit you want, all the beautiful women you want. All of these things are available in paradise.”

Looking around the sparse mosque, and noticing a pile of cast-off bread that seemed likely to compose the midday meal, I could understand the attraction of paradise, and I feared the malleability of the students’ minds. That evening, reading the Quran, I noticed, in sura 56, the following lines about Muslims who go to hell: “They shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water, in the shade of pitch-black smoke.”

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How Iona Craig Won a Polk Award for Investigating a Botched SEAL Team Raid in Yemen
The Intercept  |  February 24, 2018

Trump’s Military Parade Is Ridiculous—but He’s Not the First Politician to Use Soldiers as Props
The Intercept  |  February 07, 2018

It’s Time to Wage War Against War Movies That Glorify Outdated Models of Masculinity
The Intercept  |  January 27, 2018

Enough About Steve Bannon. Rupert Murdoch’s Influence on Donald Trump Is More Dangerous
The Intercept  |  January 06, 2018

Interrogation of Reality Winner Reveals Deceptive Tactics of “Exceedingly Friendly” FBI Agents
The Intercept  |  December 28, 2017

Ratko Mladic Was Convicted of Seige Warfare in Bosnia. Will U.S.-Backed Siege in Yemen Face Justice?
The Intercept  |  November 22, 2017

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Peter Maass's blog

Where To Find My Work
February 20, 2017

The NSA Has An Advice Columnist. Seriously.
March 10, 2014

My New Job at First Look
February 06, 2014

Behind the Cover Story: How I Reported on Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden
August 19, 2013

The Snowden Interview
August 13, 2013

PGP Key for Peter Maass
July 29, 2013

On Leakers, Heroes and Traitors
June 18, 2013

Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq
March 19, 2013

» More