Swimming with Warlords – After Twelve Years of War, a Road Trip Through Afghanistan
nder the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.
I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.
In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.
I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.
JD Salinger’s War, by James Franco
Along with Shane Salerno’s new documentary about J. D. Salinger, he has co-written a book about the enigmatic author with my friend and teacher, David Shields. The book is called Salinger, just like the film, but it is filled with ten times more material than the documentary and is ten times better. The book reads like an oral biography, but is much more like a documentary on paper. Like a collage, David and Shane artfully pasted together interviews, letters, and material from J. D.’s books and stories. The result is an insightful and spooky portrait of a recluse who didn’t necessarily desire a total eclipse from the limelight. J. D. renounced publishing because it didn’t fit with his religious beliefs and, possibly, because his work became less admired as his beliefs made their way into his writing.
J. D. Salinger was the son of a butcher, but he learned early on that carving up meat wasn’t the life for him. He fell into writing and drama in high school (later he would think of himself as the only one who could play Holden Caulfield, even after he was well past his teens). After high school, he attended two of my alma maters: NYU in the late 1930s (he dropped out) and Columbia where he worked with Whit Burnett. His early prewar writing had a style indebted to F. Scott Fitzgerald, with debutantes and aimless young characters. When he went to war, however, everything changed.
CSI Afghanistan: Solving Murders in a War Zone
The man’s headless body was found sprawled in the middle of a road in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province. Pinned to his chest was a bloodstained note that read: “Anyone who attends this man’s funeral can expect the same fate.” The Afghan National Police had suspects, but nobody was talking. That’s when they called the nation’s first and only forensics laboratory, the Criminal Techniques Department in Kabul.
The CTD gave the case to Noorullah Sangarkhil, their document-exploitation expert. Using a highly specialized $98,000 machine consisting of specialized lights and digital sensors his NATO instructors had trained him on, Noorullah was able to match the handwriting on the note to the handwriting of one of the suspects the police had apprehended. Thanks to the murderer’s capture, the headless victim’s funeral was well attended.
I traveled to the CTD with a six-man military escort. Here in Afghanistan—an environment of frequent insider attacks—the amount of armor NATO soldiers choose to wear is a good indicator of how they feel about the Afghans they’re dealing with. Once we arrived at the lab, the soldiers shed everything but their rifles, leaving their heavy, ceramic-plated vests and ballistic helmets inside our up-armored SUVs. “We’re here a lot,” explained US Senior Advisor David Jacobson, “These are good guys who care about what they do. I mean, they actually show up for work every day, which in this country isn’t always the case.”
You who judge me
I hope you burn alive and become dust
I hope you are destroyed and disappear from this universe
Your days and nights filled with sorrow and pain
Tear open my chest and see what is inside
Only then can you understand
—Reading Taliban Love Poems in an Afghan Prison
Are Greek Neo-Nazis Fighting for Assad in Syria?
Not every report that comes out of Syria is bad news for Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president. While the world’s media worries about recently radicalized jihadists flying from England to Aleppo to gun down the embattled leader’s soldiers, there’s another type of international engagement playing out in the country—and this time, it’s playing out in the regime’s favor.
Since the conflict began in 2011, far-right groups from across the world have been courting the Syrian government. On the slightly more moderate end of the scale, BNP leader Nick Griffin rode into Damascus a few months back to have his photo taken with the prime minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi, and publicly rail against the Free Syrian Army. On the more extreme end, fascist Greek mercenaries may now be training in Syria to help defend Assad and have formed a European support network to spread pro-regime propaganda.
Just over a month ago, the Irish-Greek blogger Glykosymoritis sent me an article translated from the right-wing Greek newspaper, Democratia. The clipping contained an interview with an obscure far-right group called Black Lily, who were making bold claims about having a “whole platoon of volunteers [who] are fighting side by side with Assad’s government forces.”
I spent the subsequent weeks emailing the group, looking for pictures or video evidence to prove that their fighters are on the ground. The group’s responses were guarded, as they were apparently worried for the safety of their members, but their claims weren’t totally implausible. “These days, more Greeks are in Syria with the Syrian Armed Forces,” they told me. “Very soon we are going to have news.”
Reading Taliban Love Poems in an Afghan Prison
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors—mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation—the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality—accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types—something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.
Dodging Bullets with Syrian Rebels Who Love Soccer and Adolf Hitler
As he does every morning, Amir wakes me by asking if I would like to die with him. “I can take you to Damascus, but we won’t survive. We’ll go to Allah together, you and me, as martyrs,” he says, grinning as though we both had nothing better to do today, or any other day, than buy the farm.
“Forget it, Amir,” I say. “I’m not in a dying mood.” It was a long night of soccer—Dortmund vs. Malaga. I shake my head and try to shake the pins and needles from my limbs. “Not today!”
Sooner or later, I want to see Damascus. But I want to see it alive. Amir is 22 and hates waiting. He is always thinking of things to do. “I want to show you something!” he says, hopping excitedly from one foot to the other. “Get up! Get up!” A field trip? Why not? Almost anything beats spending the day in a semi-trance state on a mattress covered with stains.
Omar Khadr: War Criminal, Child Soldier… or Neither?
Omar Khadr made his first appearance in a Canadian court on Monday. After an 11-year journey from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay to Canada’s Millhaven Institution, the Toronto-born man is now in Edmonton’s federal prison. He was 15 when he was captured and tortured at Bagram. He turned 27 last Thursday.
If you’re not familiar with the case it goes loosely as follows: When the Americans first arrested Omar in Afghanistan, he was accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American solider. For eight years he maintained his innocence, until he signed a plea deal in 2010 that got him out of Guantánamo. Omar was then convicted of five counts of war crimes for his actions, which were not recognized as such anywhere else in the world including Canada.
Omar’s case is complex. While the American solider he is accused of killing certainly died from a grenade, there is no evidence showing that Omar ever threw one. And while Omar confessed to these crimes, it was after eight years of torture—and given his option to either insist upon his innocence and stay in Gitmo or confess to the crimes and see a judge in Canada, the context of his confession was problematic at best.
The Canadian Supreme Court has even ruled that that Omar’s right were violated, but left the remedy up to the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who of course declined to provide any solution.
Harper himself has been making strong statements about the trial in an apparent attempt to influence the court proceedings—he’s said that “It is very important that we continue to vigorously defend against any attempts, in court, to lessen his punishment for these heinous acts.”
Omar’s counsel, Dennis Edney, argued that he should be transferred to a provincial prisonfrom a federal institution due to his age when the alleged crimes took place. In a confusing instance of legal doublespeak, the Crown’s prosecutors are arguing that Omar has not really been sentenced to eight years, but rather to five eight-year sentences served at the same time. Associate Chief Justice J.D. Rook has reserved judgment to a currently undetermined future date.
Heather Marsh, a journalist who has followed Omar’s case closely, was in court on Monday and wrote about it for us.
The media swarming Khadr’s lawyer outside of Monday’s hearing. Photo by the author
The court was filled with what seemed to be Omar’s supporters. Many were wearing orange or orange ribbons and I spoke to several of them. There was a high schooler who said she was done with classes for the day, students from several different universities skipping class even though they had exams next week, and people of all ages and ethnic groups. After the media were moved to the jury box and people were encouraged to squeeze together, 120 people were in the courtroom and a live feed was set up for those who had to watch from the overflow room.
Syrian Rebels Are Killing Each Other for Control
"Watch out—there are snipers on this street," warned the ISIS fighter as my driver stopped next to him and eight other heavily armed men who were preparing to head into battle. ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is an offshoot of al Qaeda currently operating on the battlegrounds of Syria.
He wouldn’t have guessed it, but we were all trying to reach the same place—the front line outside the headquarters of yet another of the militant groups fighting in Syria, Ahfad al-Rasul. This organization is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and had declared war on ISIS just a few hours earlier, for control of the provincial capital of Raqqa.
This was my third visit to the city in the four months since it had been “liberated,” as Syrians tend to refer to areas where rebels have managed to expel government troops.The battle against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Raqqa had only lasted for about a week—a sharp contrast to the fighting in Aleppo, where gunfights and shelling have continued for over a year since the conflict began.
Once rebels take control of an area, it is now standard procedure for the regime to respond by bombarding it with indiscriminate air strikes in the hope of killing swathes of anti-Assad fighters. But back in April, just weeks after the liberation, cheerful residents seemed to greet the inevitable trail of destruction as a good thing—a sign of the progress the rebels were making.
Recently, however, the tension has risen considerably in Raqqa and the atmosphere has completely changed, as the rebel resistance continues to splinter, pitting many groups who once fought side by side against Assad against each other. The original celebration of freedom has given way to fear and uncertainty.
A number of civil movements—both religious and secular—have also been trying to establish themselves in a bid to influence the future of the city and eventually the country. A group named Haqna, Arabic for “Our Right”, is one of the organizations leading the charge. Its logo, a hand making a V sign, the index finger marked with election ink, is spray-painted all over the city. Mostly made up of young local activists, Haqna is aiming to educate the population about their civil rights and the importance of elections.
The American Filmmaker Who Became a Freedom Fighter in Libya
Matthew VanDyke has had an interesting few years. In 2008, the Baltimore-born filmmaker set off on a three-year motorcycle expedition around North Africa and the Middle East, pretending to be either Afghani or Icelandic to avoid hassle from jihadists or anyone else in the region who isn’t particularly keen on Americans. During that time, he popped into bin Laden’s old home, went to cockfights in Iraq, visited mausoleums in Afghanistan and generally had a pretty nice time from the sounds of it.
In February of 2011, as he was finishing up his trip, Matthew was contacted by friends in Libya who explained the burgeoning social strife in the country, telling him that their family members were being arrested, injured or disappearing completely. In a bid to help, VanDyke flew out and became a freedom fighter against Gaddafi’s forces. Until March 13, when he was hit in the head during combat and woke up in a prison in Sirte, before being transferred to two separate Tripoli prisons, where he spent a total of six months in solitary confinement.
After he disappeared, Matthew was described in the media as a freelance journalist, and various NGOs—including the Committee to Protect Journalists—lobbied Gaddafi’s government to release him. After he was eventually broken out of his cell by other prisoners, VanDyke returned to the battlefield, which pissed off a number of journalists, who accused him of choosing to be a “journalist” only when it suited him—i.e., when he wanted to go back to freedom fighting.
Those journalists obviously didn’t quite understand the full details of his case—specifically that he’d never told anyone he was a journalist—but he remains a controversial figure in certain circles (circles that presumably don’t have any access to the internet) nonetheless. Matthew’s latest documentary, Not Anymore: A Story About Revolution, focuses on the human impact of the Syrian revolution. I gave him a call to talk about his new film, his time in prison and the distinctions between being a journalist and a documentary maker.
Matthew on his motorbike in Afghanistan.
VICE: Hi, Matthew. What has your time in the Middle East taught you about humanity?
Matthew VanDyke: I’ve basically seen the full range of humanity, from the coolest to the worst. During my years in the region, there were times that I had problems and people helped me, showing me very generous hospitality. Some of the friends I made, especially in Libya, were higher quality friends than the ones I have in America, really. But, of course, I’ve also seen some of the worst things in Libya and Syria that I’ve ever seen. It’s the full range of human experience.
What was the worst experience you had during your time there?
The worst, I guess, was when I was in prison in Libya, hearing men being violently interrogated or tortured through the walls. I’ve seen people whose feet had been beaten, I’ve seen people Gaddafi had executed – dead bodies put in graves, unmarked except for just a concrete block. On my first day in Syria, I saw a baby without a head brought into the hospital. That they would even bring the infant to the hospital had a whole other level of horror to it. They were still under shock from what had happened, I guess, so they wrapped the child in a blanket and brought it there, just hoping that something could be done.