Archive for the 'Asia' Category

The Patient Investigative Journalist

Tuesday, September 4th, 2018

Reporter; A Memoir, Seymour M. Hersh, 2018
This is Hersh’s eleventh book. His Henry Kissinger book was first published in 1983, long after Kissinger left the government. We are still awaiting his Dick Cheney book. Hersh explains that writing always came easy to him:

<> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> Sy Hersh

I grew up in a world where the incentive to learn came from within me, as did a sense of whom to trust and whom to believe. I was guided as a confused and uncertain eighteen year old by a professor who saw potential in me, as did Carroll Arimond at the Associated Press, William Shawn at The New Yorker, and Abe Rosenthal at The New York Times. They published what I wrote without censorship and reaffirmed my faith in trusting those in the military and intelligence world whose information and friendship, I valued but whose names I could never utter. I found my way when it came to issues of life and death in war to those special people who had the integrity and intelligence to carefully distinguish between what they knew — from firsthand observation at the center — from what they believed. The trust went two ways; I often obtained documents I could not use for fear of inadvertently exposing the sources, and there were stories I dared not write for the same reason.
I never did an interview without learning all I could about the person with whom I was meeting, and I did all I could to let those I was criticizing or putting in professional jeopardy just what I was planning to publish about them.
I will return to the Cheney book when the time is right, and when those who helped me learn what I did after 9/11 will not be in peril.

Kissinger Cheney Bush

Cardinal O’Conner Archbishop of New York told Hersh:

“My son, God has put you on earth for a reason, and that is to do the kind of work you do, no matter how much it upsets others. It is your calling.”

<> <> <> <> <> Abe Rosenthal

Some of the more interesting parts of this book deal with the relationship of Hersh with Abe Rosenthal, Executive Editor of The New York Times. Their first interaction was a phone call while Hersh was working on the Meadlo (a soldier at the My Lai massacre) story. A copy of the story had been sent to the Times and Rosenthal wanted to send a Times reporter to interview Meadlo. Hersh grabbed the phone:

“Mr. Rosenthal, it’s Sy Hersh. Listen, you want an interview with Paul Meadlo? Well he’s somewhere in New York. Find him.”

Hersh slammed the phone down. Seconds later the phone rings again. Hersh grabs it:

“Mr. Hersh”, Abe Rosenthal yelled, ” Do you know who I am?”. “Yes”, replied Hersh and hung up on him again.

CBS Evening News aired Mike Wallace’s interview with Paul Meadlo that same evening. Hersh later regretted his temper tantrum but Rosenthal hired him anyway.
William Calley, the only soldier court martialed for My Lai served three months in prison. Stories continue to break about the attempted cover up and the role of higher officers. My Lai was not an isolated event. On the same day as the My Lai 4 massacre, at My Khe 4, another massacre occurred with more than a hundred civilian deaths.
The Times hired Hersh on the basis of his My Lai reporting. Hersh wanted to pursue three other stories at the Times; the secret bombing of Cambodia and military falsification of documents; Nixon, Kisssinger, and the CIA’s interference with the Allende government in Chili; and the several hundred million dollar effort by the military to recover a Soviet Nuclear submarine sunk in the Pacific. Rosenthal, however, was tired of reading the daily Washington Post reporting by Berstein and Woodward on the Watergate break in and reassigned Hersh to this story. Hersh uncovered the existence of the Nixon plumbers operation and the break in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst’s office in California. Nixon was paranoid that Ellsberg might have other documents beyond the Pentagon papers that might be damaging to him. Ellsberg and Hersh became friends and saw Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon together. Ellsberg did have additional documents about nuclear war planning which he hid in a trash dump. A mud slide destroyed those files and Ellsberg spent almost 50 years reconstructing them for his latest doomsday machine book.
When the Nixon white house tapes were found, the Watergate story exploded and Bob Woodward and Hersh started sharing information to save duplication and time. They often met over tennis and Woodward quipped that Hersh never paid for the tennis time. Hersh clarifies here that Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post was paying for the court time.

William Calley 3 months Reality Winter 5 years

This book doesn’t deal with whistle-blowers other than to note how tough Obama was on them. Virtually all NSA whistle-blowers have had their careers ruined. The latest, Reality Winter, has been sentenced to at least five years for telling the public that the Russians attempted to hack electoral systems and voter lists during the 2016 elections. Calley, convicted of killing 21 innocent Vietnamese, served three months.

<> <> <> <> <> <> Mob Fixer Korshak

Hersh briefly dipped into an investigation of organized crime with a series of articles on the Chicago Jewish fixer attorney for the mob Sidney Korshak. Korshak’s influence with the Teamsters in New York prevented delivery of part 1 of the Times Korshak story.

When Hersh undertook to investigate the New York based corporation Gulf and Western, he hired a graduate school knowledgeable about securities issues to help him. Unfortunately, Punch Sulzberger, publisher of the Times did not want to offend his club buddies from Gulf and Western and the articles were mercilessly edited and all anonymous quotations removed. Rosentenhal was unable to defend Hersh and this was the start of the end of Hersh’s career at the Times. Nonetheless, John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard economist wrote Hersh:

“The pieces on Gulf and Western are excellent — better than most readers will know. Extracting usable information from these characters, as I can attest from slight experience, is more difficult by a factor of ten than from the CIA. Thanks again.”

<> <> <> <> <> <> John Kenneth Galbraith

Hersh wondered why there was still so little cooperation between the intelligence community even after 9/11. He asked a long time CIA operative:

Don’t you get it Sy? The FBI catches bank robbers. We rob banks. And the NSA? Do you really expect me to talk to dweebs with protractors in their pockets who are always looking down at their brown shoes?”

When Hersh had a story about the killing of Osama Bin Laden that contradicted much of the Obama administration account, neither the Times nor the New Yorker (under David Remnick) would touch the story and Hersh published the story with the London Review of Books. He then published the book about the killing. Steve Cole in his recent book about Afghanistan and Pakistan entitled Directorate S does not mention Hersh’s killing account but seems to endorse the Obama version of events. Hersh comments:

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The possibility that two dozen navy SEALs could escape observation and get to bin Laden without some help from the Pakistani military and intelligence community was nil.

Hersh says the focus of the coverage should have been the double cross of Pakistan, not the refusal of the Times and The New Yorker to publish the story. During his long career he has often been challenged sometimes very bitterly. Hersh replies;

I will happily permit history to be the judge of my recent work.

Hersh discovered that James Jesus Angleton oversaw CIA domestic spying on Vietnam war protestors from 1967. Hersh’s story led to Angleton’s resignation in 1974.

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Hersh disclosed that in 1968 6,000 sheep died in a nerve gas experiment gone wrong at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. A different wind could have carried the gas to Salt Lake City.

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Also featured in this book is Harrison Salisbury who covered the Soviet Union for the Times from 1949 to 1954. He returned to New York where he covered the civil rights movement, the assassination of JFK and other stories until he retired from the Times as associate editor in 1973. He wrote his book on the Times, Without Fear or Favor in 1980. In this book, Salisbury wrote about the Watergate investigation:

“It was as though Sy Hersh had been born for this moment.”

In all Salisbury wrote 29 books including the 1969 Siege of Leningrad. He witnessed the Tienanmen demonstrations and massacre in 1989 and wrote The New Emperors: China in the era of Mao and Deng in 1992, portraying Mao and much of the leadership as Opium addled. Salisbury was from the beginning against the Vietnam War and was the first American journalist to be given a visa to visit Hanoi in 1966. He wrote extensively about the US bombing of Hanoi at this time. Hersh was the second American reporter to be given a visa to Hanoi. There he met Defense Minister Vo Ngyuyen Giap and the Paris negotiator Le Duc Tho .

The Steel Factory

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Ezra F. Vogel, 2011

Three Stampers

A thorough (800 pages) account of the life and impact of Deng on the modernization of China. Deng’s history including his years in France, where he first met Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Min, and Russia, his roles in the war against Japan and the Civil War against the Guomindang and the early years of the Communist rule of China up to the Cultural Revolution are covered in only 45 pages. The tale really begins in 1967, when Deng, age 63, is placed under house arrest. In 1969 with the plane crash that killed Lin Biao and the first Soviet incursions into Outer Mongolia, Mao has Deng sent to Jiangi province where he was given light factory work in an army controlled facility. He would not be recalled to Beijing until 1974, when Zhou Enlai had again fallen from Mao’s grace and was dying of cancer and Mao himself was fast failing from Lou Gerhig’s disease. After some success in restoring order to the railroads and key provinces, Deng again is attacked by Mao starting in 1975. Zhou Enlai dies in early 1976 and Mao attempts a quiet ceremony only to see Beijing and Tiananmen overrun with spontaneous mourners. On April 5 1976 a massive demonstration is held in Tiananmen Square for Zhou and Deng. Jiang Qing (Mao’s separated wife) and the Gang of Four (so named by Mao) set out to quell the demonstration and continue the criticism of Deng. Hua Guofeng is named Mao’s successor and Mao dies on September 9, 1976. Hua immediately moves to arrest the Gang of Four who are tried and executed for their role in the Cultural Revolution and the purge following the April 5 demonstration. Deng immediately consolidates his power in the military and foreign affairs and quietly sets out to remove Hua. Deng never assumes the titles of leadership and never creates a cult of personality around himself.

The “Four Modernizations” to develop agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology was formalized by Zhou Enlai in 1963 and underpinned the policies of Deng after 1977. Mao had believed in the need for continuous revolution which resulted in the chaos and tragedies that were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Mao engaged in perpetual war against the landlords and capitalists. But Mao also attacked the intellectuals and educated Chinese and Deng led in the purges of the Hundred Flowers campaign starting in 1957. By 1977, Deng had come to realize that China would need an educated class to promote education, research, and modernization. Chinese universities had been largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, were occupied by the army, and were operating at a secondary school level. Deng moved to normalize relations with the US with a primary goal to send large numbers of Chinese students to US universities. He reformed the Universities to qualify students for admission to foreign Universities. Deng explained that working with your mind was the same as working with your hands and all work should be honored. Asked if Deng wasn’t worried that the students would stay abroad, Deng responded that it didn’t matter because they were still Chinese and would help China wherever they chose to live and work. As it turned out sizable numbers of students did return to China where they played key roles in China’s transformation.

Shenzhen old and new

Deng was famous for his memorable quotes “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” and “When you open the door, flies will get in.” to explain his openness to economic and market experimentation and willingness to tolerate some corruption if economic progress results. The usual focus is on China’s development of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) led by Shenzhen near Hong Kong which grew from a sleepy village of 20,000 to a metropolis of several million with tall modern buildings and all infrastructure needed to support modern manufacturing. But equally important to the transformation of China were allowing certain regions to move from collective farming to household farming resulting in huge increases in food production and the promotion of small enterprises at the collective and household level to produce and market products wanted and needed by the people Household farming and small scale enterprise came to produce half of China’s GNP.

Particularly interesting were Vogel’s reasons why China developed so differently from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He points out the China had a long history as a culturally unified area dominated by the Han people. The entire country had a single written language and Mandarin was long the official government spoken language. Mao simplified the written language and made sure all Chinese were taught Mandarin and simplified Chinese writing. Second, China has a long coastline and many deep water seaports unlike the other Communist countries. This advantage makes it far easier to import technology and export products. Transportation in the interior of China was limited but the coastal cities were not held back by this limitation. Third, China had the examples of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, (the dragons) and Japan to study and emulate. Finally, many millions of Chinese were living overseas throughout the developed world. China found these overseas Chinese very ready to assist in the modernization process. Deng was advised by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Hong Kong shipping magnate Y K Pao and several Chinese American Nobel laureates.

old steel and new

The largest foreign investor in China was Japan. Vogel points out that the eye opening trips made by Chinese leaders to Japan and Western countries in the late 1970s resembled the Iwakura Mission of 1871 in Meiji Japan. Like Japan, these trips served to show the Chinese how far behind they were. This was brought home most tellingly when Deng visited an automated continuous production steel plant in Japan whose production was almost the equivalent of all China’s antique plants combined. With Japan’s technical, financial, and management assistance, China today produces more steel than the US and Japan combined. Deng was equally interested in how Japan had converted from a war production economy during the war to a peacetime, consumer economy so quickly after the war ended.

Deng began his rule with two bold moves. He authorized a lightning strike military invasion of Vietnam to demonstrate that China could threaten Hanoi anytime it chose. Troops took control of all northern county capitals then withdrew to China in only 28 days. Deng calculated that this surprise move would stall Vietnam’s aggressions in Laos and Cambodia and to warn the Soviets to stay away from the southern region, would secure China for at least a decade, giving him time and space to implement his economic reforms. Second, Deng moved immediately to normalize relations with the US so that the Soviets would be detained from aggression, Chinese students could begin study in US universities to close the training gap, and the US could be encouraged to invest in China. Central in Deng’s mind was US education of China’s best students.

Vogel spends a lot of time discussing the Tiananmen Square student uprising of 1989. Deng started his leadership by normalizing relations with the US and wanted to bookmark his regime with normalized relations with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev visited Beijing in late May 1989 to finalize the normalization agreement. Hu Yaobang, as General Secretary was a reformer promoting freedom and democracy much beloved by Chinese university students. Hu was removed from office and criticized for his failure to deal with student demonstrations in 1986. When he died in 1989, the students came to Tiananmen Square to honor Hu much like the earlier mourning demonstrations in honor of Zhou. Hu replaced Zhou in the hearts of the students. Deng desperately wanted to clear the square by the time Gorbachev arrived. He wrote a tough editorial which only strengthened the resolve of the demonstrators. Days before Gorbachev and massive worldwide media arrived in Beijing the students started a hunger strike. Western press which came to cover the Gorbachev visit quickly turned their focus to the demonstrators. Deng tried to clear the square with unarmed soldiers but failed. He waited for Gorbachev and the Western press to leave then sent in heavily armed troops with orders to clear the square at any cost. Estimates of student deaths vary from 400 to several thousand. Zhao Ziyang was removed from power for disagreeing with Deng’s handling of the demonstration.

Factions remained under Deng with the reformers on the right and the conservatives led by Chen Yun on the left. The early success of creating a market economy in China resulted in double digit GNP growth for a number of years in succession. By the late 1980’s the massive growth led to inflation anticipated to be 30% in 1989. Inflation was particularly hard on the mass of Chinese living with fixed incomes. Chen and the conservatives blamed the Tiananmen demonstrations on this inflation and moved too aggressively to contain it bringing the Chinese economy to a hard landing with growth under 4%. The conservatives remained in control until 1992 until Deng, then 87 years old initiated one final movement during his winter vacation in the south. During visits in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, Deng spoke out colorfully and strongly for liberalization and expansion of his socialist market economy. Hong Kong media quickly picked up on Deng’s tour and began broadcasting coverage of his talked via television which was now widely available in the regions near Hong Kong. Popular support for his views exploded and his hand picked successor Jiang Zemin quickly changed sides from the Chen led conservatives to the Deng led reformers. In his last movement, Deng thus set the stage for the resumption of the fast growth that continues to this day. From this time forward, inflation fighting measure assured that the economy would have a soft landing and rapid growth continue.

the Steel Factory melts the Iron Lady

The British handover of Hong Kong took place in 1997 just months after Deng’s death. Preparations for the handover occupied a central part of Deng’s attention during his rule. He knew that Hong Kong would be invaluable as a financial and trade center as it had since the revolution in 1949. Deng consistency pressed the one country – two systems approach to dealing with Hong Kong. He continued to develop personal relationships with key Hong Kong businessmen and made sure that the right people from China were appointed to Hong Kong and that Hong Kong leaders were developed to be able to take over when the British administrators left. One of Vogel’s better stories is the visit of Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady) to Deng (the Steel Factory) in September 1982. Thatcher was riding high after her victory in the Falken Islands and intended to tell Deng that Britain had decided to keep administering Hong Kong indefinitely. Deng changed her mind for once and all. China would administer Hong Kong and warned Britain not to attempt to drain assets from Hong Kong prior to the handover.

China’s efforts to reassure the residents of Hong Kong received a big setback after the Tiananmen Square repressions and individual residents continued to leave Hong Kong for Canada and other destinations taking as much wealth with them as possible. For all the drama, the handover went smoothly and Hong Kong continues its role today as financial center and trading center for China and Hong Kong’s residents continue to prosper.

Modern Shanghai Bund

What about Shanghai, China’s largest manufacturing center when Deng took over? Shanghai was initially excluded from the SEZ creations because of its size and complexity and because Deng was worried that the SEZs would be seen as a recreation of the colonial past with the foreign concessions. Shanghai was allowed to modernize later and Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin made his reputation in Shanghai.

It is difficult for those in China an abroad who became adults after Deng stepped down to realize the enormity of the problems Deng faced as he began this journey; a country closed to fundamentally new ways of thinking; deep rifts between those who had been attacked during the Cultural Revolution and their attackers; proud military leaders who were resistant to downsizing and budget reductions; public animosity toward imperialists and foreign capitalists; an entrenched conservative socialist structure in both the countryside and the cities; a reluctance by urban residence to accept over 200 million migrants from the countryside; and dissension as some people continued to live in poverty while others became rich…It is doubtful that anyone else had the combination of authority, depth and breadth of experience, strategic sense, assurance, personal relationships, and political judgement needed to manage China’s transformation with comparable success.

Four Generations

Another reason to study this work is for the insights it gives into the inner workings of the political system, the campaigns, the training and promotion of leaders, the complex intrigues between ruling cliques. Deng watched events unfold as labor unions struck in Poland, Nicolai Ceausescu was overthrown in Romania, and as Gorbachev set out to reform the communist party only to see the collapse of the entire Soviet system. Deng was determined to keep a strong single communist party with adherence to the thought of Lenin, Marx, and Mao (with Deng as the high priest of interpretation). At the same time he believed that leaders should experiment, make mistakes, admit their mistakes, correct their mistakes, and experiment again. He carefully avoided the Kruschev mistake of critizing Stalin, finding quotes from Mao that he was correct 70% of time, in other words Mao made mistakes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, for which Mao accepted responsibility (he did?), corrected, and moved on to new experiments.

Deng believed that training leaders, giving them freedom to experiment, judging the results (did the cat catch mice? were the flies tolerable?), correcting mistakes, including changing leaders if necessary is the key role of the communist party leadership. Deng believed that reform and economic transformation could only be accomplished by the selection of the proper leadership at the national and regional levels. Deng and his cohort were the second and last generation to have experienced the wars as leaders. Deng was determined to force his cohort of old revolutionaries to retire with him and to pass the reigns to a much younger generation of leaders who grew up in very different conditions. We have now seem several and are about to see the next changing of the guard as the next generation assumes power in a peaceful transfer. All this is the rightful legacy of Deng.

Greg goes to Afghanistan – Kashmir

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson, 2009

Update June 21, 2013. In 2011 allegations of fabrication and misconduct were made against Mortenson and CAI. For a comprehensive summary of his book “Three Cups of Tea”, the 60 minutes expose, and Jon Krakauer’s findings see Wikipedia‘s entry.
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Here is an update on the activities of Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and his self selecting “Dirty Dozen” following up on his previous Three Cups of Tea. Greg begins with an event from 1999 while he was visiting the Charpurson Valley. He had just met Sarfraz Khan, former mujahedin fighter with a disfigured hand who is making his living trading across the mountains into the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan (“no much success”) when they spot a group of 14 Kirghiz (nomadic Afghan) horsemen straight out of the 13th Century riding toward them. Their leader is the young son of the Kirghiz headman and he has heard that Mortenson is in the area and has ridden across the mountains to meet him and see if he would be willing to build a school for their children. Greg is so moved that he impulsively promises their school knowing full well he can’t go into Taliban controlled Afghanistan. It takes him ten years to keep his promise.


Video by Sarfraz Khan

Greg is so impressed with Sarfraz, who speaks seven languages and whose ancestors are Waki from the Corridor, that he hires him as his remote areas project manager. Thus begins what Greg calls the closest friendship of his life.

The promise of the school and the hiring of Sarfraz are the sort of impulsive decision making that make the CAI unique among NGOs. The other unique feature is their “last place first” philosophy, probably owing its origin to the first school Greg built in Korphe Pakistan a village so remote he first had to raise more money so he could build a bridge across a river in order to transport building materials to the village. Korphe was the village that rescued and nursed Greg after his failed attempt to climb nearby K2 and its headman Haji Ali is credited with Greg’s first and best education in the area (“After 3 cups of tea you will be friends forever.”). Haji Ali wanted a school for his grandaughter Jahan Ali, who became CAIs first high school graduate. The emphasis on girl’s education Greg acquired while growing up in Africa (where his father ran a hospital near Mount Kilimanjaro) and where he learned the expression “educate a boy and you educate an individual, educate a girl and you educate a community”. Greg has observed his girl students teaching their mothers to read and write proving to him the truth of this saying.

CAI offers scholarships to the smartest girls to continue their eduction. Once offered, these scholarships can be accepted at any time in the future. One girl was unable to accept a scholarship to become a health worker because of the opposition of the local headman. She married, raised children, and ten years later, the new headman asked her to accept her scholarship. She did, received her education, and returned to her village to help pregnant woman and their babies. Childbirth and infant mortality rates in her village fell to zero. She thinks that her own experiences as a wife and mother have helped her become a better trained health worker and she is grateful for the delay. This type of patience both by CAI and the students is one of the important lessons Greg has learned from his experience.

wakhan corridor
Wakhan Corridor

After 9/11 and the US displacement of the Taliban, Greg and Safran entered the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and Safran began his education of Greg into Afghan “style“. Safran not only speaks the various languages of the area, but he adapts his accent to the specific region, speaking a fast, clipped Dari in Kabul, and slowing, softening, and rounding the language as he travels further into the Corridor until he morphs seamlessly into the next language of the region. He also adjusts his dress according to region and teaches Greg to follow him. Greg must have felt a little like Sir Richard Burton, the master of disguises. Safran also taught Greg about identifying the real decision makers during a Jirga (meeting of elders) just from their subtle gestures and body language. They develop close friendships with the leaders of the Waki and Tajik groups of the Corridor as well as the border security commander, Wohid Khan, who comes to their aid time after time. They build a series of more than 20 schools in the area. Safran also taught Greg the skills of avoiding kidnapping by never revealing your destination and changing transport frequently. This also assures that the driver is familiar with local conditions. They are constantly moving large sums of money from the Kabul bank to their remote schools to pay teachers, buy supplies and pay for construction. They are never robbed.

In 2005 the report that Americans had put a Koran down the toilet in an Iraqi prison set off riots throughout the Islamic world. NGO workers fled to Kabul and their offices and abandoned vehicles were destroyed. Greg stayed put as a guest in a house where he met for the first time the headman of the Kirghiz, Abdul Rashid Khan the father of horseman Greg and Safran had met in 1999. Abdul Rashid is returning empty handed from several months in Kabul where he had hoped to get help for his isolated people. Hamid Karzi made some half hearted promises which he had no intention of keeping. Abdul Radhid had spent much of his remaining capital to finance the trip. The government eventually sent one rusted out van to the Kirghiz who have no roads. Greg is able to again promise that CAI will build a school in Kirghiz so the old man can return home with some hope. The next day Greg traveled through scenes of destruction (the NGO offices) on his way to determine the fate of his nearby school. The school stood untouched because the village elders had stood in front of it explaining that the school belongs to the village. The rioters departed elsewhere. Greg credits the CAI strategy of making sure the local community takes full pride and ownership of their own schools with saving this school in the riots. The school was not viewed as international by the elders. Again on the NGOs, Greg comments that they insist on dressing in western clothes, drive the latest SUVs complete with nine foot satellite antennas, and generally just scream rich foreigners to the impoverished Afghanis. No wonder they find themselves targets of violence and resentment.

Greg is constantly approached by people wanting schools for their villages. Among those was the desk clerk at the Kabul guest house where Safran and Greg stay when in town. The clerk is a young Pashtun, Wakil Karimi, who grew up in Pakistani refugee camps and speaks several languages including English which is how he got the guest house job. Wakil persists about his school in visit after visit and Safran and Greg get to like him for his intelligence, energy, and persistence. They offer him a job as Afghan project manager and Safran begins Wakil’s boot camp training in Afghan “style“. Wakil’s village is in Taliban country but they visit and decide to let Wakil build his school once they see that the village elders really want it.

azad kashmir
Azad Kashmir

Then, in 2005, a massive earthquake devastates much of Pakistani controlled Kashmir. The CAI rushes to the area to see what they can do. Most schools in the area have collapsed and many students have died. The CAI manage to get some tents for temporary schools and start traveling among their tent schools to give aid and pay the teachers. They can’t rebuild schools because people are on the move, farming terraces and drinking water springs have disappeared, the students are afraid to be inside buildings, and their usual stone construction would just collapse in the next earthquake. The CAI scrounged some PVC piping and found itself restoring water supplies so the girls could stop carrying water and return to school. This infuriated some NGOs who had lucrative contracts to restore water but CAI could care less. They just wanted to get their schools functioning again and the NGOs would probably never get the job done.

Greg is always emphasizing the importance of listening. His daughter asked him one day how the earthquake victim children played. Greg thought maybe they didn’t play at all so his young daughter launched a personal effort to round up jump ropes. Mothers joined in and soon he returned to Pakistan carrying hundreds of jump ropes. They were a big success in Kashmir and soon CAI is buying jump ropes locally. Greg starts thinking that while a couple of school have play fields (for soccer), none have a playground with slides, swings, and see-saws. CAI starts adding these to their schools. He relates a story on Bill Moyer’s Journal and in this book about a group of pro Taliban elders who come to see one of CAIs schools. They spend 30 minutes playing on the playground equipment and then started to leave. Greg asked them if they don’t want to see the school. They say no, they already decided they want CAI to build them a school like this one but they insist it must have a playground.

In another instance of listening carefully, Greg finally got one traumatized girl to relate the experience of the earthquake in her tent class. When Greg asked her why so few students had returned to class she said it was because there were no desks and it didn’t seem like a school. The students somehow associated having a desk with the learning and security of school. Greg immediately set villagers to work finding salvageable desks in the school’s rubble and building new ones. The students returned to school, some even without tents sitting under a tree once the desks were available.

Greg returned home to Montana to raise more money but Safran meanwhile uncovered some Chinese engineers in Pakistan who have experience building earthquake resistant structures in Xinjiang Province China. He arranges for the Chinese to design and fabricate three schools in Xinjiang, arranges transport for the materials from Xinjiang, and sets the logistics in place to compete the schools on site in Kashmir in only one month. Lastly, (after already committing CAI to the schools without authorization) he faxes Greg in Montana for the $54k needed for the schools catching Greg by total surprise. Greg takes the schematics for the buildings which are prefabricated from wood and designed to move in a quake to a civil engineering professor in Bozeman. they are to be assembled on a floating concrete pad which can also move in the quake. They are designed to withstand a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The professor declares the designs sound and Greg gets CAI board approval, as always, to proceed. The schools are ready for occupation in 19 days. Just another typical CAI project.

The following link shows a video with one of these earthquake resistant schools, the Balseri Girls School, Patika, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan in the background.

Greg comments that they encountered very few NGOs in remote Kashmir but the extremists groups including the one that later bombed Mumbai were very effective at reaching the remotest villages and setting up madrasas, extremist Islamic schools often led by illiterate teachers who have memorized a little of the Koran. They feed most effectively on remote and ignorant villagers.

Greg and Safran are terrible at dealing with bureaucracies and are busy building schools throughout the outer regions of Afghanistan without any license or sanction from the central government. They initially tried to register CAI as a NGO with the government but quickly gave up. One official contradictorily claimed 1) there are already hundreds of schools in the Wakhan (there were none); 2) the Corridor is actually a part of China (never); and 3) no one lives in the Wakhan (there are three distinct ethnic groups in the Corridor, each with several thousand members).

Wakil took upon himself the task of getting CAI an NGO license. He spent a full month in the process, finally yelling and shaming the bureaucrats into stamping his final document. Unstated but implied is the refusal of CAI ever to pay a bribe to a government official even when it is clear all other NGOs have paid bribes to get their paperwork approved. CAI stretches their dollars and can construct a typical school and fund it for five years for about $40k. In this context, the cost of even a modest bribe would be intolerable to them.

Greg knows that some of the elders that support his schools make much of their income from poppies and the drug trade. He acknowledges that there are few other opportunities to make money in Afghanistan and praises those that give most of the proceeds back to the people in the form of low cost loans, seed, and other assistance. He regrets the some Afghanis become opium addicts, the cost of which further impoverishes them.

Greg discusses his strange relationship with the US military. He was initially opposed to the US military actions in Afghanistan while welcoming the removal of the Taliban from power, allowing CAI to operate to build schools in the country. As he saw it, a single US missile costing $850k could be used instead to build 20 schools which is a far more productive use of resources.

Then the earthquake struck in Kashmir and the US military loaned a number of Chinook helicopters from Afghanistan to transport supplies in and wounded earthquake victims out and Greg came to see the now popular crews in a new humanitarian light. The crews themselves, after Iraq and Afghanistan also came to see themselves in this new popular humanitarian light and liked it.

The other strange thing that happened was that military wives came across the Parade magazine article about the CAI and started reading “Three Cups of Tea” and discussing the book at their women’s clubs. Their enthusiasm spilled over and soon their husbands, serving or having served in Afghanistan started reading the book, particularly, counter insurgence soldiers. Pretty soon, “Three Cups of Tea” was required reading in counter insurgence academies. Greg discovered all this when forward base commander Christopher Kolenda asked if CAI could build a school near his base in Kunar Province. Kunar Province certainly fits the description of an “end place” but it is also Taliban country. Nevertheless, Wakil and Safran visit Kolenda then sat down with the village elders and decided to build the school.

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Soldier Invites CAI to build school in Kunar Province

Thus began a major effort by CAI to build schools across the heart of Taliban country including Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province, the location of several Al Qaeda camps that includes the now famous Tora Bora caves where Bin Laden was thought to have hidden before slipping across the border into Pakistan. For one particularly vulnerable school they convinced a respected local Mullah to be headmaster. When warnings started appearing on the school, the Mullah went directly to Taliban leaders and convinced them to leave the school alone. They did. While CAI has had a little violence and threats at their schools, none have been damaged or closed unlike many other new schools that have been closed, students and teachers killed, and girls attacked with acid. Greg attributes the difference to the strong support the schools have had from the local elders and leaders. Even though CAIs schools are secular, they receive strong support from the local Mullahs.

CAI has by now received widespread recognition. Great Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, visited one of the Kashmir earthquake resistant schools; Greg became the recipient of the Star of Pakistan the highest civilian award in Pakistan; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opened one of the Panjshir Valley schools; and Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McCrystal are both Mortenson fans.

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Admiral Mullen with Mortenson

Greg quotes Mike Mullen to show how far the military has come:

The Muslim community is a subtle world we don’t fully – and don’t always – attempt to understand. Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs, and hopes for the future can we hope to supplant the extremist narrative. We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them, one heart, and one mind at a time.

Quite a contrast to the usual nightly news Neanderthal general spouting nonsense about getting the bad guys like he’s playing some kind of video game, which incidentally, is how young military minds are recruited these days – through video games.

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Kirghiz porting their school

In late 2009 the nomadic Kirghiz finally got their school built on the very roof of the world at 12,500 feet. The logistics of getting materials and workers to the site required some miracle planning and an approach from three sides. Money and lighter materials like the door and window frames traveled across the Wakhan Corridor to the end of road where they were loaded onto Yaks for the three day journey to the site. Trained masons hiked over the mountain passes from the Charpurson Valley in Pakistan. A truck laden with cement, roof beams and other heavy construction material drove across Tajikistan to an old Soviet tank trail leading south toward a lake in Kirghiz. To get permission for the truck to cross Tajikistan, border commander Wohid Khan agreed to personally accompany the truck. From the lake, more Yaks and men transported the heavy materials the final 15 miles to the building site. Greg considers this his last best school even though illness has prevented him from seeing it. In fact fate has twice prevented Greg from entering Kirghiz. But after 10 long years, he has finally kept his promise.

For those wanting a good introduction of this region this book is one of the best. Greg furnishes a series of maps but it is hard to grasp the impact of all those massive mountain ranges. For a while Safran shuttled overland between Kashmir and the Wakhan Corridor to supervise his various building projects. Although the bird flight distance is only 200 miles. Safran needed to cross three different mountain ranges. For two he could drive CAIs 28 year old Land Cruiser across but for the third, into the Wakhan, he used his horse. His first horse died of exhaustion in 2006 and he acquired a new horse which is pictured in the book (They mistakenly identify the horse in the picture as the one who died, probably in the rush to publish. There are a few nonsense sentences in the book as well.). The most startling of the maps shows the ethnic distribution of the area (Pakistan and Afghanistan). There are 18 distinct ethnic groups shown here, one of which is “other” which implies there are even more groups. With the mountains and the ethnic diversity no wonder everyone is confused.

For an account of how the boundaries defining the various countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan came to be and why Kashmir ended up in India (none of which has very much to do with ethnic boundaries) read the untold story of India’s Partition the tragedy that set off the chain of events leading to our current state. The “Great Game” between Russia and England, which contributed to the partition and boundaries predates the Cold War by a hundred years.

For a recent history of Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation, the CIA (Charlie Wilson’s War) and Pakistani intelligence backing of the Afghan mujahedin, followed by the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout giving rise to the Taliban read Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars.

Homeland Insecurity

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Israel Is Real, Rich Cohen, 2009

A 350 page history of the Jewish people from Abraham, Moses, David, through to Zionism and today’s Israel is tough sledding for the reader. Cohen is American, doesn’t speak Hebrew, at one point claims he is Christian to be allowed into the Jerusalem old city, and writes with a strange mixture of empathy and puzzlement at the Jewish story and fate.

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Jerusalem – Layers of History

His history is fleeting with special attention to the life arch of King David, from Shepard, to hero, to king, to wife stealer, (he sends the husband to die as a soldier), to sad old man yearning for his lost son. He credits David with the transition from wandering tribe carrying the Ark of the Covenant everywhere to building a permanent temple on the Temple Mount, thus fixing Jewish fate to a single geographic location. He also gives special attention to the Roman conquest and role of the warrior Jewish Zealots in the death and destruction of Judea including the second temple. The Roman built a temple to Jupiter on Temple Mount but within a few hundred years, the Caesars had converted to Christianity as had many Jews.

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Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum

He discusses the 2000 year plight of the Jews with alternating pogroms, assimilation, ghettos, leading up to the Holocaust, which he says has been turned into a new religion with its own temples (museums now include Berlin and Washington) throughout the world centered by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, leading via Zionism to the formation of Israel.

He says after the Roman conquest, the Jews succeeded in turning the lost temple with its rituals into a book (or really several books) that they could again carry with them everywhere in their wanderings. Unlike the Ark, the book could be multiplied so every Jew could have his own copy wherever he went. He attributes the strength of the Jewish identity to possession of this book.

One interesting section deals with the rise of the notion of race which was intended to doom the prospects for assimilation since the Jews would never be considered Arlan even if they converted to Christianity. So, to counter the race argument, some Jews discovered a lost tribe of red headed Jews who for a short time around 700 AD ruled a small kingdom called Khazaria. But the concept of race somehow got buried deep in the psyche and today Jews are themselves very race conscience with their distinctions between Ashkenazi Diaspora-Caucasian Jews and Sephardic Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.

He traces the origins of Zionism, the movement to return and create a Jewish state in Palestine to people like Disraeli, the first and only Jewish British prime minister and American journalist Mordecai Noah, or more interestingly, to German-Polish Jew Moses Hess who knew and shared a coffeehouse with Marx and Engels. Credit is generally given to Theodor Herzl near the end of the nineteenth century.

He traces the arch of the State of Israel through its key leaders and heroes, particularly warrior Ariel Sharon, hero of 1948, 1967, and 1973. He draws some parallels between Sharon and David and even Sharon and Moses. Sharon’s bold aggressive style of warfare finally came into disgrace in the 1982 Lebanon invasion following the Christian massacre of Palestinians in several refugee camps in Lebanon. In the final stage of the arch, we follow embittered Sharon as he leads a band of police to the mosque on the Temple Mount during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

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Ariel Sharon Visits Temple Mount

Most memorable are his stories of the 1973 Yom Kippur war which Israel almost lost. We see once heroic one eyed Moshe Dayan losing it when it appears Syria will prevail in Golan, ranting about the loss of the third temple and scaring everyone around him; we see tough Golda Meir taking a cigarette break to collect herself at the height of the crisis then calmly declaring “Let’s go back to work.”

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Tough Mother Golda and her cigarette

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Force Zvika

Then there is the amazing story of 21 year old tank commander Zvika Greengold, who commands the only remaining functional Israeli tank and enters the Hula Valley alone at dusk to try to hold off hundreds of assembled Syrian tanks until Israeli reinforcements can arrive. In an all night tank battle, without lights, Greengold maneuvered among and knocked out uncountable tanks and stopped the Syrian advance for 22 hours. He was aided by the fact that his aging tank was a Sherman the same that Syria was using, and that any tank he could find in the dark would be an enemy but the Syrian couldn’t identify him as an enemy. To confuse the Syrians further, he used his radio to command his “Force Zvika” tanks during the action. When reinforcements finally arrive the Israeli commander asks Greengold “Where is Force Zvika?” and he answers “I am Force Zvika”.

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Dayan and Sharon during Yom Kippur War

The other Moses-like story concerns Ariel Sharon in the Sinai dessert in 1973. Two divisions of Egyptian soldier have driven the Israelis deep into the dessert where their advance is finally stopped. Some scouts report an incredible discovery; the two Egyptian divisions have left a gap fifteen miles wide between them. Sharon asks his timid commander Gonan for permission to drive through this gap to Suez. Gonan refuses but Sharon, of course, goes anyway. He gets to the Canal by morning and asks Gonan for bridges to cross. Gonan refuses again, so Sharon finds some derelict old landing craft and manages to get several hundred troops and equipment including tanks across the canal. The Egyptians awake to discover their supply lines cut (including water), Israeli troops camped a short drive from Cairo, and two divisions trapped in the dessert. An Egyptian MiG fighter attacks Sharon’s position and Sharon is wounded. Sharon is called back to Sinai for a meeting (shouting match) with Gonan with the result that reinforcements are sent to hold Sharon’s Egyptian position but not under Sharon’s command. Anwar Sadat is forced to negotiate a peace.

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Jerusalem Epicenter of Western Religions – and Graveyard

He talks about visiting Israel and of the Jerusalem Syndrome which affects most visitors to the old city, possibly excepting Asian tourists whose culture is outside the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. Few visitors actually become psychotic but the effects of seeing all the layer upon layer of history built one upon the other and the sites that are central to the three major western religious traditions is somehow overpowering. One wishes that the entire city could be preserved as an international museum, protected from all the struggles and politics but of course Jerusalem is home to a diverse collection of people going about their daily lives, an idea inconsistent with the notion of museum.

The big dynamic today seems to be population, as the Arabs outproduce the Jews changing the political dynamic that would ultimately lead to an Arab controlled democracy. Cohen himself was criticized for being Jewish and for living in the safe US instead of returning to his Jewish homeland. If all American Jews emigrated to Israel (they automatically have Israeli citizenship) the population disparity would be instantly corrected and the Jews would dominate the country. This is the ultimate contradiction buried in the very concept of a religious state. It is something that Ataturk understood when he declared Turkey to be a secular state but that the Zionists and Ayatollahs of Iran have somehow missed.

Scottish odyssey

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

The Places In Between, Rory Stewart, 2006

I first discovered the Scotsman Rory Stewart on the Bill Moyer’s Journal. Rory Stewart is now director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Lynn Sherr introduced Stewart as advisor to both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. The following is a small part of the transcript:

LYNN SHERR: What do you tell them?

RORY STEWART: Again, my message is: focus on what we can do. We don’t have a moral obligation to do what we can’t. People can get very fixed by saying, “But surely you’re not saying we ought to do nothing? Surely you’re not saying we ought to allow the Taliban to do this or that?” And I just keep saying “ought” implies “can”– you don’t have a moral obligation to do what you can’t do.

LYNN SHERR: How is your advice taken?

RORY STEWART: I think what I see at the moment is that people are polite, because they imagine maybe I have some experience with Afghanistan. But I’m one of a broad community of people — we have nine people working in my center at Harvard who’ve worked there for 20 or 30 years and the problem we all have is that if the Administration has for some reason already decided that they’re going to increase troops, they’re going to do a counterinsurgency campaign, it’s very difficult for them to take on board people coming back and saying, “Look, actually, I don’t think this is going to work. It’s a great idea. I can see why you want to do it. But by trying to do the impossible, you may end up doing nothing. I’d like to present an alternative strategy, which is lighter, more intelligent, and may end up actually achieving something.”

LYNN SHERR: And again, their reaction? They listen politely, you say?

RORY STEWART: They listen politely, but in the end, of course, basically the policy decision is made. What they would like is little advice on some small bit. I mean, the analogy that one of my colleagues used recently is this: it’s as though they come to you and they say, “We’re planning to drive our car off a cliff. Do we wear a seatbelt or not?” And we say, “Don’t drive your car off the cliff.” And they say, “No, no, no. That decision’s already made. The question is should we wear our seatbelts?” And you say, “Why by all means wear a seatbelt.” And they say, “Okay, we consulted with policy expert, Rory Stewart,” et cetera.

So much for being an expert today.

Rory Stewart’s biography sounds like fiction. Born in Hong Kong in 1973, he was educated at Eton and Oxford. He was tutor to Prince Harry and Prince William. In the 90’s he joined the Secret Intelligence Service and served in the embassy in Jakarta dealing with East Timor. He was next appointed British representative to Montenegro dealing with Kosovo.

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Rory Stewart in Afghan garb with Mastiff Babur

This book recounts a small part of an amazing walking journey historian Rory Undertook over 20 months to recreate the 1514 journey of Babur (descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan) from Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Kabul which he conquered. By 1527 Babur had conquered all of Northern India establishing the Mogul dynasty with Agra his capital.

Rory spent 16 months walking from Iran to Nepal. The government of Iran took his visa away and he was refused entry to Afghanistan by the Taliban so he resumed his journey in Pakistan, crossing to Katmandu where, in December 2001, he heard that the Taliban had fallen, so he returned to Herat to pick up his journey from Herat to Kabul. Babur had made his journey through the mountains in the dead of winter and Rory seemed to find the prospect of doing the same thing in 2002 appealing. U.N. workers called him “a nutter” for his walk which he took as a complement.

This book recounts the kind of travel that is far more common in Europe than in America. Herman Hesse in Narcissus and Goldmund describes a young man wandering around medieval Germany indicating that this coming of age European “Walkabout” has been a tradition for a long time. Overland trips from Europe to India and Nepal by motorcycle, van, and bus were common in the 1960s and 1970s but with the Iranian Revolution and Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 such journeys died down. A recent German biopic, Eight Miles High, of Uschi Obermaier features a three year trip with boyfriend adventurer Dieter Bockhorn by customize bus from Germany to India in 1973. Their adventure lasted three years and was highlighted by their wedding, complete with elephants, in India. God seems to protect the young and naive which is why most young travelers, despite taking crazy risks, seem to come through relatively unscarred by the experience.

As if walking through the mountains alone in the dead of winter were not enough challenge, Rory somehow acquires a dog, a half wild, uncared for 140 pound mastiff of indeterminate age that he names Babur. So not only does he have to beg for food and shelter in each village for himself, he must find food and shelter for his huge dog in a culture where dogs are considered unclean. A boy who is in training to become a mullah informs Rory that the Koran declares dogs to be unclean. When Rory asks to see the passage, the boy says he doesn’t know where it is. “But haven’t you memorized the entire Koran in your studies? Yes, but it is written in Arabic and I don’t understand Arabic.” Like Roman Catholics who loved the Latin mass they cannot understand, this boy has memorized the entire Koran without understanding anything in it. In many villages he has to fight off with his walking stick packs of dogs sent by children to harass him and his dog.

The journey itself is pretty bleak. Rory walks in sub zero temperatures, through blizzards with zero viability, fighting to forge a path through waist deep snow, and trying to break through thick ice to reach drinking water. Through the first half of his trek, he follows the Hari Rud river, climbing to its source. In Herat, Rory collects a series of letters of introduction which he hopes will result in offers of hospitality along his route. This plan is quickly dashed as a village headman demands the letters (for his own use) and Rory discovers that the local head men are mostly illiterate so cannot write much less read such letters. He falls back on an oral tradition where he recounts the list of men who have recently offered him hospitality and memorizes the names of important men he is likely to meet at the next villages. To make life more miserable Rory suffers from constant dysentery and headaches. He tries to document his travels by writing in his journal, sketching people he meets (some are reproduced in the book) and taking very dark black and white film photographs in which the features of people pictured can hardly be made out.

From Herat he is accompanied by two security soldiers who are ordered to walk with him halfway to Kabul. Both are wearing American camouflage overalls and ill fitting boots which damage their feet. The leader is a congenital liar who introduces Rory as an Ukrainian (Soviet), American Spy, U.N. high official with millions to disperse to the local authorities. After the two start suffering from dysentery and foot sores, Rory is finally able to bribe them to leave him and they return to Herat. With the occasional local guide as part of local hospitality, Rory completes his walk largely on his own.

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Minaret at Jam

Rory comes to the ancient city of Jam, destroyed by Genghis Khan. A lone minaret remains of what was once a major trading center. In the 1970s professional archeologists were busy excavating the historic city but the Soviet invasion forced them to leave and they have never returned. Rory encounters hundreds of local villagers randomly digging throughout the ruins looking for any artifacts which they will be able to sell to collectors for $1 or $2 dollars.

Rory’s route took through all four major ethnic groups making up Afghanistan. The Pashtun posed the biggest threat to Rory’s trek. When he asks village elders who they want to lead a new Afghanistan they invariably start by naming their local strongman. When Rory persists, they all mention Ahmed Shah Massoud the Tajiks fighter assassinated by al Qaeda. When he asks their opinion of Hamid Karzai, the most remote villagers immediately respond that Karzai is America’s puppet.

Stewart encounters more U.N. and other aid workers and writes one the best accounts of this new breed that I have seen anywhere (as a footnote):

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators as neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth century colonial officer. Colonial administration may have been racist and exploitative, but they did, at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographic societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are not credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, or oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan… A year before they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.

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Murad Khane District of Kabul

A year after his Afghan trek, Rory Stewart was appointed Coalition (civilian) Deputy Governor of Maysan and Senior Adviser in Dhi Qar, two provinces in southern Iraq. From this experience he penned his second book The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. For this he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire at age 31. In 2005, he founded an NGO, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation and spends much of his time in Afghanistan. Chalk one up for the neocolonialists.

Poppies in the Great Game

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Seeds of Terror, Gretchen Peters, 2009

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Poppy Harvest

This book can usefully be read as a companion volume to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Where Coll’s sterile account of U.S. CIA involvement in Afghanistan focuses on the role of the CIA in pushing funds and arms matched by equal funding from Saudi Arabian intelligence through Pakistan’s ISI to clandestinely support the Mujahideen extremists, this book tells in a confused and disorganized fashion the same tale with a central focus on the role of opium and heroin smuggling in the same time frame.

In this account, drugs were a major source of funding for the Mujahideen throughout the period of anti Soviet insurgency and gave the fighters sources of revenue and arms independent of CIA or ISI influence. The Soviets found themselves fighting extreme levels of troop drug addiction similar to the U.S. problem with drugs in Vietnam. After the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980’s, drugs became the major source of revenue and weapons for the fighting factions within Afghanistan.

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Stages of Opium Production – Mujahideen

In Peter’s account, some American officials were aware of the extent and impact of drug trafficking but were completely ignored in the maniacal focus on embarrassing the Soviet Union with their own version of Vietnam. Beyond this single goal all other factors were conveniently ignored. It probably helped that very little of Afghanistan’s heroin found its way to the U.S. even though it certainly was central to the drug problem of Great Britain and other NATO countries. For a look at the impact of this drug traffic on Britain see the BBC miniseries Traffik. This ignoring the drug problem continued after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, throughout the tribal battle for control of Afghanistan after the Soviet period, through the rise of the Taliban, the overthrow of the Taliban, and up to today. In particular, the U.S. military has consistently ignored the drug problem, highlighted by Donald Rumsfeld’s pronouncement that “We (U.S. military) don’t do drugs.” Even today there is virtually no cooperation between drug enforcement efforts and military efforts in the country.

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A few Drug Smuggling Routes

Peter’s conclusions are pretty stark and shocking and it is a shame the book isn’t better written . Poppies and drug trafficking account for 30% of Afghanistan’s GDP. If you add the value of other illegal smuggling activity (electronics, appliances, vehicles, weapons) illegal activity probably accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s economy. The corruption of the Karzai government, local officials, and police start from this dominant fact. Afghanistan is awash in illegal money, weapons, and goods. Bribery and corruption must follow from this fact.

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Drug Dealer Wali and brother Hamid Karzai

The American media have given the public the impression that the Taliban and al Qaeda are opposed to drugs and both have made pronouncements that good Muslims should never use them. This impression was enhanced when the Taliban ordered that Poppies not be planted in the year 2000. What the media never told us was that al Quada and the Taliban had stockpiled huge quantities of opium and heroin, the equivalent of about three years of world wide supply, because a glut in the market had driven prices to an all time low. By forbidding the growing of poppies, the Taliban created an instant shortage or perception of a shortage and prices skyrocketed. (Sounds a little like OPEC and oil).

Peters asks how a group of illiterate thugs (Taliban) could organize and run a global market in drug production and distribution. She thinks they can’t, which means that the Taliban has always been backed by drug kingpins who used to Taliban for security and enforcement in return for huge quantities of money and arms and other needed items like Toyota Land Cruisers and Hiluxes. Peter’s has no doubt that both the Taliban and al Qaeda have relied heavily on the drug trade to supply themselves even though the leadership may not have engaged directly in drug deals.

Today the media is continuing to do its number on us by referring to all insurgents in Afghanistan as Taliban. The insurgents themselves seems willing to go along with this designation even though few are connected in any way with the original Mullah Omar group which is still hiding somewhere in the tribal region of Pakistan. We are not facing an organized and integrated Taliban group where it is possible to sit down and negotiate with the leadership. The insurgency is very fragmented. The thought that dollars can be used to buy a change of loyalty of the insurgents is maybe possible but the U.S. would need to outbid the drug lords and it could prove very costly and may not result in any long term changes or improved stability.

When the U.S. pulled back from Afghanistan to focus on Iraq, they turned the fighting over to the NATO coalition. A U.S. coordinator complains that he spends more time in Europe than in Afghanistan. Britain has been given responsibility for anti drug efforts but these efforts are almost never coordinated with the military which makes raids and arrests next to impossible. The U.S. DEA has people in Afghanistan today but they get no more cooperation than the British. Arrests and seizures are few and ineffective and do not impact total drug exports. When military commanders accidentally stumble on a drug cache or convoy or find a major drug lord there is no guarantee the kingpin will be detained or the drugs destroyed. Such is the lack of coordination with the military

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan as well as the former Soviet Stans and Russia are experiencing huge increases in drug addiction and drug crime as a result of the environment in Afghanistan.

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Rare Drug Seizure at Sea

Afghanistan remains a medieval place where modern financial networks don’t exist. Much of the drug trade is barter and where cash transfers take place they are done through the tradition hawala networks which are based on a honor system where actual money is not moved or even recorded in a way that can be traced. Attempts to regulate these networks are currently ineffective.

What happened to those stinger missiles that Coll reported the U.S. supplied to shoot down Soviet helicopters and planes and that the CIA tried to buy back after the Soviet withdrawal? Some were sold by drug runners back to the CIA for enormous sums of money and other were and may still be used to protect drug smuggling convoys making their way to the Iran border.

Corruption extends equally to Pakistan and Iran as well as other middle eastern drug destinations or transit routes. Attacking the drug problem would have to be at the core of any efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and it is clear the problem can’t be attacked without a coordinated regional effort. It is not clear the Obama administration even understands the extent of the problem or has prevailed on the dominant U.S. military to force it to address the problem, cooperating with law enforcement and drug enforcement groups and with intelligence gathering groups. It’s not clear to Peters that the lessons of 9/11 have been learned, much less the lessons of Vietnam. (Remember that U.S. military planes were used to smuggle drugs to the U.S. during Vietnam see biopic – American Gangster starring Denzel Washington.)

Peters makes a good case that drugs are the central funding source behind Islamic extremist terrorists and that the networks cannot be controlled as long as Afghanistan’s drug supply continues. Unfortunately it still seems politically unpopular for politicians to discuss the problem and meanwhile the military continues its resistance to recognition of the centrality of the problem. The book blurb asks Obama to read this but by all indications he hasn’t.

Bridge Too Far

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

House of Cards, William D Cohen, 2009

This account of the rise and fall of Bear Stearns reads like a novel. It is even structured like a novel, opening in Part I on Wednesday March 12 2008 as Bear realizes it can’t borrow enough at the “Repo” daily market to make it through the week, starting a whirlwind of activity resulting in the sale of Bear to JP Morgan Chase (JPM) on Sunday March 16.

As the book opens, a full scale run on Bear has started with massive short selling, other firms refusing to back large trades, and massive investment withdrawals. On Thursday, fearing a systemic meltdown, the Fed, unable to lend directly to Bear, arranges to lend money to JPM who in turn will loan to Bear in an attempt to assure the markets that Bear would be able to borrow sufficiently to stay in business. The attempt fails to stop the run on Friday and unless the Fed and Treasury can negotiate a buyout, Bear will declare bankruptcy Sunday night.

This first part underlines just how shaky and unstable the financial markets are and is a good counterpart to the previously reviewed Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy which highlight the demise of Long Term Capital Management in 1998. Bear alone did not join the other 9 wall street firms who purchased LTCM positions to assure that LTCM’s demise didn’t blow up the entire financial system. Bear was widely resented for this refusal at the time.

The entire of wall street has become dependent for the past 30 years on short term borrowing through the so called “repo” market. Much of the borrowing is day to day so the entire of wall street is one day away from insolvency and bankruptcy. Banks have the FDIC to insure deposits, and the Fed discount window to assure access to short term money in hard times. Wall street firms have neither of these backstops. Banks are limited in the degree to which they can leverage deposits and assets; wall street is not and Bear ran itself leveraged to as much as 50 times their holdings. This means that any downturn or decline in asset value will require the borrowing of short term money or the raising of capital, at precisely the time that no one want to loan or invest.

Unknown firms and individuals were also massively shorting the stock then trading in the $60-65 range, betting that it would fall to $20-$30 within 8 trading days. Cohan believes much of the shorting was done by firms holding investments in Bear as a way of “hedging” their bets and limiting their losses if Bear continued to decline. Cohen says many believe Kyle Bass of Hyman Capital, who made a fortune betting against mortgage securities, triggered the run on Bear. To the outsider this betting both sides as a way to “hedge” the gamble of an investment seems strange but this has become a central feature of investing and dramatically increases the volatility of the system. When a firm catches a little cold, everyone jumps on to run the firm out of business by shorting its stock and can do so in a matter of days if the firm is massively leveraged.

When the extension of Federal credit did not stop the run on Bear, the Fed and Treasury went into overdrive to force the Sale of Bear by Sunday night. Only JPM was available and able to move this fast. JPM’s CEO Jamie Dimon had attempted to buy Bear a couple years earlier for Bank One and failed. The big issues were price and the unknown amount of toxic assets at Bear. The government agreed to buy $30 Billion in toxic assets but someone in government (widely believed to be Treasury Secretary Paulson, former CEO of rival Goldman Sachs and no lover of Bear) insisted on a price of $2 using a moral hazard argument that the stockholders should be punished for the problems of the firm. Unfortunately for JPM and Dimon, the negotiators – lawyers screwed up. Any purchase must be approved by a majority of the stockholders of the acquired company and this approval takes time. The agreement gave Bear up to a year to approve the sale and during this year JPM would guarantee all business and finance for Bear. Bear’s executives, reeling from the $2 price (they were led to expect at least $10) quickly realized that if they voted no they could give themselves up to a year for market conditions to approve and for a better offer to arrive, all under the umbrella of JPM protection. Dimon, when he realized his contract drafters mistake threatened to not honor the deal unless the contract was changed. He basically said, sue us, we’re not honoring this contract. It looked like Bear was headed for bankruptcy after all. In the meantime, the market also didn’t believe and $2 price and Bear stock started trading in the $10-$13 range. Dimon started buying as much stock as he could at market prices and Bear stockholders were happy to sell and avoid the $2 price until Dimon accumulated almost 50% of the shares. The vote, of course, approved the sale. The government also came down with a case of buyers remorse and renegotiated with Dimon so that JPM was liable for the the first $1 Billion loss in the $30 billion toxic asset pool.

Part II focuses on the three successive CEO s at Bear who built the company after WWII and set its culture (sharpest elbows on Wall Street). The first, Cy Lewis, was a former football pro with a volatile temper. He based his reputation on cornering railroad bonds during WWII when the government took control of the railroads to move war materials and railroad bonds fell to as low as 5 cents on the dollar. Lewis purchased all he could personally and became instantly wealthy when the bonds returned to par plus interest accrued after the war. The second, Ace Greenburg, was a canny trader who’s basic principle, learned from his father, was to never hold a loser. He also was obsessive about cost controls, at one time outlawing the purchase of paper clips and instructing secretaries to lick only one side of envelopes so they can be reused. He was a renowned philanthropist with a strange sense of humor. He paid for the remodeling of the restrooms at the Jerusalem museum and placed a plaque in each dedicated to his brother. He set up a charitable fund to provide Viagra to homeless vagrant men.

Ace was a pretty good bridge player and seems to have hired the third CEO, Jimmy Cayne, because Cayne was among the top 100 bridge players in the world. Cayne immediately used his bridge contacts, landing Larry Tisch, a huge investor for the firm. Unfortunately Tisch was Cy’s client at the time but Tisch insisted on giving his business to Jimmy. Cayne wanted to buy up NYC bonds as the city teetered on the brink of insolvency in 1976. Ace refused so Cayne went over his head to Cy who recognized the play as similar to his railroad bond purchases in WWII. The bond deal catapulted Cayne into the number two spot in the firm. Cayne eventually becomes CEO and the company went public but continued to be run like a partnership. The CEO at Bear is solely responsible for setting compensation each year and derives his power from this fact.

All three Bear CEO s had limited educations, limited business ethics, unlimited egos, and unlimited greed. They really don’t like one another. At one time Bear offered bucket shops like the one depicted in the movie Boiler Room. in return for handling trade settlement. Much of their sleazy reputation and many legal problems came from this activity though the LTCM decision didn’t help.

All three shared the same strategic goal; make as much money as you can any way you can. They developed a culture that is the antithesis of the MBA cultures at other firms. In Bear’s hiring, having an MBA is almost a viability rather than a virtue. Playing bridge well is a big plus for new hires and bridge seems to be about the only common pattern to the incompatible personalities at the firm.

Rogue Trader Ralph Cioffi

Part III looks at how the once successful Bear came to find itself driven out of business in two days in mid March 2008. Quite simply they gave free reign to their very own internally grown Roque Trader (Book and Movie about how one roque trader brought down Barons). Ralph Cioffi was a much loved smart trader at Bear, but he suffered from advanced attention deficit, meaning that the firm couldn’t count on him remembering much less documenting his trading activities. To compensate, Bear assigned a team of women to follow him around and get approvals and complete the legal paperwork required to record his trading activity. They were bad at this and most trade were done without approval and the paperwork was done after the fact. The legal liabilities of this problem were never explained to the women trying to do the work.

Schwartz, Cayne, Ace as Bear Burns

Almost half of Bear revenues come from the fixed income side of the business and Cayne organized Bear into two divisions each with its own president, Alan Schwartz, a specialist in Mergers and Acquisitions headed the division with all other business and Warren Spector headed the fixed income division. Five levels down, Cioffi is tasked with creating hedge funds to invest in mortgage backed securities. Unfortunately Cioffi runs true to form and by 2006 76% of his trades are made without prior approval but his funds are doing so well everyone covers for him. When it becomes clear that sub prime mortgages are a problem, he assures his investors verbally and in writing that his hedge funds have only 6% sub prime mortgage securities and that he is hedging these. Unfortunately his funds actually have more than 60% sub prime securities plus CDOs CDO squared and even more obscure investments and he is unable to hedge much of anything. After Bear, the parent company, became concerned that Cioffi was not getting approvals they ordered that Bear stop buying into the hedge funds. This resulted in the firm completely dropping any scrutiny the hedge funds might have received from other traders and watchdogs and risk analysts in the parent company. These hedge funds continued to generate massive revenues for Bear until fixed income accounted for 90% of total revenue. Bear stocks peaked in 2005 at $172. Only when the hedge funds turned in early 2007 did Bear come to realize that these funds contained some real problems.

Still, Bear had a year to live and get its house in order or find a buyer before the final run in March 2008. Cayne did nothing to find a serious buyer or to deal seriously with the toxic funds or to reduce leverage and increase capital. He was clearly over his head but would not step aside for a successor. As it turned out neither Schwartz (who finally became CEO weeks before the run) nor Spector would likely have been more successful in turning the firm around had they been given the time to do so. Cayne, in the middle of the crisis over the mortgage hedge funds, left town for a two week bridge tournament during which time he has unreachable. During a phone conference on March 12 dealing with the final run on the firm it was discovered Cayne had left the call to return to his bridge game. This guy was worth $1 billion at Bear’s peak in 2005 and couldn’t be bothered to interrupt his bridge game to try to save the company. Cohen mentions that Cayne reportedly pays world class bridge players $500,000 year to play with him bragging that it is like playing the pro am with Tiger Woods. These guys clearly live in a different world.

The epilogue covers the collapse of Lehman Brothers. This time David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital (another bridge player) was the major player to short the stock and start the run on Lehman. The executives at Lehman credit him with killing them. By this time, September 2008, the government had moved to take over Freddie Mac, Fanny May, and AIG. Like Bear, the Lehman crisis had to be resolved over a single weekend, only this time Merrill Lynch was in the same situation so the government had to deal simultaneously with two potentially disastrous failures, both much larger than Bear. Bank of America indicated an interest in both firms but at the last minute chose to purchase Merill. Barclays was interested in Lehman and negotiated an agreement in principle which had to be approved by British regulators. The British refused because of the unknown financial risks in Lehman’s holdings and Lehman was out of time to seek another buyer. They filed for Chapter 11. Barclays saw bankruptcy as an opportunity to pick up just those pieces of Lehman they actually wanted and did so. This saved perhaps 10,000 wall street jobs but left the toxic Lehman assets for the court to deal with.

Cioffi and Tannin

Ralph Cioffi along with his bosses boss Mathew Tannin, who Cohen says gave performances worthy of an Oscar instead were indicted on June 16, 2008 in New York on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud, and wire fraud.

The big shortcoming in the book is that it was written by a wall street insider who assumes the reader understands wall street terms and nomenclature. A tutorial for dummies should have been included in an appendix so the reader doesn’t constantly have to go to the web to figure out what he is talking about with his wall street shorthand.

Asian Sorrows

Monday, June 30th, 2008

The Ginseng Hunter, Jeff Talarigo, 2008

Old Ginseng Root ginseng.jpg

Austere tale of a third generation Korean living just across the border in China near Yanji. The grandfather was moved to China by the Japanese for labor. The father and uncle become Ginseng hunters and teach the son their secrets. The first part of the novel is a compact but detailed look at the art of hunter for wild Ginseng plants in the mountains. Once found, the Ginseng plant must be very carefully dug up without damaging the often crooked and complex root. The value of the plant depends on its age but any damage will leave the root worthless. It may require hours to dig a single root.

Written in the first person by the son, we are taken into an austere self sufficient life. The hunter lives alone and enjoys his solitude. He tried living with a woman once but it didn’t work out. He visits a brothel during his monthly trips to Yanji in the warm seasons to sell his ginseng and buy supplies.

During one one trip he meets a Korean prostitute and for the first time can’t get her out of his mind. They start meeting in parks during his visits and we learn her tragic story and the start of the novel’s preoccupation with the story of the Korean people under the incompetent rule of Kim Jong-il, son of North Korea’s founding dictator. We learn of the constant reeducation and intimidation as the country falls apart and the people starve. The Korean prostitute had a husband who worked in the mines and a daughter who attended school. The mine closed and her husband was detained and never returns. The daughter dropped out of school to help her mother scrounge for food. They spot the daughter’s former teacher scrounging for food and realize the school is closed. The daughter is killed by government authorities and the woman runs away to China where she is taken to the brothel by a trucker. She realizes she will be fed and sheltered so stays in the brothel.

As things deteriorate in Korea, more and more cross the shallow river to China looking for food, jobs, or trade. The Chinese government offers rewards to return illegal Koreans to the border and pressure businesses to get rid of their Korean workers. A young Korean girl visits the ginseng hunter’s garden to steal corn and the hunter decides to try to take care of her. He realizes he will need help to raise a young girl and goes to the brothel to try to buy the prostitute but she is no longer working there. He travels downriver looking for her as winter sets in. He realizes that the industrial plants built on the river on the Korean side are all shut down.

The hunter is loaned a hand gun by his neighbor to help protect himself from encroaching Koreans including armed and starving soldiers, who are starting to cross the river looking for food. He can’t bring himself to use the gun, but he does assist in turning over some Koreans to be returned to the border for which he receives money. For penance he buys all the seaweed from a Korean woman using his bounty money so she can take the money back home.

Bridge to North Korea bridge.JPG

The author spent considerable time in Yanji and the surrounding region learning about ginseng hunting and hearing the takes of terrible happenings in North Korea. He assembles some of these stories into a compact, compelling, story. It is not a story of hope but a testimony to the strength and endurance of people under harsh and trying circumstances.

The Pearl Diver, Jeff Talarigo, 2004

Aerial View of Nagashima Leprosarium nagashima.jpg

The author’s first novel follows the life of a Japanese pearl diver who contracts Hansen’s disease (Leprosy) as a young woman in 1948. As was the practice then, she was sent to an isolated Leper’s colony on a small island at Nagashima. The first drugs that stabilize the disease have just been discovered and she is able to live a full life without the disfigurement of the disease. This being Japan, the disease comes with a shame and stigma that attaches to her whole family and prevents her older sister from marrying. The family abandons her. We follow conditions and treatment in the colony where the patients are treated more as prisoners than as sufferers of a horrible disease. As time passes more drugs are discovered and doctors learn to differentiate contagious from non contagious carriers. It eventually becomes possible for individual patients to reintegrate into society if they wish, but as with prisoners, it takes our heroin some years and several experiments before she tries to return – but never to her home island. Will she remain in society or return to the colony to live out her life? Very readable and a reminder of what it was like to contract an ancient disease that is all but eradicated in much of the world today.

Nagashima Paper Money paper-money.jpg

Americans In India

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

The Elephanta Suite, Paul Theroux, 2007

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Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India Mumbai

A collection of three short stories explores tourism and global business in contemporary India. The first, appearing first in the New Yorker, follows two wealthy fiftyish Americans, married for 30 years, who vacation at a spa purposely isolated from its surrounding community in a luxurious but totally artificial environment. When they become sexually involved with their masseurs, both native employees are fired. Somewhere along the line, the Americans buy some scarfs made from the hair of endangered antelope. Explores tourism as an isolated and insular world created artificially for the wealthy westerner.

The second story follows a divorced American lawyer, sent to Mumbai to negotiate product outsourcing for American companies. He becomes involved with street prostitutes, falls in love with India and finds excuses to remain. His Indian associate, a Jain from a successful family slowly replaces the American and then delivers him to an ashram where he appears content to remain.

The third story concerns two young American girls out to see India. One meets a rich young Western man and never gets out of Mumbai. The other continues traveling by herself until she meets an aggressive, nasty, fat Indian guy and comes to grieve.

Only the second story retains your interest as the lawyer goes native and we see a reversal of roles. At least each story is short.

Communist Chinese Misfit

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, Kang Zhengguo, 2007

A biography and history of Communist China from the Mao revolution of 1949 to the present through the life of a stubborn, naive, innocent young man who wanted only to be left alone to study ancient Chinese literature, to write about it, and maybe teach. Instead, two innocent letters drew him down the rabbit hole from college to a brickworks laborer to a labor prisoner to a forced labor orchard worker to an adopted peasant with a peasant wife and family.
Xi’an Bell Tower<> xian-bell-tower.JPG
Hua San near Xi’an north-peak-of-hua-san.jpg

Kang grew up in Xi’an the capital of Shaanxi province and one of four capital cities of ancient China. Kang’s father was a heroin and alcohol addict but remained a fully employed engineer. His mother was a college graduate and full time teacher. Kang spent much of his childhood in the two acre Silent Garden home living with his respected Buddhist grandfather who supported the Communist revolution and saw Communism and Buddhism as compatible. Initially his grandfather held important committee positions in the local party. It was his grandfather’s personal library that led Kang to his lifelong long of ancient Chinese literature.

Things seemed all right for the family until the Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958 after which there was widespread famine and purge after purge, slowly reducing his “landlord” family to increased hardship and poverty. For a time, his grandfather was forced into a tiny apartment but when the owner wanted it back he was returned to a small space in Silent Garden which was allowed to fall into ruins. The most disastrous campaign after the Great Leap Forward was the 1966 Cultural Revolution. This campaign effectively closed schools for ten years and an entire generation of Chinese grew up without much education. It also resulted in sending record numbers of city people to the countryside, some of which were never able to return.
shannxi-normal-university.jpeg Dr Zhivago zhivago.jpg
Kang was a mischievous child and so-so student but was accepted to Shaanxi Normal University. When another student in trouble with the authorities was discovered with a letter from Kang, Kang was expelled from College and forced to work in a primitive brickworks. He taught himself Russian and read any Russian literature he could find. When Doctor Zhivago was published, he naively wrote to a university in Russian asking to borrow a copy. This letter got him three imprisonment with forced labor. The title Confessions refers to the numerous confessions and struggle sessions he was forced to undergo. The hardened prisoners helped him learn not to give up information the authorities didn’t already know and to write minimal confessions needed to survive. After release from prison, he was unable to find work in Xi’an and was forced into a job at a remote orchard. While his family suffered greatly from the Cultural Revolution, Kang himself was going through his own nightmare and had little contact with the rampaging students.
Shaanxi Peasants<>old-woman_children.jpg
Shaanxi Wheatfields wheat_shaanxi.jpg
The book spends a lot of time on the residency registration system which forces everyone to stay where they are registered. The system allowed the regime to keep peasants away from the cities and to exile dissidents to the countryside where they would be unable to return to the cities. Kang was registered in Xi’an, but without hope of finding work, he was a burden on his family. They attempted to arrange a marriage with a peasant girl but could find no-one willing to marry a former political prisoner. Finally they located an old bachelor, in 1972, who was willing to adopt Kang, then 28 years old. This allowed Kang to change his name and become a peasant, hopefully escaping his past. Several years later he married a peasant girl and they had two children. In preparation for his life as a peasant Kang studied clock and electric motor repair in Xi’an before moving to the village. These skills allowed Kang to travel to other villages and supplement the communes meager pay.
Tianamen Square Protest tiananmen_square_protests.jpg
Finally Mao died in 1976 and subsequent reforms allowed Kang to return to Shaanxi Normal University and have most of his dossier purged. As a graduate student, the ever non conforming Kang chose to write his thesis on an ancient erotic work. His advisor failed him and refused to allow him to graduate. He kept appealing and eventually was allowed to graduate and was later granted his masters degree. Kang taught English at Jiaotong University. In his usual naive blundering fashion, towering over other protesters and appearing clearly in the photos wearing a headband reading “Aim Your Guns Here“, Kang protested the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Kang had managed to keep and listen to short wave radio through much of his ordeal and kept up with events across the country during these protests via radio.

He published a monograph, A Study of Classical Chinese Poetry on Women and by Women, and in 1990 received a letter from Professor Chang of Yale University praising the work. In 1991 Yale University invited Kang to participate in a conference on Women and Literature in Ming-Qing China to be held in 1993. It took Kang the full two years to get the passport and documents needed to attend the conference. Professor Chang turned out to be a woman. Kang returned to China after the conference to the amazement of his friends.

In 1994 Yale invited Kang to become a Chinese language teacher at Yale. To get the documents this time, Kang had to quit his job and give up his apartment before authorities would consider his application. He wanted to bring his family this time and Yale sent documents to support this. The American embassy in Beijing at first refused a visa for Kang’s 18 year old daughter, but Yale pressured them to relent. His wife adjusted well, first working in a day care center, then getting a job at a surgical supply manufacturer in New Haven. His children also adjusted well and have done well in America, which Kang considers his best legacy.

This work is also a reminder that China hasn’t changed much today in human rights terms. Kang was detained for several days in 2000 during his last trip to China for an academic conference. His Tiananmen Square protests and correspondence with friends again came back to haunt him. If not for the pressure from the president of Yale through the State Department, he might have disappeared down the rabbit hole again. After this experience, Kang became an American citizen. Kang points out that economic interests keep human rights news of China to a minimum and we tend to forget how repressive the regime still remains. His conclusions about modern China:

I took these clandestine scenes (illegal mahjong gambling) as a metaphor for the Chinese society in the post-Mao, post-Deng era; it was a large-scale producer of material, spiritual, and even human garbage, hidden behind a curtain of propaganda.

Good thing he no longer goes to China.

For a more detailed indictment of Mao Tse Tung’s reign June Chang, author of Wild Swans, has written Mao: The Unknown Story. see