The prospects of Muammar Gaddafi’s army collapsing are “highly unlikely”, a senior defector, Col. Mohammed Ali Ethish, tells The New York Times:

“I hope that when we do reach the borders of Tripoli, the revolutionaries there free it. […] If we don’t go in with an organized army, there’s going to be a huge mess.”

I doubt the rebels will get even that far. The war in Libya is unlikely to end in a slugfest over the capital. In fact, unless the Gaddafi regime somehow implodes, which probably won’t happen since it hasn’t already, the war is unlikely to end at all in the near future. Sitting comfortably in his family compound of Bab al-Azizia, Gaddafi has had 42 years to spread his ideology, consolidate his power and, most importantly, to prepare for his own death struggle.

Anyone who visits the battlefields of Libya will sooner or later come across two puzzling and worrisome sights: mounds of empty ammunition crates and slogans scrawled on walls. The first is a grim reminder of the fact that no matter how puny his army may seem on the pages of Jane’s, Gaddafi has had four decades to spend his oil money to buy arms and ordnance, which he will employ in defense of his last stand. But the graffiti is even more disturbing. An army that paints “Allah, Muammar, Libya — nothing else” on the walls of every farm house it occupies doesn’t strike me as exactly non-committal. Someone took the time, between unloading the ammo and setting up the Grad launchers, to actually get some paint and write that slogan. We may laugh at the ramshackle, DIY nature of Gaddafi’s jamahiriya, but it would serve us well to remember that not everyone in Libya thinks it’s a joke.

Gaddafi is not an accidental dictator who secretly thinks of himself as a reformer and is shocked when the mob inevitably arrives at the palace gates. He is hard core — defiant, vengeful and unperturbed by the bloodletting. By all accounts, including my interviews with survivors in Benghazi and Misrata, and documents in possession of the International Criminal Court, the brutal response of his security forces to the first demonstrations in February was pre-planned and well rehearsed. He knew the day would come and he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. His “zenga, zenga” speech may have been bluster, but people in the east believed he was dead serious, and they were mortified. They know their leader, they told me, and he would rather destroy Libya than let go of it.

The war has so far defied analogies (just because dudes have beards doesn’t mean it’s the next Somalia; more on this later), but in one respect Libya may yet come to resemble post-Saddam Iraq. It is not inconceivable, looking at the absolute ruthlessness of Gaddafi’s army, that he has already planned a bloody coda to his rule — a loyalist insurgency with the aim of giving him the last laugh and making his creation a failed state.

© Jari Lindholm


Where They Fell

When I was in Misrata in May, there were still drag marks on the sidewalk outside a car wash at the end of Tripoli Street, where shrapnel from a mortar shell had hit photographers Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Guy Martin and Michael Brown in the early evening of April 20. Next door was the burned hulk of Al-Beit Beitak, or The Home is Yours, a furniture store where Hondros and Brown had photographed rebels flushing out Gaddafi’s snipers earlier that day.

This is the last street corner before the overpass to Misrata airport, a spot that was, in the words of another journalist who was in the city that day, “way, way out there”. In fact, the photographers had passed what little front line there was and were under fire from at least two directions. According to Brown, things were getting “too sketchy”, and the men were about to head back when the shell exploded. The impact crater I found some 20 metres from the bloodstains was small, but since the sidewalk is concrete, the hail of shrapnel must have been horrendous. Martin and Brown suffered serious injuries; Hondros and Hetherington did not survive.

Why were they there? I find this question a little strange, particularly coming from fellow journalists, as it implies that, since there was fierce fighting all along Tripoli Street that day, they could have somehow accomplished the same by risking less. It also suggests that they made the beginner’s mistake of not paying attention to one’s surroundings and ventured too far. That may be true — it’s all too easy to wander past one street corner too many in the confusing battlefields of Libya. But documenting wars, whether by pen or camera, has never been a business where you carefully set goals and then try to reach them by expending as little of your luck as possible. In fact, it’s wasteful as hell. Often you have to roam far and wide just to witness one brief moment that may later prove significant but probably won’t. You’re not looking for the generic; you’re looking for the one-time only. That is why, to be able to shoot his pictures of the battle for Al-Beit Beitak, Chris Hondros needed to be right there at the end of Tripoli Street that day. The events were unique. They were there to see the tree fall.

There is a tendency, at least where I live, to ascribe ulterior motives to almost anything that journalists do. Sure, there are plenty of self-aggrandising dabblers around; and I’m pretty certain most of us have at some point been driven by greed or ambition or a pure, blind lust for thrills. But as motives go, simply wanting to see, “feeling the need to go with it”, as Brown says, is noble enough for me.

There are no heroes in our line of work; some just master the craft better than others. Here’s to you, guys.

       © Jari Lindholm

How to Make More Taleban

They don’t mention this in FM 3-24, but it’s actually pretty easy to create an insurgent. Here’s how:

An American patrol gets lost near the Pakistani border and finds itself conducting a KLE, or “key leader engagement” in the wrong village. The usual bunch shows up: snot-nosed kids, giggling teenagers and local layabouts, but definitely no “key leaders”. Tea is poured and the platoon leader, an industrious young lieutenant with a Ranger tab on his sleeve, tries to strike up a conversation through his interpreter.

Just as the lieutenant is starting to get fidgety, one of the sullen young men squatting in front of him speaks up — in fluent, Pakistani-accented English. An exchange ensues. The man wants to know why the patrol is in the village; the lieutenant wants to know where the man has learned English.

“In Peshawar. I’m a medical student.”

“A med student? So why are you here?”

“My family lives in that house over there.”

“What does your father do?”

“He is a cardiologist.”

The conversation turns to politics. The lieutenant wants to know what the man thinks of the Taleban; the man wants to know why the foreign troops are in Afghanistan.

“You tear up our holy Quran and urinate on it.”

“That is not true.”

“Also, you secretly photograph our women. I have read about it.”

The platoon returns to the COP. The lieutenant reports the bad news — wrong village — and the good — an encounter with a suspected Taleban sympathiser. “There was definitely something fishy about that dude”, he tells the company commander. “Yeah”, the commander says, “judging by what you’ve told me I’d say he’s definitely Taleban.”

News of 1st Platoon’s stroke of luck travels fast. Everyone agrees there’s no fucking way you’d quote anti-ISAF propaganda unless you’re a bad guy. The fishiness of the English-speaking dude is pondered on endlessly, and by chowtime the son of a local doctor has become “a Taleban medic”.

[In case the Americans portrayed in my last two blog posts come across as bungling idiots, let me clarify: they were anything but. The soldiers and officers of the unit I embedded with were courteous and disciplined, with superb tactical skills and excellent knowledge of their battlespace. Commanded by a bespectacled young captain, himself a veteran of two tours in Iraq, the company had suffered more casualties during its deployment than any other unit in RC-East; yet the men treated the locals with respect. Alas, this was Afghanistan, and their task — expanding the “security bubble” around the COP — was proving near impossible. The mission has since ended, and I don’t know what happened to them. But I’m pretty sure they learned, like everyone else, that in Afghanistan, meaning well does not equate with doing well.]

       © Jari Lindholm

Has counterinsurgency failed in Afghanistan? Two stories from an embed:

An American ISAF patrol discovers an IED on a treeless hillock near the Pakistani border. EOD is called in. Their Black Hawk lands on a local farmer’s wheat field, ruining his harvest.

Dismayed villagers gather around to look at the destruction. The Americans, fearing ambush, do nothing, until a young sergeant decides to take matters into his own hands and approaches the farmer.

“I just lost 700 kilos of wheat”, the man says, barely able to hide his rage. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Well”, says the sergeant, “we will give money to the district sub-governor, and he will compensate you for your loss.”

The farmer stares at the soldier. “You don’t understand. If the Taleban see me entering the sub-governor’s house, they will come at night and kill me. In any case, the sub-governor is a thief. He will just keep the money for himself. It is much better if I come to your base tomorrow and you give me cash.”

“Well, sir”, says the sergeant, ever polite, “I will certainly take the matter up with my commanding officer.”

The meeting ends. The farmer never gets his money.

An American rifle company manning a small COP near the Pakistani border gets fed up with the constant rocket and mortar fire. In a show of force, the Americans, supported by 17 armoured trucks and 80 soldiers from a nearby FOB, with air cover by F-15s, Tornados and Kiowas, cordon off a troublesome bazaar. All adult males, numbering at least 1,000, are marched out of the village and made to wait in the searing heat. Their irises are then scanned with portable biometric devices called HIIDEs, and the photos, along with their personal details, are uploaded into a database.

When the procedure is over, the Afghans are free to leave, but not until the Americans have stamped the backs of their hands with the battle cry of the Oklahoma Sooners: “Boomer Sooner!”  The Afghans don’t seem to appreciate the joke, but the Americans savour their payback. “The Taleban sure are gonna be pissed off!”

And so they are: an hour after the operation ends, recoilless rounds once again hit the COP. Later, a lieutenant checks the day’s iris scans against the HIIDE database for bad guys. Number of hits: zero.

       © Jari Lindholm


In the now-infamous Rolling Stone piece, General Stanley McChrystal and his staff  — “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs” — imagine the general dismissing Vice President Joe Biden in a press conference “with a good one-liner”:

‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?’

‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?’

At another point, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry.

‘Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.’ He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

‘Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,’ an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.

Innocent shit like that and a guy gets fired? Jeez, what’s the world coming to…

For a while I was at a loss why McChrystal, who by all accounts is not totally unsavvy when it comes to the media, would allow himself and his team to vent like that when a reporter is around. But then I read this bit in a Reuters interview with the magazine’s Executive Editor, Eric Bates:

Indeed, [Bates] said, most of the general’s most explosive remarks came within five hours of Rolling Stone’s reporter gaining access to him.

What this tells me is that McChrystal no longer gave a fuck about his command and had decided to go out cowboy style, using as a vehicle a magazine that actually prints swear words. Why he would expect a story like that to “shift the debate” and not just make him look like a dork is beyond me. And frankly, who cares after this bit of news?

Okay, here it is: I’m officially out of things to say. I have absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion on Afghanistan or Iraq, or any other conflict for that matter. Also, I don’t want to be part of a punditocracy that mostly reminds me of the old Mekons album cover: if enough chimpanzees bang on keyboards long enough, they’re bound to come up with a sentence that almost makes sense.

Rest assured, though — I’ll be back.

One of the reasons I’m so tired of debating Afghanistan — and, frankly, of blogging about it — is that bad ideas just don’t seem to go away. It’s like talking to a wall: “Let’s destroy the poppy fields.” “But it’s a bad idea.” “Yeah. Umm, let’s destroy the poppy fields.”  Or how about the continuing obsession over tribal militias? Alex Strick van Linschoten calls it — quite generously, I think — “hope tactics”. What it actually reminds me of is this: