Books – Historical

How did Osama bin Laden live safely for years within walking distance of Pakistan’s military academy in Abbottabad? That, and other questions, are what Gall writes about drawing upon over 10 years in Afghanistan and Pakistan reporting for the New York Times. She spoke recently on her experience in South Asia and her new book, a must-read for anyone interested in Afghanistan, Pakistan, jihadists, and al Qaeda.

Carlotta Gaul’s study based on more than a decade as a New York Times journalist in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a bald, revealing account that documents Pakistan’s agenda-driven interference in neighbor Afghanistan for its domestic policy ends. This subplot to the motives and dynamics in the war-torn regions has needlessly inflamed the conflict there at the cost of thousands of lives and bloodshed in both countries.

The Wrong Enemy by Carlotta Gaul image of book jacketAnyone remotely interested in an inside reveal of Pakistan’s deal with the devil and about Pakistan’s notorious ISI Intelligence arm must read this book.

What was America thinking?, one must ask after learning in detail evidence of Pakistan’s part in hiding Osama bin Laden? after Pakistan’s failing to prosecute captured Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? of its part in the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul? and of its housing and feeding of terrorists who cross the Durand Line into Afghanistan, attack Afghans and NATO allies, then flee back into Pakistan’s Tribal Areas to rest and recuperate, secure knowing Pakistan would make feeble attempts at best to go after them.

Further detail are at the link.


Fallows, James M. China Airborne. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. 

Fallows, James M. China Airborne. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Fallows, James M. China Airborne. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. – photo Russ Imrie 2013

Why should you read this book? Well, you should read this if you are at all interested in China. It’s written in Fallows’ “Atlantic” style, where he has been journalist as well as written for the New Yorker and NPR. So it’s bright and dead air is hard to find.

Each page has facts or an aside every American could stand reading. Fallows plants facts and insight everywhere—like the population reality that China deals with in a diverse and massive country…He’s been there.

…that the U.S. and China encompass approximately the same land area but that with vast mountain and desert regions, China has quite a significantly smaller arable land base; that one must consider it would take the sum of the populations of Mexico (110m), Brazil (200m), Cuba, all the Caribbean Nations, Canada, Colombia, every other Nation in North and South America (total about 1B) plus Nigeria (155m) plus Japan (125m) to almost equal to China’s 1.5 billion.

Philosophically, this work addresses one of the great questions of modern times: what model will move civilization forward on this globalized planet? The open, chaotic, and democratic model that the western-centric democracies seem to be embracing? or the authoritarian single-party (Communist in this case) top-down government model of decreed agendas that The People’s Republic of China follows today.

Fallows posits that the absolute need, economically driven, for China to conform to a world-class air-traffic control and manufacturing system will inevitably bleed over into the wider society and systems. Standards such as high-speed rail development and safety standards, environmental technology, high-value electronic manufacturing, and even the odd  double standard Chinese press operates under—where English language newspapers like the Economic Observer operate in conformance with the censors’ patronizing assumption that Chinese readers (even those born and raised in the West) won’t “get it” while in-country publications such as Southern Weekend are ‘way over-controlled, tends to work toward cracking open China’s incestuous leadership and its parochial regulatory system.

Fun and free excitement!

China’s “build it and they will come” MO (an artifact of central [mis]planning, and an urgent need to keep low and semi-skilled workers employed as well as to distribute what we in the U.S. would call “pork”,  results in not a few empty developments, and in one case, a modern airport in Tibet that was virtually useless due to geography and local climatic/weather conditions.

On page 179, Fallows treats us to a section of the epic first-ever landing at the storied (and basically inaccessible by the existing Chinese air traffic control system, such as it was) with a link to Nevarus  (acquired by GE) and thus this YouTube video in a tour-de-force demonstration of modern, world-class Required Navigation Performance (RNP) 
Access on Top of the World: Linzhi (Air China Test Flight) 国航-林芝


Pakistan reels along in chaos, says Pamela Constable in Playing With Fire, a digest of her penetrating experiences in today’s Pakistan. Shrines, Madrassas, Karachi to Kashmir, she analyzes what makes Pakistan such a failing state, or if it indeed has an actual future for it hybrids forces that transcend its short timeline.

Playing With Fire – Pakistan at War With Itself book cover

Constable, Pamela. Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself. Random House, 2011.

The arrogance of power, whether state or culturally enforced, is all that holds the state of Pakistan together and in shreds.

That and an option many Pakistanis choose out of desperation–Islamic Fundamentalism, i.e.–the Taliban and its draconian social order that uses extreme violence to enforce its edicts and is absolutely against Western understandings of women’s rights.

Pakistan bomb kills children near Shia processionBBC online November 24, 2012 (7 killed)

Taliban bomber kills Pakistan Shia marchers” BBC online November 22, 2012 (23 killed) 

Afghan funeral bomb: Suicide attacker ‘kills 25’ in east” BBC online September 4, 2012 (Afghanistan funeral attack)

Coupled with the denial many Pakistanis seem (according to Constable) express in Lahore to Karachi that the butchery by Moslem Taliban of the Moslem Pakistani population is indigenous, and not from some plot by the West, Pakistan can’t seem to get around to solutions of real, 21st-century problems the nation faces. Issues like rule of law, corruption, energy, water, housing, abject poverty, and education (some of the world’s lowest literacy rates exist in Pakistan’s tribal belt).

This fundamental denial of science, a vital democracy, rational thought and its appeal to undereducated or illiterate populations (which we see even in the US and evident in the recent re-elections) has a death grip on Pakistan’s hopes to reform and grow.

Names and players, from Judges to impoverished farming families, have their stories told here. Murders, “tactical” prosecutions to gain property, pervasive cynicism at every level–an intricate scenario emerges in Constable’s work that exposes the incredible (and depressing) ecology of layer upon layer of corruption and faith in a tortured land. I think this a must-read for those interested in a comprehensive survey of present-day Pakistan and its role in history.

Of particular interest (and explored in my developing post on “tactical” stereotyping in media and civilization) is hackneyed nugget from the “Great Game*” era in a description of the fear wielded by Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Service Intelligence Service, or ISI:

“p. 111; The Agency cultivates a reputation for omniscience, omnipresence, and impunity, and it floats rumors of horrific punishments in secret prisons, where men are said to be thrown into dungeons and tormented by rats, snakes, or starving dogs…”

Of course this horrible fate echoes from the ghastly ordeal of Stoddart and Conolly, two English adventurers who were thrown into the Black Pit of Bukhara in the 19th century. The torture, in Stoddart’s case, went on for years  before Connolly arrived to rescue him. Then on the orders of the Amir, they were both beheaded in a public spectacle after digging their own graves. Déjå Vu, anyone? The fear and bafflement of the Euro-American intelligentsia then lives on and is an undercurrent in this work today, albeit it comes from a frank and close-to-the pulse exploration. Pakistan today is living some of the outflow from ancient tectonic forces unleashed by arrogant empires. Now it’s dragged out again by an intelligent non-fiction author, perhaps unconsciously. I hope Pakistan’s future overcomes the narrative. It passes on and on like Cultural Herpes – even incorporated into the elevated atmosphere of  academic think tanks and reports, such as this one from the Center For International Media Assistance.

the Media Seen Too Blog…

Is the work of Russ Imrie, an IT freelancer living in the Washington DC Area. A registered American Indian and veteran, interests herein are widespread especially around historically themed film and writing. Also technical/nerdie stuff at the supTweet Blog and is a new contributor to China Daily Mail.

copyright 2012 and forever, for that matter, Russell Imrie

For democracy to flourish in North Africa, the Mideast, and Asia, economic opportunity, education, and a robust and independent media need to be alive and growing. Due to many factors, progress toward this staggers from one crisis to another, often reversing itself and heading back two steps for one taken forward.

Religious and Government leaders, and their followers, are baffled by violence, a storm of agendas, and global economic imperatives.

The U.S. and others are encouraging democratization, and as muddled or generous as their objectives may seem, often operate on incomplete historical and cultural assumptions within their domestic population with drastic results and lost opportunities to move the region forward. Is this the nature of globally active nations that need to include moral objectives in order to motivate the populace? Do these populations necessarily want to go? Or are those who freely choose to learn new things and perspectives to lead the way?
Educating oneself about the people, history, and nations there is essential reading for Americans to intelligently join the debate and empower democracy, both locally and through their government, globally.

Russ Imrie September 15, 2012

I suggest.

  • Vogel, Ezra F. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. (876 pages)
  • Borneman, Walter R. The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King–The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea. Little, Brown and Company, 2012. (559 pages)
  • Bergen, Peter. The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda. Free Press, 2011. (475 pages)
  • Bergen, Peter S. Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden-from 9/11 to Abbottabad. Crown, 2012.
  • Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. Knopf, 2012. (368 pages)
  • Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Knopf, 2006.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China; Ezra F. Vogel–a historical masterpiece

With China’s increasing assertiveness infecting its relations with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and the United States, as well as freaking out Indonesia and India, Deng Xiaoping fills out a picture of China’s murky politics and deep motivations. Deng’s struggles under Mao Tse Tung and in opening up China to modernization are to describe the utter transformation of the nation and building a unifying vision for the majority of this massive and diverse populace.This is a must-read primer on the shadowy politics in the Politburo and Central Committee. The roots of the odd dual nature of Chinese governance are seen in the details of how Deng, a shrewd and intelligent player, manipulated law (such as it was and is) and pragmatic single-party tactics to build consensus, bury opposition, and shape public opinion to achieve his agendas. Unusual for his generation he had spent time abroad as a student and as a political trainee in France and Russia. He spent his life in moving China from its insular and backward seclusion to a dynamic world player. He embraced Japan (once an implacable enemy) and ventured on China’s first State Visit to the United States (and initiated Diplomatic Relations) where he courted development expertise and funds.

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King–The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea; Walter R. Borneman

Read “Why aircraft carriers still rule the seas” and see what these only ever five-star admirals shepherded into being. All of them launched their illustrious careers in an age of dreadnoughts and great fleets of heavy battleships, matured and led the United States Navy through wars and a transition to the Carrier fleets and global deployment of force around the globe. Leahy became the close advisor to president Roosevelt, then Truman. He truly embodied the global application of power in politics, being at hand when Stalin, Churchill and the president met throughout the Second World War. His prescient views on Churchill’s obsession with the Middle East and preserving England’s tattered presence there, and of course access to oil, led him to foresee conflict with the Moslem nations.

The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda; Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen’s blanket volume on the “War in Error” examines through detailed reportage and opinion on the events from 9/11 to late 2011. He covers background every American ought to understand and includes insight on Pakistan and the growth of al Qaeda.

Peter Bergen speaking on the Manhunt for Osama bin Laden  at New America Foundation - photo Russ Imrie

Peter Bergen speaking on the Manhunt for Osama bin Laden at New America Foundation – photo Russ Imrie

At the time of publishing, Osama bin laden was still squirreled away a few miles away from Islamabad, Pakistan in his comfy villa/compound with his wives and communicating with al Qaeda through a messenger. The Obama administration, unbeknownst to Bergen, was about to command a strike deep into Pakistan in one of the brilliant successes of the Afghan venture. Indeed surveillance of Bin Laden’s compound commenced in September of 2010 and ended with his death May 2, 2011. The Obama administration managed to keep a tight lid on the operation and what was the hottest news out there. In May of 2012 Bergen released Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden–from 9/11 to Abbottabad and I took the photo at his talk on the book. He was the first and almost only journalist to examine Bin Laden’s compound after the strike. That is interesting reading especially in light of the recent Seal’s account, still unreleased.

Little America*: The War Within the War for Afghanistan; Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Today, September 18, I enjoyed a luncheon where Rajiv was the guest and gave a short talk focused on his new book on the trashed mission(s) that were to have transformed Afghanistan and subdued the Taliban. Is it inevitable that ANY huge U.S. government initiative will be known for its wastefulness, out-of-control cost, inter-agency rivalry, and the squandering of the moral high ground? As I write the AP released a national newspaper article about burgeoning problems in Afghanistan-while ignoring the diversion of Western attention to Iraq as a fundamental reason for the debacles in Afghanistan. Rajiv did not.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post - photo Russ Imrie

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post – photo Russ Imrie

After the talk, he agreed as we chatted briefly, that indeed,

the diversion into Iraq had ruined the early opportunity for success and peace in Afghanistan, such as it was–the chances of a good result after ebbed drastically

Chandrasekaran delves into the agendas, the muddled priorities, the explosive military and political rivalries, and personal hostilities that resulted in regional gains and losses, incredible costs in men and material, and tactical errors. and that was just in Washington.

In The Emerald City, he drills down into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), it’s botched occupation in Baghdad, as a case study in ineptness and deadly tragedy. No punches are pulled in naming names and policies that often put laughably unqualified minor management characters selected by ideology and for allegiance to neocons and the Bush Administration, into seats of power.

In Little America, he devotes page after page, in detail and through his three years of experience in the field, to dissecting bungle upon bungle. The greatest tactical error of all of course, was even thinking about  over-stretching the U.S. Armed Forces and invading/occupying Iraq on a mission that was a fraud. At a crucial time in the Afghan war, when Osama bin Laden might have been captured, the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people might have been won with capacity building and infrastructure successes, and when the Taliban were reeling, Bush stole the men, material, and mission that might have succeeded in Afghanistan off to the Euphrates and Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. For a critical few years, Afghanistan got short shrift and the Taliban rebounded as baffled Afghan allies began to see America’s forces and policies as pointless and a waste of time. President Obama, developing a plan from squabbling and territorial advisors, cobbled together the “Surge” and this is where Rajiv weighs in. Jealousies and cat fights destroyed coherent cooperation and planning.

The mission in the different operating areas changed with each new commander in the rotation. But all are memorialized for one blunder after another. For one is the chapter on “Tunnell” vision by the headstrong and aggressive Army commander Colonel Harry Tunnell (Search and Destroy pp 152-162) who painted the slogan “Search and Destroy” on the Stryker vehicles his unit used. This is to see the disorganization and ignorant decision-making that helped create the bigger mess in Afghanistan today. It’s one of story after story of mixed messages poorly communicated.

Of course the Afghans of the rural farm region Helmud Province did not see the slogan as helpful. That’s what they wanted–help, with seeds, marketing, water, and security. War-weary after decades of Soviet tyranny, savage civil war, warlords, especially corrupt national governments, ultra-conservative Taliban rule, then chaos and invasion by the U. S. and allies, they often chose the Taliban, who at least administered a sort of justice promptly and fairly. Also, the Taliban’s backing off on its ban of opium farming enabled desperately poor farmers to earn hard cash. The decision was often easy, the clueless agendas of the West went whistling all too often.

Little America refers is the name attached to a 1960’s American development project that included the Grishk dam, irrigation and even a small textbook “American style” village at Lashkar Gah. After millions of dollars and at the cost many, many lives, the dam (now named the Kajaki Dam) it is still barely functional and generates only a fraction of the electricity needed in nearby Kandahar. And the repair program for this unfinished sinkhole is now being handed off to the questionable capabilities of Afghan ministries and contractors. For more more details I hand you off at the link to the Washington Post’s March 4, 2013 item from Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

Grishk Dam, built by the United States around the 1960s.


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