My brain is leaking out with my sinuses right now in the course of my first confrontation with red-blooded American germs since returning to the States, so this may be a decision I will someday look back upon with total bewilderment, but I've just signed on to enter the glamorous world of the Washington D.C. intern this coming January.
All jokes aside the work sounds great and the only downside would be that the stipend for full-time works out to about half the federal hourly minimum wage, which means approximately .. 120% of my monthly income will be devoted solely to apartment rents. But this was actually, believe it or not, the better-paying of the two options potentially available to me at the moment, in addition to offering what seems like a really good work environment and the chance to do some real research (which will hopefully spill over into this blog). So it's crushing debt ahoy! for me. Good thing I, uh, didn't blow my entire post-JET savings on seven weeks of round-the-world travel.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to celebrate with tissues and more OJ-and-lemon juice.
December 10, 2007
My brain is leaking out with my sinuses right now in the course of my first confrontation with red-blooded American germs since returning to the States, so this may be a decision I will someday look back upon with total bewilderment, but I've just signed on to enter the glamorous world of the Washington D.C. intern this coming January.
November 30, 2007
November 27, 2007
Secretary of Defense Gates made a speech at Kansas State University the other day, and if you have the time I would suggest reading or listening to it (links via SWJ). In it he made a rather unusual plea: Give The Other Agencies of US Government Some Money Too.
What is not as well-known, and arguably even more shortsighted [than the "peace dividend" defense and intel cutbacks following the end of the Cold War], was the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world – the “soft power,” which had been so important throughout the Cold War. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers for a period of time. The United States Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts – its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 during Vietnam to about 3,000 in the 1990s. And the U.S. Information Agency was abolished as an independent entity, split into pieces, and many of its capabilities folded into a small corner of the State Department.
...[P]ublic relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals. It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the internet than America. As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago, “How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?” Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing U.S. strategic communications.
...Despite the improvements of recent years, despite the potential innovative ideas hold for the future, sometimes there is no substitute for resources – for money.
Funding for non-military foreign-affairs programs has increased since 2001, but it remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military and to the importance of such capabilities. Consider that this year’s budget for the Department of Defense - not counting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - is nearly half a trillion dollars. The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department is $36 billion – less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone. Secretary Rice has asked for a budget increase for the State Department and an expansion of the Foreign Service. The need is real.
From this we can reasonably conclude that the Secretary is a regular reader of WhirledView. Or, if not that, that he at least realizes, unlike his predecessor the famous bureaucratic infighter, that a successful US national strategy requires cooperation, coordination, and if not parity of resources then at least a balance less skewed than what we have now, between the critical agencies of US government.
I would strongly recommend MountainRunner's commentary on this speech as well. He mentions a report from Senator Lugar's office, "Embassies Grapple to Guide Foreign Aid" (.pdf) which he excerpts here in the bulleted points:
Not only has State's piece of the pie shrunk, but its leadership has, according to the report, become muddled. From four of the nine summary findings:
The last bullet is important as we see USAID working closely with the military in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the contested spaces. This stepchild is a core function of our mission to deny sanctuary and to counter ideological support for terrorism and insurgency. In this, the report notes the importance of the institutionalization of collaboration between the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and USAID in terms of cooperation, funding, mission, and leadership. But to really move this requires leadership that's not apparent in State.
- From the field, it is clear that we have failed as a government and as a community of international development supporters to agree on either the importance or the content of a foreign aid strategy...
- Overall agreement between headquarters and the field on foreign assistance is at low ebb and communications have been complicated rather than improved by the State Department’s efforts to provide strategic direction...
- Field complaints about the [new foreign assistance function headed by the Director of Foreign Assistance] at State focus on the lack of transparency, the weeks of extra paperwork, the differing priorities between post and headquarters, as well as inconsistent demands, but the underlying, only sometimes unspoken, fight is about money...
- USAID may be viewed as the neglected stepchild in D.C. but in the field it is clear that USAID plays either the designated hitter or the indispensable utility infielder for almost all foreign assistance launched from post...
Mountainrunner wonders in his conclusion whether "Gates [is] speaking out of turn or is the Bush Administration having Gates speak for the President?" My guess is former, since as he points out there's little evidence of any coordination with Secretary Rice on this (and Bush himself appears these days to be focused mostly on 1) attempting to maintain some appearance of relevance, nevermind the realities; and 2) trying to convince everyone that actually, General Petraeus is really The Decider.) But you do have to sort of wonder what an administration a few real adults in charge from the beginning would've turned out like.
Update - Much more at WhirledView here.
November 16, 2007
I'm still adjusting to life back in the States on some levels but one of the best things about it is definitely having access to English-language public libraries again. I've been really lucky to live in places with some very nice libraries, and when I passed through Boston on my way home back in early October I took this shot of the BPL, one of my favorite spots in the city. They had a pretty good exhibition of U.S. World War Two propaganda posters on display while I was visiting, too.
November 12, 2007
This is sort of Helpful.
This is really Not Helpful.
I've sent off about 10 applications in the past two to three weeks, and so far have received one response, informing me that the internship position for which I had been applying was actually eliminated two years ago.
November 11, 2007
Book I recently finished: Six Days of War by Michael Oren.
Acting about three years too late on a recommendation of praktike's, I now can claim to know a very small amount about the Middle East conflict. The history was very thoroughly reported, but I probably need to read more on Nasser and Israel to appreciate it all. This is a conflict I'm more inclined to defer to others on.
Book I'm currently reading: The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind.
Now that I'm living in the States and have access to English-language libraries again, I'm trying to catch up on several of the big political books to have come out in the past couple years. I'm liking this one better than The Price of Loyalty for the broader scope, although the prose is maybe a little too Esquire-esque. I'm about four chapters in at the moment and most of it is familiar from other sources by now, but he's putting together a pretty good narrative so far.
Book(s) I recently bought: Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy by Ayesha Siddiqa and Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam by Zahid Hussain.
I got tired of recommending the first one on Pakistan threads while having to caveat that "I've heard it's good, but haven't read it myself yet", so I bought it. And then they hooked me with that free shipping deal for the second....
What are you reading?
November 09, 2007
Friday Flickr for this week is from my trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Formerly a high school, Tuol Sleng ("Hill of the Poisonous Trees") was renamed "Security Prison 21" by the Khmer Rouge and used to conduct interrogations and torture prior to detainee's ultimate elimination. One of the methods used there was water-boarding. Somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 between 1975 and 1979. When S-21 administrators ran out of room to bury those detained and later executed at Tuol Sleng, they began removing them to Choueng Ek, outside the city center.
Today Tuol Sleng is a museum dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge's genocide against the Cambodian people.
For photographs of victims taken by the prison administrators, please visit this site.
November 08, 2007
November 06, 2007
It has taken me a while to make my way through the commentary about Pakistan pulsing through the 'net in the wake of Musharraf's imposition of military rule, but after a few days I've managed to do so and put together some thoughts of my own.
My undergraduate studies took a rather roundabout course. After a semester-long independent study on the Cold War my final year of high school, the closest thing I had to a regional specialization was Soviet Russia; however, having taken Japanese as my language then, I ended up selecting East Asia as my "regional track" in Boston University's International Relations program. I then proceeded to largely ignore both those areas and ended up taking courses mostly on China, after having finished a fascinating course on Chinese culture and domestic politics my freshman year. Then my senior year, after first reading Charlie Wilson's War and Ghost Wars (thank you Blake for the recommendations!), I got hooked on South Asia and political Islam under the teachings of Prof. Hussain Haqqani. This does not make the job search process go easier, let me tell you (my cover letter: "Will generalize on various subjects in exchange for pittance and a health plan").
The advantage of this all though is of course the chance to make connections between the subjects. One lesson from my studies of Chinese politics that has stuck with me is how "civil society" groups — religious bodies, environmental advocacy organizations, women's groups, etc — represent real foundational blocks in a participatory democracy, and how in the absence of democracy they can potentially serve as channels for citizens to seriously challenge the priorities and policies of the authoritarian state government (Prof. Robert Weller's Alternative Civilities: Democracy and Culture in China and Taiwan was a formative introduction to this idea).
In societies where an autocratic government imposes limits on political participation — by banning, for example, the establishment of rival political parties — even ostensibly innocuous and apolitical gatherings of individuals can potentially offer an platform for organizing the aspirations of the unrepresented. Democratic transition in Taiwan was heavily dependent on these voluntary groups' participation, and the Chinese Communist Party, observing this, has sought to curtail the organization of independent groups and NGOs on the mainland out of the fear that a similar process would depose them from power (thus, for example, the officially-endorsed and -incorporated "Patriotic Religious Associations" all practicing religious leaders are required to join). It's my understanding that many Middle Eastern leaders have been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith-based service organizations out of the fear that they too will end up serving as the framework for popular opposition to their continued autocratic rule.
So, in authoritarian societies where political participation is circumscribed, protesters may take the path of least resistance and channel their energies into groups that the state either doesn't have the power and / or the inclination to totally shut off.
Pakistan's General Musharraf is telling Western audiences that he's made his recent power play in order to shore up his ability to confront the terrorists, but the days following the coup have shown his biggest priorities to in fact be a crackdown on members of the judiciary, political opponents, and the independent media. Today the New York Times reports:
General Musharraf invited Islamabad’s diplomatic corps to his official residence on Monday to brief them on the situation and on his reasons for declaring emergency rule. But two Western diplomats said the encounter only reinforced concerns that General Musharraf was more focused on vanquishing his political rivals than on fighting terrorism.This is not Pakistan's first military clamp-down by any stretch, but Ahmed Rashid writes that "[n]ever before in Pakistan's sad history of military rule has a general so reviled invoked martial law to ensure his own survival".
At the meeting, the general primarily railed against his political opponents, with special venom reserved for the Supreme Court. When asked by a diplomat to describe specific plans to crack down on terrorists, General Musharraf gave only a vague answer.
“He effectively dodged the question and turned to the military presence in the room and asked them to organize a briefing for ambassadors,” said one of the Western diplomats. “It wasn’t very clear in terms of what was actually being done.”
The second Western diplomat said: “There was serious concern that terrorism and security was not front and center. What was really amazing was him going on and on and on about how bad the judiciary was.”
It's remarkable — particularly given the hand-wringing fears about Pakistan's imminent Islamization should Musharraf exit the stage, a notion which Musharraf himself has of course been happy to encourage —the degree to which Islamist parties in Pakistan are not actually all that popular at the polls. Hilzoy summarizes: "[I]f we are worried about what would happen if Pakistan held democratic elections, then it seems like a good idea to focus on the support enjoyed by actual political parties. Here the polls are unanimous: none that I'm aware of has Islamist parties enjoying more than the 11% support that they received in the 2002 elections." As the Taiwan example might suggest, this is not to say that such a political victory would be impossible: Joshua Hammer, in a much-noted piece in the Atlantic Monthly, explains that
[t]he nightmare scenario for U.S. policy makers—and one reason they remain heavily invested in Musharraf—is an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. A tide of anti-American sentiment, some analysts fear, could bring to power Islamists, who would give free rein to the Taliban, spread nuclear technology to rogue states and terrorist groups, and support the mujahideen in Kashmir.Hammer, continues, however, by reinforcing Hilzoy's statistics when he explains that
There’s no doubt that Islamists have grown in numbers and prominence in Pakistan since 9/11. In 2002, six fundamentalist parties formed an alliance called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, and rode a wave of anger at the American-led war in Afghanistan, taking 53 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly and forming the third-largest bloc in the parliament. The alliance won outright control of the provincial assembly in the North-West Frontier Province, and it now governs Balochistan in a coalition with Musharraf’s ruling party. During the weeks that I spent in Islamabad earlier this year, the MMA repeatedly flexed its muscles in noisy protests—weekly demonstrations against legislation offering further legal protections to women, rallies against the government’s razing of illegal makeshift mosques that have sprung up throughout the city. The demonstrations brought out hundreds of police officers and paralyzed traffic in the city for hours.
Moderate Muslims in Pakistan are worried about the Islamists’ rising profile: Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the Quaid-e-Azam University physics department, told me that the university has been “taken over” by Islamist fervor—more hijabs in the classrooms, more prayer, and “no bookstores, but three mosques with a fourth under construction” on campus. Hoodbhoy, a highly regarded nuclear physicist and a critic of military rule, told me that an Islamist takeover of the country, either by outright domination of the electoral process or in conjunction with a radical Islamist general, “is a real possibility.”
despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA’s growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade.Pakistan actually has a number of pretty well-established secular political parties, but because of their potential to challenge his power it is they, not the militants or the Islamists, who Musharraf is targeting in his crackdown. Joshua Kurlantzick writes at The New Republic:
[Y]ears of a political vacuum under Musharraf meant that young Pakistani democrats, exactly the type of people the country needs to escape its feudal past, could not organize or build grassroots movements. When Musharraf finally agreed to allow greater political freedoms this year, the only politicians who could move into the vacuum were two feudal dinosaurs, former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Neither are paragons of democracy: Under Bhutto, Pakistan suffered an endemic of extrajudicial executions and torture, while Sharif was dismissed as prime minister for alleged massive corruption.The only thing to add here is none of this began with Musharraf. Pakistan has never really had a chance to develop an effective governing class because whenever they've strayed from Army orthodoxy, coups have thrown them out of power. Having a weak and frequently corrupt political establishment serves Pakistani Army interests by offering easy pretexts for intervention and ready handles for less public manipulation when military rule is not overt. What to do if you're a Pakistani citizen who's fed up with this state of affairs? The Islamist program's appeal is not a special mystery, here.
The Chinese Communist Party currently has the power and the inclination to restrict independent religious organizations within the Chinese state (although even they have been forced to permit a burgeoning network of environmental NGOs). Musharraf, lacking in electoral legitimacy, presiding over a state whose economy and institutions are teetering on the edge of failure, and whose military predecessors have historically embraced Pakistan's Islamic identity as a strategy for overcoming ethnic and economic divisions in the face of a powerful and hostile Indian neighbor, does not have the means to do so. While I imagine it's fairly unlikely he would effect an about-face and embark on a program of Islamization to match a predecessor like Zia-ul-Haq, I find it even less likely that he will find the means to launch a more concerted effort against Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces in the tribal areas, even assuming he retains the desire to do so.
Out of concerns for their own power Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military establishment have retarded the development of the mainstream Pakistani political parties and weakened other institutions either through design or neglect; they simultaneously lack the means and will to confront separatist and terrorist movements which use the religion of Islam as a means of mobilization and organization. With other avenues of political participation restricted, Pakistan's gradual radicalization should not be unexpected. These groups' power will continue to wax, rather than wane, so long as Musharraf continues to cling to power, with serious strategic implications for America. While I don't want to overstate the degree to which the U.S. is able influence this process now — the military is deeply entrenched in Pakistani politics and will remain so for the forseeable future, as Hammer's article relates — I agree with Kurlantzick that it's time to recognize that our the perpetuation of Musharraf's rule is not serving our interests. Unless the political process is opened up through his removal, I think we can expect to see Islamist-based parties play an ever-growing role in Pakistan, and to the degree to which they cooperate and sympathize with groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban that is going to be that much more of a Bad Thing.
Ok, back to job applications now.
November 02, 2007
Two blog posts in as many days! I'm on fire here!
To celebrate I'm inaugurating a new feature — yes, that's right, I'm going to go ahead and call it a feature. It's going to be Friday Flickr™®©℠☃*, and it's going to mean one picture, selected from my photostream, posted right here on this very blog. In the event that I run out of interesting photos of my own maybe I'll link to other people's as well. We'll see.
* - Ok, possibly other people have discovered this serendipitous bit of alliteration before me, but I can't be bothered to Google it right now.
Anyhow — Friday Flickr for November the 2nd, 2007 is going to be a picture of my favorite float from Karatsu Kunchi, which I am missing right now. Besides being a massive three or four ton float, it was also featured on the Masterchef household Halloween pumpkin this year (there would be pictures of that instead, but I have a backlog of about 100 pictures from Cambodia and Zambia I still need to upload to Flickr first).
This is the helmet of Minamoto Yorimitsu, also known as Raikou, being partially devoured by the oni Shuten Doji, on the first night of Kunchi 2006.
Thanks to a recent bulletin at the Small Wars Journal I caught notice of an article in the latest issue of the Joint Force Quarterly, a publication of the National Defense University for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The primary topic of this issue is China. There are a lot of interesting pieces to check out there, but the one that first caught my eye was one by Martin Wayne titled "Five Lessons from China's War on Terror" (pdf).
While I think the simmering conflict in Xinjiang has gotten more press since I first started studying it in the fall of 2004 (probably thanks to the handful of Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo, not my term paper), it is still a fairly obscure region — one which I was lucky enough to travel through recently while taking the long way home from a two-year teaching stint in Japan. I don't speak a word of Uyghur and two and a half weeks was not nearly enough time to really get beneath the surface level so I can't claim any authority as a field researcher — if you want to see my pictures from that trip, though, they are available on Flickr here and here.
Anyhow, the thesis of my old paper was that the Chinese central government has, historically, enacted a number of discriminatory or inflammatory policies which have alienated the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and which, if continued, have the counterproductive potential to actually increase the appeal of militant Islam for some members of the dispossessed minority. Dr. Wayne's article, and to some extent my own travels in Xinjiang, seem to challenge some of those ideas. Xinjiang today appears — and I should stress the "appears", because again I have not spent enough time there nor do I have the fluency to accurately judge for myself —stable. It seemed to me that much of this stability has actually come from a growing Han Chinese population with a vested interest in reaffirming Xinjiang's status as part of China, and in conjunction with this in-migration the co-opting or commodification of several centers of Uyghur life. (Witness for example this classic sign at the Id Khah mosque in Kashgar — China's largest, and a major tourist destination for Han Chinese and Westerners now, like many other places in Kashgar, although there are still large local crowds at Friday prayers — or read the caption I excerpted from the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi's exhibit on minority cultures.) Since the 1990s, Beijing has devoted a tremendous amount of effort to keeping Xinjiang in its place as a part of China, and thus far it seems they have succeeded. Violence has diminished and development continues apace.
Wayne identifies five aspects of the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang, which he says hold lessons for understanding "the nature of China today and ... crafting more effective counterinsurgency policies". They are, in brief:
- The "targeting of indigenous support" for insurgency and cutting local links to broader jihadist movements
- Acting "early, forcefully, and comprehensively", using a graduated mix of security forces
- "Crafting meaningful security" through a comprehensive campaign in the areas of education, religion, economics, and governance
- "Countering the insurgency from the bottom up", by using "society-centric" warfare — holding groups accountable for the actions of their members
- Enabling counterinsurgency for the purpose of stability through "seemingly infinite political will" on the part of the regime
The "early, forceful, comprehensive" action in the first point describes, according to Wayne, the PRC's quick build-up of "forces capable of moving down the spectrum of violence — away from military actions in favor of paramilitary and then police forces more capable of moving in society". The "Four-in-One Defense" draws upon the People's Liberation Army; the paramilitary People's Armed Police; the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (a chain of farms, prison camps, and Han immigrant work groups established under Mao to ensure a loyal population); and the Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang, which today compromise a full 50% of Xinjiang's population, making them the largest ethnic group in what is officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The entire third point of Wayne's article, "crafting meaningful security", is the vaguest, but the examples he gives seem to me more like a recipe for rebellion than stability: purging the local military of "not only of those suspected of separatism but also of ideas considered separatist"; pairing throughout government Han Chinese and minority officials where "[t]he key to knowing who holds the power at each level ... is looking at which post is controlled by the Han"; "education primarily in [Mandarin]", the content of which is "controlled by the party-state, and [with] spies and informants ... believed to police classroom compliance"; "mosques and other religious settings [likewise] infiltrated and monitored for political dissent by security forces"; and "pervasive ethnic discrimination" where "the most materially developed towns have the largest percentages of Han". I have to acknowledge that it is possible that overpowering tactics like this might be effective, but Wayne in his very first point says that "[e]ven the most brutal force can achieve ephemeral tactical victories, yet strategic effectiveness is ultimately achieved through political measures that deeply reshape society". Unless he's suggesting that Beijing is reshaping society so totally that the Uyghurs will become permanently marginalized and as a result quiescent, I'm at a loss as to how these tactics are going to bring about long-term political reconciliation and stability. I'm hesitant to make future predictions about where China or the Uyghurs is headed, but should violent instability return to Xinjiang these would seem to me like number one candidates for protest.
As for the notion of "society-centric warfare", this appears to me to be essentially a combination of 1) collective punishment; and 2) state corporatism. Functioning as the former, Wayne explains how
In Xinjiang ... every grouping of society is held accountable for its rank and file. The region's government, as well as prefectures, villages, neighborhoods, and families, are responsible for their members. Employers, especially those directly controlled by the government, must account for their employees. The limited opportunities for moving or for obtaining new employment in Xinjiang throughout the 1990s greatly facilitated this strategy. Consequences for failing to prevent problems or respond appropriately range from stigma and stern warnings from the seemingly ever-present security forces ... to loss of employment (to which the entire family's housing, health care, and income may be tied) and perhaps worse. Some families reportedly have been threatened by security forces if a husband, father, or son failed to turn himself in after an incident of unrest.China practices the state corporatism function regularly through controls on the establishment and activities of non-governmental organizations, most notably through the "Patriotic Religious Associations" practicing Chinese priests and imams are required to join in order to gain the privilege of preaching to and representing their respective faiths. This divide, coopt, and rule is strategy is potentially effective (the British certainly were fond of it, weren't they?) but also has the consequence of legitimating and entrenching community divisions. I've written previously in my other huge-senior-year-term-paper that this has produced some challenges to integrating Europe's Muslim communities, and more directly related to Xinjiang Dru Gladney has written a lot on how Uyghur identities are being constructed in opposition to mainstream Han Chinese society, the most recent bit of which I've read being Chapter 10 in his book Dislocating China. So again, this "society-centric" policy is something which seems to be working ok now, but I think has the potential to come back and bite Beijing badly in the future — just as it may in Iraq today.
Wayne's final fifth point is a good one, which is that "the prospect of unrest in Xinjiang shook the regime's veneer of stability and catalyzed government action with the full if uninformed backing of the Chinese people ... While the Communist Party's concern is for self-preservation atop the state, the state must produce the perception, and perhaps the reality, of internal stability". But while economic successes and very gradual political reform may buy continued acquiescence to CCP rule in the east for the time being, I don't know the extent to which that will work in Xinjiang (or in the east, for that matter). Wayne says that "like peoples elsewhere in China, the population of Xinjiang increasingly if grudgingly bought into the idea that stability across China leads to a better future. Acceptance of this vision of Xinjiang benefitting from increasing incorporation into China undercut passive support for insurgency and drew Uyghurs and Uyghur society into active stabilizing roles in governance, business, religion, and education." I can't argue with this — it certainly seemed that way when I travelled through Xinjiang over this summer — but I do wonder whether the Uyghurs will continue to buy in for the long term, given the number of intrusive policies they are subject to and the highly uneven distribution of this "better future" in Xinjiang. It also raises the question — which Wayne does raise in his final paragraph — as to what will happen in Xinjiang and throughout China if the country's growth slackens and the promised future benefits remain out of the grasp of the majority.
I really am interested in reading Dr. Wayne's full book, if I can ever manage to get a copy to do so, and would be very curious to see more analysis of Chinese policies from scholars better-versed than I in the intricacies of counterinsurgency strategy. Right now though, I'm not finding myself convinced by Dr. Wayne's article that China's actions in Xinjiang are in fact keys to "crafting more effective counterinsurgency policies", at least not through their emulation. After a period of spiking political violence in the mid-1990s Xinjiang has entered a fairly quiet stage, but I think it is still too early to say whether this will last or whether Chinese policies will actually provoke a more serious challenge to Beijing's authority in the future. We'll see.
November 01, 2007
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to the measure at a lunch on Tuesday after weeks of tension between their departments over coordination of thousands of gun-carrying contractors operating in the chaos of Iraq.What the article doesn't say is how control is being transferred and what, exactly, "military coordination" is going to actually mean. Prior to this announcement the (currently leader-less) State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security — which manages embassy security details all over the world, and which oversaw the Blackwater contract since control over the non-military aspects of the Iraq mission was transferred to State from Rumsfeld's CPA in 2004 — had already, in response to the Blackwater incident, proposed some fixes. They include the "establishment of a 'go team' of embassy security officials to 'proceed as soon as possible to the scene of any weapons discharge to gather information and material and provide an analysis of what happened and why, and prepare a report'", as well as "[a board to] review all incidents involving contractor use of deadly force, injury, death or serious property damage and recommend to the ambassador whether force was justified", among other ideas like cultural training and increased compensation for Iraqi families who suffer from contractors' mishaps. To what extent any of these measures will be implemented under the DOD's watch is not at all clear from the Times article. But R.J. Hillhouse at The Spy Who Billed Me reminds us that the Pentagon actually already has its own system for overseeing the activities of most of its contractors — which is, hire another contractor to do it for them:
Mr. Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug-of-war, which accelerated after a Sept. 16 shooting in central Baghdad involving guards in a Blackwater convoy who Iraqi investigators say killed 17 Iraqis. Military coordination of contractor convoys will include operations of not only Blackwater, formerly known as Blackwater USA, but also those of dozens of other private firms that guard American diplomats, aid workers and reconstruction crews.
Department of Defense security contractors are already coordinated through a single, DoD entity, the Regional Operations Centers which track movement of security convoys to make sure they and the military don't trip over one another. Most likely this existing mechanism will be expanded to monitor Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp convoys for the Department of State and this would raise some interesting questions since its known that BW and TC also provide security services to the CIA under this contract.I recommend reading the full Washington Post story linked in Hillhouse's post above, but essentially one of the responsibilities included in the Aegis contract is conducting regular threat briefings for and tracking the movement of DOD contractors. Why is the US military outsourcing the oversight of its outsourcing? Probably because the military's procurement and contracting officer corps is overstretched and under-prepared for the task at hand as it is:
The US Regional Cooperation Offices are outsourced through a recently renewed $475 million contract to the British firm Aegis. Aegis is run by the infamous old-school mercenary, Tim Spicer.
I do think unity of effort is a key aspect of a counterinsurgency campaign (John Nagl makes points along these lines in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, as I recall), so to that extent having all the guns rolling under one command makes sense; and it's one of the realities of our day that the United States seems to increasingly hand these kinds of responsibilities to its military rather than its diplomatic services (on this subject see, among others, a recent WhirledView post, Andrew Bacevich's New American Militarism, and Dana Priest's The Mission). I agree with the Mountainrunner article I linked above that problems with Blackwater in Iraq really reflect more the failings of its contracting customer, which is to say the US State Department and more broadly the US government as a whole. If State doesn't recognize the damage being done to US-Iraqi relations by hard-rolling contractor convoys, it's really not Blackwater's business to hold back just for the sake of the broader national mission, which is not what they are being paid for, unless its client demand that of it. State and other US government agencies are presumably being paid to execute a coherent campaign to fight off the Iraqi insurgency and rebuild the country, and their failure to rein in contractors (potentially even when that means greater risk to US diplomats and others serving there) has been detrimental to our mission in Iraq. But it's pretty evident that the Pentagon has not exactly covered itself in glory in the area of contractor oversight either.
An independent panel has sharply criticized the Army for failing to train enough experienced contracting officers, deploy them quickly to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure that they properly manage billions of dollars in contracts to supply American troops in the field, according to officials briefed on its findings.
In a wide-ranging report to be made public on Thursday, the panel said these and other shortcomings had contributed to an environment in Iraq and Kuwait that allowed waste, fraud and other corruption to take hold and flourish. ...
[T]he six-member panel, appointed in August by Army Secretary Pete Geren, levels a stinging indictment of how the Army oversees $4 billion a year in contracts for food, water, shelter and other supplies to sustain United States forces in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. The panel also blames senior Army leaders for not responding more swiftly to the problems, despite warning signs like severe shortages of contracting officers in the field. “The Iraq-Kuwait-Afghanistan contracting problems have created a crisis,” the report states.
Congress and investigating agencies like the Government Accountability Office have in recent months assailed the Army for what they have described as a war-zone procurement system in disarray. ...
The panel’s report, which runs about 100 pages including supporting documents, recommends increasing the number of Army contracting officers by about 25 percent, or 1,400, in coming years. It urges the department to improve training and to start young officers in the procurement corps soon after they join the Army, not after seven or eight years of other duties, as is common now.
The panel argues that the procurement corps, now dominated by civilians who balk at being sent to a war zone, must be trained to be an expeditionary force, just as Army combat forces train to deploy quickly for yearlong tours to Iraq,
If Secretary Gates and General Petraeus are going to take their new power over State's security details and the recommendations of this contracting panel and try to forge some kind of coherent program of oversight for the many private firms to whom the US government has devolved portions of its responsibilities in Iraq, then maybe we will see a more coherent strategic effort. But switching one Department for another on Blackwater's billing invoices is not going to be enough.*
* Ok, possibly Blackwater still sends its bills to State under this new arrangement, I don't really know. Maybe they have direct deposit. It's mostly beside the point.
October 27, 2007
October 23, 2007
Ezra Klein makes what I think is an important point, which allows me to make a rare statement elaborating a bit of my own loosely-defined personal political theories. Ezra:
Charity is good for the giver and, generally, good for the receiver. But it's not what you build your society upon. It's not reliable, or predictable, or particularly targetable. Indeed, very little philanthropy actually goes into the areas that social policy focuses on. And that's because it's not supposed to. Charity, rather often, is a way to demonstrate virtue or compassion. Social policy, at least in theory, is a way to try and fix a structural problem. The two cannot be swapped in for each other.I've been an active supporter of the charity Habitat for Humanity for going on seven and a half years now. I have probably personally hammered nails, painted walls, or shoveled dirt at the sites of over 70 or 80 homes across the United States (and the world), and have worked with many of the future homeowners and hundreds of other volunteers in the course of doing so. I've donated a good bit of my own money to the cause as well, although I'm still at the stage in my life where donations of time and labor are a lot easier for me to make than monetary ones; having made such an investment at this point, though, it's reasonable to assume that those financial contributions will increase as my means to make them does.
I think Habitat does a lot of good work. And I am proud of the work I have done with it: through my efforts families have been able to achieve home ownership when they might otherwise never have enjoyed that stability that my fortunes have afforded me since birth. Habitat has offered a crucial hand up for these people and their lives have been impacted by it, just as those of the volunteers who work with them have. Developing a spirit of civic volunteerism is another important aspect of charity work, as I've attempted to express before. Private, non-governmental charitable groups play a very important role in policy-making, by advocating for issues and energizing constituencies to participate in the democratic political process. Living in politically apathetic Japan for two years made me realize how rich U.S. society is in that regard.
But the simple fact is that Habitat, for all its lofty vision, is not going to house the world on its own, one family at a time. There was an immense impact for every family whose home I have helped build, but on the national scale these are tiny changes — even more minuscule on the global scale. While charities may lead attention to an issue, ultimately I think broad changes, at the structural level as Ezra correctly seeks to place them, in major social policy areas like affordable housing, education, the environment, and health care, can only be effected by an agency as powerful and far-reaching as the government. And the fact that I do think it is just and proper for the government to be directed towards those goals is a major reason why I am not a conservative.
October 17, 2007
Bad timing for my recent stopover in Boston means I missed hearing this in person, but Professor Andrew Bacevich's lecture last week at Boston University, "Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr", is available for listening online. I recall the Niebuhr section in the "Ideas on American Foreign Policy" course I took with him as being somewhat inscrutable at the time, but Bacevich's lecture touches on a number of themes also present in much of his recent writing. From the BU Today writeup:
Bacevich, a conservative thinker who has become a harsh Iraq war critic, said Niebuhr stressed that history is not a simple narrative of good battling evil, and with American leadership, eventually triumphing around the world. Instead, Niehbuhr emphasized “the indecipherability of history” and warned of “the false allure of simple solutions.” And, said Bacevich, referencing the Bush administration’s push for invading Iraq in 2003, such an allure was particularly dangerous when the solution reached for was a military one.
“Egged on by pundits and policy analysts, [they] persuaded themselves that American power, adroitly employed, could transform the Greater Middle East,” said Bacevich. “The paths of progress,” he continued, quoting Niebuhr, “have turned out to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand.” Bacevich warned also that a continuing failure to heed Niebuhr’s admonitions would tempt “further catastrophes.” And he didn’t point fingers only at Washington. In the final minutes of his lecture, Bacevich examined the struggle in Iraq from a cultural point of view. Specifically, he said, it was the American expectation for ever-greater material abundance that has led to an inherently expansionist foreign policy, such as our addiction to foreign oil and the bloody entanglements needed to ensure an unfettered supply of the fuel.
The current war in Iraq, Bacevich argued, was debased not just by delusional and arrogant foreign policy leadership, but by “the moral dissonance generated by sending soldiers off to fight for freedom in distant lands when freedom at home appears increasingly to have become a synonym for profligacy, conspicuous consumption, and frivolous self-absorption.”
The latter section particularly echoes arguments made by William Appleman Williams and Charles Beard, two historians whose work Bacevich cites in his book, The New American Militarism. I'll have to see if I can't dig up my notes from senior year to see what additional points we might have covered then on Neibuhr — I think the reading itself was a handout, as I don't spot The Irony of American History on my current shelves (which I am now reunited with after two years away in Japan). The follow-up Q&A session at Bacevich's talk, unfortunately, is not included in this audio, so I'm left wondering how the debate went afterwards.
Otherwise unrelated but continuing with the where-are-my-former-professors-now theme a little bit further, Professor Husain Haqqani, current director of BU's Center for International Relations, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Pakistan recently: here is Video Part One and Video Part Two (Windows streaming formats). I've yet to watch the videos fully for lack of a good connection, but his prepared testimony can be read here (.pdf).
October 07, 2007
America is doing just ok. I caught up with some professors in Boston, had crepes at the place in South Campus and blueberry muffins at Dunkin Donuts, and am now back home in Indiana and settling in a bit before launching the Great Job Search.
I guess it's a little after the fact now, but I'm beginning to upload pictures from my trip — a slow process since 1) there are over 580 of them to sort through; and 2) we still just have dial-up in the house. So catching up on the news and blogs will also take a while. But you can see the first installment of pictures, from my three days in Beijing, now.
September 27, 2007
... but not for much longer. I'm back in Lusaka now, after hitching down for three sun-and-wind-beaten hours in a battered old Japanese pick-up with wooden floorboards and the little voice chirping a warning announcement whenever the truck turns left. Hitching is definitely the way to go in Zambia, although all successes in that department are owed to Laura's skills. Since leaving Livingstone (we took a river cruise on the "African Princess", which was ok, but didn't get us nearly as close to the wildlife as the safari boat we were supposed to have taken -- the bus brought us there late so we took the free drinks as consolation prize), I've been spending the past several days out in the village in Zambia's Mkushi district, Central Province, where I spent a relaxing time laying about, straining to keep up with Laura on the dirt biking trails, tagging along for fish pond inspections, and playing with her dog, Winston. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer out in the bush is a much more challenging one than that of a JET teacher in Japan, but Laura has made a pretty nice home there, and it was good to be able to visit. (Oh, and I did get my bag back.)
Now I'm off to London, for a five-hour layover, and then Boston, where I hope to run into a few former professors at BU and enjoy some New England fall weather. I may or may not make a detour down the coast to New York City on the Chinatown bus, not sure at this point, but I am about out of money by now so I don't think I will be delaying the return home to Indiana for too much longer.
I hope everybody's been taking good care of America in my absence.
September 17, 2007
I have made it to Zambia, alive and intact. The trip from Bangkok was, to put it mildly, a hellish nightmare of epic proportions. The minibus from my Bangkok guesthouse to the airport got stuck in traffic, of course, but I made it there with over two hours to spare, so I had a leisurely check-in and even had time to buy a barbecue chicken nikuman from the Family Mart (!) there in the departure terminal. My bag, I was told, was going to be checked straight on to Lusaka, so I said goodbye to it, and then went through security. I used some of my last Thai baht on a scoop of gelato and some Thai cooking spices for Laura (my friend here in Zambia). Then I sat around at the departure gate with a huge hoard of Thai university students on a tour and a bunch of Brits for a bit before getting on around 9:30 in the evening.
Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, is pretty fancy flying, with soothing sand-colored carpeting and something like 500 channels of movies and tv programs and video games in the seatbacks. The flight was fairly full but I ended up with a row to myself, although two people later moved to join me when their handsets weren't working. I didn't sleep, but ended up watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (all three were on offer, but I'd only seen the second one once before, and felt I needed a refresher; it made more sense the second time around) and an incredibly strange German movie, "Deepfrozen", which started out as what could've been a quirky romantic comedy about a very socially awkward man living in a nowhere village delivering frozen pizzas, who falls for an exotic young girl who's a rock groupie whose van breaks down outside of town ... but then people start dying, and maybe she killed them, but in the end maybe he did it, except he probably couldn't have? And she rides off in a limo with James Brown. Very bizarre, and not quite what I was expecting going into it. Anyhow, I didn't sleep, so when we touched down in Abu Dhabi it was around 3:00 AM Bangkok time -- I had been up for about 20 hours at this point. I staggered into the waiting lounge, where I bought a cherry danish that tasted exactly like America, and also some water. I sat around for about an hour and a half waiting to board the plane, which I eventually did; it was 2:00 in the morning local time and my flight was scheduled to be leaving at 2:30.
At this point I did get a chance to stretch out on two seats against the side and fall asleep -- I think it was at least a half hour, but couldn't have been more than an hour, because at around 3:00 (six AM in Bangkok, or almost 24 hours since I had woken up there the previous morning) I was awakened by the captain announcing that there was mechanical trouble with one of the engines, and they were de-boarding the plane on account of repairs that would take at least four hours. So me and the other passengers dragged ourselves off and back into the terminal, where four beleaguered Etihad employees were rebooking the entire flight. The lucky ones heading to Johannesburg, they put up in a hotel there in Abu Dhabi and onto a flight the next morning; but since South Africa wasn't my final destination, and since that delay would mean missing my morning flight to Lusaka, they told me they were going to put me a taxi for Dubai, have me take an Emirates Air flight to Johannesburg at 10:00 AM, and then have South African Airways put me on an evening flight for Lusaka that should have gotten me in around 8:00 PM on the evening of the 14th. Ok. They gave me a voucher for the taxi and a white sheet of paper with my FIM ("Flight Interrupt Manifest") details on it that would get me on the necessary flights, and sent me on my way. So I passed through United Arab Emirates customs at 4:00 in the morning and stepped into the cab that arrived shortly after for the drive to Dubai.
The taxi wasn't actually marked as such, and the car was quite nice; a luxury model of some sort, with video headrests a dashboard covered in displays. The effect was marred by the seatbelts, though; as I fastened in, it felt like they had cut roughly through the seat fabric to put in the buckle. We pulled out onto four lanes of smooth, perfectly unblemished, perfectly empty tarmac laid down by legions of sweating South Asian migrant workers, the driver gradually bringing up the speed as we cut through the desert on an orange-lit ribbon of highway. Wide awake from the frigid air conditioning and my brain having reached the point where dead tiredness turns over into vivid wakefulness, we passed palm trees lining the highway, unseen lights out in the desert, two large mosques lit with neon green, and a Dunkin Donuts. The rear window had some sort of glaze on the glass that caused the sodium-burning h ighway floodlights to twist into writhing tendrils as we passed beneath, the car beeping politely as we cross the 120 kilometer speed limit threshold. After a hundred kilometers or more, we entered the shelter of the high glass skyscraper towers of Dubai, many under construction and topped with cranes perched like birds greeting the dawn.
Just before six in the morning we pulled into the loading zone at the airport, where I attempted to explain my situation at the Emirates counter. They were confused, of course, as was I, but the guy took my piece of paper and told me to wait there until nine, when he'd let me know if there was room on the standby waiting list for me to get on this flight to Johannesburg. I didn't dare lie down on the couches, for fear I wouldn't wake up -- so I sat there, freezing in the air conditioning as my body functions started shutting down. After an interminable wait, I went back to get a ticket and my magic piece of paper again and sprinted my way to the flight, where I boarded with a legion of South Africans returning from holidays in the UK. By this point, my brief hour of rest aside, I had been awake for close to 30 hours, and in transit for about 16.
But -- I got stuck in a center seat next to a large woman and a German backpacker and didn't sleep any on the eight hours down to Johannesburg. I watched movies, I played video games, I ate snacks, I listened to the Swiss flight attendant flirting with the South African girl in the seat in front of me, I tried to sleep as hard as I could, but when we touched down in South Africa I was still awake. Unbelievable.
Now, when I got my ticket from the Emirates guy, he gave me back my special piece of white paper from the Etihad people and said, "They're going to try and take this from you at the gate, but don't give it to them, you need it in Johannesburg". He was right -- the people at the gate in Dubai insisted, and even though I was skeptical when they said that Etihad should've put me in the system and I shouldn't need it in Joburg and that they needed to keep this copy, I was exhausted and just wanted to get on the plane, so I wrote down my FIM number and gave up the sheet. This was of course a mistake, since when I got to the international transfer desk in Joburg the rather unfriendly South African Airways people -- who were supposed to be putting me on an evening flight to Lusaka at Etihad's expense, since I had missed the one I was scheduled for that morning -- said that I wasn't in the system and without the paper they couldn't do anything, and that Etihad should've given me two FIM papers for the two flights. Oh, and the Etihad people there had already left for the day, so I needed to come back at 7:00 in the morning. Exhausted, defeated, and at this point about ready to just go to sleep there in the queue, I gave up and checked myself into a very posh airport hotel at $185 a night and crawled into the softest bed ever. It was seven thirty in South Africa, past midnight in Bangkok, and I had been in transit for 26 hours and awake for the better part of 40 -- a new personal record, as my previous best was only 27.
I still woke up at the crack of dawn though -- I'm more jetlagged in Africa than I've been on the rest of the trip, since it's actually seven hours time difference from Japan. I went back to the airport and found the Etihad offices and talked to the guy there, who was pretty helpful, and who got me on the morning flight to Lusaka. I'm still confused as to who exactly I should be blaming for all this -- Etihad for not giving me enough FIMs, Emirates for taking the one I had, South African for being no help at all? -- but whatever, I made it on the flight and to meet Laura, albeit a full 24 hours later than I should've. And I got a UAE and South Africa stamp in the passport out of it too. My bag, of course, did not make it -- I have no clear idea where it is at the moment; either somewhere in Abu Dhabi floating in the aether, or otherwise in Johannesburg with the pallet of other peoples' luggage from my flight who also were missing bags when we disembarked. So right now I've got one pair of clothes, my camera, and my iPod to my name; but I imagine the bag will show up eventually. I gave them Laura's cell phone number here and with luck it will turn up, but Lusaka is not an especially happening town so we decided not to sit around and wait for it after the first day; yesterday we hitchhiked 472 kilometers south to the town of Livingstone on the border with Zimbabwe, home of Victoria Falls and a museum dedicated to the famous explorer.
Zambia is more expensive to travel in than Southeast Asia, because most travellers here are rich Anglos on safari, but this morning I went to the falls and had breakfast on an island looking over the plunge, which was quite cool; this evening we're taking a riverboat and going looking for big game. We've actually already seen zebras and giraffes, wandering through the grounds of the hotel that hosted the breakfast (which is actually within a national park, and which was full of rich old tourists). After two more days of activities here -- horseback riding, bungee jumping, and canoeing are all possibilities I think, although I'm not sure what we'll end up doing -- we're going to hitch back north to Laura's village, where things will be considerably more sedate; there's an agro-forestry workshop and some fish farming she's doing, and otherwise we will probably be taking it easy for the week there.
It was immensely stressful getting here but I am here now and, missing bag aside, things are going well. Africa!
September 12, 2007
Also, bicycling around Angkor: wow. I went through four and a half liters of water and I'm pretty sure I sweated it all out again.
The road from Siem Reap to Bangkok did not take 14 hours as I had feared, but the six it took to get to the Thai border were some of the worst roads I've crossed over; possibly even worse than Mongolia, since you can't just drive off onto the side on account of the fact that it's all surrounded by rice fields. Still, I made it here to Bangkok in about 10 hours, and this evening head to airport for to begin what will probably be about 24 hours of flights. The only good thing to say about this route is it will give me what will probably be my life's only stopover in Abu Dhabi, for about two hours anyhow.
On to Africa!
September 10, 2007
Well, the suit turned out pretty good.
From Hoi An I took a trip down to see the memorial at My Lai, which was as you might expect something of an emotionally draining visit. I was the only visitor so I got a personal guided tour from an earnest young woman who took me around the reconstructed house foundations where the hamlet once stood, and I stood by the ditch where Lieutenant Calley's soldiers cut down 107 civilians. (Its banks have been reinforced with some molded concrete now, which I think maybe detracts -- slightly -- from the impact... but, still.) Probably the most emotional part was watching a short documentary they showed which featured the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who stopped to rescue 10 civilians and who returned 30 years later to meet two of the survivors. On an otherwise very dark day, his courage and humanity were inspiring, and it was very moving watching these (now quite old) women thank him for an act that was at once amazingly brave and also very simply the right thing to do. I can only hope the United States continues to be able to produce men (and women) of his heroism.
I came back to Hoi An to catch a bus south to the small beachside port of Quy Nhon, once home to a large US and South Vietnamese military base, where my father was stationed. Today the city is one of Vietnam's quieter beachfronts, with few foreign tourists (who mostly go further south, to Nha Trang) and many fishing boats plying the bay. It appears there's nothing left of the old base -- not only have things been stripped away and recycled, but the area where it once stood has actually undergone some major redevelopment, with hotels and a supermarket / shopping mall and a wide flat boulevard lined with trees where the airstrip once ran. After an evening shower, I took another walk along the beach in search of a seafood restaurant this evening and passed a large segment of Quy Nhon's young male population out playing soccer or volleyball in the sand; many young kids were out with there parents as well and I was fairly bombarded with "hello!"s until it got too dark for them to notice I was a foreigner.
It's been planes, cars, boats, motorcycles, and many, many buses thus far this trip so for a change of pace I took the train from Quy Nhon to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City -- which made for a very slow pace, as it turns out. I was in a narrow berth with six bunks with about an inch slab of padding on each; I was on the top bunk which meant I had about two feet of head clearance, so I spent most of the trip lying around, dozing, reading, listening to the iPod, and eating Oreos. We arrived in at around 9:00 in the evening and I took a taxi to a place that actually ended up being the most expensive place I've stayed at in Vietnam, $17 for a double. It wasn't as nice as the place I stayed at in Quy Nhon, either, which was a nice beachside backpacker place run by a friendly Kiwi expat; but still, I can't complain all that much.
Although I'm sure Saigon has some hidden charms, I got the hell out of dodge the next day, with yet another bus ride, this time over the border into Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. My first evening I took a short walk and had a dinner of delicious hot and sour soup before returning to my (very budget) guesthouse by the lakeside. Then the next morning I took a motorcycle out to the Killing Fields, which are maybe 15 minutes ride outside of Phnom Penh.
As we pulled down a dusty dirt road that led to the grounds, I heard the loud echoing of monks chanting broadcast over a PA system, mingled with jangly Cambodian music ... perhaps coming from a restaurant nearby, I'm not sure where exactly, but it made for a strangely appropriate soundtrack to wander around the place. The "fields" are actually dotted with copses of trees, and paths leading under them pass by many sunken depressions, their bottoms filled with small pools from the high water table (the land here is flat and low, formed from alluvial silt from the mighty Mekong River, whose bay once split Vietnam and Thailand into two separate peninsulas before filling in to form Cambodia) -- these were the mass graves, some of which have since been excavated. Along the paths there were still tattered scraps of clothing fallen from the many victims. A tall monument, maybe 30 feet in height, stands a short walk from the entrance gates, with arching spires and intricate carvings in the Cambodian temple style; the glass walls inside house a column of human skulls, victims who were brought here after being imprisoned in S-21 prison, interrogated, tortured, and finally disposed of.
The prison, which I visited that afternoon, was once a high school, with yellow paint still on the pitted concrete walls and rusting bars covering the windows. The rooms where they kept prisoners were mostly bare, with the occasional metal bedframe on which the interrogators worked. A torrential afternoon monsoon rain came down as I was passing between buildings and so I spent some time looking at pictures of the many men, women, and not a few children who passed through this place. I bought a book about the Khmer Rouge regime, and how Pol Pot's group effectively kidnapped and decimated Cambodian society after their overthrow of Gen. Lon Nol, which I'm reading now. I studied Cambodia a bit back in college but feel I need to refresh myself on the history some more. "Madness" is too simple of an explanation for what brought these things about but it's hard to think otherwise.
Now I'm in Siem Reap, home of the mighty temples of Angkor Wat, for what will hopefully be a big change of tone. After yet another very long bus ride from Phnom Penh this morning, I arrived around three o'clock and was immediately set upon by the most voracious crowd of tuk-tuk drivers I've had the misfortunte to encounter yet. I was the only single foreigner on the bus (there was one Brit couple who had thought to book a ride to their guesthouse ahead of time; the rest were all locals) and so I ended up literally pinned and surrounded by about twenty guys waving signs as soon as I got off the bus. I finally broke off with one of them, whose "free" ride to my choice of guesthouse turned into $1.25 when I passed on his offer to drive me around the temples tomorrow. Instead I'm going to rent a bike from the place where I'm staying and head out at the crack of dawn tomorrow to try and fit in as much as I can... I have to book it to Bangkok by the 13th for a flight out of Asia so unfortunately I don't have enough time to take a more leisurely survey of the area.
And here comes the monsoon rains again.
September 03, 2007
The van that came and picked me up for the tour of Halong Bay stopped at several, increasingly tonier-looking, hotels on the way out of town, with the last stop being for an Australian woman who was at the Hanoi Hilton (not the one John McCain stayed in). With the exception of me, three Australians, and one South African, our group of a dozen was entirely Asian; several were actually Vietnamese, one Korean couple, and one older Japanese couple. I appeared to be the only obvious backpacker amongst the group; most of the rest looked to be in their 30s at least. Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese lady named Han, which like the Han in Hanoi means River. We drove out of town, threading our way through the scooter-filled streets and coming out into the countryside. We passed through ricefields dotted with ancestral shrines and small villages with concrete walls moldering in the tropical climes and narrow colonial-style houses. Water buffalos crossed the road at a few points. After an hour or so we made a rest stop at a tourist trap / market -- gotta pay the gas bills, I guess. After about twenty minutes we got back on the bus and continued uninterrupted out to Halong Bay, which was another three hours or so drive.
All manner of tour boats crowd around the docks at the entrance Halong Bay and after our guide bought us tickets we boarded one, a spacious double-decked craft titled the Haiphong 2, and broke our way out of the clot of ships to head out into the bay. We had a lunch of spicy tofu, cucumber slices, tasty prawns, and ginger chicken with rice as the boat cruised through open water. Chatting with the other English-speakers about my travels in Southeast Asia, the Australian lady mentioned that she was "dying to see the Killing Fields", which I thought was a pretty strange choice of expressions, given the circumstances. Midway through lunch we were amongst the islands, which are large limestone protrusions rising out of the water. The name in Vietnamese means "dragon descending", which according to legend is what thrust the rocks upwards like they are today. We cruised amongst the islands at a leisurely chug, and around 3:00 came to a large one, where we disembarked and entered a fairly sizeable above-water limestone cave. It was cooler inside, but even then you couldn't escape the humidity; I was soaked by the time I made it back to where the boat had docked. After that we crossed over to where several floating platforms had been lashed together to construct farm cages for fish, prawns, and mussels; it was here that we got our chance to kayak. I ended up paired with one of the older Australian guys, and we paddled around a few of the nearby islands for about 40 minutes before coming back to the boat. We finished with a leisurely boat ride back to the dock and then three hours in the bus back to Hanoi, where I got in at 9:00 and had a dinner of pho noodles while watching a pair of Vietnamese brothers whack each other which chopsticks. A nice tour, though I personally would've taken more time in the kayaks and less on the boat.
Sunday morning I woke up early and spent a few hours on the hostel's computer attempting to figure out how to sign up for Skype service so that I can attempt to call come for cheap; it's pretty popular with the backpacker crowd here, and I've almost figured it out I think. My taxi out to the airport got me there with time to spare, as my flight on to Hue was actually delayed for an hour and a half -- though that did give me time to charge my iPod in the departure lounge and eat a lunch they provided for us (still just an inflight meal, though). I spent the flight reading the English language weekly paper, the main piece being an article on a woman who at the age of 15 had worked running supplies along the trail to Vietnamese fighters in the south. Most of it was devoted to her rapturous rememberances of the time she got to meet Ho Chi Minh. The flight was only about an hour and when we arrived at the small Hue airstrip and walked off the plane, a bus carried us fifty meters over to the terminal where we picked up our luggage. I took a taxi to the hotel I was planning on staying at, which worked out fine this time -- think that scam is mostly a big city thing, as this one was a fair metered ride.
I checked in and then took a walk across the river to see the old imperial citadel of Hue, which had crowds of Vietnamese families out and about, since I think they waived the admission fee in honor of Vietnam's Independence Day, which was Sunday -- Hanoi was festooned with flags all over during the few days I was there, but I didn't see any big celebrations. The citadel is crumbling and ruined thanks to fierce fighting between Vietnamese and US forces back in the 1960s, making it look much older than its 200-some years; large portions are open grassy fields, broken in place to place by old flagstones. Reconstruction is underway in some places, but I liked the ruined feel -- my timing was just right at the golden hour of sunset, and I got some good pictures that I'll be uploading when I get back.
I had dinner in a Hue restaurant, the Tropical Garden; wicker lampshades and candle light illuminated the open-air dining area, with a thatched roof and wooden lattice walls surrounded by plants and greenery. Waitresses in imperial purple ao dais brought me a succession of six courses, starting off with a souple of beef and noodles with a slight lemony tang, and finishing with some sort of fish pate wrapped in banana leaves (which you're not actually supposed to try and eat, I learned) and a plate of pineapple, watermelon, and dragonfruit. A quintet of traditional Vietnamese musicians played short pieces while I ate. It's the fanciest meal I've had in a while and the whole thing set me back maybe $15.
As nice as Hue was, I decided to carry on, so yesterday I woke up at 7:00 and caught a bus to Hoi An, which is about three hours drive south. We passed several muddy brown rivers with sampan boats anchored to the banks, and large nets strung out over the water to be lowered down for fishing when the tide rises. Arriving in Hoi An, we got the hotel hard sell, stopping at several places for commissions before I finally got a chance to break out on my own. The place I found is one of the best I've stayed in yet, with a nice little double room, with big ceiling fan and hot water, all to myself for only seven bucks.
I had a lunch of sweet and sour pork and mixed fruit smoothie and then walked around the historic Old Town, which is closed to car traffic and full of old sulfurous yellow buildings and preserved architecture that blends Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles. Formerly an important trading stopover for merchants from Hainan island and Japan, there are several clan assembly halls and old merchant houses open to the public for a small fee. The nicest home I visited was still being lived in after seven generations, despite regular river floods which, as you could see marked on the walls, had once come as high as the ceilings of the first floor -- must've been at least eight to ten feet. It was full of old furniture, including some wooden plaques with mother-of-pearl-inlaid Chinese characters, each "brushstroke" formed in the shape of a bird in flight.
For dinner I went to the Ba Le Well restaurant just as it was getting dark, setting myself down at a low red plastic table in an open white room as several other Vietnamese families dined around me. In the back room, past the small shrine lit with red Christmas bulbs holding three tiny cups of rice wine set atop cans of Heineken, several generations of extended family bustled back and forth at work in the kitchen. An old great grandmother wandered down the stairs at one point, watching me eat with idle curiosity but saying nothing. A middle-aged woman in purple top decorated with rhinestones spelling out the name 'Cindy' showed me how to eat the spread in front of me, which included a large plate of greens, skewers of satay pork, fried spring rolls, and rice paper wrapping with a peanut and chili dipping sauce. Delicious stuff, and one of the best meals I've eaten in Vietnam yet.
Hoi An's other attraction besides history is its legions of custom-fit tailor shops, and after a break for a cold drink, I browsed around yesterday before finding a place that is going to make me a fully tailored suit for $53 -- whether that's a great deal or a big rip-off I don't really know, but I'm off for the adjustments now, so we'll soon see!
August 31, 2007
The roads out of Beijing weren't nearly as clogged as they had been coming in the previous night and I actually got to the airport on Friday too early to check in. When I did after about an hour of sitting around, I only got to sit around more in the boring-est airport gate ever (no shops, no food, not even a free plug to recharge my iPod at). On the plane I sat across the aisle from one of China's famed Awful Phlegmatic Old Men, who rearranged the contents of his sinuses every twenty minutes or so through the course of the flight and bossed at the stewardesses. I was also unable to avoid the bad Hong Kong teenage-pregnancy drama (she's the spoiled daughter of a rich lawyer, who's furious! he's the son of a poor laborer! can they make a life when they run off together?) on the in-flight entertainment because they actually broadcast it over the PA system. I got some subtler entertainment in Guangzhou, where we stopped for a connection, as everybody stampeded off, pushing past the two hapless girls checking our onward tickets, in order to reach... closed emigration desks. The officers showed up eventually, but further delays there meant I didn't get a chance to burn my last renminbi at the cafes in Guangzhou airport, which looked to be considerably nicer than Beijing's.
Flying into a strange airport somewhere in Asia late at night definitely ranks up there with my least favorite past-times. When I saw my flight from Beijing wasn't scheduled to get into Vietnam until 9:20, I made arrangements with the hostel I'm staying at here, an Aussie outfit with pretty good referrals online, to pick me up at Hanoi airport. Unfortunately, when I got through customs (the immigration officer gave me a sort of smirk when he looked at my passport... getting old, or maybe just scruffy) and out into the terminal, there was no one there.
In the course of flying out of Beijing I had hooked up with another guy, a fellow ex-English teacher (in his case, Seoul) from New York City named Greg who as coincidence would have it was going to the same hostel in Hanoi. We wandered around the small terminal for a bit in search of a payphone that we could use to call the hostel and have them send someone out; but the only phone kiosks were trying to sell us SIM cards for cell phones we didn't have, and none of the "helpful" tourist information desks would let us use their phones. So we bit the bullet and decided to try a taxi.
Pretty much everything that the guide warned us about ended up happening. After cutting our way through the crowd of touts, we picked out a guy with a shiny new minivan who assured us he could take us straight to where we wanted to go. "How much?" I asked. "Metered!" he replied. Well, no worries then. Except that a minute after pulling out he explained that we would need to pay $2 per person for a ticket to get on the highway. Unless we would prefer to pay him $20 flat without the meter? This is a ride that shouldn't have cost us more than $12 or so, but the other fellow I was traveling with got him down to $18. We cruised through the oh-so-important ticket gates without stopping.
Well, we passed through the dark on the highway into Hanoi. After about 15 minutes we entered the city proper, and shortly afterwards we pulled up in front of a hotel. A young Vietnamese guy came to the door, "Hanoi Backpackers' Hotel?" he asked in English (most people here speak it, it seems, at least if they have something to sell you), flashing a fading business card with the hostel's name and address on it. Except that.. this pretty clearly wasn't the place. Lonely Planet explicitly warned of copycat hotels paying airport taxis to take unsuspecting guests to an overpriced imitation, so we weren't about to get out the cab. Not that we would've been in danger or anything -- just resoundingly ripped off. I attempted to get the cabdriver to tell us what address we were at -- it clearly wasn't the one on business card the guy was waving in my face -- while Greg insisted to them that we weren't staying here. "The main hotel is full, we built a second place!" the guy with the business card said at first. After a minute or two it became, "We moved!" Then, after a few more futile tries, "New name!" Yeah, right. We weren't buying it, and eventually the cab driver, who was not a particularly good actor, made a show of "confusion" and wanting to check the address we had first showed him again. Eventually we extricated ourselves and left the fake hostelers to the rest of their evening, and our cabdriver pulled out a cellphone to call the real place and get directions. He took us there in about five minutes and we grudgingly paid him the $18 (he hadn't exactly earned it), then checked into the hostel, which the missed pick-up aside has been great.
All part of the adventure!
Hanoi is a very pretty city, thanks to the French colonial legacy; lots of old ochre-yellow buildings, tree-shaded boulevards, and a lake near the Old Quarter where I'm staying. Unlike China, where the car is taking over, here most people still get around on two wheels -- Yamaha and Honda scooters fill the streets, with two or three people clinging to the back as they zip around. (Coming in from the airport, I saw one with a huge load of roses, easily four feet by four feet, bundled on top of the back of one; another, carrying several sacks of miscellaneous junk, had a woman crouching down on the running boards between the driver's legs as they hurtled along the highway.) They're cheaper and many times more numerous than car taxis (not to mention more persistent), so I've already taken a ride on a few of them -- it's mildly terrifying but also a fun way to see the streets.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which I had been planning to see, was unfortunately closed for Friday; so I'm 0 for 2 on my Embalmed Former Communist Leaders checklist. I did pass by the front of the monument, which is massive and which has huge red-and-yellow-starred flags lining the ground. Ho himself apparently expressed wishes for a simple cremation, but I suppose the party knows best. I went to a few sights here, including the old French prison where John McCain, along with several other downed American pilots, was imprisoned during the war. They still have his flight suit there, in addition to the guillotine used by the French colonial regime on Vietminh insurgents prior to their victory in the north. I also checked out the Temple of Literature, where old Confucian students got their doctorates engraved in stone stelae mounted atop statues of turtles. Lunch was at a nice little cafe near the market district; if nothing else, I can thank the French for introducing cafe culture. They even have Orangina! My last stop this afternoon was the Army Museum, full of captured French and American war materiel and lots of exhibits about the Vietnamese wars; heavily slanted to match the official line as you might expect, but still interesting.
This evening I wandered around the lake area for a bit and bought a pair of cheap flip-flops, then went to watch roi nuoc, or Vietnamese water puppets. The show was about an hour and full of traditional music and vignettes of Vietnamese village life, interspersed with mythical creatures and a few ancient legends. Most of the puppets were not too elaborate in their decoration but they could perform some pretty clever tricks with them; it was a fun outing.
Overall my first day in Vietnam has been pretty good, the only exceptions being the initially unfavorable introduction and the humidity, which as you would imagine is omnipresent. Tomorrow I'm going to go out to Halong Bay, an inlet full of towering limestone pillars and caves; the trip should take the full day, and I think there is a bit of kayaking involved in addition to a boat cruise. I also got a flight on to my next stop, Hue; I'll leave for there on Sunday afternoon and the continue south with stops in Hoi An and Quy Nhon over the course of the next few days.
For now, though, it's time for shower number three of the day.
August 27, 2007
("Hello" in Uyghur.)
After many long hours on the road I have finally found rest in the cool grape trellis-shaded oasis of Turpan. While the rest of Xinjiang has actually not been nearly as hot as I had expected, Turpan sits in a desert basin that is the second-lowest elevated point on earth, and my bus passed over flat, baking rock desert for several hours on the way here.
Turpan is considerably more touristed than other places I've visted in Xinjiang, even more so than Kashgar was. If the "Aisu Kohii" (Ice Coffee) signs in Japanese in the hotel I'm staying at weren't enough of a clue, there are some very persistent local touts, suggesting tours and hotels and this and that as soon as I first stepped off the bus. One of them, a younger Uyghur fellow with great English skills, showed me to / followed me to the hotel where I actually wanted to stay and then further in search of an internet cafe yesterday; I finally managed to extricate myself and this morning opted to set off on my own instead. I'm sure I would've had a fine time with him, but I'm just not ready to surrender my independent traveler status yet. The backpacker cafe attached to the hotel rents aging single-gear bicycles and I took one out for an hour, taking a leisurely (if slightly wobbly) ride down through the back streets of the Uyghur old town to arrive at the Emin Minaret, a lovely piece of Islamic architecture dating to the 1700s with lots of intricate brickwork and geometric patterns appearing in and out of the shaded halls.
After that, I took a cab to the ruins of Jiaohe, an old city perched on top of a leaf-shaped mesa surrounded by narrow canyons. Homes built into rock outcroppings and thick mud-brick walls give the surviving ruins the appearance of Luke Skywalker's Tatooine home after a particularly thorough stormtrooper attack; it was definitely worth the trip, and while Turpan has several other surrounding sites on the standard tour, I was fine with my limited solo foray. Afterwards, I lounged around and finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, my reading material for this trip (and one of the best books I've read) during the hottest part of the day, and then took a walk through the local bazar where I bought some samsas (fatty mutton pockets; mostly fat, in this case). There's a grape harvesting festival going on in Turpan (home of Xinjiang's most famous vines; walking through the Uyghur quarter to the minaret again this evening, I passed several walled courtyard homes with huge racks of grapes hanging, freshly harvested), with some traditional Uyghur dancing going on in the city square last night. Somehow I don't think traditional Uyghur dancing usually involves fireworks and light shows and choreographed fountain displays, though, and in any case the crowds were too thick for me to push my way close enough to see anything. Maybe this evening, or maybe just more relaxing.
It's been three days ago now, but I was successful in flagging down a bus for the long haul across the Taklamakan desert, through no help from the people at the actual bus station in Niya though. A big orange sleeper bus passing through the traffic circle pulled over at my desperate wave and after confirming that they were stopping in Korla, I hopped on. As I did so a small chorus of "hello!"s came from the Chinese and Uyghur students laid out in the racks of beds, three rows of two bunks all the way to the back of the bus. After paying one of the guys by the door I clambered up onto a narrow bunk just behind the driver. It took some careful positioning; those bunks weren't really made for someone my height. But it definitely made for an interesting way to travel.
Soon after pulling out of Niya we entered the desert. In order to prevent the sand from encroaching on the highway cutting through the miles and miles of dunes, the Chinese engineers who built it constructed well stations along the way, with long stretches of drip irrigation hoses feeding a shielding barrier of shrubs along either side of the road. The sky was still gray and the horizon hazy, though not as thick as it had been in Hotan two days before; the dunes stretched on to the edge of vision. I didn't see any desert bandits, although I kept an eye out the whole trip. The driver's cassette tapes of Uyghur pop music blared in my ears from the speaker next to my head. A young guy with features that looked almost Persian played card games with his girlfriend in the bunk across from me. We passed, in a quick flash, a large blue cargo truck whose front end was completely smashed in, in front of which it looked like someone had set up a picnic lunch. We passed a well worker in a conical straw hat and orange safety vest, out checking irrigation lines in the dusk.
The bus bounced along over undifferentiated stretches of desert as it gradually got dark. We stopped for dinner at a rest area where I got a highly over-priced (almost $1.50!) plate of noodles, meat and vegetables the Uyghurs call laghman (think ra men). Some of the students who had seen me board earlier called me over and we chatted while I ate, they sipped scalding tea, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "True Lies" played in dubbed Chinese in the background. They were young, probably high school age, on their way to the technical school they attended. Where was I from? How did I like Xinjiang? What about the food? What did I think about China's development? How about those Olympics, eh? After a while there we boarded the bus again and I began to doze in the darkness, coming to full wakefulness at the blare of the driver's horn every now and then to see the flares of oil pumping stations out in the distant desert. We arrived on the outskirts of Korla near 3:00 AM Beijing time (1:00 AM Xinjiang; I'm on a weird hybrid where I wake up early, eat lunch and dinner late, and end up ready for bed by what's really only about 8:00 PM local time) where I luckily caught a waiting taxi to a rather down-scale hotel. Despite the late hours, people were still coming and going; the girls at the desk, thoroughly amused by my complete inability to speak any Chinese without the aid of a phrasebook, gave me a room for 80 yuan; pretty near a deal (the cheapest I could find in Niya had been a double for 100, or about 15 dollars), except that it turned out to be a three meter by three meter cube with adjoining shower / toilet corridor.
Saturday I woke up to my alarm and the room attendant pounding on my door; she and a guy with a clipboard came in, inspected something in my bathroom, and left. I showered and headed out to see a bit of Korla. Korla is a modern city, considerably more Chinese now than Uyghur, but it is also much cleaner and nicer than Urumqi and not nearly as big or sprawling as Beijing. I wandered past some storefronts selling appliances and plumbing fixtures before finding an internet cafe, where I made contact with Michael of The Opposite End of China blog, who is a very nice guy and whose sun-dried tomatoes looked very nice if any of you readers happen to be a Chinese restaurant owner looking to stock some. I am not, but he still very graciously arranged to meet for lunch. I met him, as well as Bruce, a Scottish guy teaching English there, and his chihuahua, for spicy pumpkin and pepper dumplings. After some phone calls, arrangements were made to meet at a shaded spot down by the riverside. There were awnings and raised platforms set up at which to relax and eat roasted chicken -- except that, according to the lady who came by and asked us for 30 yuan for the privelege of sitting there, that the guy who usually made the chicken had ran off with all the money and now there was none. Whoops.
The rest of Korla's English-teaching expat community was a small group of about 10 in all; they were all very friendly and welcoming considering I really didn't know any of them. I'm guessing they probably don't get too many visitors. Some people went swimming, I relaxed in the shade; after a few hours there, we went back to the city, where the Tarim Oil English Association, a group of about ten Chinese folks working in the oil company offices with an interest in improving their English, took us all collectively out to Mongolian hotpot dinner at the local "Fat Cow" restaurant. It was delicious stuff, and we were all sweating from the steam and the spices. After that I parted ways with the Korlans and headed back to my hotel, and then caught the bus here to Turpan on Sunday.
Tomorrow I take the bus back to Urumqi, where I will maybe do a bit of shopping for Uyghur music video CDs (I've been watching enough of them on the buses, I ought to bring back something to show for it; but if you want to see some now, check around on The Opposite End of China blog, where Michael's posted several). I fly back to Beijing on the 29th, and then on to the jungles of Nam on the 30th, where I finally get to start putting my Larium to work.