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Robert Young Pelton's Licensed to Kill: A Review

Ryp At long last, Robert Young Pelton's book, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, is out. (Back in December of 2005 when I pre-ordered it, I think it's scheduled pub date was something like April.) Despite its subject matter, the world of mercenaries and private military contractors, the book reads like a fascinating letter from a friend. It is thoughtful, funny, and humane in its exploration of a politically loaded topic.

Licensedtokill_1 In general, I expect that opinions on this book are going to gravitate around this issue of whether or not it's "biased," and in which direction. I'm not going to venture an opinion on that, since surely I am at least as "biased" as Pelton. What I will say is that Pelton treats his subjectmatter as ethically complex, which indeed it is. And he neither succumbs to over-identifying with the dudes he's hanging with, nor to simple repulsion at the whole enterprise.

The book opens with a Prologue detailing his meeting with Eric Prince, owner and founder of Blackwater, who articulates Blackwater’s ambitions, a corporately oriented optimism about the future of privatized military services. In the prologue, Pelton distinguishes between what in generally understood to be the distinction between mercenaries and security contractors:

Mercenaries fight, while security contractors protect,  . . . at least, that’s the dividing line that’s supposed to exist. (5)

Destabilizing this apparent distinction is a theme that continues throughout the book.

The book’s Introduction is just the sort of action scene editor’s like to have at the beginning of books: a round trip down the legendarily dangerous “Route Irish” to the Baghdad Airport with Blackwater’s Mamba Team:

. . . it’s 2:43 and we’ve just completed the most perilous eight-minute drive in the world. (13)

The main text of the book is in three sections:

1. Hired Guns, which discusses

  • the longest running CIA contractor, Billy Waugh,
  • contractors inside Pakistan involved in operations that aren't supposed to exist,
  • and the problematic use of American security contractors to guard foreign heads of state;

2. The New Breed, which focuses mostly on Blackwater; and

3. Of Rogues and Tycoons, which covers such characters as Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, Tim Spicer, executives of Blackwater, Richard Bethell (Lord Westbury), Simon Mann, and Niek Du Toit.

A fair amount of what is in this book has been touched on at one point or another in my blog.

Billywaugh_1 The Prologue and Introduction introduce companies, characters and topics, while also promising more thrilling action. But it is with Chapter 1, Kill them All, that we really get going. It is the chapter about Billy Waugh and what, through a certain lens, might be seen as the Good Old Days when the CIA and it’s contractors could just go out and kill people; how the backlash against the Vietnam War reined in the CIA; how this played itself out later; how Waugh could have killed Osama bin Laden and didn’t because he wasn’t allowed to; and how this legacy played itself out in post-9/11 Afghanistan with both the CIA and the emergence of companies like Blackwater. Fascinating stuff. In principle, I knew a fair amount of what was in the chapter from reading a pile of CIA memoirs a while back, but Pelton’s chapter has a deeply unsettling historical momentum about it that the memoirs lack.

Chapter 2, Edge of Empire, is a wry discussion of the geopolitical realities (or unrealities?) of the area surrounding the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where bin Laden is sometimes said to be hiding. He finds an American base inside Pakistan that is not supposed to exist, that the actual border seems to be almost unmarked, and much else involving security contractors and surreal layers of deniability cleaving the official story from reality. Last year, when I was helping with disaster relief mapping following the Pakistan earthquake, I heard many peculiar things about the Pakistani government’s attitude towards maps—for example, that the exact location of some of the towns affected by the earthquake was initially considered by the government to be classified information—and this chapter puts some of that insanity into context for me.

Karzaisecurity Chapter 3, The Praetorian Guard, is an interesting exploration of the role of American security contractors as protectors for foreign heads of state. The examples in this chapter are Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, but Pelton revisits this topic toward the end of the book in his discussion of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, and what would have been Severo Moto’s situation had the coup succeeded: not good at all.

In Chapter 4, Confirmed Kills, we get a sense of the new security contractor utopia. The chapter opens at the Dallas Convention Center during the American Society for Industrial Security convention.

Before 9/11, the industry had only a limited market for the services of the men who now flock to these conferences looking for IC opportunities. The war in Afghanistan opened the door to more widespread employment of independent security contractors, and then Iraq kicked that door off it's hinges, stomped on it,  burned it, and scattered the ashes. Iraq has been to the private security industry what the development of the first user-friendly Web browser was to the dot-com boom. (97)

Bremer The chapter concludes with an important discussion of the role of Paul Bremer in the creation of this utopia, a section entitled "On Rules and Resentment."

Bush had opened up the War on Terror by issuing a license to kill with his post-9/11 presidential finding authorizing targeted assassination, but it would be Bremer's Order 17 that would really unleash the security contractors in Iraq. (114)

And this is what the Billy Waugh chapter has set us up for—to understand the nature of this utopia: these guys who might only find marginal employment in the US, can make $600 a day to go to Iraq and do what Waugh, for many years, was not allowed to do. The leash is off and the dogs are out.

Chapter 5, Blackwater Bridge, discusses the Fallujah incident, in which four Blackwater contractors died in gruesome ways and their remains paraded through the streets and hung from a bridge, as a turning point for the public perception of "security contractors" in Iraq, and its complex aftermath.

Chapters 6, Under Siege, is perhaps my favorite in the book. It explores the complexities of two notable combat situations, An Najaf and Al Kut. In the former situation, it seems that security contractors (whom the US military observed but did not assist) were expected to abandon their position on the roof of the Najaf CPA compound. Instead they stayed to fight and videotaped themselves doing it. The videos subsequently circulated on the Internet.

While the rules of engagement allowed contractors to fire in defense of their lives, the formulations of those rules had not anticipated contractors being dropped into a situation where they would engage in hours of combat without outside support. The other outcome that became very clear was that ex-soldiers given a license to kill may choose not to cut and run as they are trained and paid to do, but eagerly and repeatedly fire into the crowds that surround them. (153-154)

Najaf_1 This section gives a much clearer picture of why the security contractors circulated videos of themselves shooting at Iraqis: they were allowed to shoot when the US military and coalition forces were held back. In the "turkey shoot" video, the shooter, whom Pelton identifies as "Mookie Spicoli" clearly enjoys what he is doing.

The Al Kut incident shows the flip-side of this. A group of security contractors alert Bremer to impending problems, who asks them not to exaggerate. The men are unsupported and under attack for days. Some are killed. When they finally come up with a plan to escape with their lives, an official of the CPA tries to prevent their escape. The CPA seemed determined to use them up and throw them away like so much Kleenex: truly appalling. Apparently, although the dogs are out, they are sometimes treated like dogs.

Chapter 7, The Dog Track and the Swamp, chronicles Pelton's visits to Blackwater training facilities, one of which is a dog track. This chapter contains one of the most entertaining sections of the book in which Pelton himself gets to teach in a training program called Mirror Image which simulates, "terrorist recruiting, training techniques, and operational tactics." His students are "Special Forces, Secret Service, marines, FBI agents, independent contractors, and other hand-picked attendees." (183)  Pelton, who has been to Chechnya, has his team play "Chechens." The section is hilarious. I wish they had video of this.

The targets will be expecting the attackers to approach via one of the roads that lead into the village, so the Chechens sneak in from behind the berm of a live firing range and attack from behind, something that freaks out the lead instructor, but gives the team the perfect element of surprise. (192)

Clearly, Pelton was having a good time.

In Chapter 8, we revisit the Blackwater's Team Mamba in Baghdad, first introduced in the book's Introduction. Pelton gives a detailed sense of their day-to-day existence and of the circumstances of their employment. The chapter contains another of the book's funniest sections: when outgoing Blackwater security contractors and the plane crew go through security at Baghdad International Air Port on their way out of Iraq to Jordan:

At the gate, an older American with a bad comb-over pats us all down in a needlessly touchy body search—particularly needless when a flight member admits to Mr. Comb-Over that he is wearing a loaded 9-mm Glock. He gets searched anyway, and then hilariously they put his gun through the X-ray machine before returning it. . . .

Once we're on the plane, the Blackwater crew breaks open a large aluminum box and hands out a loaded M4 weapon to each passenger. (223)

Part 3, Of Rogues and Tycoons, begins with another of the book's funniest sections: Pelton's chapter on Jack Idema, a man emblematic of just how far a wannabee can go in a failed state, in this case Afghanistan in the post-9/11 culture of fear and confusion. The voice of Billy Waugh returns:

We only had 80 guys involved in our [Afghanistan] operations and Idema wasn't one of them. (239)

The best part of the chapter concerns Idema's rewriting of Robin Moore's The Hunt for bin Laden prior to its publication. Pelton writes:

I am actually featured in The Hunt for bin Laden and can speak from my own experience . . . Though they never met or talked to Idema, and despite the fact that almost ten members had carefully detailed their actions to Moore at K2, the first chapter puts forth an account of the team's infill into Afghanistan that the men tell me has been entirely fabricated. (243)

The chapter concludes with a paragraph that begins:

That such a transparent criminal could so easily label himself a contractor to act out his own covert paramilitary fantasy is a warning about the growing ubiquity of independent contractors. (250)

Bookcover Chapter 10, The Very Model of a Modern Major Mercenary, concerns the rise of Tim Spicer, former President of Sandline, widely regarded as an example of upward-mobile failure (though Pelton does not say this), and Spicer's new company Aegis. The description of Pelton's interview with Spicer is a comedy of manners. What Pelton does not mention is that he was previously sued and settled out of court for his depiction of Spicer in a previous book. Our narrator, however, is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places and so does not fear to tread into the office of someone who sued him.  (I myself once had my own run-in with Spicer's attorney, Richard Slowe.) What I found most interesting in the chapter was former Sandline accountant Michael Grunberg's account of what the take was for those running Executive Outcomes:

Even though they had difficulty extracting payments from the second operation, the men had generated extraordinary persona income. After the successes in Angola and Sierra Leone, EO had come to a natural end. According to Grunberg, "Eben [Barlow] took ten million and walked away. They all did very well. Simon [Mann] pocketed $60 million and Tony [Buckingham] banked $90 million." (263)

Simon Mann, one of the Executive Outcomes founders, is to have a starring role in Chapter 12, in which the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt is discussed. Apparently, he wanted more from life.

Chapter 11, The Lord and the Prince, is an examination of how the legacy of Executive Outcomes ans Sandline informs and shapes the ambitions of the principals of Blackwater and of HART Security. Of particular interest to me was the account of HART's contract with the government of Somalia in light of my adventure late last year writing about Top Cat Marine Security's signing of a contract with the Transitional Government of Somalia. Pelton remarks of the HART contract:

Other similar ventures by former soldiers have always fallen apart due to inherent corruption in local governments. (290)

coup5.jpgChapter 12, The Bight of Benin Company, is the chapter I ordered the book for in the first place, back in December. It concerns the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, which is what first interested me in the subject of military privatization. If not for my reading about and researching what was up with N4610, a former US military plane which ended up in Zimbabwe with a load of mercenaries in it, back in March of 2004, I would not be writing this now, nor would I have read this book.

In addition to providing a smooth, gripping narrative of events I learned about by obsessively reading news stories coming out of Africa two years ago, he covers some documents I had previous access to, most notably a document entitled "Assisted Regime Change." All by themselves, these documents, with their paranoia and layers of duplicity even among plotters, give us a blueprint for a future dystopia if "regime change" is privatized on a large scale. Here's a sample:

The "Bight of Benin Company" (BBC), written in the archaic British schoolboy style typical of Simon Mann, is a Machiavellian plan laced with paranoia and greed. The document lays out a plan to turn EG into something resembling the British East India Company. It details the coup backers' intent to claim the sole right to make agreements ad contracts wit the newly installed government . . . The BBC makes it abundantly clear that Moto is disposable and that his main backer, Eli Khalil, was not to be trusted. (318)

N4610 One document he doesn't talk much about, but I have been told the contents of, is the contract for the purchase of N4610 from Dodson. One idiocy of the coup plot was that N4610 was a tail number registered to the US Air National Guard. So to me one big question was always why didn't the plotters take the trouble to paint on a different tail number. The answer is, I think, in the contract. The contract specified a buy-back price for the plane; viewed that way, it was essentially a rental agreement with a damage deposit. In my opinion, they didn't paint over the tail number because the plotters had to give the plane back; Sandline declared itself defunct about a month after the plane was impounded.

coup3.jpgWhile previous chapters showed how security contractors could be treated like dogs by those who employed them, one of the features of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot narrative is "the divide between the backers and those in prison." Though I have little sympathy for Simon Mann, for whom a $60 million take from Executive Outcomes was not enough, the coup backers did far too little to help him  -- and those arrested with him -- once he got busted. Simon Man is currently fighting extradition from his jail cell in Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, where he could expect a much longer jail sentence.

Pelton as it happens had once retained Nick du Toit, leader of the EQ-based portion of the plot, for security in a 2002 trip to Africa. He returns to Africa and interviews du Toit in jail.

What I learned from Niek is that in the debate between contractor and mercenary, it will always come down to the individual. When Niek du Toit was my security man, I knew him as an upstanding, loyal, dependable provider of security in what was at the time the world's most dangerous place. Now, four years later, he is a criminal behind bars for what appears to be the rest of his life. (333)

The book concludes with an Epilogue in which Pelton visits one of the Blackwater contractors he spent time with in Baghdad after the man's return the the US. The man was badly injured after Pelton's departure. The epilogue is a mediation on both the lack of accounting on the actual number of security contractor deaths, and on the contractors' own lack of accountability:

As of spring 2006, there has not been one single contractor charged for any crime that occurred in Iraq, though hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed for offenses ranging from minor violations of military code to murder. (341)

He remarks also:

Working in violent areas and being given a license to kill can be frightening to some and an addictive adrenaline rush to others. It is impossible to predict how successfully the thousands of security contractors now working in Iraq will integrate back into normal civilian life after their wellspring of employment dries up.  (342)

Rypinshadowcompany Elsewhere, interviewed in  Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque's documentary Shadow Company, Pelton is a bit more blunt. He says: "Some of these guys couldn't work in Walmart."

Corporatizing war is presented by the purveyors of private military services as a way of streamlining, of cutting out the red tape, of increasing efficiency, under controlled circumstances. But throughout the book, Pelton has shown just how fluid the line is between security contractor and mercenary, between defending a fixed asset and just plain combat, between security guard and criminal.

Combine this with the current nostalgia for the olden days when political assassination was an essential part of the toolbox of American foreign policy, and a move to reinstate that practice happening simultaneously with a massive swing toward privatization, and we find that our world is a strange place indeed.

An important theme of the book is the contrast between American and British attitudes toward privatized security:

It becomes clear to me during the meeting that there remains a very high wall between the HART's very English view of security, and of Blackwater's view of a brave new neocon world.  . . . While [Blackwater's Erik] Prince paints a flashy, high-tech, road-warrior-style military company that could solve any client's problem by an application of sheer brute force and advanced weaponry, [HART's] Richard [Bethell] and George [Simm] calmly promote the idea of low-key and culturally integrated solutions. (301)

This contrast corresponds roughly to the contrast between American and British imperialism, but an imperialism at least partly uncoupled from the traditional imperialist powers, namely governments; an imperialism increasingly removed from oversight by the British and American publics.

What we have here, in the end, is an important book on where the 21st century is taking us, exploring the dystopian potiential of military privatization, even for the very people engaged in it. If there is any possibility to avert the dystopia, it lies in transparency. And so this book is very much a step in the right direction.

RISE-PAK wins Stockholm Challenge Award 2006 in Public Administration category

Great news via email from Asim Khwaja, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University:

RISE-PAK has just won the award Stockholm Challenge Award 2006 in the public administration category.

Also known as the Nobel Prize of IT, the award is divided into six categories: Culture, Economic Development, Education, Environment, Health, and Public Administration - we have won in the Public Administration. More than 1,100 projects were in competition, out of which 151 were selected as finalists from 53 countries. We were one of the 6 winners.

Others finalists in our category are given at the bottom of the page at - they include include - The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal!

Khwaja, along with Jishnu Das of the World Bank, founded RISE-PAK as a rapid response to the Pakistan earthquake. The goal of their project was to set up databases and systems of reporting to try to make sure that aid got to rural villages and was not just concentrated in the cities. My contribution to this was to put RISE-PAK in touch with the Global Connection Project, and that we could offer help with maps through the use of Google Earth. The Global Connection Project also interceded with Google Earth on behalf of The Citizens Foundation and RISE-PAK to arrange for Google Earth to acquire up-to-date satellite imagery of the affected area from Digital Globe.

I've written a bit about this in the past. My previous RISE-PAK posts are HERE.

Google Earth in Nature: See my picture on the cover! Wanna buy five copies for my mother!

The announcement of the contents of the February 16th issue of Nature is out, and I went and checked, and sure enough, they did use the image I supplied them with as the COVER of the magazine. See that super-cool Google Earth collage of a map showing landslides near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan? I made that!


Surekotelevee_1Inspired by some of the collage-effect Hurricane Katrina images created in Google Earth by Shawn McBride  and other members of the GE Current Events Community (samples: 12, & 3), and Hiroshima images created by Earthhopper, I crumpled the DLR image of landslides over the cliff like that, trying to hit a balance between 3-D realism, and the legend of the map, with the intention throwing you out of the frame into the artifice involved. It's an image I'm really proud of.

Randy Sargent of the Global Connection project had to recreate it in a high-end version of Google Earth to rez it up to 300 dpi. My original from November 19th is HERE. Randy's hi-rez recreation is HERE (for the full-rez version (4668 x 4797), click HERE). Should anyone have failed to notice, I'm elated!

And, oh, yeah. There's an article that goes with it which is part of the feautured Mapping for the Masses section:

Editor's Summary

16 February 2006

Mapping for the masses

Google Earth's integration of satellite images, maps and models, and the neat way it zooms around, have quickly found it a place on countless computer desktops. As well as making sure where you live is on the planet, there is fun to be had looking for curiosities ( is one). But the 'democratization' of mapping by virtual globe systems is more than a novelty: it will have far reaching implications for the way that scientists use spatial data. Declan Butler charts the future in a News Feature on page 776. Google Earth has already proved its worth during relief efforts in New Orleans and Pakistan. In a Commentary on page 787, Illah Nourbakhsh et al. argue that this technology can have great humanitarian benefit by revolutionizing the response to natural disasters. The cover image of earthquake-hit Pakistan combines material from Google Earth and MDA EarthSat. Overlay courtesy DLR, the Global Connection Project, and Kathryn Cramer.

News Feature: Virtual globes: The web-wide world
Life happens in three dimensions, so why doesn't science? Declan Butler discovers that online tools, led by the Google Earth virtual globe, are changing the way we interact with spatial data.

Full Text | PDF (747K)

Commentary: Mapping disaster zones
Google Earth software proved effective during relief efforts in New Orleans and Pakistan, say Illah Nourbakhsh and colleagues. Is there more to be gained than lost from opening up disaster operations to the wider public?

Full Text | PDF (365K)

I am part of the et al in Illah Nourbakhsh et al, a co-author of "Mapping Disaster Zones." Here is the full list of authors: Illah Nourbakhsh (CMU), Randy Sargent (CMU), Anne Wright (NASA/Ames), Kathryn Cramer, Brian McClendon (Google Earth), Michael Jones (Google Earth).  It is my first scientific publication.

Declan Butler of Nature tells me, "we have put all the articles on free access, so anyone from the general public can access."

See also Declan Bulter's blog post: Google Earth on the cover of Nature

What on Earth is Google Earth doing on the front cover of Nature, the international weekly journal of science?

This week’s issue contains several pieces on virtual globes, and all are on free access. I’ve written a three-page feature — Virtual globes: The web-wide world – on the various ways scientists are beginning to use virtual globes, such as Google Earth and Nasa’s World Wind.

I discuss the feature in an accompanying podcast.

There is also a two-page Commentary — “Mapping disaster zones” –on the use of Google Earth in humanitarian disasters. It’s authored by Global Connection scientists — Illah Nourbakhsh and Randy Sargent, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania,  and Anne Wright, NASA/Ames, California — Brian McClendon and Michael Jones at Google Earth, and Kathryn Cramer.

Nature itself has its lead editorial — Think Global — devoted to a look at spatial thinking in science.

Understanding Pakistan Earthquake Damage: Two More Photos from Jishnu Das

Here are two more pictures from Jishnu Das with long, informative captions. (Bigger view with legible captions is HERE.)

He says:

I wanted to put this picture up to show the dramatic differences between a "mohalla" (settlement) and a "mauza" (village). The entire photo shows a SINGLE village---Basantkot (as an aside, the village is named after a Sikh woman who used to live here before partition and means "the home of spring"). This is the largest village in the area. The way the road goes, it leads directly to the big pink house in the main settlement, and a consistent complaint is that more relief goes into this settlement compared to the other. We tried to see whether people in one settlement knew the others, and they do not. So for instance, starting from the right corner, people in Lavanseri could name the people in Jabarseri (the abandoned settlement in another photo), but no one else could. These village structures are leading to 2 problems--first, we are embroiled in a nightmare trying to sort out geo-locations of villages, since we have different readings at different points from different sources, and we have no way of knowing from the data that settlement "Jabarseri" is part of mauza "Basantkot". Second, and perhaps more critically, relief agencies in the area where we were would visit the main settlement. We consistently find that this is not enough, both for information and equitable targeting of relief.

He says:

One of the tasks in the near future is further compensation for housing damage, which may require further verification of structural collapse. A hard job at best, this picture suggests that the task may be harder given the way people have used material from damaged houses during the winter. The picture shows a small area that contained FOUR structures prior to the earthquake (I had gone in December, when these were clearly marked). The debris from these had been cleared up and stacked, and a lot of the wood had already been used for fuel and warmth. The circle on the left shows the debris from 2 structures, the one in the middle from a 3rd, and incredibly, the 3 pieces of wood in the right circle a fourth (the pile was much larger in December). The two intact structures were constructed AFTER the earthquake to take families through the winter. At this point, figuring out how many structures there were is completely dependent on accurate answers from the people living there.

Jishnu's Photos from Pakistan's Neelum Valley

Jishnu Das of RISE-PAK is just back from another trip to Pakistan for earthquake relief. I published his report of his previous trip not long ago. He's set up a Flickr account and uploaded pictures. Jishnu's day job is as an economist for the World Bank, so there's some fairly sophisticated information conveyed by the photos and their captions. Here's a brief selection:

Caption: In the union council where we were, all the schools, public and private were destroyed. While only one public school was semi-functional, all the private schools were back up and running within a fortnight, often in desperate conditions. We visited 4, all of which looked the same--a single tent, no books, no desks--but trying hard.

And here's another shot from the same school:

Caption: The bags were given by a relief agency (unfortunately with nothing in them...)

This picture was taken in Basantkot:

Caption: Sitting at one of the settlements. A lot of men in the area used to migrate to towns/cities during the winter months. The man on the bottom right for instance, has spent some time in the Middle East and used to work in Karachi. All of these people have come back--they feel that they cannot leave their families during the winter in tents to fend for themselves. One repercussion is that earnings in the area have dropped remarkably: in our surveys, we find that earnings are roughly a third of what they were the year before.

Caption: In food rations, all the villages in our area received either 75Kilos (165lbs) or 50Kilos of flour from the WFP and some additional rations from the army. They received the flour around December 8th or so and have not received any additional rations after. As a calculation: if flour is the only staple, 50 kilos for a family of 7 (average) finishes in around 12 days. Some complained about the quality of the flour, but this was not a consistent complaint...

From Jishnu Das of RISE-PAK: A Long Interesting Report on a Trip to Pakistan for Earthquake Relief

One of my New Year's resolutions was to finally get 'round to editing down this wonderful long letter from economist Jishnu Das of RISE-PAK on his trip to Pakistan in December for earthquake disaster relief. (My previous post on RISE-PAK was Asim Khwaja: “The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock.") Here is Jishnu's December 13th letter, a response to my asking how his trip went:

Part of my trip involved working with Lahore University of Management Studies faculty and students on a field trip. For me, working with volunteer students from LUMS in the field was an incredible experience. They would wake up at 5:30 every morning, brew tea, cook breakfast and hike off to the villages for a full day before daybreak. On walks, they would be crossing landslides, talking to each and every person they met and returning well after dark by torchlight. These are some of the most committed and enthusiastic people I have been fortunate enough to work with and their commitment to information and transparency is amazing (were this a holiday hike, I would definitely have viewed being pulled out of a warm sleeping bag at 5:30 as a dastardly act...)




1. Creating a universal list of settlements: One big problem in compiling and understanding the data is that villages are divided into multiple settlements, and there is no universal list of settlements available. Since text (specially with translation from Urdu to English) is not standardized, it is impossible to tell, for instance, whether the relief provided to "Berbazar" is the same as that provided to "Berbush" and which village this settlement belongs to. I worked closely with the UN-HIC towards developing their gazetteer of locations. Unfortunately, things are almost as prelim there as they were 1 month ago, with everyone still stuck with settlement names issues. Piet and I will be working on this more this week, and we should have something that will be made public by the end of this week. We are also working with the Population Census Organization in Pakistan on finalizing this. By the way, we came across, and this contains geo-locations for millions of locations around the world. If someone can send out an html crawler and capture the database that would be great (we did Pakistan).

2. Villages versus settlements: There is problem with what is a "village" and what is a settlement, but I am not sure that it is really bad. 3 villages that I covered in a recent survey are in the database as villages--Batangi, Gajoo Khokhar and Basantlok. Indeed, so are the villages that Jawad's group followed (Sund Ban, Chamata, Doba and Harama). The one problem is a village called "Muslundi" which is on the other side of a smallish stream (so batangi is at the start of this side-valley; basantlok is further down on the same valley. On the other side are Ratanser, which is in the census list). While this is NOT in the Noura Seri Patwar Circle list of village, IT IS in the Seri Dara list of villages--Seri Dara is the neighboring PC. So, my impression is that someone who is aware of the mauza-settlement issue and has a list of mauzas can sort this out pretty easily, but this is based on a very very limited sample. (One problem with going the settlement route is that most villages will have a Dhana, which literally means "top" and a kayer, which means "ridge").

3. Google Earth: Unfortunately, (a) no-one is aware of the VBR's (I told everyone I met, and sent them the link), (b) they work too slow on the broadband in Pakistan. I took the UN-HIC compound guys through it fairly carefully, and hopefully they are using it now.


1. RISEPAK was set up as a self-coordinating enabling environment, where all relief actors and those affected by the earthquake could come on a common platform by posting information about damage and relief. Constantly updated, these postings would provide regular information that could help target future relief to those who need it most.

2. By a number of accounts, RISEPAK has achieved a lot of what it set out to do. Within 2 months of its launch (its now 7 weeks), there are 1800 messages that have been posted, and updated information on 950 villages out of around 2500 that were thought to have been affected (close to 40%). In addition, the RISEPAK site has also proved useful in a number of other ways. Organizations have used our pre-prepared forms to organize their own information systems; most organizations have worked closely with our maps, which were the most detailed available at the time and bulletin board posts have allowed sellers and buyers to get in touch with each other. Some anecdotes:

a. One organization that we went to had not heard about RISEPAK. They insisted that they were very organized in collecting their data at the village level, and were using standardized forms to record this information. It turned out that the forms were the RISEPAK damage and relief forms about villages!

b. In a recent pilot (more on this below), Shandana (a faculty member at LUMS) was speaking to the army major in charge of a particular area. The major was adamant that they were doing a great job and were making their information transparent and accountable through their own website. When asked about the website, he said that they were using RISEPAK---something that he had developed a full sense of ownership over.

3. At the same time, a lot more can be done. What is very clear is that smaller organizations in the relief effort have used and posted to RISEPAK on a very regular basis. For them, RISEPAK has turned out to be a boon---it has developed the trust of most players by acting in a non-partisan manner, and organizations who are regularly posting to the site are able to point out the work that they are doing to the entire world. What they are doing is transparent, accountable and verifiable; at the same time, it allows for massive benefits in coordination among the various relief actors.

4. Key to the success of RISEPAK has been the central role of the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) faculty and students. Early on, we realized that the RISEPAK effort was a bit rushed. If the system had been set up before hand and key organizations had been trained in its use, information would have been posted regularly without much prompting. As it is, we were working on the fly. This meant that relief actors had to be taken through the site, trained on using it, trained on the importance of data at the village-level and data had to be constantly obtained from these groups.

5. The LUMS faculty and students took this challenge heads-on. Instead of celebrating Eid with family and friends (Eid is somewhat like Christmas, only larger, since it comes after a month of fasting) faculty and students headed out to Islamabad and the affected districts to get this data collection exercise moving. In Islamabad they developed close networks with relief organizations, helped them systematize their data and start sending it into RISEPAK. They set up a team of volunteers who took in this data---from fax transmissions, e-mails and the website itself---and parsed, collated, and updated it on the website. Their field-teams also visited the affected district headquarters and started working with the district governments, the UN and relief organizations in the field. The activity led to a huge increase in postings to the website---RISEPAK had updated information on 200 villages before the LUMS team went out; within a week of their return, the numbers went up to 500, and now stands at just above 950.

6. I was fortunate to be a part of the next such team that went up; again, the students and faculty taking off from their hectic schedules in their quarter-break (7 days) to head up to quake affected districts and villages. Key to the medium term reconstruction and relief in the region was an assessment of how well government compensation programs have worked so far, and I went to Pakistan to work with the government and the UN and to visit the quake affected areas to arrive at some assessment.

7. In Islamabad, I met up with the team from LUMS (close to 35 students and 10 faculty members); we then headed out into different directions---one team went to Bagh district, another to Mansehra and a third (including myself) to Muzaffarabad. The team I was in consisted of 15 people including myself; some of these would work in the district headquarters, others would head out to villages (both those that are more and less accessible) to assess the state of compensation and data.

The Post-Earthquake Household Survey In the five days of the field-trip, much was accomplished.

1. The 12 teams that went out to the villages surveyed close to 3000 households in 18 villages---easily the largest independent survey of households in the post-quake scenario by an independent group. We branched out into Bagh, Muzaffarabad and Mansehra/Balakot and then chose villages according to a stratification based on close to road/far from road and large relief activity/low relief activity. I was in a group that went to "low relief activity and both close and far from road". In addition, I was also part of a team that visited a relief-camp in Muzaffarabad. These data are currently being collated, and will be made public for all agencies to use fairly shortly on the RISEPAK site.


1. People are very, very used to making lists in the villages we went to---indeed, it turned out to be harder to do a focus group than to make lists. The moment we sat down to do focus group, people would start gathering with ID cards to get their names entered. NOT entering names is, basically, NOT an option--we would have people running down to ensure that their names are on the list.

2. At the same time, there is very little movement across settlements within the same village. People are able to, fairly accurately, give names and rough family composition (total members and children) for families in the settlement, but not across settlements in the same village. Batangi, for instance is 3 settlements---lower Batangi (an abbasi settlement), main Batangi (chaudhuris) and dhana (mostly abbasis). The first day we went to batangi, drew up a list of settlements and then went to dhana. We made the list of families with the school teacher on the advise of locals and then went to every sub-settlement. The school-teacher missed out some families (abbasis) right on top---nevertheless, it would have been hard to miss them out all together, since the moment we sat at a central location, this was pointed out to us.

3. Another village, we went to is similar, though spread out over a larger distance. The village contains two settlements at a 1/2 hour walk from each other, and it is impossible to get names of households in one settlement sitting in another. To get a sense of how fast a village could be covered with just basic household-level information and damage, we split up and went to each settlement. We then asked people to gather at these settlements and completed close to 120 households in 4 hours or so. We then verified that households had not been left out, though am not a 100% sure.

Relief Camps Relief Camps are also reasonably easy to survey in---again, people are used to surveys and the kind of information we are asking about. There are problems with split families---don't know what we can do about them in terms of verification. People should e-mail the women who went to the relief camp (Nadia and Erum in the team I was with--erum is copied on this note) and ask them about their experience. Stories were very different depending on who was telling them---the relief-camp organizers, men, or women. There is absolutely no sanitation or toilets in these camps, and women are having a horrendous time. This is something that I know a lot less about...

Some highlights on the situation in villages

i) In Islamabad, a lot of people felt that villages had emptied out. This is far from reality. Despite the large number of casualties and injuries, the percentages are not as large as one might believe a priori. For instance, the 80,000 deaths means that 1.5% of the areas population died. I was working in one of the hardest hit areas, where all houses had been completely destroyed, yet on average, 2% of individuals in the villages died, another 2% were injured and another 1% were in relief camps. This left 95% of the original population intact in the villages----more critically, not one person said that they were planning to leave for the winter. This requires that the means to construct emergency shelters are made available immediately to the large population with destroyed houses, who cannot spend the winter in tents (since you cannot light fires in them). Ensuring the arrival of corrugated iron sheets (something that people have been pointing out for a while) will definitely save many, many lives.

ii). At least in the area I was in, the government and army have done an incredible and very fair job of giving compensation exactly according to government guidelines. Every person whose house has been destroyed received Rs.25,000 (roughly $400) and every household with a death received Rs.100,000 ($1,600). I believe that other field-teams are finding the same thing.

iii) While people feel that livestock are a major source of income in the area, they actually are not----close to 70% of the households interviewed did not own a single animal (buffalos, cows or goats).

iv) One key advantage of working with the LUMS team is that there were female students as well, who could talk to widows and other women, usually left out of the survey process (it is culturally difficult for a man to talk to a woman alone). Women's concerns were usually different from men's---while men were very concerned of the need for shelter, women, who have to deal with the everyday process of living were also anxious about the lack of warm clothing and blankets for children, and the lack of cooking utensils---something that was causing them a lot of unneeded hardship. Here is what one student has to say:

"Women’s responses tend to be more detailed. Men leave out what they feel is unnecessary, I personally found women more willing to take the time to communicate the smallest of details. However nuances such as the issue of dependence on other family members for a widow, or feelings of marginalization and perceptions of being harassed or mistreated require some probing before they are brought out. Again, these will seldom be expressed in the presence of male members of the community. Finally, women tend to have a better idea of other vulnerable women in the community, such as single mothers, and were helpful in identifying them. As with the other sex, one-on-one interactions tend to be more honest and informative. As the group size increases and people struggle to get a voice, responses tend towards the more "rehearsed" type. It is always better, I found, to initiate spontaneous conversation with individuals rather than wait for the more vocal members of the community to gather and lead the discussion" (erum haider)

Some thoughts on winter from Sadia Qadir 1. Clearly, this is going to be the large war. Here are some impressions from a student (sadia qadir)

1. Normal, un-insulated tents are not useful any more and the idea of moving to lower altitude areas is almost next to impossible. When asked them what are you planning to do one snowfall begins, they offer the plan that women and children are going to stay indoor while the men will take care of the outdoor chores. For fuel, they are depending upon (wrongfully so perhaps) the logs they have stockpile from the rubble of their houses. They plan to use it all through the winter season. Even though they anticipate they might run out earlier on, than expected.
2. The next best thing is shelter made from CGI-sheets. I had the opportunity to see one. This particular one was made in the triangular shape as that of a tent. It was however much more spacious. It was made with 20, 12-14 square feet sheets. I was told this is the minimum number of sheets required to build a shed that size, and sheets any fewer than 20 are useless. Quality (thickness) of these sheets is also an issue.
3. A small fire-place that was set in a corner and was also being used as a kitchen. Similar hearths have resulted in horrifying hazards in the usual fabric-tents. This is apparently their best chance to salvage from the extreme cold once snow falls. A family of 14 was staying here and I was told all of them fit in nicely at night.
4. Another, important issue is that of Kora (or Kori), which is a thin layer of suspended frozen moisture that layers the ground in this season. According to the people, sleeping arrangements comprising of floor-beddings, causes this frostiness to seep through the layers of bed linens and blankets and does not go away. As Shandana, suggested, perhaps providing char-pais (beds) will help combat this problem.
5. One of the limitations of initiatives like distributing CJI sheets is that people are selling them. Probably it's the fuel available to them, which leads over-estimating their ability to endure the winter. What ever the reason, the trend is been observed and confirmed by locals, the NGOs as well as other authoritative and operational bodies working in the region. This is perhaps, one of the major reasons many of the organizations are selectively distributing (and therefore accused of bias) the insulating tents and / or CJI-sheets.

Sadia (who is a doctor) also writes about health-issues that are bound to arise HEALTH PROBLEMS

In days following the earthquake, the bulk of presentations were that of extensive trauma -- mainly to the head, spine, pelvis and/or limbs, requiring surgical intervention. I was also told by doctors at Ayub Medical Complex, that a large number of amputations were carried out in the remote areas because enough resources were not available for timely intervention to salvage limbs. As I observed in Abbottabad most medical NGOs/camps came into the affected areas equipped mostly to deal with trauma cases. This requires specialized arrangements - such as x-ray facility, a small surgical theatre, relevant medicines, surgeons and OR nursing staff.

From what I gathered after speaking with the health care professionals working in the affected areas and the people, there is a high risk for Respiratory tract diseases (especially pneumonia in children), Gastrointestinal diseases particularly in areas where water is contaminated (there was an outbreak in Balakot over the period around Eid Holidays), infections particularly fungal skin infections as a result of damp cold weather (a large number of children affected in Bagh) and complicated wound healing.

Even now, most of the medical camps currently operating in and around villages, for example, near Sewar Kalu and Kafl Garh, are equipped to deal with trauma only. They have declined patients with complicated wounds and fractures, Obstetric & gynecological problems (including uncomplicated pregnancy) and skin infections. The irony is that residents of these villages have medical camps and professionals around but unable to help them. They have to travel to district hospital Bagh, which is 6km away and is not fully functioning as its building is also affected by the earthquake. To make the situation worse, these conditions usually are slow to develop and pursue an indolent course making it very likely for patients to get 'used to' their ailments until they reach an irreversible stage.

A dangerous alternative is consulting the traditional medicine-men in their areas. I personally witness such a case ~75yrs old lady resident of Kafl Garh, with a forearm fracture complicated in an attempt to fix through malish (massage). The entire arm was massively swollen as the bandage was tight enough to cut off most of the blood supply. This lady was declined medical assistance at the closely located camp and was advised to go to district hospital Bagh. She was brought back home.

An important element to consider in dealing with these people is - they are constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing their survival strategies and coping mechanisms. Prevalence of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) and acute stress syndrome (ASD) in these populations is still largely unknown but can be expected to be quite high. In the places I visited (Kafl Garh, Sewar Kalu and Kot Baroli) there are no mental health interventions so far. Point being, in there given state they are very likely to miss out or even deliberately put off for later significant health and nutritional concerns that they otherwise would take more seriously.

Data Flows

1. This is a large issue, and looks very much like the game we used to play called "chinese whispers" (sometimes called the "arab telephone" for no apparent reason). A couple of examples:

2. In the UN compound at MZD, we were told that the greatest benefit in terms of information would come from visiting the lower Neelum valley, of which little was known. This team then went to the union-council of Noura Seri, about 45 minutes from the city, and where roads had opened recently. The major in charge of the union council was very systematic in his record-keeping and had detailed records of the tents and food distributed to the villages under his command. He assured us that 90% of the households under his charge had been given tents, which we verified through door-to-door surveys. Further, compensation had been allocated exactly according to the policies laid down by the government. The key question, and one that needs to be addressed urgently, is what happened to the major's data by the time it got to Muzaffarabad--a 40 minutes drive away? If the district government of Muzaffarabad takes over the relief effort at this time, either a large data-gathering effort will again have to be undertaken, or they will have to fight blind in the face of the coming winter.

3. A second team went to Balakot/Mansehra in the North-Western Frontier Province. One mandate of the team visits was to work with district officials towards systematizing their own records and setting up data-entry systems at the individual level for compensation and relief. The picture in Balakot revealed the usual problems that face nascent data systems, leading to large problems later on. Some examples: In the list of individuals who had received compensation, names had been recorded, but ID card numbers had not (as an aside, 95% of households have at least one member with an id card, which serves as a unique identifier). Worse, there was no standard for translating Urdu to English names. With close to 10 Mohammed Afzal's in every village and with non-unique spellings for the same name, trying to relate this data to future relief will be a nightmare. Records of who had received disability payments were now virtually unmatchable to people, since they had been recorded on a separate form that omitted the village-name field.

4. The problem is not that governments are apathetic or uninformed about the need for systematic data exercises. In fact, everywhere we have gone, district governments have been delighted to work with us on strengthening their information systems. The real issue is one of capacity, the ability to work in remote locations and familiarity with data and data-issues that typically come after years of learning the hard way.

5. The LUMS team has brought this expertise to the relief effort, and it is one that they plan to maintain over the longer term. Guys: they need ALL the support they can get.

Jishnu Das is one of the founders of RISE-PAK and lives in Washington, DC where he works at the World Bank. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Economics.

Robert Young Pelton: The Truth about John Walker Lindh

I received this interesting article from Robert Young Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places, via email this morning. I gather it is under Creative Commons License; I present it here in its entirety. Much of this is previously unreleased material. Its appearance here may well be its first publication. The transcript of Pelton's original interview, plus video clips,  with Lindh appear on the CNN website. This is his eye-witness account of Lindh's capture, in response to a recent campaign for clemency:

The Truth about John Walker Lindh
by Robert Young Pelton

Robert Young PeltonJohn Walker Lindh aka John Walker aka Suleiman Ferris aka Abdul Hamid aka The American Taliban is a person that I will mostly likely to be associated for some time to come. I am sure on my obituary there will be a bombastic note that I was “the journalist who “discovered” Lindh after the battle at Qali Jangi” (the afghans have that dubious honor) Many have told me that Lindh’s story was a big deal back in the States. I will never know. I was in Afghanistan covering combat operations with in the ongoing war against the Taliban for CNN so I will never have the chance to the get the full impact of finding an American professing his love for the Taliban.

To me Lindh was just an unpleasant arrogant kid who preferred to stay with his murdering friends. He was, in fact, the second Irish-American Jihadi I have met and interviewed. The first one was a one-legged psychopath who had been trained in the same camps and had fought in Kashmir, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya and Liberia gave me his opinion. When I called him to discuss Lindh’s hejira, Aqil Collins simply called Lindh “a pussy.”  When I returned from Afghanistan I was quite aware of the outrage he had caused. In a deliberate effort not to influence his pending case, I did only interviews in which I spoke positively about Lindh.

Privately I warned his lawyers to keep me off the witness stand because I would send their little Johnny to prison. Wisely, Lindh copped a plea and I was spared months of inconvenience. Some people wanted a trial to get to the bottom of Lindh’s nefarious activities, among them the grieving family of Mike Spann. Lindh’s plea bargain denied them and the country of that truth finding.

So it was left to me to set the record straight. My decades of travels with jihadis and terrorists, my time with both the Taliban leadership, the Northern Alliance (aka the United Front), Dostum’s forces — as well as my own time spent during and after talking to the players involved with Qali Jangi — lead me to believe that I am uniquely qualified to pass judgment on Lindh and to accurately describe who he was and what he was doing there.

Now that Lindh’s father has decided to wrongly blame me for his son’s misery and seek clemency under false pretenses, I feel its time to reveal the truth.

Quite simply, in my opinion, Lindh was a terrorist, a member of what we call al Qaeda, and a man who chose to stay with killers even though he was afforded numerous opportunities to separate himself from his murderous associates. Twenty years in jail may be a blessing compared to how many of his friends have been dealt with since.

Frank Lindh cannot be blamed either for the emotions behind his need to reinvent history or for doing what he can to get his son out of jail. But he is lying. His son did not “love America”: He fought for bin Laden, against us. His son is not “honest”: He lied to his parents and others. His son is not a “decent” young man: He trained to be a murderer.  His son went to kill strangers in a stranger land. A spiritual quest? What part of grenades and AK 47s can be described as spiritual?  What part of patriotism is eating bin Laden’s food, listening to Usama’s droning hate-filled speeches against America, and sitting obediently within strangling distance of our greatest single enemy?

To think that the American public is that stupid is an insult. John Walker Lindh was an Arabic-speaking member of bin Laden’s terror legions. He called it Al Ansar (the correct term); we call them al Qaeda. He was never a member of the Taliban. Why? Because Lindh only spoke Arabic and English. He would have been useless in a combat situation among Pashto- or Dari- speaking troops. I have seen Taliban ID cards and spent time with bin Laden’s “055 Brigade, “al Ansar” members and al Qaeda. Lindh was exactly the person we were trying to kill in Afghanistan and now around the world. He was an educated, idealistic young Muslim who chose murder of innocent people as his path in life. He is no different that Mohamed Atta, Zarqawi, or thousands of other terrorists that come from nice middle class families.

The elder Lindh would have us believe that somehow America supported what Lindh, Jr. and bin Laden did at one time. Pure invention: Osama bin Laden never received any US CIA funding: He channeled Saudi money into what was then called the Office of Services and then into his own ventures. Yes, the Taliban were mujahids, but their draconian regime and support of bin Laden made them pariahs long before Lindh went there.  Later in the post-Soviet era of Afghanistan the CIA would pay Massoud money to try to kill Bin Laden. Lindh, Jr. went there to kill the members of Massouds’ fighters. When the war broke out, there was no clearer distinction of “with us or against us” than the forces of bin Laden and the Taliban against the combined Afghan forces we called “the Northern Alliance.” Lindh was on Bin Laden's side, against us. Period. End of conversation.

I agree with Lindh, Sr. that perhaps his son’s timing sucked. His son's need to run around Afghanistan looking to murder other Muslims would not have been that big a deal pre-9/11. Once he and his Arab jihadi friends heard on their BBC shortwave radio broadcasts that the US was coming—well only the dumbest or the most resolutely criminal were going to stay for what was going to be a high tech, high ordnance ass whupping. Lindh chose to stay. He watched America’s B52 contrails in the sky, he felt the destruction American bombs dealt his friends, and yet he stayed with his terrorist friends. When he fled to Kunduz he again chose to stay with his murdering friends and when a small group of foreign jihadis was chosen for a Hail Mary suicide mission to nearby Mazar i Sharif, Lindh was on board.

What, you say? I thought poor Abdul Hamid (Lindh, Jr.’s “jihad” name) was fleeing his evil master and seeking help. No. The group of around 460 jihadis that left Kunduz towards Mazar i Sharif were on their way to link up with Mullah Dadullah (now the leader of the Taliban military) in Balkh (just west of Mazar) and then attack the city while the US and Afghan forces were tied up in Kunduz monitoring the surrender. Yes, thousands of fighters did surrender peacefully. But Lindh, again, chose to associate with a rag-tag group of die-hards led by one of bin Laden’s lieutenants; Abdul Aziz, as well as the hardest-core terrorists that comprised Saudi, Uzbek, Iraqi, Russian, Sudanese, Yemeni and Pakistani jihadis.
This group was stopped heading west early in the morning and had an armed standoff with Afghan and US forces. (Yes, Lindh’s group was fully armed during their purported “surrender,” and they had no good reason to explain why they not going east towards Pakistan). The stand off was tense until bombers appeared overhead. Dostum drove by on his way to Kunduz and told them to be disarmed and taken to his garrison called Qali Jangi. Lindh, during that entire time, was within feet of western journalists and US forces and could have simply identified himself as an American. But he chose to stay in the company of killers. Lindh also knew that his cohorts were still secretly armed with pistols, rifles and even grenades tied by shoelaces and dangling around their groin area. A place where they knew Afghans dare not pat down.

The Uzbek terrorists among Lindh’s group were ecstatic. Qali Jangi was where they had trained under the Taliban and the storage rooms of garrison were literally overflowing with weapons confiscated and stored by the Taliban.

Upon arrival, one of the Uzbeks immediately killed himself with a grenade while trying to murder what he thought was Dostum. It was Dostum's Intel officer (who survived) and a Hazara general was killed. This event was filmed and once again, despite the presence of western media and the casual atmosphere (prisoners were even being interviewed by CNN and others), Lindh refused to identify himself or ask for help.

Terrified and outnumbered by the false surrender, the Afghan guards—there were only about 100 guards for the 460 prisoners—pushed the killers down into the basement of a fortified schoolhouse until they could be searched in the morning. That night, in the cramped five-room basement, there was an angry and desperate argument among the prisoners. The Saudis and Uzbeks planned an attack; they just needed a diversion to get to the weapons stored a few yards from the pink schoolhouse.  The Pakistanis wanted to just surrender and go home. According to the survivors I interviewed, Lindh was an Arabic-speaking al Qaeda member and had full knowledge of this discussion, and he has yet to admit which path he was going to choose. Some insist that Lindh was among the main proponents of this violent action. I was not in that basement, so I don’t know what happened. What I do know is that Lindh’s actions the next day would provide the damning answer.
The next morning two CIA officers went to Qali Jangi to interview the prisoners. Mike Spann and Dave Tyson arrived in separate vehicles. Tyson spoke a number of languages but Spann only spoke English.  The prisoners were brought up one at a time. They were searched, bound with their turbans and then marched into lines inside the southern courtyard. Spann walked up and down the lines of prisoners. He asked an Iraqi mechanic who spoke English if there were any other prisoners who spoke English. The Iraqi pointed out the “Irishman.” Lindh had been told to say he was Irish in the camps to avoid problems. Spann had Lindh brought over away from the main group and put out a blanket for him.  Spann and Tyson tried to talk to Lindh. Mike even calls him “Irish.” Away from his peers Lindh, just stares down.  Mike pleads with Lindh to talk. Lindh remains hostile and silent.
Spann and Tyson play a clumsy game of “good cop, bad cop.” But one thing is clear: they offer Lindh a way out. Lindh is alone with two of his fellow countrymen with full knowledge of the violence that is about to happen. He says nothing. If there was ever one moment that will define one man and damn another, this was it. Lindh is put back into the lineup and Mike Spann will die in the next few minutes as Uzbeks rush up from the basement, yelling Allahhuakbar and detonate hidden grenades. The fighting begins. Lindh has once again has been given a clear choice between right and wrong and once again.  He makes that clear choice again.

It is not known what Lindh and his fellow terrorists did for the next few days while fighting raged and Mike Spann’s still body lay there, two AK 47 bullet holes through his head, one straight down and one from left to right.  When the Afghan Commander Fakir used pleading, threats, then finally flame, explosions and flooding, to roust the killers, the first person that came up to negotiate on behalf of the jihadis was John Walker Lindh. The same murderous group that had shot and killed a clearly identified elderly Red Cross worker who went down to look for bodies a week earlier.

I had asked Dostum to bring me the prisoners. I wanted to interview and meet these men. At around midnight after Lindh and his 85 friends surrendered. Two open trucks showed up filled with shivering, screaming jihadis. One truckload was unloaded in front of me. I photographed and talked to the men while a group of Special Forces soldiers watched from a distance, their guns at the ready. This was not the first false surrender they had suffered. One truck was full of moaning and crying men. Way in the back sat John Walker Lindh. He slowly hides from view in my series of photographs. Once again, he had a chance to identify himself and surrender, but he chose to stay in the company of killers.

A few minutes later, Dostum’s cameraman runs into the living room and says there is an American. He shows me an image of Lindh repeating his name “John” on his Panasonic camera.  My first impression is that whoever this American is, he needs help. Fast. I ask the Special Forces medic if he will bring his medical bag and come with me.  We jump into a truck and I along with my cameraman and some SF team members go into the triage room. The doctor is whacking Lindh on the head trying to talk to him.  I motion for the doctor to back off and ask if I can ask the questions. I clearly identify myself to Lindh as working for CNN.  Lindh, Sr. forgets that all my initial questions are about his son’s health and if he wanted to contact his loved ones. Lindh, Jr. repeatedly states that he is not. I moved him to a private room so the medic can examine him properly. Downstairs, the doctors hate these people. They have just murdered their compatriots in cold blood there will be no pity for the men left downstairs. They are all now dead or in Gitmo. Lindh will be the lucky one.

Upstairs is Lindh. And despite our attempts to improve his condition, he was yet again rude, arrogant and unhelpful. I still press him for someone to contact. He refuses. He is being given gentle medical care by a US medic who was busy killing his murderous friends a few days earlier. There is a myth that morphine somehow forces Lindh to talk. But his statements (some of them true and some of them false) begin well before and are consistent until I turn off my camera and tell him to sleep.  I clearly identify to Lindh when he is given morphine (happy juice) and I ask no leading questions. My interest is simply understand who is he is and how he got there. In fact the reason Lindh talks to me is because he senses that I know about jihad, Muslims, and his cause. He even asks me if I am a Muslim.  I know jihadis and I know jihad. On tape I ask him if it is Ok for Muslims to kill other Muslims. He brushes me off saying the Koran deals with this. Finally I ask him what he thinks of his condition and decisions. He is unrepentant.

Despite his attitude and affections. I gave Lindh tea and cookies and once again ask him if he wants to contact his parents. He refuses. Finally I let him sleep and decide to take him home with me for his own safety. One of the special forces men, fresh from three weeks in combat, gave up his room so that Lindh could sleep in his bed.

The next morning he is taken to the Turkish School, rested, attended to and dressed in a clean pair of pajamas, and out of my control. I know what happened to Lindh after that because I met some of the Marines that did it. He could have suffered much worse.

For an entire month I called Lindh’s parents and lawyers to provide the details of his capture and events surrounding the uprising. They refuse to call me back, though his mother had time to chastise a gossip columnist for criticizing her relationship with her lawyer. During Lindh’s 15 minutes of fame, I respect my responsibility as a working journalist for CNN and do nothing that would influence his case. Despite my dark knowledge, I tell his lawyers to keep me out of it. They play games and still I refuse. They smear me in public as an agent of the government and harass me in private. They waste $64,000 of CNN’s money and work the media to present me as a greedy story-hungry freelance. I have made no additional money from Lindh’s story and never will. Now that Lindh’s father is now blaming me for his “exculpatory” interview and has restarted the negative spin. The gloves are off. The truth will prevail.

I don’t think about the evening of December 1, 2001, that much. I continue to cover conflict and the actors within but on a recent motorcycle trip from the east coast to the west coast, I found myself passing through Victorville close to where “Johnny Taliban” is staying. The cold dirty wind and high mountain air reminded me of Afghanistan. I thought about Lindh, felt the air on my face and wondered how lucky Lindh is to be still alive.  A privilege that Mike Spann, a real hero and American patriot will never have due to John Walker Lindh’s duplicity.

So for Mike’s sake, don't let John Lindh's PR and legal campaign change the fact that his son was the exactly the kind of person that fly aircraft into buildings, blow up American troops in Iraq and kill innocent Muslims on their "spiritual journey" to paradise.  He was and is a terrorist.

To hell with John Walker Lindh and his murderous ilk. They have done nothing to advance the cause of Muslims and they have caused a world of heartbreak in their arrogant pursuit of senseless death.  To support Lindh, Sr.’s naïve view of his son and his actions furthers that dark vision.

Links relating to Lindh's clemancy campaign:

See also Lindh's Wikipedia entry.

A Haircut in the Rubble

  Originally uploaded by ejazasi.

I think there's something very poignant about this photo from Balakot in Pakistan of a barber giving a haircut in the rubble: an attempt at civilization in the face of the disaster, made more meaningful by the everydayness of the act.

MEANWHILE, the incidence of pneumonia in the quake zone skyrockets.

UPDATE: The photographer, Ejaz Asi, sends a few more shots from the same sequence:




About the pictures, he says

Just thought to send few more shots from the same series as well as two more 279 and 744. I thought both of them make the same point stronger.

He also send along several from the sequence of people cooking, with the remark:

Just like any other family, this man and boy were also provided food by the camp but they rather chose to make their own, I think, only because they are not used to sitting idle and this is only how they are going to move on with their lives.




Scared of what?

  Scared of what? 
  Originally uploaded by mbukhari_prm.

A photo taken across the Line of Control from the pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir to the Indian-controlled side. The caption reads:

These little girls -- who live across line of control (LOC) near Titwal Sector, of AJK, thought that my long L-shaped camera (Sony F727) was a sort of Gun and they expected to here a big bang sound out of it, so they were scared. Drop Off Locations

From Jon Schull of, a professor of Information Technology at Rochester Institutes of Technology, here is a new way to help with the collection of relief supplies for earthquake victims. It is organized through a CommunityWalk Map (map; KML network link):

Do you know of a regional (not a big chain) store that sells sporting goods and would be willing to act as a drop-off location for people donating sleeping bags, tents, and other goods for the earth quake relief efforts?

If so then you and your community can save lives this week, by helping rush donated sleeping bags and tents to earthquake survivors in India Pakistan and Kashmir before the harsh winter sets in.

One drop off location in each city is enough, but identifying the right the one requires local knowledge. A regional Sporting Goods store is ideal, because the owner can just say "sure, its a no-brainer. I get customers and and good will in the store and I save lives. I'll even offer a discount on replacement goods." Sporting Goods companies do well by doing good.

Who is that person in the cities you know?

Schools, churches, synagogue, and mosques are another obvious location.

Use this new page (login as "" with the password "" by clicking "Login" at the bottom right hand side of the screen and then click "Add Markers" at the bottom left hand side of the screen) and the wiki to identify yourself as someone willing to help and your location to suggest stores and store owners to contact to report on any contacts you have made. Go to

And then, help us organize donations in your community! Use your initative. Go to for details.

This is a rare opportunity to use the net to help people in where we desperately need to make friends.

Click HERE for more on Thanksgiving gear-drops.

Pakistan Earthquake Dynamic Overlays (VBR) available!

VbrcoverageGlobal ConnectionFrom Anne Wright & Randy Sargent:

New satellite imagery overlays for Pakistan earthquake are available. Release 3: This is now a dynamic (VBR) overlay, containing a large amount of imagery from:

  • Google/Digital Globe, in red to the right (KML file)

Big thanks to Kenson Yee at Google Earth for his round-the-clock efforts in making image overlays. Thanks to Kathryn Cramer and Declan Butler for their critical help in getting these together, and Google Earth for supporting our efforts.

For more information about the overlay, please see


Get Out Your Credit Card

Yes, I'm looking at

You know you need to do this, don't you? If not, click here. And here is a soundtrack to move you forward, if you need to be stimulated in yet another sensory modality to take action.

Also, ahem, bloggers: (Don't click away yet, I'm not done.) Even though only about half of the number of tents needed by earthquake victims have actually been distributed, leaving a shortfall of about 250,000 tents, it seems that as of now blogs are discussing subjects like "earthquake" at about the same frequency as prior to the October 8th quake.


Come on, people! Make some noise!

(Cool CSS tricks via Mandarin Design.)